If you like children, why don’t you have them?

If you like children so much, why don’t you have any of your own?  This was the tweet sent by a woman in response to a female politician’s proposal for a new child benefit last week in Alberta, my home province.  Unless you live in Canada, you probably missed this post modern feminist scandal. Turned out the tweeter worked for the existing Premiere, also a woman.  The story ended with the politician announcing she would have loved to have children.  If only she could.

This was interesting to me for all kinds of reasons. First, if we can for one second forget their politics, it is kind of nifty that we’ve got two women running for premiere in one of Canada’s most conservative provinces.  Second, I recently read an article suggesting men in Belgium were more pro-emancipation than women.  Maybe men now know it is unacceptable to vocalize certain stereotypes about women, and it’s women who remain surprisingly fervent about the status quo?  Here is a case in point: that a woman would think she has a right to venture into such personal territory against another women in the public sphere? Of course, this is all nominally interesting women’s studies stuff, which I can drone on about for some time.

But what struck me most was that she felt obliged to provide an explanation for not having children.  Sure, you could argue that the personal has become the political these days; still, almost anyone will tell you fertility treatment is pretty intimate stuff.  Some may find her announcement disheartening; others brave.  I’ve got one foot in each camp.

Why does a woman need to explain why she doesn’t have kids? I’m guilty. I’ve asked older women this very question.  More out of interest than judgment, but still.  I know there’s always a story worth hearing.  It can’t just be decided in the way that we pick a favorite color.

I don’t have kids.  I’ve been happily married for a long time.  Now that I’m in my thirties, many people assume because I don’t have kids, I don’t want them.  Just like our twitter friend.  Some assume I’m a career gal. Oh, that’s why. Some think that I’ll get around to it eventually.  After all, women are having kids later and later these days, right?  There were a few who assumed I would never dare to have a family while I was in the dangerous Middle East- that’s no place for kids.  My mother in law takes every possible opportunity to lobby for children, to appeal to what must be my cold and selfish sensibilities.

In fact, my husband and I made the decision to start trying for kids in 2005, while sitting in a café at a sticky table located next to one of those irritating ringing coin operated slot machines in a town called Putte.  Putte straddles the Belgium Holland border and while there, you can uniquely partake in Holland’s brothels, smoke a joint, and enjoy a paper cone of Belgian fries with mayonnaise. We were on our way to my in-laws and landed in Amsterdam.  It was late and husband needed a coffee.  Turns out there aren’t a lot of great places to hang out in Putte if you aren’t up for fries or a shag.

We’d always implicitly known we’d have children. One day.  When we were ready.  Not when we were both in school.  Not while we were working late into the night.  Not while he was traveling five days a week.  Not while I was running a hundred thousand dollar conference.  Oh no, not then.

Why the wake up call?  Mortality. My husband’s grandfather was extremely ill.  We’d always assumed he’d be around when our little people were born.  But that year we realized he wasn’t going to be hanging around.  And frankly, it wasn’t clear what we were waiting for anymore.

What do you do when you decide to have kids?  Well, if you’re me, you buy books. Books with cute chapters and cartoons that take you through the process of pregnancy month by month, that talk about babymoons and being in touch with your feelings.  I was already doing yoga; I was off to a good start.  I have a nursing friend who sent me a link on how to map your fertility based on your body temperature and… and well, other thingsHope you don’t need this, she joked.

The books said to be patient.  They told me that it wasn’t until you turned 30 that things might get dicey.  And even then I had until the age of 35.

I won’t get into specifics of what wasn’t working. Let’s just say all the signs pointed to stress and too much transatlantic travel.  I blamed a confused body that thanks to my lifestyle didn’t know if it was coming or going.  In 2007, I made what is called a work-life balance decision, changing jobs for something that required less travel and which would allow us to better prioritize our family and efforts to build one.  Two years ago, I finally went to see a doctor.  We started using that map my nurse friend sent me. I’ll spare you the technical details.  Let us say that it’s been complicated.  There’s been pills and surgery and secrets and insecurity and fear and failure and frustration and guilt.  Lots of guilt.   It’s been five years since both our grandfathers passed away.

