When I was 13, I wanted a Ph.D. I'm pretty sure I didn't know what that was, or how to get one, but I knew it required a lot of reading and writing and those were the two best things in the world, as far as I was concerned. This is how it went, for years — I wanted to write a novel, I wanted to travel, I wanted to live in New York City. And in the world I lived in, it was fine — good, even — to want those things. But at some point, it became apparent that there was something else I should want: a baby. It seemed everyone around me expressed a desire for tiny clothes and that distinct newborn smell and a life constructed around the rhythms of a particular kind of family.
Yet, that’s not something I want, and it has never been, even when I was 13.
By the time I was in my mid-20s (I'm 38 now), I was ready to be public about not wanting kids, instead of just nodding along tacitly when people discussed wanting to have their children by 30, what to name them, and where they'd send them to school. Admitting my truth seemed like throwing a lit match into a trashcan and then leaving the room, especially in the mainstream, religious communities where my personal and work lives were located. But once I got real with myself that I didn't want kids, ever, I felt freer to live the kind of life I have always imagined. Finally, I could pursue a writing career, go to graduate school, move across the country — whatever I wanted, unencumbered by what I thought I had to do. And yet it seems as if no one trusts my judgment. If you’re a woman in the world, there’s always someone intent on telling you how you’re doing it (read: life) wrong.
There is this overwhelming and toxic notion that there is nothing as important as being a parent. And if you opt out of parenting, whatever you do instead must be all-consuming, over-the-top amazing. If you write a book, it has to be the best book, the most prize-winning, thought-provoking, sought by Hollywood screenwriters, work of literature the world has ever seen. You can see every country in the world, but even then you’ll be continuously hounded by the fact that you didn’t have kids, reminded that you are not a whole, realized human who knows what love is. Just look at Gloria Steinem who is regularly asked if she regrets not having kids.
Have a kid, or don't have one, but no one else gets to dictate what is "most important" or "most significant" or what makes us an adult or a success or a fulfilled person.
The message that having a child is the most significant thing we can do with our lives isn't exactly subtle, and it's everywhere. Implicit in this is the suggestion that if you don't have a kid, you must do something, accomplish something, even if what you do will be considered to be of lesser value. But let's say you don't want to write a novel, or take a trip around the world, and you just want to watch Netflix on the couch. You can imagine doing that every day for the rest of your life because it brings you absolute joy. You do it alone, or with a partner, or with your dog, and you can't wait to come home from work each night and do that for hours before you go to sleep. That's it. There's no desire for anything else, nothing anyone else might consider noble or artistic or aspirational. You just want to live a quiet life, on your couch.
You don't have to feel guilty about that, or incomplete, and you don't have to want what you don't want just because someone tells you what you do want isn't enough.
When I have set up camp in the darkest corners of my brain, when I can't imagine writing fiction, or anything else of substance, ever again, I still don't wish I had a kid. I feel lucky that I’ve remained steadfast on this, I've never felt undecided. I could have pretended that I did want kids, but pretending is exhausting, and I'm not interested in being exhausted to make other people feel better.
If I'm unhappy in these moments of creative inaction, it's because I feel far away from the thing I want. I want — more than anything — to finish this book, to be fully engaged in the process of creating something, to have the headspace I need to accomplish this passion project. If I decide to quit writing this book and never write another thing again, if I want to spend the rest of my life on the couch watching documentaries about murder on Netflix, I still get to feel good about that — about the process and the experience — even if it didn't result in a finished product.
So this is me, defending our rights as humans to do everything or nothing.
Have a kid, or don't have one, but no one else gets to dictate what is "most important" or "most significant" or what makes us an adult or a success or a fulfilled person. Our lives are important because we're living them, not because we made a thing, or we performed according to a script, but because we wrote our own.