Over the past couple years, I’ve heard any number of the following phrases:
“When you have kids…”
“You don’t have kids now, but when you do…”
“You’ll change your mind…”
“I thought the same thing as you do now, but…”
“You don’t really mean that…”
To act as though you know better than another person as to what they want out of life is insulting at best, but it can reach the point of being downright patronizing.
Here’s the thing. I don’t know if I want to have kids. Not as in: I don’t know if I want to have kids now or later. As in: I don’t know if I ever want to have children of my own (by blood or adoption). But people assume that I do want to have kids. Because I am female. I am a woman, therefore I must feel the incredible urge to procreate.
And if I don’t? Something inside me must be broken. Surely I will never be as happy childless as I would with little offspring running around my ankles. I would certainly be lost and lonely in my old age. Who would take care of me as I became feeble or infirm in my golden years, if not my progeny?
The following are recent excerpts from conversations with a new friend, but I will make note that these snippets are not unique to this friend, only that these little bits are freshest in my mind due to how recent these conversations occurred:
“Are you planning to get married?” (Yes)
“Yay! Then you can have baaaaabies!” (Haha, whoa now)
“You know, about this time next year, I’ll be on break and can babysit for you!” (Haha…Oh. Oh my. Please no more. We are so far from even thinking about this…)
“Hey! Listen to this! You’re going to love this idea! What if…” (Uhh, I really don’t think I will.) “No, I promise you will! What if — you had TRIPLETS!” (Oh god, that’s terrifying!) “You’d be so lucky! Oh my, that’d just be such a blessing!” (No, it wouldn’t! Please…please can we stop talking about this?)
This had gone on for a few days until things finally came to a head. The friend said she had something she wanted to talk to me about and mimed cradling a baby in her arms. I told her flat out that I did not want to discuss it anymore, and followed that with:
Let me ask you a question: What if I can’t have babies? You’ve kept bringing this up even after I asked you not to, but what if I literally cannot have babies? Can you imagine how these continued discussions might make me feel?
The question was important. And it hurt her. It visibly hurt her.* But it was a perspective that she had not previously considered, and that was crucial. It took a while for my words to sink in as she later asked, “Observer…uhm. You CAN have babies, though, can’t you?” I tried to explain to her that the answer to that question is irrelevant. I told her you never know what someone else’s story is, so if someone repeatedly asks you to stop bringing up a certain subject, it might be best to just leave it alone. Following that, she did. In this particular circumstance, I was lucky in that my friend is an endless spring of caring and empathy and was willing to listen to what I had to say. Sadly this is not always the case as others have tried to logic me into wanting to be a baby factory.
*I was chided for speaking so harshly to her by someone who overheard the end product of my growing uncomfortableness. “I’m sure she didn’t mean any harm by it.” The problem with that logic is of course that just because your intentions are good, do not mean your words or actions are. That is a topic for another day, however.
So here’s my question, then: Why DO we feel the need to pressure women to have children?
It is so ingrained in our culture that women should have children that, no matter the strides we’ve made towards equality, we often just assume that a young woman wants little more than to have babies. Or that she would never find fulfillment elsewhere as she would in motherhood. There are a few big problems with this assumption though.
- Not every young woman can afford to be a mother. This is not to say that being low on funds makes a bad parent. Only that no matter how financially stable a person seems to you, there may be costs that you never think about eating up her paycheck. Prescription medications, maybe. Perhaps she’s supporting someone in hospice. If a person is fighting foreclosure on her house or eviction from her apartment, she may decide that right now, kids are Not An Option. It may never be an option. And she may not want to talk about it.
- Not every person can handle the stress of children. That person is separate from you, and you therefore do not know what sorts of demons she faces. Perhaps she has violent episodes which she is trying to manage but does not yet have control over. Perhaps there is a personality disorder keeping her from even wanting kids – sticky kids – kids that draw on walls and pick noses – babies with sharp fingernails that cut through skin, leaving a wound susceptible to infection. Perhaps sudden loud noises cause panic attacks or flash backs. It’s possible the person has suffered a history of abuse and is petrified at the idea of perpetuating the violence. And maybe she doesn’t want to disclose her reasoning.
- Not every person is capable of having children. Some women have an auto-immune disorders that makes baby-having dangerous, perhaps even fatal. It could be that a medical condition or vital medicine makes her infertile (http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Infertility/pages/causes.aspx (link opens in new window)). It might be that she was never able to have her own children. Perhaps she is transsexual. And she might not want to discuss it.
- Not every person wants to have children. Period. This person may never have even considered the idea of having children, or some random trigger caused the person to realize, “Nope, not for me.” And she doesn’t have to explain why.
In all of the above instances (and others that I’ve surely missed), the reason behind the person not having children is irrelevant. Because it is a private matter, it is no one’s business but that of the person in question. It is her body. Not yours, not society’s, hers.
Think about it from the other side for a moment. You casually announced that you were going to be having children as you’ve always wanted to do, and on a regular basis as it came up in conversation, people asked you “Whyyyyyy? I’m sure this is just a phase, you’ll change your mind…you’ll change your mind the moment you hold that pooping, barfing, snotty potato in your arms for the first time.”
You would look at the person saying that like they are a crazy person. They aren’t you. They have no idea what you want. How can they possibly know how you feel about the situation? Why are they telling you that your decisions are wrong? (Are they clairvoyant?) You should not have to constantly explain to others why you made the decision you did to have children.
All of this is not to say that it’s wrong to ask if a person plans to have children. If they say no, however, the correct response is most certainly not to try and out-logic them onto Team Progeny or to tell them that they are wrong. Many women, after being pressured into having children they were not ready for or hadn’t wanted in the first place, go on to accept that they will be mothers, and they love their children unconditionally and are happier than they ever thought possible. But there are also mothers who harbor resentment towards their own children for lost opportunity, lost youth, lost love, lost health…
And we know this. We probably know or have known someone whose mother or father seems to look at their children with disdain. Have you ever heard a parent tell their child, “I tried to abort you,” or “I should have aborted you?” I’ve heard parents say each with complete sincerity in their voices. Especially in the second instance, I would almost be willing to lay down money that the woman was pressured to get pregnant and stay pregnant. And why? To irreparably emotionally scar the person they’ve always been told, “As soon as you see your child…you will know what love really is?” Of course this is an extreme case, but quiet resentment is also highly damaging to the psyche of a child or young adult. This does not make for the healthiest of environments in which a child will grow and learn how to be a loving, empathizing member of society.
So the next time a woman says that she does not want to have kids, or does not want to discuss having kids, perhaps instead of trying to coax her into a life altering decision about which she was already reluctant, we should take her word at it. We should accept that there are a thousand reasons for which a person may not want to talk about having children. Using your words is good only in so far as others listen to them.