Raising the question

I think it’s amazing, courageous, and important to be a mother, and I’m in awe of the women in my life who have done it and are doing it right now. 

It’s something I was raised to expect for myself…  but what if I choose not to?

It feels almost sacrilegious to say that, which I think is indicative of how deeply this idea is embedded in both my own psyche and that of collective society.

It wasn’t until very recently that I became aware of just how dangerous and unpleasant pregnancy can be – which is kind of incredible. I’m 30 years old. How have I got to this point with this level of ignorance? I’m sure it was wilful to some degree, but I don’t feel like I can take all of the blame. My sex education, from what I recall, was woefully inadequate and heavily focused on abstinence. There was some stuff about STIs and some 80s-era videos of women in labour, but nothing about what pregnancy itself is like, let alone caring for a baby.

Through my twenties I floated along on the notion that “someday” I’d be ready to have children, and when I did, I’d be barefoot and glowing throughout the requisite nine months and subsequent labour – which would be painful, but over quickly and so worth the resulting child, who would immediately sleep through the night and never even contemplate chewing my nipples off.

I can tell you that the last few months have been a stark awakening. I’m not horrified by what I now know  – I’m horrified that I didn’t for so long.

I hosted a series at the start of the year of women talking about pregnancy and mental health. That alone was hugely eye opening. Coupled with being around women who have had or are having babies, I  now feel like I have more information to be able to make the right decision for me.

Three days ago, a woman I’ve been following for a while online, Rachel Charlton-Daily, had a hysterectomy. She’s been fighting for the procedure for five years. Here’s a thing she wrote about it: ‘I’m 27 and want a hysterectomy. No I’m not naiive.’

It seems to be “a law universally acknowledged that a woman with a womb must be in want of impregnation,” says Rachel. Of course, that’s not the case. Many women, for a whole range of reasons, do not want children and are happy with that choice. But we all seem to run up against the same stigma and judgement from others, despite the fact we shouldn’t have to defend ourselves to anyone. This piece by Elizabeth Heritage – ‘Just wait, you’ll change your mind’ and every other terrible response to my decision not to have children’ – lists off the same judgements and accusations Rachel faced,  as does this – ‘Do children give your life meaning? I’m sorry to hear that’ – by Jenny Nicholls.

Earlier this year I wrote about being happily childfree by choice and it hit a nerve. One of the things I learned from the responses I received is that childfree women and mothers alike face judgement. One woman commented that she’d been nagged about childbearing before she had kids; was told after the birth of her first child that it was “cruel” to only have one; was badgered after the birth of her second son to “try for a girl”; and was told when her daughter was born that she must be a sucker for punishment. No matter what fertility and family planning decisions women make – it seems we can’t get it right. – Elizabeth Heritage

All three of these women were asked “But what if your [currently nonexistent future partner] wants children?” as if the rights of said man were worth more than their dominion over their own bodies in the present. People around them dismissed their choice out of hand, insisting they’d change their minds. They were accused of being juvenile and selfish. It was as if their personal decision not to have a baby was being taken as an affront against not only people who have chosen to do so, but against the natural fabric of society.

Making the decision not to have children when one does not actually want to have children is far from selfish. Personally, the only way I could see to dealing with everything your body goes through during pregnancy, and to being a good parent  – is to be all in.

I’m making peace with the fact I’m not going to be a biological mother. It’s not easy. Perhaps if I was healthy, things would be different, but in many ways my illness has made the choice for me.

There is a quiet but distinct voice in my head trying to tell me that I have less value if I don’t reproduce. That I’m missing out on a vital part of being a woman. That I’m going to regret my choice when I’m old and have no children and grandchildren to visit me.

But socialised ideas of femininity, and fear, seem like bad reasons to have children. I have to insist that I am worth something as a woman, whether I’m a mother or not. Motherhood is an important role for many, yes, but it does not have to be one for me. I’m not defined by whether I contribute children to society. And I (hope) I will have plenty of visitors when I’m old, regardless of familial duty.

I realise that the people who question my chosen childlessness are actually saying: Who are you to make that decision? Who are you to deny your whakapapa and your mother’s mother’s mother’s history? Who are you to choose to discontinue your genes? Who are you to fail to desire the very motherhood that brought you into the world?

And the only answer I have to that question is this: I am me. I am me, and I am sufficient reason unto myself. I get to choose. Feminism and medical science have offered me the gift of opting out of childbearing, and I choose to accept that gift. I’m glad to live in a society that is beginning to examine the assumption that parenthood is the natural state of all adults (and particularly the idea that motherhood is an essential part of womanhood). I’m glad to live in a country with subsidised healthcare that (sort of) supports a woman’s right to choose. I’m glad that parenthood is something I can sidestep safely and with confidence. I’m glad that you have children. I’m glad that I don’t. – Elizabeth Heritage