I wrote in another article that the two phrases I hate most were “political correctness gone mad” and anything along the lines of “the pendulum has swung too far the other way.” Well I’ve just remembered another one, and here it is:”the biological clock.”
The idea that there’s a ticking time bomb inside all women, making us desperate, obsessed, and broody – its just horrendous. It’s not the idea of babies themselves that makes me mad – it’s the concept of having to choose whether to have one or not, and being forced into that choice by our imperfect, time-bound bodies. But it’s a decision that the majority of us will have to make at some time or other: do I want kids or not? Well, do I? Do I?
I was there when the doctor
reached in with Alice in Wonderland spoons
and there as her vagina became a wide operatic mouth
singing with all its strength;
first the little head, then the gray flopping arm, then the fast
swimming body, swimming quickly into our weeping arms.
Eve Ensler, “I was there in the room” in The Vagina Monologues (2001)
As miraculous, and I’m sure, fantastic, giving birth is, I’m afraid this doesn’t make me want to do it. I don’t seem to have a deep inbuilt desire for babies. Am I normal? Will I ever feel differently? And will I only be forced into the choice because of time running out?
I’m sorry, it’s just not good enough. It’s like being taken in front of a closed door, and being told “behind this door could be something amazing, it could be the best experience you will ever have, the best experience it’s possible to have – but it could be something truly awful and heartbreaking, the worst experience you will ever have. But what’s for sure is that it will involve lots of pain and lots of money and you’ll have to live with this decision for the rest of your life. Now, do you want to open the door or not? You have ten seconds to decide.”
Tick. Tick. Tick.
…Others of us are not sure whether we ever want to be parents. It is important for the rest of us to offer support for this point of view. Women have been socialized so strongly to become mothers that we often feel guilty, unfeminine or a failure if we are not sure whether we want children. We have to protect our right to be undecided and help people to understand it as legitimate.
Our Bodies Ourselves (British edition, 1988)
Our society contains so many assumptions about women and babies. It’s something that almost all of us are just expected to DO. It’s bad enough deciding to try for children if, say, you’re in a gay relationship, or if you’re infertile, or if you’re single – these people have to put up with so much crap. But it works the other way too – what if you’re in a long-term, stable, heterosexual relationship? There will come a time when people will being to wonder why you aren’t having kids.
Already people are asking me about marriage (thankfully not my parents, bless em), but others are. “No sign of an engagement yet then?” they whisper, grinning conspiratorially. I can only imagine that some time in the future this will extend to children. “Do I hear the patter of…?”
I don’t want to be put in that position. Gritted teeth behind the smile as I answer politely, “well, no…” again and again.
hump over my shoulders
The tendons of my thighs
flex in and out
My neck turns
toward the stars
Water laps around my ankles
Of the Universe.
Joanne Lanicotti, from The Birth Project, in Return of the Great
But giving birth, having kids, is supposed to be one of the most amazing, incredible experiences humans can have. If I choose not to do that, am I missing out on an essential life-experience? And is this any reason to bring a child into the world anyway – just to see what it “feels” like? Am I ruining my life? Would my life be that much worse, that much wasted without this experience?
Mother consciousness makes women aware that their bodies and lives are the thread and web that connects all of humanity. And that web is boundless. Because she is in the image of the Cosmic Mother Goddess, a woman’s sexuality and creative powers also reflect the divine life-giving, nourishing energies and powers of the universe.
Donna Wilshire, VIRGINMotherCRONE, in Return of the Great Goddess (1997)
Not to mention the unspoken pressure of expectations. If I don’t have kids, I’m denying my parents the pleasure of being grandparents. And there’s my partner’s parents too – so straight away that’s four people disappointed, not to mention aunts, uncles, etc. Although I’m sure no-one would ever pressure me into it, there’s still a feeling that by making a choice for yourself, you are denying someone else of something they may never experience any other way. The amount of pain mum went through having me – the scars, the drugs – surely I should give something back? Am I selfish not to?
And another thing, the idea of actually giving birth just doesn’t fill me with good feelings. The idea of having something growing inside me for 9 months doesn’t either. I think giving birth just fills me with fear. In my present state of mind, I’d rather adopt a baby that go through the yukky, agonisingly painful process of labour. Every time I pick up the paper I read about women’s awful experiences of childbirth, of epidurals, of cold, sterile hospitals, cesaerians, epistimologies, birthing like a factory process, pregnancy treated like an illness. Giving birth seems like a fragile process, fraught with danger, with a slim chance of success – rather than a completely natural thing as it should be.
I watch the wailing, screaming, fighting brats on the bus, their mothers struggling with pushchairs… I pull the cat’s arse face and stare intently out the window. I buried a hedgehog that some children had kicked to death and vowed never to bring forth such spawn… I want to write a book about the women who have made this choice, and what they have done with the time, the space, about regrets and relationships, about freedom.
