This is an excerpt from a longer essay. It has been edited down slightly for publication in Entropy.
“For me, poetry was where I lived as no-one’s mother, where I existed as myself.”
—Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born.
Throughout my adolescence, teen years, and early twenties, I felt a compulsion to collect the remnants of my life. Photographs, scraps of paper, letters, awards and event programs collected weight in boxes and between pages in notebooks. I held onto these reminders of my past, labeling them as my “archives” with the expressed understanding that one-day my child—perhaps a girl much like myself— would cherish them. I imagined my daughter pouring over my archives, thankful I’d kept these fragments so that she could relive my past, form some understood memory of the life I’d lived before she was born, before she was my life. My mother has never been as sentimental as I am, and there were times as a child, that I wished she had kept more of these same scraps of her own life, so that I could look through them, and see into her past more clearly, in a more material way. I think that this is often how daughters understand their mothers or grandmothers, and I think perhaps that is part of why I collect, even why I write: the desire to understand, to situate myself in the story. I’m now twenty-eight, and I’ve realized however, that I in fact don’t actually want children. I’ve taken the necessary precautions to maintain a chemically barren state since before I was sexually active: pill after pill every night for over ten years, and yet it is just now that I’m realizing that a more permanent solution may be in order. I still collect the scraps, but I wonder if they’ll ever have an audience?
I grew up and still live within a culture that expects me to have children. This compulsory motherhood is the normative for me, and probably the reason I assumed all those years that I’d have kids someday, kids that would want to know my story. The fact is however, that the deep maternal urge so many of my friends and acquaintances have described—the pang at a baby in a stroller or the laugh a toddler in a park might evoke—has never struck me, and I’m not sure it ever will. I wonder if the “maternal urge” we so often hear about, is in fact just a myth that society propagates towards women, part of a code of behavior, or ethics that we must abide by, part of the gender normative that “good girls” ascribe to. I want to be clear: it is not that I don’t like children; I, in fact, quite like them. I think children are cute, fun to talk to, and I love the logic of children’s minds, the beauty of their innocence, but I don’t feel anything maternal for them. I don’t feel an urge in my gut or in my heart to have one, or to care for them as my own, and for some reason this is most always regarded as odd, or strange, or even wrong. I’ve made friends gasp, their heads shaking, even been accused of “hating kids” when I’ve expressed this resistance to motherhood, and I’ve felt the burn of shame—the shame they push on me for not wanting children—the assumption I’m cold hearted, or selfish, or hateful, but its less than that, and more than that all at the same time.
For years I assumed I’d one day have children. I anticipated falling in love, or accidentally getting pregnant, and making the decision to have the baby, to become a mother. This passive acceptance of my future role as wife, mother, caretaker I think really does stem from the unspoken pressure of compulsory motherhood upon young women, and the rigidity with which we are ascribed roles from birth—heck, perhaps even before birth, for decades, eons even. This is a pressure that each generation of women coming into their adulthood faces, whether they are aware of it or not. The weight of the gender role, the social position they are expected to play as they mature into adulthood, something that I, and many women before me have pushed against, or happily ascribed to. Women like me—those who reject motherhood, either loudly or quietly—are seen as rebels and stoics, as selfish and cold. What is interesting, is that some of the women in history who led lives of service to others, and are regarded widely as caretakers or motherly in their nature—I am thinking here of Jane Adaams who founded Hull House in Chicago for underprivileged children, Mother Teresa, who we can all agree was devoted to her role as mother, and yet remained childless, even Anna Jarvis, the Victorian woman who founded Mother’s Day as a national holiday in 1914—were childless by choice.
The embracing of one’s sexuality in mainstream society (I acknowledge that queer and feminist politics interrupt this normative) is so tied to embracing the role of mother, that one cannot form a coherent singular identity, and I think part of my resistance to motherhood stems from my resistance to the notion that I must be beholden to my body, to a man, to a child’s needs. As a radical feminist, I reject the essentializing of my body: the ardency with which society—you, my readers even—expects what’s “natural” to override my desire for autonomy, to stay childless in a child-filled world. I am writing this because I want to interrupt the canon, the heteronormative pattern that reaches its pinnacle, its highest level of achievement in the birth of a child.
