Tuesday, May 26, 2009

To Be Child-free

Many women are preparing for their weddings this time of year. It's inevitable that along with the "Are you excited about your wedding?" the conversation will turn to "Are you planning on children?" Whilst some women gleefully cheer out the names of their future fantasy brood, others, like me and millions more change the conversation to something more pleasant. Some of us are not physically or mentally able to have children, and others are not likely to have children by choice, and that's today's topic.

I remember being a 20 year old, in the Navy, and wondering what might have become of any children I may have had, with a failed marriage at hand. All throughout my childhood it was drilled into my head that women grow up and have children of their own who cause as much grief as we gave our parents. In all my years as a child, I never really thought that I was the 'growing up to be a wife' type. I saw my parents marriage as a great example of what not to be like, and I saw my father's subsequent relationships as examples of how nothing lasts forever. It's a bit bleak to say so, now that I'm in a happy marriage, but in my strongest understanding- relationships weren't about having children, they were about trying to be human around another person.

I only truly considered what it would be like to be "mom" one time. I was in my twenties, and involved with another artist. As a pair, we were pretty fun, and as a family, we worked out- but medications took away that idea. We broke up when I moved to California, and he was happily a dad within a year with someone else. Meanwhile, I was tested for brain disorders and given chemicals that render people sterile. When I ended up on much stronger dosages while I was in grad school, I was told by a medical student, "I'm sure you are aware that you have almost no possible way of conceiving at this point." Actually, I hadn't. I had no idea. That's when I realized, I probably wasn't ever going to consider it again.

When I was 30, it was confirmed that I had an ovary missing, and another that was doing only part of its job. I started talking to other women who were childless, some by choice, and others, like me, who had medical issues. The common bond to us seems like a new society- almost a new culture. It isn't uncommon to find couples who are not parents as it was when we were growing up. It's not uncommon to find women who elect to adopt, or go through a surrogate. It's not uncommon to find happily married couples adopt a child later in life. And, its certainly not uncommon for women to become surrogates for others. Fertility clinics exist in nearly every major city across the country. And yet, we're still asked "When do you plan to have kids?"

Some friends have gone through the worst kind of hell known to man- the red tape it takes to adopt. One couple we know tried using the fertility clinics, attempted to harvest eggs, thought about surrogacy, but elected to adopt. With millions of children hoping for a home they had age and illness against them, so reached out to the foreign agencies. My cousins, also dealing with MS, ended up finding the only source of adoption available to them, in Korea. I now have a pair of twin cousins who looked like little china dolls when they arrived here, and friends who have the tiniest little daughter with the prettiest brown skin. Both families became complete with the adoptions, and they just worked best that way.

Another friend of mine lives in San Francisco, and has worked hard for the possibility of having her infertility reversed. She and her partner lived together for almost sixteen years before realizing that they wanted a baby of their own. After several failed attempts, she succeeded with an egg transfer from her own younger sister. Genetically, her daughter is similar but not 100% hers, but physically, she says, 'I feel like she is a part of me because she came from part of me.'

We all know single parents. My dad raised my sister and myself for several years on his own. One of my best friends not only has two children of her own, but is working towards getting her daycare license. She is only 27, and yet she is years ahead of me for maturity and mothering instincts. Knowing her makes me wiser in how much work, and love, and amazement comes from raising a child. Her children reflect her sense of values, kindness, and altruism. Another of my closest friends has two teens, both are home schooled, and her husband and she work diligently together to ensure that whatever may come, the children feel important, loved, and are growing to be good people. Parenting is the most difficult job, and when people do it well, it makes our world better.

Then, there are those who could take the options of adoption, or surrogacy, or even fertility treatments, but we just are not parents. We are not going to be parents. And, we may love the children in our lives, but we have no interest in sharing our lives with children of our own. Some people call us selfish. It strikes me more selfish to see children in the world who are orphans. It strikes me more of vanity to procreate based on the idea that "you gotta". If I ever felt the urge to mother, I see the need for taking in someone who needs love. I don't find that to be selfish. I also see that as I grow older, and my illness progresses I am not as able to do things for a child as someone able-bodied might be. That can't be selfish. And, as my parents age, I see that there may be a time in my life when I will need to focus my attention on being their care taker, and I think that's not very selfish either.

Women who are asked, "When do you want kids?" often feel uncomfortable answering. We should. It's a personal question, invading our deepest emotions. You'd never go up to a senior citizen and say, "when do you plan to die?" (Or maybe you would, I know who reads this blog!) These are the same people who ask a pregnant woman to "touch the belly". It's not a matter of intentional rudeness, in most cases, it's a matter of ignorance to the idea that this question is difficult to answer for many of us.

