I didn’t want to hold the baby: Growing up to be child-free
I started to pay attention to the child—let’s call him Cyrus—when I saw him looking at the whiffle bat in his hand with a calculation I have rarely seen in five-year-olds.
His family lives across the street from me on the narrow residential city block where I share a house with a couple of roommates, and I was rounding the corner with my dog on a leash.
My block is a friendly place where neighbors pick up each other’s daytime packages so they don’t get stolen. Resident families often put a traffic cone at the bottom of the street, moving it for the occasional car, and kids cavort in safety while the parents clump over beers on the sidewalk, listening for their littlest ones on baby monitors. They invited my roommates and me to their block party.
Amidst such amity, there is Cyrus.
I know his name because my bedroom faces the street where he roams, and I can hear his parents through my closed upstairs windows. The fact that I, an adult, privately referred to him as a flat-faced, snub-nosed, five-year-old sociopath probably reflects more on me than it does on him.
But there’s something unnerving about Cyrus. Other kids smile and wave and ask silly questions and reach for my dog. He barrels up and down the street on fat, rumbling plastic wheels and stares you right in the eye, his grim face inscrutable above the pistons of his knees.
I watched him that evening as he studied the whiffle bat in his hands, looked at his mother several feet away, pulled his arm back, and hurled the bat at her. It hit her and bounced off the sidewalk with a hollow bonk.
I quail to think what will happen when he’s old enough for a wooden bat.
Cyrus has a meeker younger brother, whose name I didn’t learn until the family carved it on a pumpkin for Halloween, because he does not behave in a way that makes his name audible to the entire block. I often see the boys’ parents, early in the morning, getting ready to transport the helmeted boys in a specially fitted bike-cart.
They’re probably about my age. Dad has red hair, heavy black-framed glasses, a short, bushy hipster beard, a generously tattooed shoulder, and small black gauges stretching his earlobes. He’s often out on his own, warming up before a run or sipping a drink with the neighbors. But I rarely see Mom without Cyrus, which is one more reminder of why I don’t want children.
In the picture above (used with permission), you can see me on the right with two of my cousins and my cousin’s young daughter. I love my cousins in all generations of the family, but I think my unguarded expression here says a lot about my natural tolerance for boisterous youngsters.
“Do you want to hold the baby?”
Even before I was deemed old enough to begin taking care of children (around age 12), I never enjoyed being around youngsters outside of my family. Instead of wanting to hold infants, like other teenage girls, I disliked the captive responsibility of cradling those tiny, heavy, lolling bodies.
“Do you want to hold the baby?” I was ashamed of how much I dreaded the smiling, inevitable inquiry and annoyed at how impossible it seemed to say, “no, thanks, I don’t.”
My own mom, a career teacher, called me a “child Scrooge” from the time I was a teenager, but it was only partially true. At least, unlike Ebenezer, who tramps around sniping at everyone who celebrates Christmas, I was an energetic, scrupulous caretaker, even if I didn’t enjoy it. My charges and I took walks and read books. We drew pictures and did science experiments and played games. I took a first aid class. I knew CPR and the Heimlich maneuver. I handled scrapes, fevers, bloody noses, anxiety disorders, and wayward family pets of every description.
Even as a child and teenager, thinking about the day I would be responsible for my own baby always set off an interior ripple of panic that I could quash only by thinking that becoming a mom was still many years away. I hoped my fear of parenthood would naturally diminish when I reached an age at which it would be appropriate to become a parent myself—and either way, I still had several child-free years in front of me. As a babysitter, at least, my responsibility for children was mercifully finished when parents returned home and paid me.
I tried not to think of the future, when the tables would be turned, and my only respite from my kids would be the babysitter.
At the time, when I confided to an adult that I worried about motherhood because I disliked babysitting, she said not to worry. As a babysitter, you feel obligated to entertain the kids constantly, but as a mom, you don’t have to do that. Therefore, motherhood isn’t difficult.
If you’re a young woman, especially if you’re married, like I was for several years, the question of when you will have children is of prime interest to almost everyone.
Especially in the first years of my marriage, I assumed I would have kids eventually—not because I wanted them, but because I didn’t realize choosing not to have them was an option, especially as my spouse began to pressure me about it.
I always said I was handling too many assignments and working too many hours; or that I needed a better handle on my health problems, mental and physical, before I undertook a pregnancy. He said he didn’t know why I was reluctant about something so easy: I could put a crib in an office and take care of the baby while I worked any job. Babies mostly just sleep, anyway.
Above is an actual picture of a living room after a few children have been loose in it.
