We were in Lisbon, in the middle of spring. We were finishing a meal in a restaurant. I looked at my husband and thought There is probably no better time than this. So, as if adding it onto what we were already talking about (Portuguese, probably, which is a hilarious language), I said conversationally, "This is what really scares me, you know. You can't be on anti-depressants risk-free during pregnancy; and I can't go off them, it would be too dangerous. So it may never happen, for me. I may never have kids."
The fear simply dropped out, like a toad from my mouth. I had hoarded it gently for weeks. There had been talk of me increasing my anti-depressant dosage; I was flailing like a fish in a net, and my own body seemed like a dangerous zone glimpsed somewhere offshore in the darkness. Children have been an ambiguous proposition in our life together anyway, but this latest upheaval seemed to solidify something.
My husband just looked at me with deep compassion — and no disappointment — and said "If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen." The thing I feared in that moment, I saw afterwards, wasn't the idea that kids were vanishing from my life: it was a shrinking of his love, which didn't come.
Since that night, I've started to make a list, and quantify (like a good academic) the logical reasons why children may not be for me. (Both so that I can see the evidence, and have people link me to this article sarcastically if I ever do announce a pregnancy.)
1. I Want To Make Art
The part of Jenny Offill's Dept Of Speculation that grabbed every woman who read it is on the very first page: "My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”
I am an art monster despite and because of marriage. I write in beds in the evenings, and am bad at making myself eat unless my husband tells me to; everything that I produce comes from a delicate balance of time and conditions. Too much gets in the way of making art as is — like car insurance, or having to stop working to eat lunch (I hate lunch). Selfishly, I am increasingly unwilling to surrender any part of myself beyond what's already apportioned.
Perhaps as I get older I'll relax and feel more expansive in my energies, but my "room of my own" was difficult to build, and is full of serious, unyielding things. Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Eudora Welty, Jean Rhys, and Frida Kahlo had no children. Ruth Park wrote at night while her children slept or played under the table. My table may not permit it.
2. My Sanity Is Fragile Enough
My own mental health is also balanced carefully, pirouetting on a high-wire so precariously that a falling leaf or passing breeze throws it off. Calibration has taken years, and is still grinding onwards. The added exhaustion of parenting would probably throw it off yet again — and that's if I got past the risks of antidepressants in pregnancy, a nasty catch-22 where taking them raises the likelihood of problems like autism, and not taking them is, for the seriously depressed, basically unthinkable.
Post-partum depression also terrifies me. I see that in myself: go sufficiently dark and deep, go off the medication and away from the shore, and there be monsters. I see women on buses with young infants who look stark raving, on some other-level unhinged. And perhaps they, unlike me, were sane at the beginning, starting from solid ground rather than, well, rotten marshland.
3. I'm Not Sure It's Fair To Pass On My Genes
"You have to have children, to pass on your good DNA," is my mother's edict. This is, obviously, lunacy. But it raises a wider question: if a kid is just your contribution of your DNA, plus your partner's, to humanity's future, what would I be creating?
I have mental health problems; my family has mental health problems. We don't talk about them. I am the only person in the culture of deep-embedded silence who seems to be raising a flag and waving, saying No no no no. Any kid I produce may miscarry or be stillborn (both things that run in the family as well, though again, we don't talk about it), and if it gets past that, it might be prone to addiction, ADHD, severe depression, or a combination of all three. There's a fun streak of good brains and dark humor that it might enjoy, but is that really worth it?
4. I Want To Protect My Relationship
"It's love like you've never experienced," celebrities say in magazines. Their babies are fat and highly edible, and look very cute. But I have no interest in scraping the edges of love; that's not a FOMO I have. Happily lavishing everything on my husband, life, and work is delicious and satisfying enough.
Besides, refracting love's points of focus seems like a dangerous experiment for no good reason. Would the daft names my husband and I call each other be directed at children instead? What parts of us would we lose? Would we get quietly bored and miserable, and end up drab 40-year-olds shuttling kids to soccer games and mopping up allergies? No thanks.
5. Money Matters
At the risk of sounding like an interior magazine, I want few things, and beautiful ones. This is a particular species of aesthetic want, and it seems kind of impossible with our incomes and children. Children are a draining investment that give back nothing except for pure unadulterated love — which, at the moment, is a property I have in sufficient measure to require no more of.
It's a simple thing: I like comfort, delicious food, and the idea of travelling without dealing with a burden like that one teenage eye-rolling girl on the train in Belem, who kept snorting at her dad's polite questions. Spare me.
6. Life Is Short
Is it a legitimate thought to want children to pad out time and give you an edge on anhedonia and boredom, like a never-ending sitcom that also sends you Christmas cards? To me that looks like selfishness. You are not in the world, small person, to try it for yourself; you are here to serve me, and my need for entertainment and care.
Besides, life, when examined dispassionately and not at four o'clock on a particularly long afternoon, isn't long at all. And there is so much to be done. I have Things To Achieve and am already rudely impatient at how slowly I'm doing them. I like life fast and in my control, and that seems about as compatible with childrearing as Kim Kardashian would be with Congress. And, without any great mothering instinct driving my ovaries restlessly towards fruitfulness, it looks increasingly likely that I may just opt out.
And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.