Photo by MK Caroll.
Pattern found on: http://knitty.com

Where are we now?  We are the proud parents of a dog who allows us to glimpse our mommy and daddy potential.  We have a much stronger marriage.  We have funny stories involving vodka bottles and syringes and x-ray machines and refrigerator bags. We have given up so very much in the hopes of something that we once tried to avoid at all costs.

If you are a parent, you know that you don’t realize how much you’ll give up for your kids until you have to.  I am learning this in advance of actual motherhood.  Over the last five years I’ve given up my career, my mobility, my fear, my pride, and at times, my dignity.  I like to think I’ve become very brave.

I don’t know where that politician was on the spectrum of emotions when she made her announcement.  My feelings throughout have been surprisingly fluid.  At first, it’s a coy little secret, a knowing smile.  And then it’s panic, and then it’s shame, and then it’s a tattoo stamped to your forehead; and then it’s a problem to be solved, and then it’s something you announce to the universe, and then it’s something you bury deep down, you deny.  And then it’s something you try to forget or almost forget or wish you could forget.  But then it’s impossible.  And then it’s hope and then it’s science.

And now it’s a refrigerator full of drugs.

I’m not telling you this because I owe you an explanation.  I’m telling you because I want to and because it’s a big part of who I am these days. The fact that I’m telling you doesn’t mean that every woman has to tell you.

I make no promises to talk about what happens the next couple of months.   Maybe when it’s over, when the outcomes are clear. But at least now you’ll have some context if I start ranting about socialized medicine, or needles, or babies.  Or political gaffs in prairie provinces.

I know you all wish me luck.

Want to send a knitted uterus to your US congressman?  Check out The Snatchel Project


29 thoughts on “If you like children, why don’t you have them?

  1. First, you have never written a word that I don’t enjoy reading. You approach this rather personal subject so bravely and honestly. There is nothing that I can say about your journey that would be appropriate. I know that you have figured out every contingency of the situation. I know you don’t need to hear another person musing on your life but, I’ll say this: You have always approached life with a certain ‘all in’ attitude. It is part of what makes you as amazing and as accomplished as you are. It also, I fear, puts you in a vulnerable place. I know that you have soft places to land: a kind husband, sisters and family but remember that your friends are here too. We love you. I have trouble imaginng what this must be like for you but I admire you for being so strong and focused on what has turned out to be a very long journey.

    On a side note: I’m surprised that you are still following Alberta politics. While we are one of the most conservative provinces I always feel a sense of releif when I compare our conservitive leaders to those of our neigbors to the south. With the Republican primaries running right now, our right wing parties look incrediably reasonable and almost liberal. No need to send knitted uteruses to our polititians.

    • I would be nowhere with this without you, that is for certain. Sure, I had to get over my pride and ego but I’ve learned that you all see me better than I see myself at times. I have often said I had good friends who raised me, and I mean it. Thank you.

      You know, it was kind of a fluke I found about about the Alberta gaff. I check what’s going on occasionally, but not as much as I should. I agre, that the politics are so sweet in comparison to the US. I kind of giggled when I said it was a scandal… hubby says it’s not like when your wife says you asked for an open marriage before a big debate.

      We had a funny little gaff here in belgium too. The minister of work warned married women not to stop working because if they got divorced, their pensions might be screwed. She didn’t mention a thing about reexamining the pension system…

      I was careful to specify the US for the uteri. But maybe the PM would like one to cuddle? (I need an emoticon, here… I just read they make us happy!)

