From December 2016

If You Knew You’d Get Divorced, Would You Still Have Kids?

If you’d asked me twenty years ago, whether or not I’d have children, the answer would have been an emphatic of course! From as far back as I can remember, I knew that I wanted to have children. Not just one or two, either– I wanted eight of them, preferably all boys. I inherited my love of children from my mom, who never missed an opportunity to hold a baby, squeeze those little sausage legs, or play peek-a-boo while waiting in the check-out line at the grocery store. She was one of 18 children, from a big Italian family, and I always knew I wanted a big family of my own one day.

To say that I love children is like saying fish love the ocean. As a teen, I spent most of my spare time helping out on the play-yard with the kindergarteners, volunteering at the Y teaching children with special needs how to swim, babysitting on weekends (often without pay), and working as a camp counselor. In college, I taught preschool and babysat on weekends. After finishing my BA, I went to grad school to study child development, got my teaching credential, then taught Kindergarten for two years. Children were a part of every facet of my life.

When I was almost thirty, my husband and I decided to have children. We’d been married for three years. We came to this decision with much intention, partly because he was a programmer, and always considered all the consequences before he entered into anything. Some of the factors we considered were: whether we were financially stable, what we could offer children, whether we could afford to have me stay home until they were in Kindergarten. As much as I thought we were making a well-informed decision, I realize now that we hadn’t considered what should have been the most obvious question: would we still want to have children if we had to go it alone?

We are conditioned from early childhood to imagine the perfect family scenario– mom, dad, 2.2 kids, a dog, a white-picket fence. My version of this was that I’d be a stay-at-home mom , my husband would be involved and attentive to our family, and we’d have my doting Italian mother (Nonna to my kids) only two miles away. I’d had fantasies about pregnancy, too– that glow, that gorgeous round belly, people helping with my groceries. It wasn’t long, though, before reality caught up to fantasy in a dark alley and gave it the good beating it deserved.

The disillusionment began somewhere around the sixth week of pregnancy. I came to understand the misnomer of morning sickness, which was not relegated merely to mornings. No– it lasted all day, every day; and whereas for most people, morning sickness subsided after the first trimester, for me lasted five long months. I managed to gain 60 lbs with my first pregnancy and 58 lbs with the next. And that pregnant glow? Ha! What I experienced was more a putrid shade of green. Looking back, I suppose this was the first indication that perhaps having children was not going to be what I had imagined. But I got through the pregnancy, and after nine months of feeling like a bloated cow, I gave birth to a beautiful and healthy baby girl.

Those first few days were as magical as everyone says; all I wanted to do was gaze into my baby’s eyes and hold her close. Then a couple of weeks in, those magical days were replaced by anxious nights, filled with completely irrational thoughts. I was convinced that my precious daughter would get into drugs or have unprotected sex. Even after those initial anxieties subsided, I could never have anticipated all the worries that would accompany having children. In the rolodex of my mind, I filled card after card with every new worry inherent to parenting. But, despite the worries, I enjoyed being a mom. For me, the benefits far outweighed the costs.

I was fortunate enough to have been able to stay home until my daughters were six and four. I’d planned to stay home until they were both in school, but as it turned out, my husband was not happy being married. I think marriage and parenting took a tremendous toll on him. In February of 2006, when divorce was imminent, I took a job as a preschool director in a small school that offered a lot of flexibility. By December, the girls and I found ourselves in our new house without their father, a maze of boxes looming in the living room. Over time, and with my mom’s help, we settled into our new life.

My mom, who lived only two miles away, was a tremendous help. She watched the girls if I needed to run to the store or if I had a meeting. She’d make sure my freezer was stocked with minestrone and sauce. In many ways, having my mom was better than having a husband; she was more helpful and I never felt I had to walk on eggshells with her. But less than two years into my divorce, we learned that my mom had Stage IV colon cancer. The oncologist gave her 6-12 months. The surgeons performed an aggressive resection of her colon and liver. She came to stay with me for a few months while she recovered. The surgeon felt confident that he’d gotten all the cancer, and for a couple of years, it looked as if she might defy the odds. Then, after almost two years of being cancer free, she got the news that her cancer had come back. It was, hands down, the hardest time in my life. On top of being a single mom, I took on the job of being her caretaker. She stayed with us while she recovered from an aggressive surgery, and again at the end when she was housebound and on a morphine drip. I wouldn’t have traded that time with her, but it added another element of challenge to parenting. Somehow, though, I made it through.

