Friday, March 10, 2006

The Petrified Forest - An Explanation

From Po:

The second chapter of "Why Do I Love These People?" is called "The Trial," which refers to the way parenthood has been put on trial by modern society. We don't just have kids automatically anymore. We think about it first. We debate its merits. We wait until we're ready, if ever. We fear the sacrifice that parenting requires.

I certainly came to parenting this way. I used to tell everyone, "I'm never having kids." Then I'd go into waffle-mode for a few years, saying "I don't know if I want to have kids." I had a real reluctance there.

So I was interested in stories of other people who, like me, used to say they never wanted children, but became a parent anyway. That led me to Rosa Gonzalez, whose story I tell in the chapter. Rosa is an incredible mother, but her first child was an accident, and growing up she never wanted children.

I'm going to quote from the book: "Now, there are cities full of professional women and men who wholeheartedly echo this feeling. They go around saying things like 'I’m too selfish to be a mother,' and 'I’m not a baby person,' or my favorite, 'I love my life too much to do that to it.' A friend of mine calls them The Petrified Forest – people who would freeze their life in time if they could. “Manhattan’s turning into a Petrified Forest,” my friend mocked. I winced when she said this, because I used to be one of them."

That passage has angered some readers. Specifically, the phrase "The Petrified Forest."

I didn't use this term without a lot of careful thought. In that passage I'm clearly applying the phrase to men and women who go around saying:
  • 'I’m too selfish to be a mother'
  • 'I’m not a baby person'
  • 'I love my life too much to do that to it'
In other words, I apply the phrase to people who have specifically chosen never to have kids because they're unaccustomed to making sacrifices.

I don't think the passage suggests that "Petrified Forest" refers to all single women who don't have kids. Because you can be 45 and not-a-parent for all sorts of reasons. Maybe you never met the right person to raise a kid with. Maybe you can't afford the financial responsibility. Maybe your work just doesn't make it realistic. Maybe you can't conceive, or can't carry a fetus to term. Maybe you have an illness. Maybe you were terribly mistreated by your parents, or by a previous boyfriend or husband, and just being alive is enough. Maybe you don't want kids, but it has nothing to do with being selfish or unable to make sacrifices.

I've had two emails from readers who imagine I'm grouping all of those together and calling them "The Petrified Forest" - and that I'm suggesting they've ALL not had kids because they're too selfish.

If that's what I meant, they'd have every reason to be furious.

One woman who emailed me had stopped reading the book and was so mad she wanted her money back. She was in her 40s, and she just hadn't met the right guy. She had considered having a baby by herself, but only considered it. She wanted to meet the right guy and have children, life just hadn't unfolded that way. I couldn't understand why she thought that what I wrote referred to her. She wanted children, and she was prepared to sacrifice if she met the right guy. I thought I was talking about people who didn't want to make any sacrifices.

When we emailed back and forth, she soon realized I wasn't lumping all childless women into the "too selfish" category. But it left me wondering why my words had been mistaken in the first place. I eventually came to this realization: these single women in their 30s, 40s and 50s are so often maligned, so often lectured "you ought to be home having babies." They hear this from their mother, or a friend, or in some media tidbit. The criticism never seems to respect the trials they've dealt with: not finding the right guy, financial concerns, abuse history, fertility concerns. They're accused of being "childless by choice," when it really hasn't been a choice.

And so when I come along and criticize men and women who are afraid of making sacrifices, it's understandable that some of these women hear the same old political battle cry, "you ought to be home having babies."

Do I tell readers of this chapter that we all ought to be having children? A few readers who posted to Amazon have taken it that way, but I state very clearly my philosophy later in the chapter: "The decision to be a parent is a personal one. Nobody should intrude on that process of discernment. But it is a mistake to assume that the decision can be reckoned with tools of analysis – with a scorecard – when it is fundamentally a mystical experience."

And the book heralds the stories of many individuals who don't have children, such as Jen Louie and Brian Olowude and Andrew Ervin Bennett. I must have interviewed a hundred people who didn't have children.