  2. Well,what to say?
    don’t give up and blablabla and it will be fine.of course it will be.
    but thanks for these strong and brave words.and don’t suffer in silence anymore.
    and politicians should shut up sometimes 🙂

  3. 1) I’m with Flapper Pie – I really wish you’d publish a book because I’d rather read you than anyone. I finish reading what you’ve written and then immediately scroll up to the top of the page to begin again. Your writing is like chocolate.
    2) You: “Over the last five years I’ve given up my career, my mobility, my fear, my pride, and at times, my dignity. I like to think I’ve become very brave.”.
    Me in reply: Yes, brave you are but also a little too self-effacing. Something in your tone speaks of failure, but again, I so often talk about you as a shining example of someone who is resilient, flexible, leader-ly, an entrepreneur of her own destiny. I know no other woman who has embraced so much change so readily. So there.
    3) To the topic at hand, I’ve got my own post to write on this, sans political superstructure. I don’t want kids, and that’s altogether a different challenge for a woman in her (very) late 30’s. At least people don’t think you’re a heartless selfish bitch (yes, it’s been said). Without getting out the balloons for the pity party, all I’ll say is, it’s tough no matter what.
    One of these days I’m going to stop writing in sets of three bullet points…

    • did you know my husband gave his wedding speech in (very ironic) bullet points. I find hem very endearing. Looking forward to hearing your take on it, and I know there are a few of us who’d be interested.

      It’s not so much that I feel that I’ve failed. they are all choices I make. But they are also trade offs. And don’t we all have the ‘grass is greener’ syndrome. Like, I romanticize my worklife and other people romanticize my leisure life. We romanticize an artist, and they romanticize security. Also, as someone who spent most of life staying atop of all those women’s leadership issues, I do feel like I fell in a hole somewhere, that I’m not doing what I kept telling everyone. But on the other hand, I kind of like who I am now. Not sure how I felt about that other girl back then, sometimes.

      A book. let’s dream someone publishes all us gals in MotherSugar. We could be a literary sex and the city!

  4. Very brave, indeed. What I admire most about what you’ve written here is your frank illumination of the ways we live through the things we never imagined we’d have to live through: the strange combination of sadness and humor and guilt and rationality and denial and acceptance and bafflement. From a writerly perspective, I also admire how you’ve cut right into this experience and, in relatively few precious words, gotten (as they say) to the heart of it. This moved me in the way that only the best kind of conversation and the best kind of writing can.

    (And, of course, I’m sending lucky stars your way.)

    • Thank you for the writerly comment! I miss one page comments and compulsory silences. And coming from you, it’s a thrill.

  5. Thank you for this honest and courageous post, Bitter en Zoet. I like to hope that other people will be stronger and braver for reading it… and perhaps tread more carefully when asking personal questions.

    Like you, I find it interesting that Ms. Smith felt obligated to explain why she didn’t have children. That says to me that somehow it’s not okay. That men can be men without being fathers but women who aren’t mothers are somehow living a lesser life, at least in the eyes of others.

    I admire your peace and presence of mind to be able to write about your own struggles in such a beautifully articulate way. Particularly when the world around us seems to still define us as mothers (“successful” or “failed”) first and people second.

    It seems trite but the other night I dreamt I was sitting across the table from your daughter. She was 17 and I was warning her about going to the licensed coffee shop that night because men might not realize her age. There was no mistaking my age though as I had a moment of deja vu while unfolding a stapled stack of paper to read. It was a stack of her writing and I marvelled at how different yet alike you were.

    • hubby will be very sad it was not a boy!
      Figured by writing this, I was putting my stake in the ground a bit. Sharing what I could, protecting what I can’t. A bit like some other first posts, in a way.

  6. I agree with Lemon Tart. I think your post is incredibly well thought out and courageous. I also hope you will continue to write about your story. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Id like to add your collective to my blogroll. I am still sort of new at this so if its ok with you guys I will. I think you’re all very talented and am really excited to have found your collective.

    Thank you.

