A personal essay on not wanting children and making peace with that choice.
I used to work as a receptionist at a swimming school. One afternoon a young girl came to watch her sister’s class. The girl cradled a swaddled baby, and stared lovingly at it while it slept. She must have been 12 at most. I wondered if the baby was a sibling. The parents were sitting in plastic chairs watching the lesson. I expected them to look back occasionally to check the girl wasn’t carrying the baby wrong, wasn’t about to drop it in the pool, but they didn’t. There was something in the look on the girl’s face that told me the baby was hers. She must have been the youngest mother I’d ever seen, but she was taking such good care of the baby, pacing behind the row of chairs, jiggling it slightly and whispering. Some people are such natural mothers, I thought. Even at her age. I walked past the seated parents some time later, and cast a glance at the young mother and her baby. There was a Wilhelm scream in my head as she turned and I saw the baby’s plastic head.
As a child, my mother was devoted to her dolls. She knitted dresses for them, and put them to sleep in a powder-pink cradle. When I was born she was thrilled to find that having a baby was like having a doll that moved and gurgled, that she could dress up in the clothes she made.
I never knew what to do with dolls. I carried them around because it was what other kids did, but they hung at my side, dangling by the ankle, hair trailing on the ground. The only doll that amused me for any length of time was a Barbie with temperature-sensitive paint over her eyes, so that when I held a hot cloth against her face the eyes turned purple and appeared closed. Cold water would open them again. I entertained myself for a while, putting her to sleep and waking her up, but when the paint started to fade and the eyes glazed, I cut off her hair.
I waited for a change to occur in me; something that would tell me it was my turn
When I was three my parents moved us from New Zealand to Ethiopia. My mother was 27, with three children, living in a rural village, with three hours of unsealed road between us and the nearest English speaker. The birth of my youngest sister meant Mum fell behind on learning the local language and couldn’t catch up. Dad worked all day building a school, and then teaching in it. There was a meningitis outbreak in the village, and my sisters and I couldn’t leave the house. Mum was stuck inside looking after us. Every day, funeral processions would move slowly past our house, men carrying tiny coffins on their shoulders. In the letters to my grandparents, Mum wrote, “I’m so alone. What I wouldn’t do to have a conversation with someone older than three.” If she was childless, she would have been able to help in the school, learn the language, make friends. But she was bound to a house that got smaller every day.
Three years later we were back in New Zealand. I’d sit in a circle of girls at recess and we’d plan our own families. “I’m going to have twin girls named Amber and Kristy,” I’d say, as though we’d choose them from a vending machine when the time came.
When I was in my early 20s, my friends began to have real children. I waited for a change to occur in me; something that would tell me it was my turn, that this was something I wanted now. I got older, and nothing happened. There was only a silence in my body where there was supposed to be some maternal pull.
I don’t know what I fear more: the sound of that alarm, or the realisation that it isn’t coming
Many friends have told me that they were like me, never thinking of children. They were sure it wasn’t for them. But they woke one morning and, like an alarm had gone off, they knew it was their turn. They had to have a child as soon as they could. Now they’re mothers. They carry packets of crackers. They have small bodies bouncing on their knees, and they tell other small bodies that it’s bed time. I ask them what age this change happened, when that alarm went off. They all say 30. I’m 30 now and I don’t know what I fear more: the sound of that alarm, or the realisation that it isn’t coming; that I slept through. I’m afraid of my desires being out of my control, of being at the whim of a biological impulse to propagate the species.
I have a gold cross that belonged to my grandma. Her mother had given it to her, and she gave it to my mother, who gave it to me when I turned 27, telling me I could give it to my eldest daughter. The gold is paper thin, worn down by the four décolletages it has rested against.
Unmarried women have cats, and childless women have dogs, didn’t you know?
At that age, my career ambition was to rescue children trapped in the sex trade. I was doing some fundraising and awareness work in this area already, but I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to be in the field. I was going to devote my life to it, but it was dangerous. I thought of my mother in that village, unable to be of use because of the three small bodies who depended on her, and knew I wouldn’t be able to fully engage in this work if I had children of my own. That was the first moment of decision: I wouldn’t have children, and if the day came when I woke to find I wanted them, I would simply recognise it as a biological impulse and refuse it. The decision was easy. The next morning, I hung the cross around my neck and thought, “Who will I give this to?”
Recently, I was having coffee with a friend, sitting at an outside table. A woman she knew from work walked past us. She was wearing a beautiful mid-length coat; the kind I’ve always wanted but have never been able to afford. The rest of her clothes were Kowtow and her sneakers were that white white that I can never maintain. My friend told me the woman and her partner decided not to have children, so they’re always travelling, and she can afford to dress entirely in Kowtow. I had to stop myself from asking, “Why didn’t they have children? What else do they do?” Because if you don’t have children, you’re supposed to do something else, as though there’s a gap in all of us that must be plugged. Did she want to focus on her career? Does she have a dog? Because unmarried women have cats, and childless women have dogs, didn’t you know?
I don’t feel a child-shaped gap in me. I feel only that silence.