I tell people when I give grief counseling that you should always have three responses to any question you feel uncomfortable answering. The first should be a polite, evading response. "I will let you know if its in the plans." The second should be the "For family only" response, "I think we're more excited about.." insert your next family event here. And the last is always the smart-arsed one. "Are you volunteering for babysitting? Breastfeeding? Surrogacy?" etc.

In daily conversation, we can expect people to be more interested in talking about themselves than about us. It's easy to change the subject if we give the other person a way to just let us know their opinions, thoughts, emotions, responses. People like to be cared about and this is a great way to show you care- listen. Your best response will be as different from my best response to intruding questions. But there are ways to handle general questions from some members of our circles.

The best response is always to turn it around and deflect if you aren't really open to the discussion. If there is someone who has children asking, "When did you decide to have children?" is a good response. Turning the reply into a self-reflecting question is a way to learn another's thoughts on the idea, and can take the pain out of responding. Or, if there is a persistent family member who can't really take "I don't really want to talk about this now" as an answer, sometimes its best to let them believe they've got you convinced about their ideas, and then move on. "Oh children would be wonderful someday, and I'll know when the time is right." Then, in the case of the rude, intrusive friend or co-worker, sister, or aunt, "Really, I prefer not to talk about such personal things. How about them Red Sox?" Pointing out that you are clearly not willing to talk about your feelings, or illness, is certainly a correct response. And, I have found that simply stating, "I'm unable to have children because of medical reasons, but I enjoy your company, let's have that for now." This is a great way to stop any further questions.

There's nothing wrong with being honest to others who are intrusive. We all know this can be terribly uncomfortable, and as much as it is difficult to hear ourselves rehash the conversations we had with doctors, it may be more painful to have family and friends give up on us because we snapped. "I hate kids, back off Nana!" Being tactful means being able to honestly state your feelings without being condescending to another person's feelings or even issues you are unaware of. (Maybe Nana was one of ten children, and the only one who survived. Maybe Nana fears living her last days without any family around and hopes that your children will be there for her.) Understanding another by knowing intentions eases all communications. If intention is unclear, it makes it hard to respond in the best way possible. Learn the intention, and you can get past the question. "No matter if I have kids or not, Nana, I'll be here for you."

Today's questions- Do you find yourself explaining to others why you aren't a parent? Do you want to discuss being childless with others, and where do you go for this? If you could have a child, would you, or would you adopt? What is the best response for people who ask about your status as a parent?


  1. I'm not sure why so many people think that EVERYONE has to have children. The happiest couples I ever met never had kids. It seems like the honeymoon lasts a lot longer for couples who remain childless.

    I also couldn't have children due to ovarian cancer. It was like a knife in the gut when someone (who knew I had cancer) would ask when I was going to have kids. I had just turned 39 and was only married for two months when I was diagnosed (almost 13 years ago). I had surgery and 8 rounds of chemotherapy over 9 months. (I'm not even sure if I would have conceived at 39 anyway, although I have a friend that had her first baby at 42!)

    Since my own childhood, I was on the fence about reproducing. My own parent's marriage was a nightmare that they prolonged until I was out of college and they finally divorced. I was always afraid I wouldn't be a good parent because I didn't have any role models to learn from.

    My husband really wanted a child. Right after we got married I began to like the idea too, we decided to go for it. We had just started to try for a baby when I began to feel tired and bloated.

    After the initial grieving process following the hysterectomy, I began to feel really good about adopting (something I had always thought about anyway). When the sadness passed, I began to see adopting as a privilege. I thought who would take care of these kids if there weren't people like me and my husband? We were very lucky, it only took us about a year from the first visit to the adoption attorney until we took home our beautiful newborn. My husband and I are white and my daughter is African-American and she's a beautiful, smart and funny ten year old. While we can't imagine our lives without her, I can remember how much simpler life was before we became responsible for raising another human being! I'm sure you'll continue to enjoy having your husband all to yourself! Best of luck to you!

    By the way, I'm also a comic who's career was derailed by illness (I had two recurrences over the last 8 years). I may be facing more chemo, but for now, so far so good!

  2. Beautifully stated Barbara. So glad you have your daughter now! And boy I get it when those who KNOW your condition still ask those questions. It's as if they've blinded themselves to the reality of it. I'm glad you found this blog and more glad to have your response. (gladder?)


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