  7. When I read your post, my first reaction was surprise at how little I knew. I’m not saying that to make you feel guilty in any way. I’m not claiming that you should have shared more. I well know that there are sometimes silences that must be kept with even our dearest friends, and I respect that. But reading this, I understood the enormity of what you’ve been struggling with in a whole new way.

    I mean – I knew that it’s been a struggle, but I didn’t know that it was something you’ve been grappling with/trying to come to terms with/figure out since 2005. I hadn’t understood, at least, not completely, that your career change in 2007 was in large part due to this. And my mind flashed back to conversations where I’m sure I said something like “it’ll probably just happen when it’s the right time”, which was probably not at all helpful. And for that, I’m sorry.

    My second reaction is to send you a giant trans-continental hug and to say that I’m here for you. And I admire you for your strength and courage and your ability to walk this path with such resilience, humour and grace.

    Much love from Vancouver.

    • I’m kind of glad you didn’t know the extent of it all, for a long time I worked very hard at hiding it, even from myself. I remember one of my bosses telling me to raise it as a reason for my resignation, and I just refused- I did not want to be reduced to a stereotype. And of course, back then it didn’t feel as it does now, so dire. I assumed it was all going to work if I just did this, or that. I was naive, I guess.

      I also didn’t want to be that friend who could only talk about it. More and more I feel reduced to this issue. My whole life is becoming centered around it. And while it’s worthwhile, it’s counter intuitive for someone like me who spent so much time thinking and fighting and discussing the whole mother/career/woman/tradeoff thing. It’s ironic, I have to make the tradeoff even before the child comes.

      I’ve learned its hard to know what to say when someone tells you. Hard not to say something trite or simplistic or be too obsessed with their problem. It’s all okay. I can hardly judge another’s comments, given with the best intentions, when my own are so often conflicted. And if I ever said anything to you, however vague, then I already knew whatever you would say would be okay.

      • That’s very brave. I suspect we all are great studies in what it means to be conflicted. That’s what makes us so much fun to be around, says me to myself…

  8. I read your post later than others – and for that I apologise! You are, and always have been, a very earnest and courageous person (I was going to say woman, but no gender required in this instance). Your eloquence has expressed your situation in ways I could never aspire to – thank you for sharing so honestly with us. You know that I wish you the best outcome and, during your journey, that peace, harmony and balance in every aspect of life will accompany you, sometimes holding your hand, sometimes holding you up.

    I can never say that I will feel what you feel, but know that you are often in my thoughts.

    Much love.

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  11. I am so happy I blog hopped over here. Your sincerity, your emotion, your words (amazing words) have all touched me. I have a friend who, after 7 years of IVF, finally got pregnant. It’s a rough road. I wish you all the best of luck in your quest to have a little person of your very own…

  12. I often find myself asking women why they don’t have kids. I’m genuinely interested in the reasons. I have a few friends who just decided it wasn’t for them. They’re neither obsessed with their careers nor selfish. They just don’t feel the need.

    Whatever the reason, talking about it can only help people be more open-minded about it. I don’t see any reason to be ashamed of a choice, or in your case, of circumstances.

    Thanks for this deeply personal piece of writing.

    • I know a lot of women who are interested in women who make a decision not to have children. It’s not always an easy one to ask exactly because maybe it is circumstantial, or maybe there is (for no fault of one’s own) a sense of guilt or shame. I think it’d be great to hear those stories more, so that the choice feels more a choice rather than a default- or a rebellion.

  13. Admitting that I teared up while reading this. So much to admire in your writing and your determination. So much sacrifice (which I hope you have replaced to the extent you can with things that still keep you going… obviously I need to keep reading). But so much courage to share it all publicly. It was a real pleasure to come across your blog today and I will most certainly be coming back.

    • Many many thanks for stopping by and reading. Do come back and stay a while. If I understand right, you’re in Belgium too? Surely this warrents staying in touch. I’ve taken a peek at your site- and look forward to following.

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