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Why Wife & Mother Do Not Have To Go Together (Part II)

After talking about kids and deciding when to have them, I said that this week we’d take on NOT wanting kids. So here we go. Obviously this is a complex and many faceted subject, but here our first crack at it:

Dear Meg,
I wonder how familiar this scene is to married APWers:

Well-meaning but infuriating family member/friend/stranger : “So when are you starting a family?”
Me: “I’ve been married for three years. I already have a family; it just doesn’t have any kids in it”
WMBAFMFS: *vacant expression*

I don’t want children. Neither does my husband. I don’t like kids. I like adult pastimes and adult conversation. I’m awkward and uninterested around babies, toddlers, tweens and teenagers.

But I have a funny feeling in my stomach.

I think it’s the feeling of injustice at the way my childless marriage is viewed by others as incomplete. I think it’s genuine rage that our decision is looked upon with distrust and distain. That our marriage is viewed as pointless if children aren’t to follow.

But maybe it’s broodiness. And maybe I’m afraid of that because of what it would mean for us, our life and our relationship. The thought of loving something more than I do my husband is terrifying to me. Although not as terrifying as him loving someone else more than he loves me.

I’m paralysed by the fear of making a mistake. Will I reach 40 and wake up every day next to my husband wishing we’d had a child, or wishing that we hadn’t? I’m not sure if this is even a real dilemma, or just a projection of the expectations of others.

I wonder if you have any insight.

Warm regards,

Laura, UK

Ok. First of all. I just want to state for the record, and for all of us, how much I detest the phrase, “start a family,” when applied to kids. I remember the very first time I heard it. It was back when I was first dipping my toes in the Reclaiming Wife waters, and people were getting riled up. I mentioned something about not wanting kids right away, and someone left an angry comment that said, “Well, I guess the difference is that some of us think marriage is about starting a family, and some of us don’t.”

And my head exploded.

Because REALLY??? I’m sorry, what’s getting married? Just chopped liver? Just a prelude to getting knocked up? It makes me livid. Every time I hear someone use the phrase, ‘Start a family,’ I want to snap, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought that’s what I just did. You know, when I got married?” Or as my friend and APW commenter Marisa-Andrea says (slightly less angrily) “I think there is a lot of cultural noise that tells us your marriage isn’t a real marriage until you have children. There really isn’t anything between the wedding and babies in terms of models. And I wonder, how can marriage be rich and meaningful without those culturally prescribed big events (having a baby, buying a house)?”

So in that sense, I see each childless marriage as part of the fight to make all of our our marriages more valuable, to help show that being married is something different than having kids. That being a wife is a different thing than being a mother.

Second. The fear of being childless being a mistake. As I thought about this over and over in the last week, what I came back to is the lesson that we all learn planning our weddings. The wedding industry is based on our fear of regret – if we don’t do XYZ, we’ll regret it, so we better do it just in case. And what I learned during the planning is that you almost never regret following your heart (or gut), but you almost always regret doing something just because to were told that you had to. I learned that a firm, “No,” when something isn’t right for you, spares you endless heartache. And I think the cultural noise around having kids is similar, “DO IT OR YOU’LL REGRET IT.” Which, first of all, is hardly a compelling reason to bring a human into the world, and second of all, is not true. We regret not being ourselves, we don’t regret not living the life we were expected to live.

And finally. Selfish. For that, I wanted to quote Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, in what is hands down my favorite passage about not having children, ever. I can’t fit it all in here, so maybe you want to get the book and flip to page 109, but this is the best part about ‘the consistent 10% of women within any population that never have children at all’ (though, the rate swings from 10%-50%, it interestingly never dips below 10%):

All too often, those of us who choose to remain childless are accused of being somehow unwomanly or unnatural or selfish, but history teaches us that there have always been women who went through life without having babies. … The number of women throughout history who never became mothers is so high (so consistently high) that I now suspect that a certain degree of female childlessness is an evolutionary adaptation of the human race. … Childless women have always run orphanages and schools and hospitals. They are midwives and nuns and providers of chartiy. They heal the sick and teach the arts and often they become indispensable on the battlefield of life. Literally, in some cases. (Florence Nightingale comes to mind.) …

Such childless women – let’s call them the “Auntie Brigade” – have never been very well honored by history, I’m afraid. They are called selfish, frigid, and pathetic. Here’s one particularly nasty bit of conventional wisdom circulating out there about childless women that I need to dispel here, and that is this: that women who have no children may live liberated and happy and wealthy lives when they are young, but they will ultimately regret that choice when they reach old age, for they shall die alone and depressed and full of bitterness. Perhaps you’ve heard this old chestnut? Just to set the record straight: There is zero sociological evidence to back this up. …

Even within my own community, I can see where I have been vital sometimes as a member of the Auntie Brigade. My job is not merely to spoil and indulge my nice and nephew (though I do take that assignment to heart) but also to be a roving auntie to the world – an ambassador auntie – who is on hand wherever help is needed, in anybody’s family whatsoever. There are people I’ve been able to help, sometimes fully supporting them for years, because I am not obliged, as a mother would be obliged, to put all my energies and resources into the full-time rearing of a child. There are a whole bunch of Little League uniforms and orthodontist’s bills and college educations that I will never have to pay for, thereby freeing up resources to spread more widely across the community. In this way, I, too, foster life. There are many, many ways to foster life. And believe me, every single one of them is essential.

This is not to say that you need to make up for not having kids by being Mother Teresa. Not at ALL. You don’t have to make up for not having kids, period. But it is true that we all have limited resources in this world. We have limited time, money, and energy. When we have children, a lot of those resources get focused (rightfully) in one area – on a few lives. When we don’t have children (permanently or temporarily) we can use those resources on other projects. We can spread our focus. And that’s a fantastic thing, for us and for society (even when society is too short sighted to see it that way).

Or as commenter Marina said last week:

As someone who’s sure I want kids, and soon (I mean, scared sh*tless, but sure) I just want to add that I am SO GRATEFUL that I have friends who want kids but not for a long time, and friends who do not want kids ever, period. I have friends in the first category who have told me they’re looking forward to babysitting duties and knitting little baby clothes, which, oh boy, I would be a LOT more scared about having kids if I didn’t have that kind of community around. And my friends in the second category, who do not want babies, who will never want babies–I am so thankful for them. I don’t want to get lost in my child(ren), and I feel so lucky to have people in my life who I know I will be able to hang out with and talk about things that are NOT related to babies. So all y’all who are decidedly against babies, or ambivalent, or all the other messy permutations of decision-making–I’m glad YOU’RE part of my community too. I know having lots of smart sassy women I can read at a moment’s notice will make me a better mom, and is already making me a better person.

So selfish? No. Let’s replace selfish with vital.

PS I know this isn’t technically about not having kids, but I’m really uncomfortable with the cultural assumption that we automatically love our kids more than our partner. If having kids meant that I’d love someone more than my husband, and he’d love someone more than me, I’m pretty sure I’d be out. But I think we love our children totally differently (and hopefully not more) than our partners or ourselves. As always, the been there done that Cate of Project Subrosa can speak to this better than me, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

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