My own mother, who respects my personal choices outwardly, quietly expects that one day I’ll change my mind; she hopes the urge to procreate will take over me, and while I can say fervently now that it hasn’t, I can’t be sure it won’t. I was talking to a friend about this the other day, about our (mutual) desire not to have children, our reluctance to say never, and she put it best when she said: I don’t want to have children, but I can’t say “never”—I don’t want someone else to hold me to that absolute. It is true, and in some ways it makes me feel like a fraud, or wishy-washy. I can truly say that I have no desire to have children, know that if I got pregnant this week, it would end with an abortion, and yet I can’t promise that my mind won’t change in five or ten years, but by then it might be too late. That is the reason in fact, that I think so many women have children, because they are afraid that one day it will be TOO LATE and they will have missed out on something that they will forever regret. I can’t however, even think of bringing a child into the world that isn’t wanted with every fiber of my being, and I also can’t anticipate that I will ever feel that way, will ever change my mind, but I can’t say never.
My when my [now] husband and I were first engaged—after months of (now regrettable) not-so-subtle hinting on my part—in the glow of that decision, the ring sparkling on my finger, the wedding plans beginning to take shape, I felt in some ways that this was pre-determined. Both my husband and I felt sure that we want each other for always, for keeps, have always regarded each other as partners, as equals and I think there is something a bit non-traditional about that. I often flinched at the word “boyfriend” or “fiancé” because there is something so gendered, so traditionally cliché about it. Even the term of adoration, “hubby” when it occasionally slips out can leave me feeling a bit embarrassed. We’ve been married almost two years now, and I am regularly asked when we are having children—when not if—and I am frustrated that they assume a narrative for me. When I tell the people questioning me on my resistance to having children I’m met with denials, rebuffs, confusion. I’m told I’ll change my mind in a few years, or once I’m “settled” (whatever that means), but the truth is, I don’t want to change my mind. Justin and I have discussed our desire not to have kids at length, and shortly after we became a couple, he even offered to have a vasectomy. When I think of my future with him—in an equal partnership, enjoying our life together, pursuing our careers as artists and academics. I see us travelling, spending time with family and friends, fixing up our home, settling down and setting roots, but I don’t see children in that picture.
When I look back at the younger me who accepted her future-as-mother, I realize that I could never actually see it happening. The joy at learning of my pregnancy, the nine months passed, and the pain of giving birth always overwhelmed and terrified me more than ever inspiring desire. Even as a young girl, a bad stomachache or cramps would have me swearing up and down that I’d never ever want to birth a child. For a long time, as I finished college, and struggled to get on my feet both emotionally and financially, I thought of pregnancy as a worst case scenario. I thought all those years that my fear of pregnancy might be rooted in my being the product of an unplanned pregnancy—the pressure of being a single mother, and the internal conflict my child would feel, as I felt, overriding a desire I might have had otherwise but I recognize now—now that I’m done with graduate school, now that I have a loving partner to share my life with, and a career that I love—that my resistance to motherhood goes much deeper than a young girl’s fear of pain and the pressure of responsibility; it is rooted in something beyond the personal, that my resistance to compulsory motherhood is perhaps a political thing.
Many of the women I graduated high school with live in the same suburban town we grew up in; they have been married a number of years already and have had multiple children. When I see their endless posts on Facebook, I have to admit I feel a bit queasy. I recognize that it is their own life to live, their own choice to have children, and while I know that it in no way affects me, and I admit that I quietly judge them. I am one of the few who got out, one of the few who graduated college, who ever lived on their own, or supported themselves financially. I have known a great many young women, my own age who once lauded radical feminist belief systems, true indie spirits at heart, and I have watched as over the years their resistance to the normative has shifted into an acceptance of it, a placation to it. I have seen this slow acceptance turn into a strange phenomena— that as these women marry and decide to have children, in our over-populated world—self-aware as they may be—somehow believe that their situations are different. I have seen a kind of “radical domesticity” from young mothers and non-mothers alike and I find it totally bizarre and fascinating at the same time. These women bake gluten free muffins, and pin vegan recipes, they knit booties and sweaters for their young ones, and invent formulas for environmentally friendly cleaning products. They pick and choose aspects of a radical, ecologically minded belief system, and yet they re-inscribe a stereotypical and domesticized gender role upon themselves—a kind of 1950’s redux—and I think in the end it is problematic.
