The Petrified Forest - Myths of "Childless by Choice"
We throw around this phrase, "You can't choose your family."
Maybe you can't choose the family you come from, but let's be honest - we do choose whether to live in the same state as our family, and how often to see them, and whether to call them once a day, once a week, or once a year.
And when it comes to forming your own family, we increasingly exercise choice. We choose whether to marry, we choose who to marry, we choose which friends to be part of our local family. We choose whether to bring our elderly into our homes or keep them in their own homes. Women have economic rights and legal rights are aren't forced by law to remain in bad marriages. Young adults can get jobs and move away from their family. Choice is everywhere. Not every aspect of family life is a choice, by any means. But more of it is regarded as a choice, today, than any time in history.
In the 21st century, we are free to remain sole, unattached individuals if we so choose. You can have your career and friends and find myriad ways to help people in need and have a life rich in a sense of "connectedness" - without any of it being family. In the 21st century, if you're going to have a family - be it the family you come from or the family you form - you have to choose to be together.
One of the ways we exercise conscious choice is when to have children, and whether to have children. Of all our choices, it's the least irreversible and carries the most responsibility. It's one of the weightiest decisions we face.
But because of this notion - that having a child can be a matter of choice - throughout our society there is a misconception that anyone without a child must have consciously chosen to do so.
For decades now, the media has been misreporting this phenomenon, and further entrenching the misconception. We agree that more women are remaining childless, for longer - but we disagree that for all these women it's an actual "free" choice.
- Pinned down by financial limitations, unable to afford the life she'd want for a child, a woman might "decide" not to have a baby - but that's not her first choice.
- Married to a workaholic with a temper, a woman might opt not to have a baby for fear her husband will never be around - but that's not her first choice.
- In a career that punishes a woman for leaving the field for any significant length of time, a woman might decide not to jeopardize her career - but that's not her first choice.
- Unable to find a suitable partner, a woman might consider having a baby all by herself, then decide, ultimately, not to - but that's not her first choice.
- Having bought the media hype that she can wait until 40 to bear children, a woman might discover that medical science's magic isn't living up to that promise.
- Having fought breast cancer or ovarian cancer for years, a woman might decide not to put her body through the incredible risk of carrying and birthing a baby - but that's not her first choice.
- A healthy, strong, 40-year old woman might have a uterus that can't carry a child, because her mother took Thalidomide as a sleeping aide in 1964.
- A woman who tutors kids every single night at a church in a low-income neighborhood might "choose" not to have her own child, because she's already got children in her life that she loves.
- A woman who spent her teens and young adulthood raising her younger siblings after their parents died might decide she's already given plenty to children, and needs the rest of her life for her own growth.
Unfortunately, when the media covers this trend, they don't trot out examples like these. They begin with an anecdote about a successful, wealthy professional woman who is married. She could afford a child, and she could carry a child, and she is not scarred by her past in any significant way. She's choosing to not have children, and she espouses the joys of non-motherhood - a career still on track, an uninterrupted sex life, and an active social life.
Then a statistic is thrown out - such as this one, and it's a doozy:
- In 1976, 10.2 % of women age 40-44 had no children.
- In 2004, 19.3% of women age 40-44 have no children.
Percentage-wise, it's doubled.
We, the reader, are left to conclude that all those modern women must be like the woman in the opening anecdote - choosing freely not to have children.
When in fact that conclusion is completely unfair, and doesn't recognize the stressors and limits upon women. (And men, too).
It's harder and harder to get in a position where having children is a free choice. First, you have to educate yourself, go to college, take out loans. Then, you have to get your career started, and get it going strong enough that you can leave it for a year or more. Somewhere in there you're supposed to find a partner. You might also have devoted several years to working hard to buy a home. Then, you have to be lucky enough not have an illness or be scarred the way you were raised. And be in a city without terrible schools.
If you've managed to do all that, and still be under-40ish, then you face the choice.
In my next post, I'd like to explore one particular subset of these scenarios - the borderline cases. What if you're just unsure about having kids? What if you feel scarred and confused by the way you were raised, to the point you've grown up with very mixed feelings about the whole endeavor of being a parent? I heard this so many times, and I felt it myself. I call it a subset, but maybe it's a huge subset.
If that's your scenario, how do you work through the decision of whether to take on this huge responsibility of parenting? How do you tell whether your fears are legitimate deal-breakers, or they're just regular fears that need to be worked through and overcome?