My internal alarm over parenthood increased when I lost my job in 2010 and tried shopping for new health insurance, pre-Affordable Care Act. No plan remotely in my price range covered maternity care—and when I did apply for one, I got turned down flat anyway because of a pre-existing condition, while my husband easily enrolled in a plan, though because he was healthy, he refused to pay for it himself. I shouldered the cost, figuring that was better than risking bankruptcy over a single accident or illness without insurance.
What is difficult about having children?
When I divorced at 31, a Facebook feed full of other thirty-somethings’ kids was painful. Not because I wished for kids and saw that chance diminishing with the end of my marriage. Because I still felt guilty for failing to live up to that version of a woman’s life.
But every time I dodged around a stroller on the sidewalk or watched a parent try to keep hold of a child on the subway platform, I felt a blooming relief that whatever else I am coping with, I am responsible only for my own self.
My therapist recently asked me what I thought the hardest thing about having children would be.
With perfect certainty, I answered that I do not have it in me to look out for another human being’s needs at every moment.
My therapist suggested that not everyone parents this way. But I said that if were to be a parent, I would want that level of care for my child.
And watching Cyrus’s dad strolling around solo, instead of being whacked with whiffle bats, I’m reminded of whom the bulk of that care almost always falls on.
I saw Cyrus and mom recently on another of my dog walks. They were passing another woman with an infant strapped to her chest.
“CRAP! Stop looking at me!” Cyrus yelled. It’s unclear whether this remark was meant for his mom, the other mom, or the infant. Or maybe even my dog and me, across the street.
Another time, an outdoor yelling match between him and his mother woke me up at 7:30am through my closed windows.
“I don’t like it when you talk to me like that, Cyrus!” she said.
“You are such a fucking meanie!” he repeatedly screamed back (which raises the question: where did the child learn to talk this way?).
I realize that I seem to be ignoring a giant piece of the parenting equation: I’m dwelling on the stress and grief with no sense of the love I would have for a child. Maybe it’s kind of like thinking of Thanksgiving dinner from the perspective of someone who always has to cook it and clean up afterwards, but never gets to have one bite of it.
Seriously. Look at how the children deliberately mashed Legos between the couch cushions.
Dogs and dying people
I think some people see dogs this way: thinking only about the messes, costs, and inconveniences with no inkling of the joys of canine companionship.
I knew adopting my dog last year would upend my routines and drain my bank account.
Recently, for reasons unknown, she vomited four times between 2am and 7am. Later, she had to go out at 4:45am and again at 7:20am.
I abhor vomit and waking up before 8am. I love my dog.
Here I am the day I adopted my dog. Bliss.
I don’t lack patience or caretaking ability. I’ve even done plenty of hospice care, in a peaceful, capable state of mind. I would rather minister to a dying person than to a child. (Though sometimes I wonder what it says about all of us in general that most people have experience with childcare, but I’d guess relatively few have actively cared for a person who is dying.)
Childhood emotions live on
Sometimes I think about the roots of my feeling about children. Some people experience the proximity of a fussy toddler like a neglected car alarm—a peripheral sensory irritation beyond your control. But when I dwell on a piece that I wrote several years ago, about the negative impact going to work at a very young age had on my adult self, and I work with my therapist to recognize and reintegrate bereft and desperate parts of my depressive childhood self into my adult landscape, I realize that my aversion to parenthood may be at least partly because I am still emotionally mired in the past.
My childhood and adolescence were full of responsibility without agency. I made top grades and met high expectations with few corresponding freedoms, and often wasn’t allowed to do the ordinary things my teenage friends did, even though I desperately wanted to join in. And when I was young, it never occurred to me that if someone wanted me to do something I did not want to do (from injurious exercise to a grueling job to childcare), I could say no.
Now, the realization is filtering through that my aversion to parenthood may not be solely an aspect of my personality. When I see a parent shepherding a few kids down the sidewalk, maybe the rush of mingled pity, anxiety, and disgust I feel aren’t the emotions of an otherwise capable person in her mid-thirties. They’re the emotions of a child who was overwhelmed with strenuous unwanted responsibilities, and now projects decades-old feelings onto her adult life.
But having recognized this, I feel little motivation to change it—besides the goal of being able to walk past young families without having to suppress a shudder. I would like to perceive love, not life-crushing duty.
I would also like people to accept my choice at face value.
“You never know!”
If you say you don’t want children, especially as a 30-something woman, the first thing many people will say is, “you never know!” Or you’ll meet a man who wants kids and that will change how you feel. Don’t you want to have this hypothetical guy’s children?
Recently, a large ball in his hand, Cyrus circled a trio of other kids. They were apparently terrified to move, holding fast to the railing on the stoop of a house down the block. I was passing with my dog in the middle of the empty street.