You can read the whole chapter in question right here. To me, it's not just a story about reluctant parenting. It's about how we can choose our family these days, but just because we've chosen this family doesn't mean we can escape the inevitability of having to make sacrifices. Learning the virtue of an occasional sacrifice is necessary to keeping a family together. Seeing the beauty in an occasional sacrifice is what the story teaches.

I completely understand that my words are being misheard on account of stupid, spiteful, damaging remarks that are constantly shelled upon single women of a certain age.

So I'd like to run a few posts over the next couple days about this topic - the myths around "childless by choice," and the unfair ways that single women of a certain age are characterized in the media. I'd also like to be able to talk honestly about how people I interviewed have managed this life passage - whether they ended up with children in the end or not, and whether that was a choice or something out of their hands.

By the way, "Single Women of a Certain Age" - I hope nobody takes offense at that phrase. It's the title of my dear friend Jane Ganahl's anthology. It's a great book, and many of my friends were contributors.


Anonymous Tirzah Harper said...

I really want to see these posts. My husband/life partner has five children from his first marriage. We have not had children together as he doesn't want any more children (and in all fairness, I can't imagine how difficult it would be to add another child to the picture here!).
I'm 24. I have a while yet before my choice is finalized for me. I'm afraid of the one-way door into parenthood - which is kind of funny when I pay attention to the fact that there is no way that I would drop out of my stepchildren's lives or cease being a parent to *them*!
So please, post a lot about this. :-)
I can't logically defend my desire for biological children, and I think I will be happy regardless, at the end of my life.

10:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow...reading these posts about childless by choice....

I was thinking it is really important to be aware that you really do not want kids before you invite them into this world.

Because I love kids, people think I already have kids when I am not even married.

I am an optimist and I know I will have kids. And I know I want kids. I read everything from Brooke Shields' book about postpartnum depression to Baby Signs books. And reading the posts on your blog gave me a glimpse of what it may be like in the future as a parent.

11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't believe childless by choice is always due to a circumstance - not all women have the desire to have children. I grew up in a loving two parent house hold. My dad was home at 5:30 every night. We all ( I have two other siblings) ate dinner together, my dad took us fishing, to the carnival, my mom always threw huge birthday parties, we learned how to swim, we were raised in the church and when they needed a baby sitter - which was rare - it was grand ma/grand pa or another relative such as cousins/aunts and uncles. I remember when I was twelve - I felt that I didn't want children and marriage was not at the top of my list. I was allowed to baby sit, which was enlightening to the parenting experience, but many of my cousins did too and many went on to have children - most did, some didn't.
I also believe I would make a very good mother becasue I had great parents and a nurturing family as an example. I have a nurturing spirit and I do nurture my family, but the desire to reproduce has not taken over. I will say, becasue of my religious background, if I were to become pregnant, I would choose to have the child and I know deep in my heart I would love that child and take good care of that child.
My question is why do people who have children care so much about an individuals choice to not have children - and why do people assume it is okay to tell someone that they should reproduce or to have just one? Those that are childless by choice don't really care why those that do have children have chosen to have them.

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question that springs to mind is - specifically what is wrong with being too selfish to have children? Would you really want someone who is that selfish, and knows it, to have children? A selfish person isn't miraculously going to be more altruistic because they see having a child as a miracle that suddenly changes them. No, they're going to continue being selfish and give that child as little as possible of themselves or their resources. The fact is millions of selfish people already have children who are abused and neglected every day. Why try to force or coerce someone who plainly doesn't want children into doing something that goes against their grain? If you want children, have them. For those of us who don't, save your breath. Your criticism won't have any effect. I'm 37, married a man who had a vasetomy before we met, on purpose, and am planning to have my tubes tied. Btw - I'm a nurse. I give to people all day at work, which is why I don't want to do that after working long, backbreaking shifts, with the precious little time I have to myself.

12:42 PM  

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