How I Learned Being Childfree Was A Part of My Identity

When my 32-year-old husband got a vasectomy, I should have been overjoyed. We’d been married for three years, together for six, and both in agreement about at least one thing: no kids. At 34, I thought I would be ecstatic to know that the threat of pregnancy, which had loomed over me like a dark cloud for nearly two decades, would finally be eliminated.

But post-procedure, when we were ushered into the urologist’s office and given instructions on how to proceed with the sperm count testing, I couldn’t help but notice a frame on the doctor’s desk. It displayed a photograph of him, an attractive man in his mid-40s with tortoise-rimmed glasses, a beautiful wife, and two children — all looking windswept on a New England beach.

At the sight of this image, I couldn’t help but feel, well, bad. At first, I thought it was guilt. I had been unwilling to give my husband — or any man — the kind of picture that might occupy such prime real estate. Nor would he be able to recreate it with anyone else without an invasive reversal procedure. But when I sat with the feeling a little longer, I realized it stemmed not from a place of guilt, as if I’d done something bad, but from a place of shame — as if there were something inherently wrong with me.

The fact is that I’ve felt flawed for a very long time, like I might be missing a chip. Specifically, the “motherhood” chip. As a little girl, I never cared for baby dolls; I had a menagerie of stuffed animals. To my ever-expanding herd, I was Noah and my tiny arms the arc. This sentiment continued into my 30s, when I spent a year volunteering at an animal shelter. I dutifully walked the dogs and mopped up their enclosures, while $60 sat out on my kitchen table waiting for my own cleaning lady to do the same for my apartment. 

I say this not to make an argument for what some might call a “lifestyle choice,” as if it were akin to moving to Portland, but to clarify that childfree is part of my identity, a filter through which I make sense of my place in the world.

Instead of paying for daycare so I could work, I was paying for home-care so I could “mother,” in my own childfree kind of way. I am not devoid of the need to nurture; I am just devoid of the need to do so with someone bearing similar DNA. Free time, it seems, goes hand in hand with one of the other joys of not having kids: disposable income. I probably worry less about money than my counterparts who have chosen to have kids. Since I only have one person to plan for, I am allowed more freedom to explore my life, career, and interests.

Perhaps this explains why the childfree are labeled with adjectives like Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, the title of an essay anthology that came out last year. The jacket copy describes it as “Sixteen literary luminaries on the controversial subject of being childless by choice," underscoring the judgment cast upon the childfree simply because our lives are seen as a result of one defining choice. But what if it’s not really a choice for everyone? What if some of us are simply born this way?

In my experience, the baby shaming often comes when you least expect it. Take the psychiatrist I saw briefly for anxiety, who asked me if I was trying to get pregnant before prescribing me medication.

“You will regret it when you’re old,” she chastised.

Potential regrets are not on my list of things worth worrying about, although it might be worth taking inventory of what one has to give up to become a mother. But it’s not that personal sacrifices  —  career, time, financial, or otherwise — turned me off to motherhood. Rather, not having children has always felt like a sensible response to living in a population struggling with an overtaxed environment, a shortage of clean water, and political instability around the globe. Devoting resources to help those with the pre-existing condition of being born has always just felt right for me.

In some ways, being childfree is also an expression of my feminism. If the only way for women to achieve equality to men is the divorce of childbearing from womanhood, as Shulamith Firestone theorized in The Dialectic of Sex, perhaps not having kids is part of my desire to assert myself in the world, unconstrained by  gender.

I say this not to make an argument for what some might call a “lifestyle choice,” as if it were akin to moving to Portland, but to clarify that childfree is part of my identity, a filter through which I make sense of my place in the world. This might explain why telling people about my husband’s vasectomy has felt a bit like coming out. (Incidentally, I've often wondered if my feeling of apathy toward babies at all mirrors that of non-heterosexuals watching a hetero-normative sex scene, i.e. “meh.")

The fact is that childfree is not recognized as an identity — the kind of born-this-way mentality that sexual orientation and gender identity rightfully command. I can’t list how many times I’ve said in my 20s and early 30s that I don’t want children only to have it dismissed with the wave of a hand and a quick, “You might change your mind.”

While an open discussion about motherhood is essential to understanding a diverse mix of perspectives, I don’t appreciate being told that I just haven’t figured it out yet. Given every extra storybook page I’ve read to my niece at bedtime, every child I’ve played peek-a-boo with in the grocery store check-out line, and the years of experience I’ve had at being me, I’m pretty sure I know where I stand. 

I’ll agree that nothing is set in stone  —  even identity is subject to amending. I’d just prefer to let it happen on my own terms, without notes from the peanut gallery. And who knows, if work settles down and my husband and I get a more spacious apartment, we might decide we’re ready for the pitter-patter of little feet. But to be clear, those feet will be the furry kind, complete with claws and paws. Dogs look pretty damn good on beaches, too.

Images: Sarah Kasbeer; Getty Images


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