Hearing about last week’s Time Magazine cover story on “The Childfree Life” was one of those moments writers dread. The book idea I’ve been contemplating for a decade is now trending big time, no thanks to me.
Yup, I’ve missed the boat on having kids, and now I feel like I’ve missed the chance to be the voice on the issue. To top it off, Lauren Sandler, the writer who scooped me, is a mom.
It’s only recently that I’ve felt ready to write about the issue that has consumed me more than any other. And it’s only recently, in my mid-forties, that I’ve shifted from feeling childless to something closer to childfree.
I spent much of my late twenties and thirties wanting kids – or thinking I wanted them – and feeling alternatively ambivalent, sad, and angry that it wasn’t happening. My first marriage crumbled, in part, over the fact that I wanted kids and my then-husband didn’t.
At 39, when I divorced and re-entered the dating world, I was firmly aware that the door for children was still open. In fact, everyone – including my ex - thought I’d rush right out and get myself preggers. But my ambivalence remained, even after I was sprung from the marriage I’d been blaming for my non-mom status.
Soon after my divorce, I fell in love again. Again, with a man who no had interest in having kids. That sealed the deal for me, with no one to blame but myself. But my anxiety about what it would be like to close that door for good remained.
Then, inch by inch, things began to shift. When I re-married at 44, and my new husband celebrated his 50th birthday the year we wed, people finally stopped asking. And even I stopped wondering.
Just as I started settling into a more comfortable identity as a woman without children, younger relatives, friends and mentees began approaching me to talk about my status.
“What’s it like?” “I think I may be going down the same path. Can we talk?” “Did you choose or did it just happen?” With each of those conversations, came a realization. Perhaps I could be a role model to those envisioning a life without children.
Each time I’m asked now, I relish that I have something to share. I take the responsibility seriously, making sure to reveal both the joys – the freedom to pursue gratifying work, the flexibility, a romantic relationship unburdened by some of the gender expectations and traps that parents face. And the pain -- Will I regret it? Will I miss that unique kind of love? And I remember how helpful it’s been to have older women without children in my life, and how special those relationships have been.
Oddly, despite the all-consuming interest I have in the topic, it took me a good three days to read the article. I had excuses. I'm busy. I’ll wait till it’s out on the newsstand. The cover image of a bathing suited couple sprawling at the beach is a total turnoff – will I be reading about my kind as selfish hedonists? Truth is, I was terrified. What if the story covered everything I wanted to say? Finally, after reading way too much commentary without reading the story, I caved and bought the magazine.
I quickly concluded the story was a good one. Very good. Sandler examined the issue from nearly every angle. She captured the variety of how-we-got-here stories that women in my secret sorority carry. Even the antipathy toward today’s style of parenting.
And she posed the right questions. Is this just an issue for educated elites? (Not really.) Is it just happening in the US? (No, we’re actually a little late to the party.) What do women do when they don’t have children? (Lots of stuff, including quite a lot of “mothering in the world” as teachers, mentors, and counselors.) Hell, she even raised a few issues I’d never thought of. Research suggests that the more intelligent women are the less they are likely to have children. (Really?)
Still, there are plenty of areas Sandler didn’t get to. Like the experiences of women well past childbearing years. What kinds of new patterns will we be seeing for older women who want to connect with future generations? What will it mean for society that there’s going to be a giant cohort of women who never became mothers? Will there be a boom in memoir and nonfiction by and about women without children. (“Non-Mom Lit,” anyone?) Will we be seeing new channels and communities for informal mentoring between women who didn’t have children and women making their way through those door-still-open years?
I’m still pissed I didn’t get there first. I would have liked to nab that Time cover story for myself. But I’m relieved that a writer as smart as Sandler got this conversation rolling, and I know I’ll weigh in, along with lots of others. More important, I’m relieved that I’ve finally gotten to a point in my life where I’m okay with not having kids.
Most of the time.