If you asked me today if I had to do it all again, would I have kids, there would be no definitive response, rather a long, uncomfortable pause followed by an incredibly uncertain I’m not sure. I have to stop here and qualify this by saying that I have two of the best kids I’ve ever known. If they were not my own kids and I met them at a gathering, I’d be instantly drawn to each of them, and would seek them out as friends. But, here’s the thing– if I had to do it again, what I would change is the mindset I had going into having children. I genuinely thought I was making an informed decision, but the questions I considered barely scratched the surface. I couldn’t possibly have planned for the curveballs that life throws, nor could I have fully appreciated the fact that mothering is relentless. Sleep is scarce, and not just in the early years. As I write, it’s 3:30am. My 14-year-old daughter woke me because she has a fever. Even when I feel I have nothing left to give, somehow I find a way to give some more. And I don’t begrudge doing any of it for my children.

No doubt, I was naive in imagining a perfect little family. In my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined what it would mean to put my own life and creative pursuits on hold for a good ten to twelve years, let alone to do so selflessly, without harboring resentment. When my husband and I thought about having children, despite the fact that we were well aware that roughly 50% of marriages end in divorce, we didn’t consider the real possibility that we might end up divorced, and we most certainly didn’t consider the scenario of parenting without a partner. This was an oversight with consequential repercussions, for us as parents, as well as for our children. Even with the most thoughtful consideration and planning, there are always unforeseen circumstances. I know this to be true with just about everything in life. So why did I think parenting would be any different? I guess it goes back to the house, the white picket fence, the American dream, that mythical perfect family. I wanted it so badly. I tried so hard to create it, to shield my children from every pain and hardship. It took a long while for me to realize that the pain and hardship are essential to developing compassion.

I guess if I could impart a bit of advice to someone on the fence about having children, it would be to ask yourself, in complete honesty: Are you willing and able to parent your children alone, and still live a happy and fulfilled life? The answer does not have to be yes.

dimartino-headshotAnna DiMartino is a writer, artist, teacher, and mother. Her writing has appeared in Whale Road Review, Silver Birch Press: Learning to Ride, Atlanta Review (Spring, 2016), The Cancer Poetry Project 2A Year in Ink, Volume 6 (San Diego Writers, Ink Anthology); Serving House Journal: Issues 8, 10 and 12, Steve Kowit: This Unspeakably Marvelous Life, and is forthcoming in Lake Effect. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University and leads a read and critique group for Writer’s Ink. Visit her website at www.annaodimartino.com.

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The Childfree Choice: An Interview with The Baby Matrix author Laura Carroll

MS: We appreciate your focus on teaching people to actually reflect on whether or not to have children rather than just do it because it’s what people do! In the The Baby Matrix you talk about getting people to actually assess whether or not they will make good parents and you discuss Ellen Peck and William Granzi’s The Parent Test which examines an individual’s aptitude for parenting. Did you take The Parent Test? What did it reveal to you?

Laura: While doing research for The Baby Matrix, I was delighted to discover Peck and Granzi’s book. I had not seen a book like this before. It was developed by a collection of experts, from Planned Parenthood leaders, doctors, ob/gyns, marriage and family counselors, sex educators, child psychiatrists and professors. Six detailed questionnaires go into “components of capability” for couples to ask themselves:

1) Expectations: What expectations do we have about parenthood? How realistic are they?

2) Resources: How do our resources measure up to the generally accepted requirements for the job of parenthood?

3) Skills: Do we have the needed skills for the job of parenthood? If not, how can they be developed?

4) Motivations: How strongly and for what reasons do we want to enter the process of parenting?

5) Traits: How well do we match the personal characteristics of happy, successful parents?

6) Interests: How sincere are our interests in all the elements of parenthood?

I completed all of the questionnaires, mostly to get a full sense of the assessment from a research standpoint. On a personal note, it confirmed what I have known since I was a teen – that I was not interested in having parenthood be the central focus of my adult life. Although this book was published some time ago (late 70s), I clearly saw how it remains very relevant today as a resource for making best decisions regarding parenthood. I have referred this book to many people in the midst of the parenthood decision and those feeling ambivalent, and it has helped them greatly.

MS: Now that there are websites such as Scary Mommy that expose the messiness of childbirth, parenting, etc. do you think that it’s still “taboo to talk about the negatives, such as the agonies that can be present at childbirth, the tragedy of death of the mother and/or the baby in childbirth or the drudgery and challenges of raising children” or have things changed when it comes to how we discuss parenthood?

