I always knew I’d never have children. Like, I knew, deep down to the very core of my being. As an adult I’ve never liked children, and even when I was still a child myself, I didn’t like babies. One of my mother’s favourite stories to tell was about when she took me to visit a neighbour who’d just had a baby. I was not quite three years old and, after taking a perfunctory glance into the stroller, I said, “Okay, I’ve seen the baby. Can we go now?”
As I got older, I didn’t get any better at hiding my feelings. I babysat a grand total of once – a mistake I never repeated. When I was a teenager and a family friend, whom I loved like a brother, brought their new baby to visit, I managed to hold it for a full twenty or thirty seconds before thrusting it back into his hands. In my 20s, my then-husband’s best friend had a baby. In the hospital, as I gazed at the swaddled infant from a safe distance, the friend commented that I was looking at it in much the same way other people do a snake.
I’ve made the effort to interact with the babies and children of friends as best I could. But I’m not very good at it, and while I do my best to be kind, my obvious discomfort is … well, obvious. And babies and children are freakin’ everywhere, so my discomfort has been obvious to a lot of people.
The reactions of others to my reaction to children has always amazed me. Over many years, on revealing that I didn’t want children, common responses included (but were by no means limited to) …
- “Don’t worry. You’ll change your mind.” (I’ve never been able to decide which part of that bothers me more: that people think I doubted my decision, or that they thought they knew me better than I know myself.)
- “You’ll regret it later.” (There’s the potential for regret in every decision we make. Why not becoming a mother gets special consideration is beyond me.)
- “But you’ll never feel fulfilled!” (Being a mother is one possible avenue to fulfillment, but it’s by no means the only one.)
- “What if your husband wants them?” (Then he can marry someone who wants them as well.)
- “Who will look after you in your old age?” (Wow. I feel bad for your kids.)
- And my personal favourite, “It’s different when it’s your own.” (Then explain child abuse. If some sort of switch gets flipped when it’s your own child, why do people beat their kids?)
I’m at an age now where I’ve transitioned from being a woman who doesn’t want children to a woman who doesn’t have children. And while one would hope the commentary had finally gone away, alas, such is not the case. Although these days it’s often more of an actions as opposed to words kind of deal.
Example: Some years ago, I was at a restaurant a day or two before Mother’s Day, and the owner was going from table to table with a box of chocolates. As she approached my table, she asked if I’m a mother, and I said no. She stopped dead in her tracks with a look of confusion on her face, said, “Oh!” and turned and walked away. (The friend I was with called after her that everyone says he’s a mother, but he was pretty sure that’s not the kind she was looking for, so he didn’t deserve any chocolate, either. I swear, some of the guys I hang out with are the best allies.)
Perhaps my age has brought about more than one transition because while, as normal, her rudeness irritated me for my own sake, it also genuinely angered me for the sake of other women. There are so many out there who are unable to have children, who have had miscarriages and stillbirths and whose born children have died, for whom IVF and adoption don’t work or aren’t options, who face daily bigotry that they aren’t even real women, let alone mothers.
The assumption that every woman wants to be, is supposed to be, is destined to be a mother is bad enough. The way people who believe that react to women like me, who have chosen to not have children, is insulting. But when they push that belief on women whose childless state is not by choice? The lack of empathy is appalling.
Anna Jarvis, the driving force behind the modern incarnation of Mother’s Day, was adamant that it should be spelled as “a singular possessive, for each family to honor its own mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world.” And while even that is problematic – not every mother is deserving of being honoured, after all – at least it’s better than the overbearing and invasive celebration we’ve turned Mother’s Day into in the hundred years since.