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I’m not a mom, and it’s complicated

Reuters/Rick Wilking
To try or not to try? That is the question.
  • Ephrat Livni
By Ephrat Livni

Senior reporter, law & politics, DC.

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Moms are great. I have one. She is super cool and gave me the impression that kids are the ultimate art project. So I thought I’d want some, too.

However, when it didn’t happen naturally, I did not pursue the matter, leaving the miracle of life to the gods and not doctors or adoption agencies. Although I’m pretty damn determined at times, I discovered that I did not want to try with all my might to have a child.

In great part, I reached this conclusion because it became so apparent that the desire to do so was expected of me and that there were very few other positions I might politely occupy in society. The notion that I should be willing to do anything and everything to be a mother only made me suspicious and resistant because it implied that no other life was worthwhile, and I found that implication both offensive and dubious. Frankly, it seemed downright anti-feminist and, it turns out, I was willing to test the limits of my principles. 

Here are the options

There is an expectation that women will do everything in their power to have a baby. Any whiff of trouble conceiving—which, by the way, is mostly kept secret—and people will suggest in-vitro fertilization, as if it’s guaranteed to end with a kid and is no big deal. But in the US especially, IVF is very expensive, apart from which it’s invasive, time-intensive, and often ends in failure. The odds of a happy ending decrease with age, which is why British women over 34 are increasingly seeing this option, when paid for by the state, limited by medical professionals.

Adoption seems like a noble option, and it is. But it’s also a bitch. This method is probably best attempted by people who don’t mind collecting letters of recommendation from friends about their suitability for parenthood, and are OK with being inspected by state and private agencies, and waiting and paying and praying. 

It also means that if you adopt a child with different racial or ethnic origins from yours, you’ll probably be dealing with the added angst of controversy and identity politics involved in adoptions. A history of systemic injustices have led to the disproportionate removal of minority children from their homes in the US, and international adoptions are fraught with problems. Both of these approaches have been criticized as ethically questionable, an extension of a colonialism mentality, as Madonna discovered when she wanted to adopt a child in Malawi and sparked outrage

And while it is fair to say that loving a child who doesn’t have a home is better than doing nothing because you might face criticism, it’s also necessary to acknowledge that children of one race or ethnicity adopted by parents of another are increasingly discussing the unique identity crises these arrangements can generate. Wherever you fall on this debate, we can probably all agree that the questions it presents are complex. 

The truth is that both of these processes, IVF and adoption, can take a long time and be extremely harrowing, as outlined in this Scientific American article in March, written by eight women in STEM who struggled to have children and mostly had to slog through it all in shame, humiliation, and secrecy.  

For me, neither of these very difficult options, which in no way guaranteed a child, seemed to offer any obvious relief. The more I thought about them, the less clear it was that I should choose to do anything at all. What about letting the chips fall where they may?

Childfree or childless?

Of course, some women declare themselves happily childfree, like the actor Anjelica Huston, who recently told Vulture she could never have seen herself caring for a baby but apparently tried to have one in her youth. Society doesn’t totally like this response because it’s offensive to many when women reject the premise that their best and highest use is as a vessel for life incubation. Not wanting kids is also often seen as selfish, and if you’re going to take this position, you should probably always add something about how much you enjoy your nieces and nephews, or love volunteering with kids and giving to your community.

That said, at least childfree women are not viewed as depressed and depressing, unlike the childless. Since at least biblical times childless women have been considered tragic, and things haven’t changed very much over millennia. As Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic in December, criticizing the film Mary Queen of Scots, “[It] promises heady feminism, but it endorses a pernicious idea: Whatever else she might achieve, a woman who is not a mother is to be pitied.” 

The tragically barren put a damper on the lives of friends and family, so it’s advisable to grin and bear it or you’ll ruin all the occasions that people still need you to participate in so as to confirm their life choices. I went on family vacations to hotels crammed with children and parents and spent a lot of time observing, attempting to find my answer in their interactions while also feigning engagement, playfulness, and pleasure because no one goes on vacation to hang out with someone who is a bummer.  

It can be heartbreaking to face the question of childlessness when you want kids, but it does no service to women in this position to view them with pity. Listening is good. Being patient and understanding with their pain is great. But pity implies that they cannot go on without offspring, and that if they do, they will always be viewed as deficient. This is hardly reassuring to a person in a state of dismay. I didn’t and don’t find it heartening, helpful, or respectful, though perhaps that is because raising children was only part of my vision of the future.

Doubt is not an option

Being ambivalent about it all is not among the popular options, and being totally philosophically flummoxed in the face of the question of creation isn’t something that’s much discussed. Yet when forced to make some decisions, I felt ambivalence.

I wanted kids. But I didn’t think people should be so certain that I ought to be determined in this regard. It made me suspicious. No one ever seemed as sure that I should be a writer, for example, and yet I had a much longer track record scribbling than I did with children.