“If you guys don’t come down, the game will NEVER start!” he bellowed. Then he unleashed his frustration by hurling the ball against my shoulder blade.
The kid has an impressive arm.
My body is less impressive, which led to a rather bizarre conversation with one of my doctors earlier this year. When I explained that hormonal birth control has given me painful and dangerous side effects in the past, she suggested that I would feel great if I got pregnant.
I said that even if that was true, I did not want children.
She suggested that I could become a surrogate, so that I could hand the resulting babies off to someone else after reaping the supposed benefits of pregnancy.
Especially as a person with longtime physical and mental health problems, I did not feel there was a productive response to this.
Motherhood and medicine
Fortunately, this year the media has begun paying a bit of attention to the terrifying state of post-partum care in America, revealing the tendency of our medical system to prioritize the care of infants over mothers, leading to increasing rates of preventable injuries, illness, and even maternal death.
Countering the narrative that most women bounce back quickly from the grueling and often dangerous process of pregnancy and delivery, major outlets are reporting on the fact that American OB-GYNs routinely minimize, deny, or ignore astonishingly high rates of complex and serious post-partum problems like incontinence, pelvic fractures, torn and detached musculature, organ prolapse, and debilitating pain. (Learn more from Vox and Cosmopolitan.)
Recently, buying tampons at my local drugstore, I noticed how the adjacent selection of incontinence products for women seems to have exploded in the last few years, from a small section of adult diapers for the elderly and some fortified pads to products like sleek-as-possible panties made to handle urine leaks, packaged and marketed for young women.
Or are droves of American women forced to buy pee-absorbing panties at the drugstore instead of getting help from their doctors when they lose bladder control after having a baby?
As I told the doctor who put in my IUD, I’m 100 percent sure I never want to be pregnant, and 95 percent sure I never want to be a parent. I won’t rule out the chance that a future partner may already have children. And if the “you never know!” chorus is somehow right and I wake up one day anxious for a child and with the means to support one, I would adopt.
Rainbows and poo
Even I can admit that almost every child has moments that draw me in. A few months ago, a fabulous rainbow stretched over our neighborhood, and Cyrus and his brother ran out to the corner with their dad to get a better look, where I was also standing. On the way, Cyrus banged on the door of another neighbor, who poked her head out and asked what was happening.
“Cyrus wanted you to see the rainbow,” his dad explained.
Here's the rainbow I saw with Cyrus.
Is Cyrus just a tempestuous little person who will stop cussing his mom out, quit hurling things at people, and go to college? Will he become an accountant or a production designer or a triage nurse or a whitewater rafting guide, and be a lifelong joy to his parents?
Recently, Cyrus approached me on foot in the street and made eye contact. His expression was relaxed and I realized I’ve become a familiar figure to him. He spoke to me for the first time, thrusting his arm out and pointing to a nearby pile of dog poop. “Dookie,” he announced, and walked away.
Motherhood in America
With my 34th birthday behind me, the biological window in which I can contemplate a low-risk pregnancy and birth is mercifully much shorter than it was in my 20s. And more than that, there is a burgeoning comfort in realizing that I know myself well enough to embrace this choice.
Which is another reason that I’ll never really be Scrooge. He was transformed in a single wild night, but I see no conversion for me.
Recently, I attended a town hall meeting and listened to a tearful constituent take the mic to talk about how climate change will affect his newborn daughter. As a recent Guardian article demonstrates, preventing the birth of just one child reduces your personal carbon footprint far, far more than ditching your car, buying green energy or becoming a vegetarian.
Not to mention America’s health care policy roller coaster, operated by men who seem hell-bent on stripping women of all reasonable reproductive care—if I had a baby, would I have reliable, affordable access to decent medical care? Would my child? In this country, where our Congress went into its year-end recess without funding a bipartisan health insurance program for low-income children, and will upend the individual health insurance market with a historically unpopular tax bill, there’s no answer.
Our current Congressional majority’s apparent disregard for women, children, and low-income people compounds my child-free conviction. The relief of embracing a future without my own kids is profound, alongside shedding decades of guilt over not wanting children. I think it also frees me up emotionally to hold a baby when I want to, and enjoy friends’ and family members’ children and play a role in their lives, without feeling conflicted about my own choice.
Clearly, Cyrus’s parents can grow weary, and some responsibilities fall on other youngsters in his wake. Once I saw him lying flat on the hot sidewalk, decked out in giant inflatable water wings, with a red plastic Light Saber tucked into one side.
“You GUYS! Help me UP!” he said, and with no parents in sight, the other kids dutifully crowded around to haul him to his feet. I looked away and continued my walk.