Friday, May 25, 2012

Goodbye Ovaries: Thoughts on Choices Other Than Children

After years of pain, I will say good-by to my ovaries and uterus in a few days.  It’s major surgery, and had a doctor suggested it six months ago, I would have had heart palpitations.  Now I’m ready.  Especially after that Friday where I thought the 4-hour pain pill I’d taken over twelve hours before had worn off (certainly the amount of pain suggested it had) and drank wine with dinner.  Bad, bad idea. 

Recently I told an acquaintance about the surgery and said other options existed, but because the pain had become disabling and I didn’t want children, this made the most sense.  His first response?  “You can always adopt.”  Well, sure, I could, except for the part where I don’t want children.
As a kid, I assumed I’d have children because nearly every adult I knew did.  In my twenties, I still assumed that, though I imagined it would occur at some vague future date that never grew any closer.  At 33, I dated a man I thought I would marry.  Matt and I discussed how much we might enjoy having children and how much we might enjoy not having children.  We decided to reserve a year or two together for just the two of us, then let the chips fall where they may.  Kids – great!  No kids – great! 

Matt and I broke up when I was 35.  I still felt the same.  What I wanted was a happy life, with children or without.  Five years later, my view changed.  I’d created a full, happy life, with two careers (writing and law), significant volunteer commitments, a close network of friends and family, and a home I loved.  I didn’t feel the desire to switch gears and spend the next twenty years focusing on bearing and raising children.
Sometimes I wondered if I lacked something essential because I didn’t feel devastated not being a parent.  Books and TV shows depict “childless” women in their thirties as lonely and depressed.  Also, many people express or imply I can’t be happy with my lifestyle.  Often the same person will ask me again and again if I regret not having kids.  This tempts me to ask if that person regrets having children.  The fact that I don’t do so raises an interesting point in itself.  Why is it considered okay to ask me about my personal reproductive choices, yet taboo to ask a parent the same question? 

From grade school on, my friend Julie knew she didn’t want kids.  In her twenties, she tried to get her tubes tied.  Her OB-GYN refused to do it.  She was too young, she was single, she’d never had a baby.  Julie kept asking.  By the time she reached her thirties, she must have wondered – really?  How old exactly do I need to be to be credited with knowing my own mind about whether I want to reproduce?  Finally, when she was 40 and married, a surgeon agreed to do the procedure. 
In part, I understand a doctor’s hesitancy to perform surgery that results in permanent birth control.  People do change their minds, and it’s difficult if not impossible to reverse.  But so is having a child.    

Another statement I hear is that it’s selfish to choose not to have children.  This puzzles me.  Because I have no kids, I can generally donate more time and money than many parents can to charitable causes.  Also, as a household of one, I put less wear and tear on streets and highways than does a household of 2-6 people.  On the average I pollute less and use fewer public services (such as libraries, police, or ambulance), and I don’t take advantage of public schools.  Yet every year I pay significantly more in taxes than do the households with the same income that use more services, as adults with dependent children lower their tax bills through deductions or credits.  Not only do I publicly help finance other people’s children, I do so privately as well, through decades of gifts at baby showers, baptisms, birthdays, and, eventually, weddings.  I don’t mind any of this.  One thing I agree with Hillary Clinton about is it takes a village to raise a child, and I believe our world is better when children can access education, food, and healthcare.  I also love being part of my nieces and nephews lives in particular, and enjoy celebrating their milestones as much as I can.  What seems strange to me, though, is that some people consider me selfish for doing these things.
The explanation most often given for the selfish label is that non-parents spend more money on leisure.  We often can afford to travel, attend the theater, visit fine dining restaurants, or ski more often than parents with similar incomes.  Again, this puzzles me.  Yes, I may be doing more of some things that I find fun, but I am not experiencing the joys of parenting that parents tell me they experience.  If I am selfish for doing what I enjoy, aren’t they equally selfish for doing what they enjoy?  I actually don’t think either of us is selfish, we just followed different life paths.  I don’t see any reason to denigrate or question parents’ choices, I simply don’t understand why some parents want to denigrate mine.

Why write about this?  It’s a very personal issue, as is my upcoming surgery.  But the personal really is the political.  Our nation struggles daily over abortion, contraception and women’s roles.  That our culture regularly questions an individual woman’s competence to decide whether to become pregnant, or to know whether she’s happy with her life path if that path means not having children, can’t help but inform the larger debate over women’s rights and women’s roles.  To insist that I don’t know my own mind or feelings when I say I am happy focusing on pursuits other than child-rearing implies the only real or valuable role for a woman is that of mother. 
I don’t have a perfect wrap up for this post or an answer to all the questions about women’s roles that are still being examined in our country.  But for now I’ll paraphrase Jane Austen and suggest that when a woman is asked about her reproductive choices, the questioner ought to pay her the compliment of believing her sincere, and see her as a rational woman speaking the truth from her heart.

A 2014 update -- A couple of my friends now have grandchildren & are enjoying that immensely, and I've realized that is one thing I'm sorry I missed by not having kids (though of course that doesn't guarantee grandchildren). My mom and dad had great fun with the grandkids (my brothers' children), as did I. But I'm happy with my overall decision. Interestingly, today I ran across a list I made years ago, probably when I was about 36 or 37, of the pros and cons of not having kids. The pro list was very long and anticipated all the things I enjoy about my life as it is. The con list (favoring having children) had only 3 items. The first was not having grandchildren. I hadn't realized I'd ever considered that. It's nice to know I had a pretty good sense of the pluses and minuses personal to me about children

Lisa M. Lilly is an the author of THE AWAKENING series, which is about a young woman whose mysterious pregnancy may bring the world its first female messiah -- or trigger the Apocalypse.

THE AWAKENING is available at: