The Choice for Childlessness, Explained
“When I see children, I feel nothing. I have no maternal instinct…I ovulate sand.”
To say I don’t like children is an understatement. As my boyfriend so aptly put it when explaining to friends, “You know that face you make when you take a sip of water and find out it’s vodka? That’s her face around kids.”
I could lie and say I wasn’t always like this, but my disdain for mouth-breathing petri dishes* stemmed from when I myself was a child. When the H.B.I.C. Tiffany Pollard (a.k.a New York) said, “I was never a child. I was just in the know,” I felt seen as hell. [*If you’re one of those people who think children are “blessings” and “miracles,” you may as well just stop here.]
To child me, other children were just that: children. For one, I had no patience for their picky palates. I had one particular elementary school friend who flat-out refused to eat anything other than buttered noodles, chicken tenders, and fluffernutter sandwiches; but sure, I was the weird one because I had a proclivity for raw mushrooms and iceberg lettuce with salt as a snack.
Then, there were the peers who had siblings…and it showed. I lost count of all the times at friends’ houses I was witness to shouting matches during family dinners and overly sportsy older brothers who farted in their sisters’ faces and fist fights with fathers on front lawns and sticky-faced toddlers barging in on our sleepover séances. In fact, both sets of cousins on my mother’s side are three kids each – two boys and a girl in the middle – and their idea of fun was stuffing me in a netted soccer ball bag, duct taping me inside a cardboard box, and shoving me in the basement pantry. Noisy houses full of chaotic one-upmanship, mind games, and physical torture are, frankly, just not the energy an only child wants to surround themselves with. (One also wonders how parents could lie to their kids’ faces when they say they love all their children equally, considering the odds can’t possibly be in everyone’s favor in a household dynamic based entirely on having more kids because the first ones were test runs…but I digress.)
Mainly, it was the youthful playfulness of fellow children that irked my old soul nerve. In one of my more histrionic moments, I wrote my mother a tear-stained postcard from a week-long overnight Girl Scout camp, begging for her to pick me up (I was the girl who cried homesick, after all) and mentioning by name every girl I hated. They woke up too early, they fidgeted too much during the Pledge of Allegiance, they slopped up gross canned chili with white bread and burped and had food fights (in, appropriately enough, the mess hall), they ran barefoot in goose shit around the lake, they actually enjoyed sleeping OUTSIDE with the bugs on Scooney Lawn. They were simply being children, as one normal person might argue. They could miss me with that bullshit, is what someone not normal like me might say.
Because I think what really bothered me was the blaring horns of OTHER: other noises, other smells, other distractions, other children. Other than me. I had no younger siblings to care for or clean up after, no older siblings to inspire or corrupt me. No greasy motherfuckers eating all my Cheez-Its or changing the channel when I was watching Figure It Out or wastes of space and air diverting attention from parents. So while being the only child may have made me unabashedly comfortable with my own idiosyncrasies, it also unfortunately entrenched me in a belief system like oxygen masks on an airplane: I come first, and everyone else is secondary.
Someone once had the GALL to ask me, “You’re an only child, so you probably want like a ton of kids then, right?!” [Insert the “You are so dumb” Climbin’ In Yo’ Window Guy reaction GIF here.] How the hell does one connect THOSE dots? What they meant to say was, “Oh, your life must have been so sad and lonely and depressing all alone, so you should make up for it by stretching out your vag and popping out a couple mini YOUs, am I right?” Plainly, HELL NO.
I saw first-hand how raising a kid (little old me) fucking sucked. Take, for instance, the countless dollars spent on fixing my “snaggletooth,” as my mother put it, not once…but twice! Or the time I carved my name in the back of a nice wooden kitchen chair so it could be, and I quote, a “director’s chair.” Worse were the night terrors between ages 10 and 13; absolute worst was when, at aforementioned Girl Scout camp, I let out a blood-curdling scream during one really bad night terror spell and woke up the ENTIRE 200+ acres camp, sheriff included, who had to come investigate because he thought one of the girls got attacked by a bear. I was a hypochondriac: growing pains far past the age when you get growing pains, or sprawled on the bed after Chinese food with false claims of MSG-induced migraines, or admitted to the ER on diagnosis of glitter from Barbie in my eye. So if just one single child could wreak havoc on the wallet, the home, the marriage, the psyche…imagine what multiple spawn could do.