Maybe I should get a dog and love it as a child. But part of my fear of having children is in binding myself to a fragile being. What if I have a child and the child dies? How will I live if my child dies? How will I move on? Especially knowing that I didn’t need the child, that I was fine before, but am now shackled to such a dark kind of grief.
I don’t feel a child-shaped gap in me. I feel only that silence.
Perhaps our belief in the gap comes from the idea that the purpose of our lives is to replicate ourselves. This is written into all of nature: the will to survive and reproduce, to scatter seeds in the wind and try again somewhere else. It’s a biological, evolutionary impulse. If we refuse this role, do we have to make it up to humanity some other way – with work, or with a pet? If I won’t love a child, watch me love a dog.
But the world has changed. There are too many of us. Hope runs thin. A child will accumulate a lifetime of waste and plastic, filling up their own corner of the ocean. Maybe this silence in my body is also evolutionary. Maybe it’s driving some of us to limit the growth of the population so that we all, as a species, can trip on a little further.
I am afraid to step off the marked path.
A friend once told me that I didn’t want children because I was selfish. We fought about it at the time. I was furious. My heart pumped and my chest turned splotchy and red under that gold cross. I told her she had no right to imply that it was my duty to reproduce and that in failing to do so, I was failing the human race. Now I see that she was right. I am selfish. I don’t want to teach another person to read and drive, and watch them suffer through high school, worrying about who to sit with at lunch and finding a date for the school ball. I’ve done all those things myself, and the thought of returning to them seems interminably boring. I don’t want to be woken in the night. I don’t want to ruin my body, or let someone else live in it.
I read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, a work of autofiction in which the narrator philosophises at length over whether to have children, aware that the window is closing and she has to decide. I thought I would relate more than I did, but the narrator’s journey is different to mine. She seemed to be deciding whether she wanted a baby, whereas I’m sure I don’t want one. I think I’m sure. The decision I have to make is whether I can accept that I don’t want one. I’m worried I want the wrong thing. I don’t want to want what I want. I’m not supposed to like living alone. I’m supposed to want a child. Heti writes, “There is a kind of sadness in not wanting the things that give so many other people their life’s meaning.” I am afraid to step off the marked path. This place is not on the maps.
Will I be able to forgive myself for doing the things that made me happy at the time?
Emilie Pine, in “From the Baby Years”, an essay about her struggle to conceive, wrote that not having a child felt like a continued failure. I feel the same way, not about failing to have a child, but failing to want one. Every moment that I continue to not want a child feels like a failure against biology, against the things that were decided for me when a rush of hormones in the womb decided I would have a uterus.
I’m worried that Present Me is stealing from Future Me, because one day I may find that all I want is a child, but it will be too late because Present Me didn’t think. Present Me was too selfish.
There are many things I enjoy now that I’ll pay for later, like eating too much sugar and not exercising, like reading my book when I’m supposed to be doing something else. When I have diabetes and osteoporosis, will I be able to forgive myself for doing the things that made me happy at the time, that I did without a thought for Future Me?
In my early 20s, I started dating a man I’d liked for a year. In a bout of terrible timing, I became wildly depressed. My thoughts went around and around, binding me tightly. I was worried he’d think I was boring, or that we’d get married and run out of things to talk about, or that I was making a mistake. This was not my first relationship, but I’d never had these fears before. I confessed all this to him, knowing it was too early for that much honesty. I knew that when the fog cleared I’d regret what I’d done, so as I left his house that day I told myself, “Remember that you did what you needed now, and forgive yourself in the future.” We broke up shortly after, and two weeks later he met the woman he would marry and have a baby with. I was sitting opposite him at a dinner when his engagement was announced by our mutual friend. I had to clink his stupid glass with mine and congratulate him, all the while dying of shame at all the things I’d confessed to this man I now barely knew. But then I remembered what I’d decided that day, and I forgave myself.
If I end up old and childless, perhaps alone, perhaps lonely, will I be able to look back on Present Me and say, “You did what you needed. You’re forgiven.”? I’ve had to forgive myself for so many things. Will this one be beyond me?
If the choice was taken away from me, I’d have nothing to forgive myself for.
When my friend and colleague Freya got married, she and her husband decided together that they didn’t want children, but at 30 she woke to the sound of that alarm. She had a baby at 31. For years she tried to convince her husband to agree to a second. After the birth of her first child, her weight doubled and she couldn’t lose it, no matter what she tried. Her fingers swelled and became arthritic. At work, she was constantly running into the staff room to fan herself. She said one day, “I know it can’t be right, but this almost seems like menopause.” She asked the doctor to test her but he refused. “You’re much too young,” he said, “It’s impossible.” She tried the different treatments and diets he suggested at each consultation, always unsuccessfully. Finally, he sent her out for a blood test, and then she didn’t hear anything for a fortnight. One lunch break she rang his office and asked if the results had arrived. The nurse on reception said, “Yes, they arrived ages ago.” She flicked through the file. “Looks like you’ve got full-blown menopause.” Just like that.
Freya cried in the staff room when she told me. I cried too, but I cried because my friend was sad, not because I connected with the source of her grief. She said, “I hadn’t given up on the hope of one more child.” I searched for something that would help me know what my friend was feeling, but there was no concept I could relate to. I think I would have felt relieved, to not have to decide. If the choice was taken away from me, I’d have nothing to forgive myself for.