And I just can’t imagine myself with a kid. It feels almost like I’m too young, even though I’m 24 – it’s the same way I felt about getting a job, or getting a boyfriend (I’m too young for that stuff). It’s crazy, because we always hear about young teenagers getting pregnant. I think it’s this that’s made me feel at the moment that kids aren’t for me (me? have a baby? you’re joking, right?) – the subconscious idea that having a kid means I’d have failed somehow, that there’s something better and bigger out there for me, that I’ve worked so hard for. It’s like when in the Simpsons, Marge gets pregnant with Bart and Dr Hibbert congratulates Homer, then hands Marge a leaflet showing a depressed pregnant woman and the title: “So You’ve Ruined Your Life.”
I am living into the decision of having had the tubal ligation… Sex is more enjoyable, freeing, and carefree; I feel more sexual and thus more womanly. The decision not to have children will probably pull at me for the rest of my life. It is an intimidating and difficult task to choose to live powerfully, to make decisions, and to define myself beyond the roles that society has deemed for women.
Carolyn E. Megan, Childless by Choice, in Ms. (Oct/Nov 2000)
But could I ever make a decision like this? Make it irreversible? Probably not.
I have no idea whether I am fertile, sub-fertile or incapable of conceiving, for I have never been interested enough to find out. If I have a biological clock, it must be silent and digital, for I have never heard it tick, even though I am (at the time of writing) in my early forties. Over the years, however, I have become wearily familiar with all the responses [of people]… and with some bizarre variants such as “How dare you not have children when other women are desperate to get pregnant?”
Joan Smith, The Selfish Jean, in Different for Girls (1998)
If I stay with my partner for years to come – when I’m thirty, forty years old – having kids will be something I’ll be expected by society to do. But it’s not so much a choice TO have kids rather than the decision NOT to have them. In effect, unless you’re celibate, falling pregnant is the default – if it weren’t, we wouldn’t need contraception. Unless you make a decision to have a tubal ligation or whatever, it’s not so much a positive choice, as a burden of using imperfect contraception as long as you’re sexually active. This could be for the forseeable future – until the menopause anyway.
This depresses me and I resent it. And it’s all because humans are apparently the only animals that can get pregant at any time, (instead of having a mating season). And this is not a decision that men get to make – as much as they should be involved in childrearing etc, the final decision has to be the womans as it’s her body, it’s her pain and agony.
It’s a tricky one, because no matter how liberated we are supposed to be, nature always dictates this one – it’s the old “biology is destiny” thing. You can’t argue with nature.
Nature produced the fundamental inequality – half the human race must bear and rear the children of all of them – which was later consolidated, institutionalized, in the interests of men. Reproduction of the species cost women dearly, not only emotionally, psychologically, culturally, but even in strictly material (physical) terms…I submit then, that the first demand for any alternative system must be: (1) The freeing of women from the tyranny of reproduction by every means possible, and the diffusion of the child-rearing role to society as a whole, men as well as women.
Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (1971)
Shulamith Firestone wrote one of the most radical things I’ve ever read. In the Dialectic of Sex, she wrote that all of the inequality between women and men comes down to one thing – women give birth, men don’t. This is where all the problems began, she claims, and it’s very hard to disagree with that. But rather than simply accept it as the way things are, she postulates that the solution is to challenge nature itself and use technology to free women from the burden of childbirth. This idea could be a liberating freedom like humankind has never known before – or it could be a hideous, sickening, dangerous techonological nightmare, depending on where you stand. But it makes you think. Why should we accept what nature has given us? Can we question it? Should we?
So in the end, what reasons could there be for having kids? To experience the ultimate “life-experience”? To ensure my “genes” are passed on (what’s so great about my genes anyway)? To pass on something indefinable about me to someone else? To ensure a piece of me lives on when I’m dead? But why is this considered to be more worthwhile, than, say, setting words down on paper to last for eternity – or influencing the world, leaving a legacy not in your genes but by the good works you’ve done?
None of these seem like good enough reasons to make me decide to give birth. I’d have to know, unmistakeably, deep down, that it was the RIGHT decision. I don’t feel that at the moment. I wonder if I ever will.
It seems to me that the decision of whether to have kids or not forces us to think about what really matters in life. What is life all about? Is it worthless if I don’t leave a version of me to live on? Could I cope not leaving a person to survive me, who is related to me, comes from my blood? Could I live for the rest of my days knowing that it’s just me? I would have to make sure my life was worth it, that my life was full and productive, that during my short life on this earth I affect the world in a different way, that I leave a different kind of legacy – different, but just as valid.
“Motherhood rocks” says Niamh Devlin in response to this article.