A few years ago, my first summer in Toronto actually, my sister and her daughters visited me for a long weekend. We had taken the girls to Centre Island and were watching them enjoy themselves on a ride when my sister said something to me I’ll never forget. I was gazing at all the little kiddos playing and laughing and I sighed wistfully and said something about hoping to have my own little munchkins someday. My sister, my big sister, the woman who I had idolized since childhood, the sister whose room I used to sneak into to try on her clothes and read her books, turned and looked me in the eyes and said “I think you’re going to be a great mom. You have a real sense of fun about you and you’re really easy going. Your kids will love being with you and you’ll love being with them.” That was almost eight years ago, and I remember everything about that moment. She might not remember, but that’s the way it goes when your hero says something so meaningful to you. You remember.
Shit’s about to get real, guys. Full disclosure, I’ve had this essay gestating (ahem) inside me for a while now. For years, if I’m being honest. I’ve been thinking and mulling and musing (ha – see what I did there?) and I’ve found myself, over the last few months in particular, very pensive and reflective about this topic. This is deeply personal, and I find that as I type, with so many thoughts swirling around in my head, I feel surprisingly vulnerable. Surprising because, as you may have gathered if you’ve been reading this blog (or know me at all), that being open and transparent is kind of how I roll. Vulnerability is my thing and I make no apologies for that. It’s through the expression of my truth, my experiences and my perspectives, that I forge connections and achieve catharsis. I also share so much of myself in my writing specifically, in the hope that perhaps the things I muse about or the conversations that might get started because of something I write (even if it’s just with one person) are worthwhile. But this topic is one that frankly, makes me a little uncomfortable. However, these days I’m all about learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. So, here goes!
Here’s the crux of the issue. I am on the wrong side of 37 years old (will be 38 in September) and I find myself single and childless. This fact, in isolation, is fairly meaningless, a mere statistic, an unbiased description of an aspect of my life. But, as we all know, there are myriad connotations and consequences of this fact of life for me (and I’m sure, many, many others), because I have not consciously chosen to not have children, or to be single. Truth be told, there are moments in my otherwise fabulous, full, exciting, whole and interesting life, when I would love nothing more than to be in a serious relationship, perhaps even married and to have a family. There are moments when I ache for it, when the absence of it keeps me awake at night and distracts me. There are moments when I practically wretch with jealousy when I see others who have it. Gulp, there’s that vulnerability again…
I love kids. They are drawn to me, and I to them. I’m the best babysitter ever!!! I have kids in my life by way of friends, and I have nieces and a nephew who mean more to me than they (or their parents) probably know. I want to be a mom, I want to have a family, or at least, have the opportunity to have a family. I’ll come back to this point in a bit. However, put simply, biology is kind of working against me at this point. Now I know, realistically I have a few years left in which to healthfully pro-create. And I’m encouraged by that. But, the fact of the matter is, to put it not so delicately, I ain’t gettin’ any younger and sometimes, this weighs really heavily on me. Psychologically, I feel like I’m running out of time.
Although I have not consciously decided not to have kids, it does not mean that on some level, I have not made decisions in my life that have led me to where I am today. What I mean by that is, in the last 10 years let’s say, I have had plenty of opportunities to start a family. If I really wanted a kid SO badly, I totally could have by now. But, what I’ve come to realize is that clearly, for me, it’s not just about having a kid. Could I raise a child on my own, as a single mother? Absolutely. I know I could. I remember years ago, a dear friend of mine told me, kind of apropos of nothing actually, that she could “totally see” me as a single mom. She meant that as a compliment, and that’s how I took it. What she meant was that she felt that I was strong and capable and would face that challenge in stride. And to be honest, I feel exactly the same way. I would ROCK as a single mom. But, the point is that I don’t really want that for myself. It’s not just the kid(s) that I want, I want the family. I want my own little tribe. Being a tribe of one gets kind of lonely.
I’ve come to realize that I can achieve a family in many different ways. So, for me, it’s not about finding the perfect man to be the perfect husband and having the suburban house with a two-car garage in a good school district with the adorable children who look just like us. But, what I do want for myself, ideally, is a partnership which includes children. As I’ve gotten older and continue to wade through the dating pool (although it’s starting to feel more and more like a puddle lately), I’ve become very open to dating men who already have children. This is important because I wasn’t always so open to it. It used to intimidate me and make me exhausted at the thought of the potential drama with an ex and all that baggage. I used to hold pretty firmly to the desire to experience having a child with someone who was also experiencing it for the first time. But, I’ve evolved (and maybe matured?), and now the idea of meeting a man who already has a kid (or more) is not only more of an inevitability given my/his age, but also something that I actually welcome with an open heart. I think I would ROCK being a stepmom!
The real question, the thing that I’ve been so intensely considering is not the question of whether or not I want kids, but rather why I want them. Or why I think I want them. And so the question becomes: do I want kids because I have a deep, maternal, even evolutionary impulse to have them? Or do I want kids because I’ve been groomed to believe that having them will validate me as a woman and therefore as a person?
It’s a tough question, without a definitive answer. But, let’s dive in.
Let’s be clear – I whole-heartedly believe, with every fiber of my being that women do NOT NEED to have children (or marriage or partnership for that matter) in order to be fulfilled or complete or to lead purposeful, meaningful, love-filled, whole lives. I also believe that the underlying implication to the contrary is a central struggle in modern living that women grapple with every day. In fact, I think there are plenty of women who have children because they simply believe that that’s what they’re supposed to do, and end up miserable, hallow, decidedly UNfulfilled shells of themselves. Dark stuff, I know, but that’s the truth.
What I’m interested in is this idea that if I, as a woman, decide of my own volition, perhaps for very specific reasons, or perhaps because of a more enigmatic gut intuition, that I do not want to have children, it somehow makes me less than, or (and this is the most reviled word used often in this conversation), selfish.
