Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Not having children requires an excuse

Forty-one and counting! At last, an iron-clad excuse for why my husband and I don’t have children: it’s no longer medically advisable.

Again and again, throughout my adult life, I’ve had to defend and justify our decision not to have children. In our early 30s, especially, my husband’s and my decision was viewed as a major controversy.

Our reasoning seemed straightforward to me: that every man, woman and child — especially in industrial countries — exerts a toll on our planet’s resources. We also wanted to pursue other aims that we viewed as worthwhile and necessary. Having children would have been a barrier to achieving those aims.

In spite of what we viewed as valid reasons for not having children, we faced constant challenges to our decision.

Society’s assumption that all adults will reproduce or will at least wish to do so, is a pernicious one. Parents are the closest influences, asking a young couple when they will give them grandchildren — as if grandchildren were the entitlement of a parent who has successfully raised children to adulthood.

Most people of a young couple’s age will have children themselves and those who do not have children often take for granted that they will do so.

Acquaintances offer viewpoints based upon the assumption that a couple has, or will have, children: “Would you want your children to go to this school?” “When you have children of your own ...”

During the course of nearly two decades, we’ve had people argue with us, accuse us of selfishness, willfully ignore our reasoning or pretend that we didn’t really mean it.

One woman abruptly asked me if I was “able” to have children, as if our profession of “choice” was a cover-up for inability.

One of my most disturbing encounters was with a doctor who wore a stork cross-stitched on his lab coat. Not content to warn me that it was medically advisable to have children before age 35, he lectured me for at least 15 minutes about how having children was “an affirmation of life.”

Carolyn M. Morel gave me much-needed support with her book “Unwomanly Conduct — The Challenges of Intentional Childlessness.” Originally written in 1994, it was a groundbreaking survey of married women, mainly in their mid-40s, who chose not to have children.

The book acknowledged risks that childfree women face: being accused of selfishness, pitied as incomplete or having their achievements dismissed as compensation for the absence of a child.

Morel, herself childfree, admitted that she set out to write a book that she could read and I would recommend it to any childfree woman who wants reassurance that her decision is a valid one.

Otherwise, when it comes to having children, many people feel justified to behave in the most rude and inconsiderate way. They ask extremely personal questions as if it was entirely their business to learn why a childfree couple does not fall in line with the expectations of society.

I could never understand why so many people demanded an explanation from us. And why, when our explanation was given, these people refused to accept it.

I cannot say with certainty that these interrogations and challenges will never surface again. It is true that I am past 35 — am far closer, in fact, at this point in my life to a peri-menopausal woman’s concerns — but someone could still triumphantly point out that fetuses have been implanted in women who are far older than me. I’m just grateful for this time, at least, to simply live with our decision without constantly having to defend it.

Published Sept. 1, 2009 in the Lake County Record-Bee

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