I don’t plan on ever finding out. To actually procreate? That’s a bold move, Cotton. Logistically, economically, sociologically, environmentally – none of it plays. But most importantly – and I cannot stress this enough – I just don’t want ’em. I have not one single maternal bone in my body, save for that time I picked up a friend’s baby from the floor just before she was tipped over by a bounding German Shepherd. Some might say, “That’s your maternal instinct!” No, that’s common sense. What they don’t know is that I also once panicked and froze when my infant nephew began to throw up while lying on his back, until my mother rushed over to make sure he, you know, didn’t choke to death. As Margaret Cho said, “When I see children, I feel nothing. I have no maternal instinct…I ovulate sand.” Bitch, don’t I know.
And it’s not that whole cutesie culture of “wine Aunt” shit like, “I love my nieces and nephews and friends’ kids, I just don’t want them for myself!” No – I can’t even fake the tiniest shred of decency on THAT front. I don’t like ANY of them. (Don’t worry, those closest to me are thoroughly aware of this fact and make sure to never put me in situations involving the livelihoods of their kin.)
The expectation to breed has been marketed towards me since youth. Growing Up Girl was supposed to condition me for motherhood very early on – that nasty Baby Born commercial with the real-life babydoll that peed water and had a gross mouth hole for feeding plastic pellets of food is forever implanted in my memory and did zilch in the way of readying me for actual infants with far grosser bodily functions. I instead chose toy cars and K’NEX over fake diapers and bottles, and I dreaded play time at friends when it inevitably included “playing house”: swaddling plastic babies that made cooing sounds, putting them down for “nap time,” burping them, cooking and cleaning up after them. (The folks over at Mattel need a talking to from HR, if you ask me). Say what you want about whatever we’re going to call the current population of children (Generation “A” for Apocalypse?), but at least they aren’t pigeonholed into CIS-gendered toys and activities.
But despite my very clear aversion to the younger species, my mother and other parent figureheads, god bless them, still tried to turn me to the dark, child-rearing side, thinking that the simple act of being in the presence of children would kickstart my broken biological clock into ticking. There was that time I was 12 or 13 and co-watched a 7 or 8 year-old neighborhood kid with my mom. She ate the entire bowl of popcorn I made for the both of us and I shuddered at the thought of being momentarily responsible for another life when my mom briefly left the room. What if she chokes? Has a hissy fit? Asks how babies are made? In any event, my mother did most of the “watching,” so I got off fairly easy. (Actually, the girl could’ve been anywhere between 4 or 9 – never knowing ages of children based on appearance is my least impressive party trick.)
Then, in high school, I took up a summer job at Shookie’s concession stands/kiddie ride amusement park at the public pool at Nay Aug. I spent most shifts lying with hangover sweats underneath the shade of the empty teacups, every so often begrudgingly lifting overweight kids by their armpits on to the rides. I hated that job, their grubby hands, their uninterested parents.
But the absolute best form of birth control was the summer home during college when, even after demonstrating 18+ years of child-avoidance, my mom and stepdad thought it would be a grand idea to have me spend an ENTIRE DAY by myself full-fledged babysitting a neighbor’s THREE BOYS ALL UNDER THE AGE OF SIX. They were rambunctious country kids who, like most before them, could immediately sense I was uncomfortable and used that to their advantage – the eldest wielding an axe and chopping wood for his birdhouse, the middle climbing a tree and then crying that he couldn’t get down, and the youngest refusing to eat his basic meal of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese, instead demanding we watch Spirit three times in a row. (I also had to do a midday freshen up and clean his diaper which was, thankfully, completely empty…I have yet to tick off the dreaded box of “changed a dirty diaper” and I’m fucking PROUD of that.) Anyway, I think my stepdad was playing a cruel joke on me because every time he and my mom tell that story, they crack up at my ineptitude. The kids did come out unscathed under my watch, but I would never, ever do it again.
You would think that by full grown adulthood, after being on birth control for literally 14 gapless years and no emotional cues that I had “baby fever,” people would leave me alone; but no, it gets so much worse. Because if I were to, say, have gotten knocked up at the age of 23, I could no longer run on the platform of “too young to have a baby.” Technically, you ARE an adult, and so with that should come the reasonable expectation of caring for another life – an antiquated post-WW2 era outlook which overlooks the current glaring problem: most people in their early 20s in today’s economic climate regress back to adolescence: they still live at home, are buried under student debt, don’t have any savings to their name, and remain on their parents’ health insurance until the age of 26. So, “technically” doesn’t translate to “definitely” and most certainly doesn’t mean shit in the way of actually being able to successfully PARENT a child. (As those awful trashy rib tattoos in Old English font like to say: “Any boy can have a child, but it takes a man to be a father.”) Blegh.