I have known many women, those from high school and college who once dreamt of having fulfilling careers, who had the potential to be independent and self-supporting, relegating themselves to the domestic sphere, beholden to their husbands, their children, and their homes. They believe that their Pinterest files cataloguing post-punk recipes and Facebook folders documenting their crafty exploits exonerate them from being “typical” stay-at-home mothers, but it doesn’t. It just doesn’t excuse it for me, and so often I sense their quiet frustration; the sadness of a life not fully explored flickering behind their eyes. I can appreciate the desire to create, to be artistic, and enjoy the process of cooking, or sewing, or crafting, but the uber-domestic focus of these projects, and the loudness with which they announce their role as mothers and caretakers really bothers me. I am particularly troubled by the ways in which many of these young mothers complain about their children’s behavior, or the demands of motherhood, they call it “the hardest job” and use the rhetoric of the workforce to elevate their role as mothers, almost as if they can sense the resistance of women like me, childless by choice, watching them, observing them. While I acknowledge that being a parent—mother or father—is work, is messy and tiring, and stressful, it is not a job. My instinct when observing these posts and blogs is to think you chose this or no one made you do this. But then I wonder did they really have a choice in it? Or did they just get wrapped up in the normative? The expectation and the attention?
I have grown up in a liberal-cum-oppressive state for women’s bodies. The door-to-door canvasing my mother did in the 1970’s for Washington state’s abortion referendum, and the policies that followed Roe vs. Wade’s landmark finding of women’s rights to their own bodies is something that each year comes under attack. The pre-and-post-Clinton presidents (who here will remain nameless) and their conservative counterparts have used the argument of a fetus’ potential humanness to override my, and countless women’s reproductive choice and control over our bodies. They have set in the books laws like The Mexico City Act and the biased named “Partial Birth Abortion Ban” to undermine women’s freedom of choice, and have helped encourage a conversation that is combative to women’s individualism, relegating us to essentialized bodies, beholden to our sex organs, and the accepted, prescribed role as mother mother mother.
I have grown up in a culture that is obsessed with motherhood, with pregnancy. I have seen magazine covers taken over by the watch for celebrities’ “baby bumps,” (I’ve even endured comments on my own body’s curves—the gaze of voyeurism and an interrogation of each pound on my frame leaving me embarrassed and frustrated) scores of television shows lauding the procreative science of sextuplets and octuplets, while unfathomable scores of children from poor and unstable homes are left unwanted in abusive or neglectful foster and group homes. I have watched as nearly every television show followed the same formulaic model of happiness: love, and marriage, and children, and more children, followed by divorce, even our heroines desperate for marriage and motherhood, (I am thinking here of shows like The Mindy Project) and I’m tired of it. I think it is time we interrupt this trope, time we create new narratives for women’s success and fulfillment. In recent years, the news has been taken over by an obsession with sexualizing failed mothers like Casey Anthony, turning a sorrowful case of child homicide, and the lack of support single mothers face, and turning it into a tabloid soap opera. This has the effect of diminishing women again, to being sex objects, because when motherhood doesn’t fit, when a women is a failure in this regard, the only way that she can be talked about is within the context of her sexuality, and the way that her perversions undermined her role as mother. I think in fact, that women are so much more complex than that. We come with a wealth of social, familial, and emotional baggage—as well as power—and I think that we deserve for the media to represent that complexity, the nuances of our potential, and not simplify the wake of our failures in such binary terms. This is the responsibility that I am trying to take on. To represent that there is something beyond the polarity of always and never—that I can be feminine, a caretaker, and kind—while not being a Madonna, and also not a whore.
 The Mexico City Act bans clinics abroad that operate with funds from the United States to mention oral contraceptives, abortion, and other “radical” methods of birth control.
 The Partial Birth Abortion Ban—also known as a late term, third trimester abortion, or “Intact Dilation and Extraction” procedure by medical doctors was the first-ever medical procedure to be made illegal. President Obama has fought it unsuccessfully.