Childless by choice, and few regrets

People don’t like sad news, unpleasant facts. Perhaps that’s why few have ever asked me why I don’t have children. They probably assume I have unfortunate infertility problems or that I never had a boyfriend. But the fast and easy answer to their unasked question is – I never wanted any. But how could such an important part of life be that simple or easy? It isn’t and it is.

Perhaps the seed of my unconventional decision was sowed when I babysat as a young teen. I remember what seemed like then as endless nights, waiting for the parents to return to free me from the boring burden of their surly kids. I didn’t want to play with them. I didn’t want to talk to them. I wanted to read my book.

I did worry about a fire in the house while I was there, about the kid stabbing him/herself with some scissors, or getting lost while playing outside. (Why then, did the doctor and his wife always find me sleeping peacefully on the couch when they came home? Thankfully for all parties, I didn’t babysit that often.) I never bonded with any of the kids – I watched them, took care of them, because it was my job.

In the 1960s and before, pregnancy for a girl in high school was not so accepted as it is today. Then, the stigma surrounding unwed teen mothers was so great that any girl who found herself in that situation left school immediately, rarely to return. Having the child and giving it up was one option. Having the child and keeping it was the other. Neither would have been acceptable to me at that time. The futures of those girls were changed forever. How would they get along without finishing high school? Would they ever be able to go to college? Did the fathers stick around? What if those shotgun marriages were without love? Thus, I learned at a tender age to consider pregnancy as a fearful thing that ruined lives, not as a lifestyle option. The negative association stuck.

The idea that I could choose to never have children took root as I negotiated the difficult waters of relationships in the age of “free love.” Ha – that phrase was certainly not true. There was nothing free about it. I feared the shoals of bondage, both to a conventional life and to the overwhelming sense of

responsibility that I would

feel toward a child if I had to be a 100 percent mother. I saw so much divorce, I figured the odds were that I’d end up a single mother. I wanted to be free, and knew if I did not honor that, I would become an embittered woman, resentful of her children.

Seeing a lot of bad parents and seriously distressed kids also reassured me that becoming a parent was something one should take seriously.

In my heart I knew that, to have children, I needed to find someone who would fully share the responsibility, be more than a 20 percent dad. He needed to know that little Johnny needed changing, and do it without me having to tell him. I never found that person until it was too late to start a family.

Perhaps the fact that my sister married young and started her family while I was just leaving for college, but for whatever reason, I was blessed that I had parents who accepted my sometimes-odd life choices and never pressured me to have kids. Perhaps others around me also recognized that I was headed for a life different from that of my parents and peers. My having children was never a topic of conversation.

I made the decision not to have children when I began a serious relationship in my 30s with someone who did not want them, either. What a relief. I didn’t have to explain myself anymore, or feel like a freak. Even once the relationship ended, I still felt comfortable with my lifestyle, even though some people I met who were parents used to look at me with a mixture of distain, sympathy and jealousy. I, the childless 30-something, going off on trips, spending hours reading quietly, spending hours alone.

Yet as the years went by, and I approached the age of no return, I would wonder: Was I making a mistake? Each time I checked, I saw that the conditions I needed to be a mother were still not there. And I was terrified of screwing up some innocent kid’s life because I was so ambivalent.

I am grateful that I have had the time, the focus and the energy to put into two different careers, countless friends, decades of international travel (including long summers in Greece) and my later-in-life marriage. I was able to spend many evenings at the theater as a critic, and as many longer nights writing up those reviews, then driving home at 1 in the morning. I could go off to conferences, try some travel writing, have adventures without worrying about having to get home.

And now we come to the crux of it: Sure, I’ve had a wonderful life with the freedom to do what I wanted, to take risks, to follow a non-traditional path. But there has been a price. I don’t have kids. I never knew the joy of creating a new life. I don’t have the comfort of knowing my unique gene pool will continue. There’s no one to count on to be there for me in my old age.

It was good that I didn’t have the total responsibility for a baby. It was bad I didn’t have the total responsibility for a baby. What an awesome experience it must be. So, each choice – to become a parent or to not – has a price. It’s up to each woman to decide which of the two options make sense for her.

I know I made the right decision for myself.

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