Choosing to Be Childless

Childless? I wish there were a better word�

Okay, then: I’m a childless, thirty-five-year-old woman in a happy, committed relationship. I’ve had years of practice taking care of children; each of my four older siblings has precisely 2 kids. Let’s see: childless, female, 35. My biological clock ought to be waking me up at night, right?

Wrong. My partner and I are childless on purpose, and we intend to stay that way. As far as I know, we’re able to conceive, although on my side of the equation, that ability may be waning as I edge toward 40. But I don’t find myself panicking over the inevitable decline of my fertility. I’ve never seen myself as a parent, at least not with any clarity, and neither has my partner.

We’re well aware that staying childless isn’t considered a valid choice. We get reminded a lot of the proper order of things. Friends, family, and colleagues look at us and see a man and a woman who are clearly in love. They wonder: What’s the deal? When are they going to have children?

We mostly sidestep these questions when they arise; we’d rather not have to explain our decisions around such personal issues. Yet here I am, writing an article on our childless state for the consumption of total strangers. I guess I do feel the need to explain my part in these decisions. I only wish that there were a word other than “childless.” It has such a sad, pathetic connotation, like “spinster.” Being childless is a state of not-having. The childless couple is defined not by what they want, but by what they lack.

I could use the term “childfree,” but it just doesn’t sound right, either. “Childfree” has a self-conscious, PC quality that makes the writer in me squirm. It also seems like a jab at people who do have children. Ha ha ha, we’re footloose and childfree, and you’re stuck with a bunch of kids. I don’t want to seem as if I’m judging people who decide to have kids, any more than I want to be judged for my decision to remain childless. In my mind, reproductive choice isn’t solely about legal access to abortion and birth control-that is, it’s not just a matter of choosing when to have children. It’s also about deciding whether one wants to become a parent. True freedom of choice would mean that we respect all decisions related to parenthood.

Deciding to stay childless isn’t simple; I know I’m giving up an experience that’s unlike any other. Have I imagined myself pregnant? Cuddling an infant? Hearing “Mommie” for the first time? Of course. But I can’t see beyond those warm, fuzzy moments; I can’t see myself doing the daily work of motherhood. I’ve seen my brother and sisters raise their own families, so I’m not blind to the difficulties of parenting: the exhaustion, the worry, the sometimes heavy sense of responsibility. I also recognize the joys of parenting: the way a child’s face lights up when her mother enters a room, the fun and warmth of celebrating holidays and birthdays, the knowledge that you’re nurturing a precious young life. The thing is, you’ve got to take the whole deal. The exhaustion, worry, warmth, and fun come in one package; you don’t get to pick and choose.

I am childless because I don’t want the whole package. I know I would love a child more than anyone or anything; I’d put her needs first. That would put an end to the way of life my partner and I have structured, one carefully designed to preserve our sense of freedom. Much as I dislike both terms, being childless for me literally means being childfree: I’ve chosen to forgo motherhood so that I can have other experiences instead. I know that some people are adept at combining ambitious, even adventurous lifestyles with the responsibilities of parenthood; I admire their energy and enthusiasm. What energy I have already gets divided among my partner, friends and family, my work as a writer and teacher, and myself; there’s only so much to go around. I want to keep giving what I can to others while attending to my own needs.

Some would call my decision to stay childless selfish; I call it being self-aware. I know what I’m capable of accomplishing and what my limitations are. Children deserve parents who truly want to be parents, who have fully searched their souls before deciding to bring new lives into the world.

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