And this sense, this doubt which never occurred to me before I was meant to try to have a child (as opposed to just being blessed with a pregnancy), arose from the disappointing realization that, despite all the trouble that had gone into cultivating me, society was implying that my sole purpose was maternity and that failing to take up this mission would render my existence utterly meaningless (which I kind of assumed it would be anyway, like all lives, in the grand scheme).

By urging action above all else, friends, family, doctors, nurses, and fertility bloggers (I read a lot of them!), seemed to be saying there was no other way for a woman to be fulfilled. This was it, the make-or-break life situation. I was warned explicitly and implicitly that if I didn’t act fast my whole life would turn into the story of an absence, the tale of the missing limbs I never even had to begin with.

Surely, I thought, that had to be wrong. Are there no other possible outcomes? Couldn’t a person want something, not get it, and still end up fine? Isn’t that really how most lives go? And if that’s impossible, if a person can only be happy when things go the way they thought they would in youth, is that human someone who can prepare a child for life’s many disappointments?   

Thinking it through

I always thought it would be cute to make a small human, a distillation of me and my true love, a doll to call our own. And we were both into it, as long as it just happened. When it didn’t, we were also both unclear about just what measures should be taken.

Still, only I, the woman, was crying and being advised and chided and expected to be willing to do anything, while my husband could keep being complete without any additional effort at all. He required no doll, at least not in other people’s view. Ultimately, the responsibility to make something happen didn’t fall on him, and he is far too polite to insist that he knows best what I should do with my body, time, or life. But the fact that he faced far fewer questions about kids and far less often than me seemed to be a bad sign about the society I was supposed to want to add another human to.    

It should also be noted that I was a public defender at the time when this was foremost on our minds, so I knew that dolls often grow up to disappoint their parents profoundly. Meanwhile, my husband, working in immigration law, saw no end of family woes. We’re both inclined to question the conventional wisdom about everything working out in the end, given how many broken people seem to be walking this Earth, so neither of us could be sure the trite advice that a nice life necessarily involves making more humans was more than a rationalization for the biological imperative.

However, only I was under serious pressure to decide something.    

The good life

Our jobs weren’t the real problem. In fact, everyone I knew, whatever their class or circumstances or immigration status, seemed sad or angry and not particularly good at living. The incarcerated and the ostensibly free all seemed to be in prison. Having families didn’t change that. Yet all the struggling, troubled people seemed to think continuing with this miserable existential rigamarole, passing on pain at all costs, was the only possible response.

Previously, it hadn’t occurred to me to think that parents should have to answer to their children for having brought them into existence. I wasn’t an anti-natalist and am not now, but I do understand why philosophers like David Benetar make the case for not being born.

It’s not that life is never fun. Still, it is pretty much relentlessly uncomfortable. So once I was forced to really think about it, I didn’t feel equipped to answer to a kid for their painful existence. Would I just tell my child that though I didn’t yet know how or why to live, I figured I’d bring them into the mix because that’s what’s done?  

So I asked people, friends who were more determined than I, “What will you tell your children about how to be fulfilled, how to handle disappointment?” They provided platitudes about teaching kids to be good, and when I pushed them to define this, they looked at me aghast, as if it was a monstrous query.

I had crossed the line from ally to enemy with my doubts, just as I would later discover that by not being a mother I had unwittingly joined some weird order, a silent minority (?) who must be reverent about motherhood or risk being dismissed as bitter.

And I didn’t have any answers either, which seemed to me to be a kind of answer. Maybe life requires no explanation. It’s a biological imperative, the way of all Earthlings. Certainly that is what some people told me. But my own sense was that this response is only possible when the questions of why or how never present as an obstacle to begin with.

An experiment called existence

Life is not only suffering, of course. But any kid you bring into the world will suffer. That’s just how it goes. And one thing that will cause them pain is when things don’t go their way.

How do you teach a child grace in the face of disappointment if you resist reality and insist on particular outcomes in a world that’s a crapshoot? That question continually plagued me in the face of what seemed like a bunch of unpalatable options.

Life only requires no explanation if it just happens or you don’t feel one is needed. But what my experience struggling with the questions of motherhood and not-motherhood showed me was that I didn’t believe that was true in my particular circumstances. I was fine with the notion of sacrifice for a child and had in fact arranged my work life to meet a kid’s needs, but I wasn’t willing to discover what who I’d be if I spent years and a fortune trying for a child only to be perpetually disappointed. That, it seemed, would be more destructive than cultivating acceptance immediately.

It seemed entirely possible that at some point I would have to make peace with the possibility that it would not happen, and I didn’t think I could live with myself if I ignored everything else I meant to be in service of a dream that was turning into a nightmare.

Some people may not question life. But all I could come up with were more questions. How do you show kids happiness if you are miserable? How do you convey humor when you are deadly serious? How do you raise a “good human” if you don’t know what that means, much less how to be one? How do you define success for them if your own answers are severely limited?

That’s when I alighted upon my answer. An experiment. I’d try to resolve these questions myself, in my life, instead of acting when no right action was apparent. That way, if ever the questions were presented to me, I might be able to say something true and liberating instead of peddling conventional wisdom and limiting the possible positions a person might occupy.

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