For being such an incredibly glamorous person, I have held a number of decidedly unglamorous jobs. The summer after my sophomore year at college I found myself at a personal employment low: working part time as a cashier at Target. During one of my shifts, I chatted with a father and his two children as they were checking out. After bagging his purchases, the father smiled at me and said, "You're going to be a good mother some day" before turning and leaving, kids in tow.
I was dumbfounded and entirely unprepared to deal with this "compliment," which I'm positive it was meant to be. Since when did being passably friendly to a random child prove me capable of handling one of my own?
When my editor asked me to comment on the newly released Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, I wondered if my mother masterminded the whole thing. (How did you know that I'm conflicted about wanting to have kids? Did she put you up to this so I'd finally have to explain myself?) Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is a collection of essays from 16 writers who ultimately decided that children weren't for them for many different reasons. The essays explore the reasons a person may decide not to become a parent, as well as the idea that it is possible to have a fulfilling life without children. Although I don't believe anyone is required to justify her decision not to want children, the idea that having a child is a crucial part of life is still so embedded in our culture that it was kind of a relief to read about a bunch of people who basically say, "We don't have children and guess what? The world didn't end."
Out of all of the (perfectly legitimate and respectable) reasons not to have children included in the essays, one in particular stuck out: Rosemary Mahoney and Tim Kreider both talk about the fear that they would adore their child so much and worry so much about its safety that this love and sense of duty would overwhelm them, overshadowing everything else in their lives until they had no world outside of their beloved child. Tim Kreider writes, "I'm afraid that if I ever did have children of my own I would love them so painfully it would rip my soul in half."
How confident, to assume that you would fall so madly, deeply in love with your child. So much so, in fact, that this love would burst your seams, drown your work and everything else until all that remained afloat was this one small person that soaked up all of your being. I wish this were my fear — that I had just too much potential for love. This fear sounds like a blessing.
I don't share these authors' sentiments. I suspect instead that I would be closer to Cinderella's wicked stepmother than a fairy godmother who exists to make children's dreams come true. I have never been overly fond of children; I do not want to see photos of your newborn nephew or coo over my neighbor's toddler — I look at kids the way those without pets look at puppies: cute in theory, sometimes adorable, but I wouldn't want to have one. If I have a biological clock, it has yet to tick, and it may be permanently broken. With a few exceptions, I am horribly uncomfortable around children. I'd rather play with your dog.
After years of waiting for my maternal instinct to kick in, I began to seriously think about whether motherhood was actually in my future after I turned 24 a few months ago. I tried to envision myself as a mother under the most ideal conditions I could think of: happily married, financially stable, and with an adorable baby. That last element threw me into a panic. The idea of having something that I am responsible for forever, of having to take care of something physically, emotionally, and financially for the rest of my life, is enough to make me dry heave.
As someone who regularly self-analyzes and is fairly self-absorbed, I can confidently state that I feel like I know myself pretty well. I am impatient, stubborn, self-centered, and struggle with control issues. I don't often hold a grudge, but I know that I have the potential to be quite cruel when I do. Although it isn't necessarily easy to admit these parts of myself, nor am I proud of them, they are mine and I don't deny them.
I'm not sure, however, that they're conducive to motherhood. I do not suspect, as these authors do, that I have a number of wonderfully nurturing traits just waiting to break free. If anything, I think my personality would make me a really lousy mother.
I was lucky enough to have had a wonderful childhood with fantastic parents who supported me every step of the way. Now that I'm old enough to understand the sacrifices they made for my sister and me, I am honored and humbled. I'm also convinced that I would not be willing nor perhaps able to make these same sacrifices for my children.
Although I wish I could say differently, I truly do not believe that I could raise my children in a loving environment like the one in which I was raised, or at least not without resentment on my part. I simply don't have the desire. I would maybe try my best to give my child the life my parents gave me, but I imagine it would be done purely out of a sense of duty that I'd hope would evolve into genuine devotion. But the idea that the devotion would never come, that only a grudging sense of duty would remain, terrifies me. Although I don't necessarily have the dreams of artistic greatness that some of the contributors to this book mention, I do picture a life full of travel and the ability follow any creative or career pursuit that strikes my fancy. I picture a spouse and some degree of domesticity, definitely a dog (or five). But currently a child does not fit into the plan, at least not as I envision it now. I don’t want to have a child only to grow to resent it, or to look at it and think of what could have been.
If I have a biological clock, it has yet to tick, and it may be permanently broken.
For those who want to assure me that this won't be the case, that the very act of becoming a mother will make these feelings impossible, I say prove it. Can you guarantee me that in a wrestling match between my dominant non-maternal traits and these hypothetical maternal ones, the latter will come out on top? I’m not sure I’m willing to take that risk.
Of course, I reserve my right to change my mind about not wanting children, just as I reserve my right to suddenly not hate tomatoes or to stop thinking that I look jaundice-y when I wear yellow. I am a person, and people change their minds all of the time. If I do decide that kids are in my future, I hope that conclusion comes from a genuine change of heart and a confidence in my role as a mother, rather than societal pressure or some kind of kid FOMO. At this point in my life, I do not believe that my desire to not have children is selfish, though, in my current state of mind, any decision to have children (to pass on my admittedly fantastic genes, or to take care of me when I’m old) would be far more self-centered.
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