We wanted to start 2012 with a week talking about choices. A huge part of APW and Reclaiming Wife is about navigating the process of growing up. Not growing up in the hey-I’m-not-a-teenager-anymore way, but in the sense of growing into who we are and owning our choices. Because choices are one of the really hard and really empowering parts of becoming an adult. We are allowed (and challenged) to learn what’s right for us, and then we have to learn to fight for that. I could not think of a better person to kick off this discussion than Lauren of Suburbalicious (who’s hosting the Q&A for the Boston book tour stop, by the way—come for more of this kind of conversation), who talks about mourning for, and grappling with, her decision not to have kids.
I’ve written here before about not being afraid to mourn the path not taken, and recently I’ve had to take that more to heart. I think I’ve started the mourning process about not having children.
A few incidents recently brought this life choice simmering to the top. I turned 31. I quit my job and haven’t found another one yet. (And haven’t been looking too hard, if I’m being honest.) I’ve been married for over two years. My husband turned 39. And all my friends are snuggling new babies, wearing maternity clothes, or trying to get pregnant (which is its own heartbreaking post). All the external signs of my life indicate that kids should be on the horizon, and I still don’t want them.
I haven’t wanted kids for a while—that’s not new. What’s new is that when I cracked a joke the other day about selling my eggs if we ever got really destitute (I’m blonde and had high SAT scores, so clearly I must be a desirable candidate!) it occurred to me that this probably isn’t an option anymore.
The train of thought that followed went something like this:
I’m 31-years-old. Nobody wants 31-year-old eggs. If my eggs are no longer useful to someone willing to pay for them, eventually they won’t be useful to me, either. They just won’t work anymore. “Eventually” is in this decade of my life. And at some point not having children won’t be a choice that we have to make sometime in the future, but it will be a choice that we already made, by not having them. I’m 31. Jeff is 39. It’s now (or in the next five years) or never. And it will probably be never. Holy f*cking sh*t.
You get the idea.
It all felt very real all of a sudden, in a way that it never has before. And with that, I entered the mourning process for the child we most likely will never have.
I love my life and I love my marriage, which makes this mourning process, and the sadness that accompanies it, confusing. But it is a confusion that I don’t mind talking about, because I firmly believe that the thing about hard choices and sad choices and second guessing is that women don’t talk about it, which makes everyone feel isolated and crazy without a shared experience to comfort and support. So I don’t mind talking about our choice and all my feelings around it. I’ve never been a closed book (hello, blog) and I love having intelligent discussions with people about personal issues like children. If I want society in general to view my child-free life with respect, I need to be open about it, and I am happy to be that example.
However, there are good ways and bad ways to have this discussion. Allow me to share one of each.
Jeff and I were having dinner with our friends last month when their six-year-old girl asked, out of the blue, “Lauren and Jeff, are you going to be parents?” We laughed, and her mom said, “When they’re ready, sweetheart.” Which wasn’t really true, but regardless, the conversation could have ended there. I chose to give her my own answer, though, and said “We probably won’t be parents, Grace, but that means we’ll be able to hang out with you even more!” She ran out of the room, satisfied, and my comment led to a great discussion with her mothers about their decision to have children and how that might have looked different if one of them didn’t want kids. These two parents treated me, and my choice, with respect, and I was able to offer not having kids as a valid option for a little girl who might someday remember that. This is why being honest about the difficulties around big life decisions matters.
More often, however, I feel that society doesn’t see my choice as a valid one, and that was never more evident than on my front porch on Halloween night. My neighbor from across the street brought his 2-year-old over for trick-or-treating, and he mentioned that one of the other families on our street wanted to have a block party next spring. I already knew this because I was planning it with them, but he pointed to my downstairs neighbors’ door and said, “Well now that they have a little one, it’s easier to get everyone together.” He then pointed out his carved pumpkin, which was apparently a character from a popular kids’ TV show. He asked us if we knew what it was, and when we said no, he said “Well you will, when you have kids, sooner rather than later.”
Jeff and I closed the door and burst out laughing (this guy is crazy, and he has said similarly awkward things before) but a few minutes later, my chest filled with rage. How dare this man insinuate that I am a less worthwhile neighbor or community member because I don’t have a “little one,” while he stood on the porch that my husband and I had decorated, and referred to my rude and unfriendly neighbors who had all their lights off and weren’t even passing out candy as the essential missing element of our community gathering, simply because they had a child? And worse, how dare he stand on my front porch and insist that I would also have a child before too long, since it was clearly the only way to fit in?
Additionally, when someone makes a comment like, “You’ll have a kid soon,” they have no idea what that couple is going through. What if we had been trying for a year, or two, or eight, and nothing was happening? What if I had just miscarried? What if we’d just found out we couldn’t have kids? What if what his comment triggered was not blinding rage but heartbreaking sorrow? Who feels that they have the right to make that kind of assumption?
It took two glasses of bourbon to shake that rage. Big ones. And I’m still angry typing it all out.
These two conversations both involved someone making an assumption that I would eventually have a child. And the danger with making assumptions is that it can, indeed, make you an ass. The difference between these two exchanges was that in the first case, the person listened for my response and treated me with respect. And that can make the difference between a productive and enlightening conversation, and your Halloween turning into a bourbon-soaked evening full of rage.
Sometimes when I drive down the highway, I am flabbergasted by the thought of every single car containing a different person, with different hopes and dreams and fears and thoughts weighing on their minds. Imagine! So many people. So many lives. So many choices. And often, we will never, ever know the story behind them.
But what if we could learn the story behind important and difficult life events? If we could expect people to treat us with kindness, would we be more willing to talk? And if we were kinder and more willing to listen, how much less alone would we feel?
So let’s be honest with each other. Have conversations. Share our hopes and dreams and fears. And instead of judging someone by what you think you see, be gentle, and ask them questions. Because you just never know.