I’m not in my early 20’s anymore, which is fortunate for me in so many ways (I hated my early 20s), but unfortunate since now, I 100% can’t say I’m “too young to have a baby,” which, in turn, leads to conversations with acquaintances and (older) family members who still love to follow that same trite template you’ve all heard at some point: Will you guys get married? Don’t you want kids? You’re still young, you have time! Oh, but when they’re your own, it’s different! It changes your life! The love for a child is unlike no other! But my children are my everything! They give you so much JOY! Who’s gonna take care of you when you’re older? I’ve been so patient in responding to these invasive questions (almost too patient, if you ask me), that it’s become less broken record and more songs most shuffled on Spotify, a comfortable playlist I keep returning to time and time again: NO, we don’t want to get married. Because it doesn’t mean anything except a piece of legal paper. NO, we don’t want kids. Yes, he is on board with it, too. Yes, we ARE still young and would like to stay young by NOT doing either of these things. (All this aside, I find it baffling people even DO ask such personal questions about fertility without even knowing if the person they’re asking CAN have kids. A simple “No” should be end of story, and probing after the fact is just rude.)
But the guilt-tripping doesn’t stop there. Everywhere you go as an adult is the ever-present threat of people bringing their kids along to an event that doesn’t call for it – the shrieks and tiny feet patters of toddling Children of the Corn looming in the distance – or mentioning their kids at every opportunity to fill the awkward silence. We’ve all been here: having a nice, adult conversation when suddenly BOOM, someone’s phone is rudely shoved into your face and you’re staring at an alien in its high seat, covered head to toe in smashed sweet potatoes (like food out of context has EVER been cute.) “Look at my granddaughter! Isn’t she the cutest?” I would pay top dollar for a collage of my grimace-turned-forced smile in those moments. I simply cannot fake it.
Or at a family party, enjoying myself in the corner with a Corona and an IUD securely snuggled in place in my uterus, when the boomers inevitably start up: “Look at his little arms splashing in the pool! He’s so sweet!” The younger moms chime in with a sad smile: “It makes me want another. They’re so much nicer at that age.” Sure, have MORE kids. Like that’s ever solved anything ever, I think but don’t say aloud. And then, they look to me with a sympathetic, cloying nod of the chin and I feel it before it even oozes out, “He’s so cute, why don’t you go play with him?” Take another swig of my Corona. “I’m good. I need another beer.” Exit stage left.
I’ve seen and heard women positively SWOON over an average-looking man just because he’s “good with kids,” as if it’s the end-all and be-all of what makes a relationship successful. Sure, nowadays, men are SO much more involved in the co-parenting arrangement than any of their predecessors, but I’d urge you to find me a single mother/wife on Planet Earth who agrees the child-rearing responsibility is split evenly 50/50. Unfortunately, parenting still falls into that age-old trope of ‘Mom = nag/shrew’; ‘Dad = fun parent/needs his man cave.’ Regardless, if I were single, my Tinder profile would read: “Men with baggage need not apply.” A childless man is far sexier, sorry not sorry.
And I can’t even escape it on my social media news feeds: this Facebook mommy culture of half-birthday celebrations where the baby is propped on a pillow with roses around it indicating “6 months old today!”, the OUTFITS for literally every occasion that they’ll outgrow a week from now – Fourth of July dresses for the girls, Mario overalls for the boys on Halloween, the chalkboards telling me Braighlynn’s favorite word is “Dada” or that Maxton hates “tummy time.” It’s baby showers and “sprinkles” and wildfire-starting gender reveal parties. It’s millions of viral videos of kids doing stupid shit that I’m told is supposed to be endearing but instead justifies suffering through my Kyleena cramps even more: like that infuriating one that’s been circulating recently where the kid keeps rudely interrupting his grandmother’s baking to eat the ingredients. It was refreshing scrolling through the comments to see more than half agreed with me: that shit’s not funny or cute. Get the hell out of my way when I’m baking, son. (Now, Kobe Eats, however, is the exception. Well-behaved, cherubic-faced children get a pass and that’s on periodt.)