You could make the argument that everyone is entitled to their opinion and difference of opinion is what ultimately generates conversation and eventual shifting of social paradigms. I’ll buy that. But, I think when it comes to particular social paradigms, like having children or not, and importantly, the motivation behind that decision, the conversation is inevitably gendered and largely, judgmental.
Over the course of history, there emerged this concept of gender which has engrained itself so wholly and ideologically into our collective psyche that we’re not even able to really disassociate from it. But, it’s important to remember that gender is a social construct. Let that sink in for a minute. What we understand in terms of what it “means” to be a woman and what it “means” to be a man (and everything in between), is a socially constructed paradigm which casts people in archetypes which then inform everything from how we interact with each other on a social and familial level, to pervasive systemic and institutionalized sexism in the workforce, government and education, etc. So, if according to the gendercentric idea of what it is to be a woman (whatever that means), does the essence of womanhood necessarily include motherhood? Personally, I reject that notion. But that is what we’re talking about here. This is the conversation.
Male/Female = sex; Man/Woman = gender.
They are not interchangeable terms, they are two different things. Sidebar – this is why the current trend of expectant couples having “Gender Reveal” parties drives me crazy, simply from a grammatical and linguistic standpoint. You’re not revealing your baby’s gender; you’re revealing your baby’s sex. But I suppose throwing a “Sex Reveal” party might draw a slightly different crowd, so I get it.
Anyway, fast forward through history, and especially through the Industrial Revolution and beyond, and the issue of the societal expectations of men and women and their respective roles becomes even more fraught. Times have changed and although we are far from having equality between the sexes, there has been somewhat of a shift in terms of our ideas around parenting and the division of labour in the home, particularly when it comes to raising children. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not foolish enough to believe that men and women are totally egalitarian in the home (and elsewhere). I know that women still bear the brunt of the work when it comes to child-rearing. Those deeply imbedded ideological behaviours are hard to change or overcome. And it seems that some people don’t want to overcome them. Being a “Mom” today comes with its own brand of societal expectations which often result in really damaging (in my opinion) judgments and standards. Yet another impossible bar for women to reach. But, you can’t deny that women have a certain degree of agency now where we simply haven’t before, which is why I’m even having this conversation in the first place. The point is, I – we – have a choice. There may be judgments tied to that choice, but a choice nonetheless.
Here’s another question: if women having children is a historically gendered expectation (meaning, I am woman, therefore I am expected to have children), is it still true? Am I, in fact denying my own biology or the whole of evolution if I choose not to have children? Here’s where the judgment factors in – lots of women don’t have children because of circumstances beyond their control. It’s those who decide not to who are judged (by some people) and labeled as selfish, denying biology and in fact spitting in the face of nature. Is that fair? Is that harsh? Or is this the narrative we’ve been immersed in since the beginning of time and as a result has become woven into the fabric of how we understand ourselves? And if so, does this narrative, arguably still the most prevalent, carry the same weight in the modern world? And furthermore, if the answer to that is yes, does that make it right?
Even just a generation ago, it’s not likely I would have been a single 37 year old woman, living on her own in a big city, focusing on her career and just now, at this stage of her life, contemplating whether or not she wants to have children. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have been possible, but I certainly would have been regarded as an “Old Maid” and shrouded in all kinds of stigma. I see the fact that I even have this choice as a blessing and it makes me thankful to live in this century, and in this particular First World.
Listen, I know kids are hard work. And if that’s what you sign up for, you’re in it for the long haul! I get it. I also know that being a parent comes with (and frankly, requires) sacrifice, compromise, and a certain willingness to be tethered. But, from all accounts, I hear it’s worth it. So, I think I want to have children, or at the very least, I want the opportunity to have children (see, I told you I’d come back to this point!), which is why I’m fairly unwilling to get into a relationship with a man who has decided he doesn’t want them. My last boyfriend (I use that term loosely) and I broke up because a few months in, he decided (realized? revealed? Who knows, he could have also totally been lying) that he definitely did not want children. As soon as he spoke the words, I knew, no matter how I felt about him, it was a deal breaker. I’m not saying that he was the love of my life (clearly he was not, and as it turned out, proved he had the emotional maturity of a 12 year old – but that’s a whole different blog), but my visceral reaction to his news let me know that this particular subject was not one on which I was willing to be flexible.
Who knows, I may find my Prince Charming and set out for a future filled with pregnancy and children and the big family I’ve always wanted only to find that I’m unable to because of fertility issues. That’s up to the Universe. There are no guarantees in life, or in pregnancy. And that would probably be heartbreaking. But, at least I would have found my lobster, and we’d make decisions together about what we wanted our family to look like. I can’t say now what lengths I might go to in order to have a family (i.e. fertility treatments, adoption); I just don’t want to deny myself the chance, or more importantly, the choice. I guess I’ve really grown to value that agency I have.
After all this musing and thinking and contemplating, I’m not sure I’ve come to any conclusions. In fact, I may have more questions now than when I started. But that’s OK. I think it’s important to go inward and ask yourself these questions, challenge yourself instead of just going along with the status quo unquestioningly. The last thing I’d want to do is bring children into this world if I’m not really sure that I want to.
But I think I do. I (humbly) think I have quite a lot to give as a mom! I think it would be great to dispense some of this wisdom I’ve gathered in this life of mine to help guide and mold some little people. I daydream of singing my little babies to sleep, of sharing my love of reading and imparting my values of inclusivity, empathy and independence to them. I want to lead by example when it comes to fostering a healthy body image, being confident and the importance of family. Lofty goals, I suppose, but I did say these were daydreams.
And, for what it’s worth, I think I would make really cute babies.