Laura: What you quote from The Baby Matrix refers to early feminist Leta Hollingsworth’s 1916 paper about myths, or “social devices” that were needed to emphasize the positives of parenthood and encourage pregnancy. Talking about the negatives is less taboo now than in her time. Today we hear more about how many parents may not like a lot about the day-day-day process of parenting, but that the overall experience of parenthood is worth it.

There is one area that still seems less acceptable to talk about – regret. We may see more talk about this than in times past, but motherhood regret remains generally frowned upon. Why? Because pronatalist beliefs tell us that we are supposed to want to have children and experience it as the most fulfilling thing in our lives. When it turns out that this is not true, it is going against strong societal norms.

Israeli sociologist Orna Donath has done some interesting research in this area, and has a new book out based on it titled, Regretting Motherhood. An interesting thing happened when she began speaking to the media about it. In an interview I did with her she talks about how the debate about regretting motherhood shifts quickly to a debate about maternal ambivalence.

Donath has had to stress how they are not the same. In her words, “There are mothers who experience ambivalent feelings but do not regret becoming mothers, and there are mothers who regret becoming mothers and are not ambivalent about motherhood. In other words, regret does not deal with the question, ‘How can I become at ease with motherhood?’ but with the experience that ‘Becoming a mother was a mistake.’” Talking about ambivalence is easier – and more acceptable than candid admissions and experiences of regret.

MS: I see your book as feminist–you are working to normalize a woman’s decision not to have children. There’s also a powerful contingent of feminists, including Hillary Clinton, fighting for better paid maternity leave and affordable childcare.  In The Baby Matrix you note that one of the ways that our society is pronatalist is that fact that there are maternity and paternity leave policies. “While parents can take this time to care for their new baby, those with no children (yet or by choice) don’t get that time. All of these types of benefits favor and reward those who choose to reproduce, not those who do not.” What would this more equitable system like? How do you think both versions of feminism can co-exist?

Laura: To me, at its core, feminism is about equality and equal treatment. Maternity and paternity leave policies are inequitable because they favor one group of employees who have made a particular choice in their personal lives. This does not mean I am against leave policies where employees can take time off when a new baby arrives. I am all for it! Allowing new parents this time is a very important thing. But putting parenthood at the center of leave policies means not treating all employees equally.

This is why I am a proponent of PTO – or paid time off policies, where employees can use this time for a variety of purposes, one of which can be parental leave. The good news is we are seeing more PTO policies these days, and I hope that this continues to increase. Equitable leave policies don’t favor those who choose to make parenthood part of their personal lives, and don’t encourage any life choice or lifestyle in one’s personal life. Part of creating a work environment that treats employees equally also means creating a culture and policies in which there is no ‘punishment’ stemming from one’s reproductive choices, and this can relate to employees with children and without them.

MS: You had me nodding my head when you were talking about creating a curriculum that educates people to critically reflect on the decision to or not to have children, but when you started talking about revoking the rights of severely “unfit” individuals to have kids by requiring that they temporarily use long term birth control like an IUD (intrauterine device) for women or RISUG (totally “reversible inhibition of sperm under guidance”–two injections in the scrotum) for men, you started to lose me. This proposal makes me think of eugenics–the intentional cleansing of what are considered bad genes. Do you worry about the misuse of power in a system where people can have their right to reproduce revoked?

Laura: In The Baby Matrix I talk about the heavy prices society pays for subscribing to the idea that it’s everyone’s right to have children, regardless of whether people are emotionally, financially, or psychologically ready to have them. Too many children, the parents themselves, and society are harmed as a result of this unquestioned right.

Our society severely lacks ways to prevent severely unfit parents from harming children and society. In the spirit of igniting a discussion about ways to address these harms, in the book I broach this idea – What if those who show severe levels of unfitness as parents, such as recurring child alimony non-payment; physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; parental substance abuse; neglect; abandonment or homicide, could be required to temporarily lose their right to reproduce. Severely unfit mothers and fathers would not lose this right forever – but just until they are deemed out of the severely unfit classification.

The logic here is even in a democratic society like ours, rights are taken away when people harm others. We do this in our legal and prison system. The same could happen for severely unfit parents. I don’t see this idea as moving toward as eugenics, which is more about improving the genetic quality of the human population. And like all policies, it would need to be clear in its intent, which is not sterilization, but one that temporarily takes away a reproductive right as a punitive measure to deal with parents who have harmed or are harming their children.