I was once told by a woman my age it’s “selfish” to not want kids. And you know what? She’s right. It IS. That’s the beauty of it. If sleeping in on Sundays or traveling for two weeks or going out to a nice restaurant without having to find a sitter or eating whatever and whenever I want or spending my money on some ridiculous shit for just me or not knowing who Jojo Siwa is or having to pack lunches is selfish, then so be it. Sign me the fuck up.
But I’d argue it’s also a kind gesture choosing not to have kids. And not in some population-control “I’m saving the world one less kid at a time” shit (although there ARE way too many fucking people on the planet and I agree when my Aunt says, “The children should never outnumber the parents”). But in the way that, without question, I would be a terrible mother. No you wouldn’t!, friends like to say. Yes…yes, I would. Would my offspring survive? Maybe. But would they thrive? Ehh, probably not. Because the recipe of MOTHER is more than just half the DNA, some breast milk, and remembering to juggle all the appointments. It’s a relentless trudge through a desert with no oasis in sight – first taking inventory of the survival tools at your disposal: food, water, shelter, clothing; then, blindly hoping you’re headed in the right direction of your children having access to a dynamic life: putting money away for college, enrolling them in activities, encouraging them to make friends; and then, finally, the hardest part, not knowing where parenthood ends and when you’ve done all you could: Should I have pushed them more? Was I too strict? Too lenient? Did I enable them too much? Not validate them enough? Are they good people? Will they make the right choices?
It’s a terrifying unknown landscape that I, myself, am still attempting to navigate, let alone with a baby strapped to my chest, and frankly, I just don’t want to put that much work into something non-reciprocal. Consider it this way: like Betty Draper, any kids I’d have I’d end up resenting for stealing my youth, my freedom, my individuality – and they’d need years of therapy to undo all the damage. There’s one oxygen mask left and, let’s face it, I’m taking that shit for myself. And that’s not fair to ANY child entering this world, bright-eyed and hopeful for a good future, no matter how much their voices set me on edge. (Side note: curse the person who ever said, “A child’s laugh could simply be one of the beautiful sounds in the world.” Have they ever heard fuck-all on a Saturday morning in bed?)
I’m sure you’re thinking, “Wow. Harsh.” And you’re right to think that. Which is why more women (and men) need to be having the tough “should we have kids?” conversation. Though I fully understand the sentiment of, “If you’re waiting until you’re 100% ready, you’ll never be ready,” I think committing yourself to a literal life sentence should be discussed far longer than the time it takes to actually conceive the damn thing.
I fully recognize I’m writing this from a point of privilege: I had access to (decent) sex education; a mother who, without prompting or shaming, put me on the birth control pill at the age of 17; and, a good health insurance plan that granted me free (yes, free) installation of an intrauterine device that, besides the pretty terrible bloating and cramping for 2 out of 4 weeks of the month, has done wonders in preventing a little US from running around (I also think our child would inherit the absolute WORST of me, so there’s that.)
Most important of all, though, is that I have a current partner who fundamentally is on the same exact page as me insofar as major life decisions go, including the biggest one of all…to not make a baby. I remember one particular sunny afternoon at Parks on Tap on the river, when we were so wrapped up in one another and our conversation, that only after looking up in our day-drunk haze to check the line for the bathroom did we notice we were surrounded ENTIRELY by yuppy families: moms breastfeeding, fathers changing diapers, babies teething on the 10×10 blanket, a living room’s worth of toys and a kitchen’s worth of sippy cups and tupperware laid out, a bold toddler making his way over to us, his parents thankful to get a moment of peace (as if WE were going to watch him.) We looked at one another and agreed with a single look, “It’s time to go.”
Truthfully, at the end of the day, I think that’s what’s turned my lifelong dislike for children into something grander: it’s US now. What’s really stopping us ARE those blaring horns of other: other noises, other smells, other distractions, other children. Other than US. Why split in half a strong bond of 13+ years? Why ruin a great love for the sake of easily-preventable mitosis? And as for who’s gonna take care of us when we’re older? We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. In the meantime, we’ll be enjoying a childless, hedonistic life, bellies full of red wine and red meat.
As I write this, I hear a child having a meltdown on the sidewalk outside, its gutteral sobbing red face literally standing between mom and dad – mom calmly trying to quell it with some unearned treat it doesn’t deserve – dad cursing to himself off to the side and threatening to take it straight home instead – mom shooting him a death stare for not coddling – dad storming off, leaving mom to handle the crying mess. It didn’t have to be like this!, I want to shout to them. It doesn’t. And it won’t.
© 2020 Andrea Festa