When I was 17, I had a boyfriend named Bill and plans to flee the country if he were drafted. In imagining our expatriate life, we had chosen names for our non-existent but surely future children.
It was the only and last time that I considered having kids.
I have been waiting some time to comment on my choice to be childless. Threats of the draft and leaving for Canada are relics of the Vietnam War era of over 40 years ago. That makes me a woman of a certain age and on the cusp of retirement.
It seems appropriate to comment on my life choices at this point because I have lived with those choices for some decades. It situates me, with some authority that only years can bestow, to weigh in on the question of choosing, or not choosing, motherhood.
Indeed, one would scarcely know that it is a question. As a law professor who talks with young women in their 20s – and as a simple casual observer of our current culture – I am acutely aware that the debate about work/family balance seems to have no end.
Trouble with the “Having it All” Debate
Aside from its monotony, the question “Can Women Have It All?” bothers me for two reasons. First, the “all”, as in having it, means having a career and children. The question is never, for example, “Can Mothers Have It All,” or even, “Can Parents Have It All.”
The question equates being a woman with being a mother, as though all women, even the corporate ladder climbers or global peacemakers, yearn for children.
Second, assuming motherhood for all young women presumes that there is no other “all” that women could find as important as mothering. How to find the balance between say, career and writing a novel, traveling the world, developing and nurturing friendships? The Can Women Have It All crowd seldom, if ever, talk about any of that.
That increasing numbers of women are opting out of motherhood (now 1 in 5, up from 1 in 10 in the 1970s) has not stopped the questioning of those, like me, on the subject of choosing to be childless. Before I had read a piece in the Huffington Post called “Silly Things People Have Said to Me When I Tell Them I’m Not Having Kids,” I knew what the silly things were: you’ll grow out of your selfishness/you’ll change your mind/you’ll regret it when you are old(er).
It was difficult to counter the proclamations of those who thought they could predict your future, which brings me back to my own experience. Now, at 61, where I have seen my choice throughout a lifetime, I can confidently say, no regrets.
Why have the predicted regrets not come to pass? My experience has taught me that there are other narratives for women about the business of living well, particularly when one’s choices are in fact choices, and choices grounded in the careful listening to one’s own voice.
My discussion with myself began with observations of my own nuclear and extended family in blue-collar Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 60s. Women stayed home, tended to husbands and house, and bore and raised children. People whispered about the childless aunt, and about my own mother, who had to assume a “second shift” of homemaking in addition to a paying job.
Fathers, even a loving one like mine, had a life external to family, even if it was not always exciting and glamorous. My father’s life looked more interesting to me, and certainly less exhausting, than my mother’s.
In my college years, I discovered a world that I had left the confines of home to find. Young women, including me, were protesting the war, arguing for women’s rights, studying, going on to advanced degrees. I wanted to expand that life; I wanted a life on a larger, different canvas than motherhood could provide.
During and after law school, into my 40s, I saw friends and colleagues having children. I saw their lives had two dimensions: work and kids, understandably no time or energy for anything else. Not only was I sure I could never do that, I knew that I never wanted to.
And so, my narrative went like this: I graduated from college, then law school. I worked for several years as a legal aid lawyer in rural Pennsylvania. Thirty-two years as a law school professor, tenured since the age of 38. Married for the first time at 47.
Mine has been a life filled with professional challenges, and romances of the epic, tragic and ordinary varieties. I have traveled, which other than to the Jersey Shore, was not an option in my family of origin. Paris is my spiritual second home.
I am a cancer survivor (twice), a speaker of French, a reader of books, a writer of published work. And my life is filled with an abundance of love – from my husband, his (now our) family, nieces and nephews and grandchildren, cats, friends from grammar school and from everyplace else I have touched since.
To those who wonder, is it enough? The answer is yes. It is challenging, complicated, joyous, and deeply satisfying.
Back to the young women and the question of having it all. I know, through my professional work and my personal relationships that many women deeply desire children, and they ought to have them.
I also know that some women stand on the precipice of their adulthood, wondering whether children are essential to a well-lived life, or maybe having already decided to forgo motherhood. I am certain that they hear the same overt or oblique criticism that I did over their failure to embrace a maternal role.
To them, at 61, I repeat: no regrets. Write a different narrative if you will.
- What About All of Us Who Aren’t Interested in “Having it All?”
- Elizabeth Gilbert’s Advice to Women: Get Out of Your Own Way
- Loving Other People’s Kids: An Aunt’s Epiphany
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