I find myself disappointed when I learn that a woman I admire has kids. Like when I read Heidi Julavits’ memoir, “A Folded Clock,” I was excited when she describes an abortion. “Maybe she doesn’t have kids!” came a gleeful shout from somewhere inside me. She does, I discovered a few chapters later, and my heart sank a bit. Listening to an episode of Krista Tippett’s podcast, On Being, I had the same experience. “I wonder if she has kids?” She’s so wise and successful. I Googled for the answer. She does (two). Cue disappointment.
This is silly of course. These are women I don’t know personally and whose kids in no way impact my life. It’s just that unlike the majority of my peers, I don’t think I’ll have my own kids, and that makes me feel lonely. I’m looking for company and solidarity in these women. I’m looking for them to send me the message that I need to hear: that it’s ok not to have kids; that I can have a happy, successful and impactful life; that I will turn out ok, or at least with a successful book, podcast, or something to show for the time I don’t spend raising a family.
I was never one of those people that has always loved and wanted kids, but I always thought, in a non-specific way, that I would have them. In many ways, I just assumed I would have the same life my parents did. One that included an apartment in a major city, a job, marriage, and two kids. It was expected in a comfortable way, without thinking through whether it was what I actually wanted. When friends ask me about kids, I always say the same phrase: “I don’t think I’ll have any.” I build in uncertainty. I answer the question about having them, and not about wanting them.
For the past few years, the question about kids has turned in my head, again and again, like a snow globe periodically shaken. I have long periods where the question feels settled, only to get stirred up, often by a seemingly small thing. I walk around for days in the turbulence of this open question, distracted and afraid. I wonder if my current path (leading me, at 36, towards a childless future) is a mistake. I talk to my partner about it; I share my thoughts, feelings and fears, and he holds them. He tends to me patiently in my distress. But we don’t tend to the question. We both know that it doesn’t last. The pattern is so clear, the stirring up and the jumping to the conclusion that this is a mistake that must be fixed, then the settling and resuming of life, normal and glorious as always.
I think it’s ok that we don’t answer the question. In her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Zora Neale Hurston wrote: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” These have been years of asking. My partner of almost six years doesn’t really want kids (“What’s their appeal?”), and in order to stay in the relationship, I had to make sure I was comfortable with the idea of not having kids.
I’ve used all my tools on this question. I’ve journaled, I’ve talked to friends and therapists, read books and articles. I’ve given it time, at least three years now. I went to a daylong meditation retreat on sitting with questions, where I cried and tried to sit in this question and everything it raises.
I’ve gathered evidence. Looking for child-free women role models, I’ve found a few, like Elizabeth Gilbert, Rebecca Solnit. I know that I’m looking outside of myself for something. Some permission, acceptance and community. I’m used to keeping up with my cohort. I’m used to doing well in school, completing all of the assignments, and progressing with my peers. I’m used to fitting into the mainstream. Eighty six percent of American women have kids, so to be out of sync in this respect feels horribly uncomfortable. In wrestling with this, I’ve done this thought exercise: In a world where only half of women have kids, what would I do? I feel clear that I would happily join the tribe that does not have them. I imagine a great sorting, and joining of a large, joyous community of women— of sisters and aunts, of artists and healers. This feels right.
I’ve talked to my haircutter at length. She wasn’t sure about kids either and only had her son a few years ago, at the age of 47. She says that I can’t let my head decide because there are so many rational reasons that having a kid is a bad idea. She says I need to ask my heart and my gut. Together with my head, they are like the Three Stooges, tripping over themselves.
I’ve thought about the only reason that gives me real pause. I really love to love other people. Having a kid sounds like an experience of profound, unconditional love. The idea of creating a being and loving it for the rest of my life… well, that sounds amazing. I wonder if I’m willing to miss out on this specific type of love. Yet I’m not convinced that a desire to love leads to me having my own kid. I get to love so many people in my life, even through my work. When I stop asking myself if I want a kid, and ask instead: how much do I want to concentrate my love in a kid, and how much do I want to diffuse it? Then the idea of loving many people seems like a great thing to do with my life.
I’ve wondered if I’m just very lucky. I’m very close to my older sister (emotionally and geographically), and she has a kid and one more on the way. I get to be a very involved aunt. I see my adorable nephew regularly and get to watch his process of development up close. I get to love him unconditionally, and be loved by him. Recently he said, “Steph no go home” (the ultimate compliment). Then I get to leave him at my sister’s house, and go do frivolous and fun things on the weekends, like sleeping in, writing blog posts, hiking… all because I don’t have anyone else to tend to. Sometimes I think I just get to have the best of both worlds.
The truth is that I do want a kid. I think would love it. I imagine having a baby and wondering that I was ever thinking about not having this experience. If I had a kid, then I would fit in. I’d be free from the fear of regret. But the other truth is that there are things I want in my life even more.
I know that there is something I want that isn’t kids and I am too unsure of its form to name it yet. It’s a sense I have that there is something I want to be and create in the world. I want to take risks, have adventures and fun, and meet people and create things. I want to be committed to my freedom. I want to revel in the joy of life and help others do that too. I want to love. Importantly, I’ve also realized this: nothing is wrong with me. I’m so lucky to be an aunt and to have a real choice about having kids of my own, without it meaning that there are no kids in my life.
I don’t feel ready to close the question completely. Even though I’m making no moves in the kid direction, it’s more comfortable for me to leave the door open a crack. Open to the possibility that in some small number of months or years (before it’s too late!), the desire for kids that I think I’m supposed to have will kick in, and I’ll get to change my mind in time.
In these years without a definitive answer, I’ve learned to hold the question. As Zora Neale Hurston showed me, these are the years that are asking. The years will eventually answer as I age, my fertility evaporates, and my life unfolds. I keep asking the questions to make sure that I am facing into this fully.
The act of asking informs the answer; the right question unlocking possibilities. Powerful questions are rarely either/or binaries. Instead of kids/no kids, it feels more expansive to ask: “How do I want kids to show up in my life?” This question inspires images of so many kids in my life, nieces and nephews of blood relation and honorary status. I imagine holding art classes for them. I imagine being a mentor, volunteering, perhaps even fostering or adopting.
I’ve given up on the idea that there is a right or wrong decision. Instead, I see several different happy futures I could have, with or without my own kids. Either way, I am confident in my ability to cultivate a wonderful life. I am confident in my ability to deal with whatever comes up, even regret about this decision. There are many, many possible lives I can lead, and the only thing I can do is to keep living my life, the one that is here in front of me, already full and wonderful, one step at a time.
Image: “Waves” by Yayoi Kusama (1953)