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 things. Hope 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.
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.
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