A Child-Free Life: Selfish or Self-Aware?

“Those of use who choose not to become parents are a bit like Unitarians or nonnative Californians; we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths” –Meghan Daum

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids offers multiple perspectives and journeys to childlessness. Some of the writers were firmly entrenched in their decision not to have kids from a very early age. Others were not so definitively tied to their eventual childlessness. Circumstances always complicate life. Life happens and often not how you imagined it.

The carefully crafted introduction illuminates a question of which there are numerous opinions: are the childless selfish or merely self-aware?

My own journey to childlessness has been partially chosen for me. Having never found a worthy partner—and yes, I know, for many women, the option of single motherhood is a viable choice—it has almost felt like my decision was made for me. I admire single mothers but my ideal image of parenthood always involved two parents (at least in the beginning).

Coming from a big family, I always imagined that if I did have a family it would be big. I imagined at least three children. Maybe four. I am so close with my siblings and always thought it was good for socialization and healthy development. These days, however, there are enough activities to enroll your child in (many of them free) that the need for siblings has perhaps declined.

After 30, in the back of mind, I thought I still had time if it felt right. The whole birthing process terrified me—as almost any honest woman, parent or nonparent—would probably agree. One of the authors refers to a feminist, Shulamith Firestone, who compared childbirth to “shitting a pumpkin.” Then there was the simple act of holding a living, breathing child—freshly wrapped in a soft, white blanket covered in little monkeys. Supporting their neck for the first few months. Do you know how terrified I am to hold an infant? And as Courtney Hodell speaks to in her essay, the foreverness of a child is also another thing that terrifies me—and I think if you asked many individuals—I am not sure they fully considered this reality when they slipped off the condom and took a roll of the dice.

Despite all of these fears, intellectually and emotionally, I know I have the capacity to be an excellent mother. I got all of the tools from my own home growing up. It was not without dysfunction but there was no question my parents loved me. I wonder if in another life I would have been one of those Pinterest moms who—perhaps subliminally—engaged in “motherhood as a competitive sport.” Probably not.

Without many successful relationships, I have come to enjoy my solitude, continuing to hope one day to find a suitable companion. And somehow, coming from a big family—all of whom have children but me—I have never been questioned at length about my lack children. However, like some of the authors, I can’t help wonder if am being judged. Why aren’t you married? Why aren’t you having children? What’s wrong with you? And then there is another question that I may on occasion dare ask myself—would my trajectory be different if I didn’t have my illness?

My morning reminder of my own self-absorption: the multiple snoozes that follow the incessant buzzing of an alarm in the morning. I don’t really have to get up. I could call in sick or take a personal day. I don’t have little eyes peering over the bed telling me they are hungry or they want to watch Paw Patrol. Thoughts of dragging myself out of the bed the upcoming week envelop me with an impending sense of doom every Sunday evening. Weekend mornings are reserved for waking up naturally. Sometimes I wake up at 9:30 if I went to bed early enough the night before. Other days, the sun wakes me up and I promptly turn over (often not even needing a pillow to cover my head to block the light) and sleep until 11.

My friends and siblings who have kids aren’t so lucky—a natural alarm clock—their kids wake them up. Sometimes before the sun. The only time I have ever gotten up that early is when my mom informed me that the school bus was picking us up in 15 minutes and she wasn’t driving me to school again. Or maybe a special occasion. A flight to Hawaii…For some reason, I can always get to the airport early—no matter what time of day. However, there better be a huge payout awaiting me after the sun rises.

Don’t get me wrong, I love kids. So much. My nephews are my world. I like to consider myself a cool aunt. My one nephew still talks about the time I taped and covered his Christmas presents with Hershey kisses. A little chocolate never hurt anyone, right? I did say, however, they could just have one piece at a time as my sister-in-law laughed and concurred.

Several authors in the book talk about having no regrets and truly believe they aren’t missing out on one of the joys of so many newly minted parents. I can’t say that I am not filled with some sense of loss in not getting to partake in parenthood. The daily things that come out of children’s mouths…Waking up to those smiles. A hug after a long day…Yes, they grow out of some of the childish cuteness. But the parents in my life are watching a human being grow up. I chase their children around while their parents take a break. Yes, I get to return their kids at the end of the day but I also miss out on all the ordinary experiences and memory making.

Many may consider me irresponsible or an adult child, saying I don’t consider the future enough. I live in the moment—a characteristic I share with many of the book’s authors. I just got back from a month in Mexico—a trip that occurred kind of on a whim. I spend money without consideration of the consequences (i.e. how will I pay for my retirement? Will I ever own a home?). I’m going back to graduate school for a second time. I can take this time to write. I get moments of solitude whenever I want. For many parents, a trip to the bathroom doesn’t even bring respite. The truth is in the end I am not sure I want to give up my freedom despite the hole in my life where children could have been. I call that self-awareness.

So in the end, I am filled with the mixed feelings of freedom and loss. When Duam talks of the “meandering, sometimes agonizing paths,” it captures some of what I feel. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had ever decided to go down the path of bringing life into this world.

My life now is dedicated to kids just in another way. Working on social issues with the end goal of every child growing up in a healthy, stable home with the same equality of opportunity as their peers. Laura Kipnis makes an interesting point when she writes of childlessness: “(It is) My little ‘fuck you’ to a society that sentimentalizes children except when it comes to allocating enough resources to raising them, and that would include elevating the 22 percent of children currently living in poverty to a decent standard of living.” That quote encapsulates, of course, the subject of another article or a dissertation or an entire organization’s vision—but think about it for a second.

Perhaps my role has always been destined to be that of a helper. Or also, that (sometimes) annoying aunt that instigates water fights in the backyard or feeds your kid candy before bedtime. If anything, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids is a conversation starter—a chance for parents and nonparents to better understand one another.

2 thoughts on “A Child-Free Life: Selfish or Self-Aware?

  1. What an amazingly raw and honest post. I admire your vulnerability and confidence when writing. Your points are valid and I think you model self-awareness. I recently read an article about society’s ideas about single people being “unfinished products” and others talk to them and view them in a way that “cheers them on to hold out hope.” I love your attitude and think it’s great that you know what you want, can admit your fears, and can inspire others who feel the same way but are too afraid to say so. Thank you for sharing this!!

    1. I appreciate your comments. The decision to have a child should not be an easy one and I am glad that came across in my post. I also like to believe that all of us are unfinished products…otherwise we are doing something wrong. There are so many ways to experience and contribute to the world.

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