Is it an insult to my friends who want children and can’t have them, that I am fertile and choose to be childless? Fertile is a strange word for such a thing, as though I am good soil, the right pH balance, there are no stones in my field. Things can grow in me. What a waste to have good soil and not plant.
The positions of pain and relief are so alike.
When I was 16 my friend and I used to play a game. It seems like such a dark game now that I’m an adult, but we had such little understanding of what it is to suffer. The game could be called, “Would you get an abortion if…?” We’d create increasingly dire scenarios for each other and would say whether, in that particular crisis, we’d get an abortion. I always said no. She made exceptions for situations involving her mother disowning her. My reason for consistently saying no was that I knew I could never be sure enough about my decision; I’d probably remain unsure until the baby was born and it was too late. She’d say, “You can’t know until it happens to you.”
When I was 19 I went to Magnetic Island, a holiday spot off Townsville, for a weekend alone. I was in the army at the time and my boyfriend had just been posted to the other side of the country. When I got to the island, a cyclone hit and the boats were cancelled. The electricity blew out. I couldn’t leave the house, and I realised my period was late.
I rang work before my phone died to let them know I was stuck, then I lit candles and stood by the window, staring out into the black afternoon, thinking about my boyfriend and pressing the bruises he’d left on my body.
I knew immediately that if I was pregnant I wouldn’t tell him, even though at that point we hadn’t actually broken up. A child would tie me to him forever. I’d never be free. But I had a good job. I could support myself and a child. I could buy the baby tiny shoes and a tiny bucket hat. I could do it.
When the storm passed I caught a bus to the docks. The bus stopped at a traffic light next to the beach. I watched a woman putting sunscreen on her daughter’s scrunched up face and thought, maybe I could want this. Then I imagined a baby with my boyfriend’s white-blonde hair. I remembered how his hands had seemed to leave ashes on my skin. Suddenly I wanted to smash the bus window and push the perspex shards into my uterus, just in case.
My first night back home I woke with cramps that felt like his fist in my kidneys. There was blood on the sheet, and I stared at it and thought of little shoes. I spent the night trying to find a way of lying that eased the cramps. I curled over my knees, head in my hands. The positions of pain and relief are so alike.
Freya used to look at her son and think, “I almost missed out on you.”
At which point does a child come into existence? It feels like the moment I wonder about having one, the Idea Child is born, and is then snuffed out by my decision not to. If I didn’t decide no, the Idea Child would grow to a real child, and one day I would look back on that moment of decision and think, what if I’d decided not to have you? I’d be so grateful, and I’d feel sick at how close I came to snuffing out the Idea Child. Heti writes of a friend who held her new baby and said, “I almost didn’t do this.” Freya used to look at her son and think, “I almost missed out on you.” She was so grateful and so relieved that she hadn’t lost this baby by deciding not to have him.
At this point in my thinking, a parallel life starts to grow up through the floor. I imagine myself forward from the point of decision. The floorboards break apart and reform in new places. The walls warp and extend, adding rooms onto the house, a bigger kitchen, a dining table. In this parallel life, I’m in my mid 40s. I’m wearing mum jeans unironically. A ten-year-old makes up a dance routine with her friend. From my spot at the new table, I remember Present Me, sitting at my writing desk. Future Me thinks, you almost didn’t get this. The clock runs backwards, the house shrinks, the child resumes her place in my body, her status as Idea. I’m back at my desk thinking, I’m sorry Future Me, but I don’t think I want that. You have to lose the child. You have to try to forgive me.
I wish I could ask the child, do you want to be born? Am I stealing from you? Exchanging your life for mine?
The thing I finally admit is that I don’t trust myself to decide.
Before I realised I had this silence in my body, back when I assumed I would have those twin girls from the vending machine, I used to dream that I had a baby but it was too small. It fit in the palm of my hand. Each time I looked it was smaller, till it had shrunk to the size of my finger. I put the baby in my pocket for safekeeping, but when I put my hand in the pocket, the baby was gone. My fingers poked through a hole in the fabric.
Thinking now of my friends who have children, it was the transfiguration that disturbed me the most; that a person can shift their identity so profoundly. One day you are one thing, the next you’re something else. I watch my friend Amanda share a smoothie with her toddler, putting the sucked-on straw in her own mouth. I hear the tone of her voice change as she says, “Don’t make me count to three.” Mothers had been a distant concept to us, something we possessed, not something we were. Mothers went into a corner and powered down when we were out of the room. But here I am, watching the other side of their lives, wondering when this shift occurred. It seems not so long ago my own mother was counting to three.
I don’t want to make a mistake. Part of me hopes that if I fall in love with someone he’ll desperately want a child, and I can give him one as a gift, “I made this for you,” and it will be OK because he was sure of what he wanted and I was not. That way, whatever life I find myself in, I won’t be the one to blame.
The thing I finally admit is that I don’t trust myself to decide. I want to give up the choice. Push me around. Tell me what to do. Convince me to choose something else. Let me quietly run out of time.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.