In the book, which is written as more a manifesto, I present this idea as a way to spur further discourse on it as well as other ideas to solve this problem. One thing I do know is it’s a big problem that will need bold ideas to try and solve. I also contend that it will mean shifting from a pronatalist mindset that says anyone has the right to have children to one that treats parenthood more as a ‘privileged’ right.

MS: We appreciate how you unpack the argument that people should have kids so that said kids will take care of their parents when old age hits. You argue that people should plan for old age, not just financially, but also by creating networks. Can you talk about how you’ve prepared for “elderhood”?

Laura: Sure!

  1. My husband and I have long-term financial targets and are implementing our plan to get there for when we are old.
  2. We have and continue to build a support network of dear friends who are like family, godchildren, and other younger people we are close to in our lives.
  3. We have a home in a central location that will be close to health care services, community services and community-based networks. If we decide to change homes upon our elderhood years, this is will be a key component in the selection of our home’s location.

Also in play – dear girlfriends and I have started to seriously discuss how we want to live if/when we end up as widows. We seriously talk about living arrangements, from sharing a home to thinking bigger – developing a great business idea for the kind of elder developments and communities we’d love to see – even possibly create!

MS: You make a few arguments in The Baby Matrix that probably aggravate some people. For example, one argument against bringing more people into the world is that it is bad for our planet–it strains our already strained resources, so if people are going to choose to have kids, you argue, they should adopt or just have one. How have people you know who have more than one child reacted to this argument? Has it impacted any of your relationships with family or friends?

Laura: I put forth a ‘one or none’ biological child advice based on what many population experts encourage. If a person wants to raise more children, experts also advise taking children in need of loving homes. This not only means looking at the problems we have with our current adoption system, but how we as a society think about adoption. Society purports “bio is best” and that adoption is the “last resort” after all else fails. We’re at a point where we need to loosen our value on biological over adoptive children to do the right thing for the planet and those already on it.

When I think of those closest to me, either they have no children, one biological child, or two biological plus adopted children. For those who have more than one biological child, at the time they had them what was being touted more was ‘replacement’ – meaning a couple who each replaced themselves should have no more than two biological children. I would say they acted on what they knew at the time.

This was true for me as well; from reading the experts, for awhile I too thought two biological children per couple or less was best. Researching The Baby Matrix and subsequently serving as editor on the book on overpopulation, Man Swarm: How Overpopulation is Killing the Wild World really opened my eyes to how having one or no biological children is so important to population reduction and stabilization, which today’s world desperately needs.

For the most part my friends are very open to the issue. One friend (a mom) chose Man Swarm for her book club and invited me to come speak when they met to discuss it. The group was a collection of mothers and not, and we had a lively discussion about how to best educate today’s kids on reproductive ethics in a time when we are losing so much of the natural world as a result of too many humans.

MS: For your first book you interviewed couples who did not have children to educate people about happily married couples without children by choice. That book was published sixteen years ago. What kind of progress do you think we have made since the publication of Families of Two?  

Laura: I am pleased to say lots of progress has been made. Shortly after its release, being interviewed on network television to talk about Families of Two and that the segment treated the childfree in a curious and positive way was groundbreaking. It also sparked the topic being talked about more in print, radio and television media. At that time, the internet was very new. As it expanded, the childfree demographic really began to move out of the tributaries of society. Websites, blogs and online print media have fueled an explosion of information and education about opting out of parenthood. And in the last decade or so we’ve seen more research on people with no children than ever before.

I have also seen three positive trends. First, we have chipped away at some of the myths surrounding not having children. With some years of childfree voices hammering on inaccurate assumptions, we’ve nicked away at stubborn myths like those with no children by choice are selfish and that having children is “the” key to fulfillment in one’s adult life.

While there has been online pitting of parents against non-parents, we’re seeing less of it today. As cyberculture developed, it often promoted combative tones and oppositional communication, and when it comes to those violating the parenthood norm, this has been no exception. In the case of parents and non-parents, this kind of online communication has only served to judge and separate both camps. These days online there seems to be less adversarial banter and judging of others’ reproductive choices, and more about mutual understanding of both camps.

Overall, from tracking it for the last 16 years, I see the childfree choice gaining more levels of acceptance with each generation. I am dedicated to reaching a time when the choice not to reproduce is recognized as just as worthy and legitimate as the choice to reproduce. It is a matter of reproductive justice, and society reaching full reproductive freedom. We’re not there yet, but as of 2016, we’ve certainly notched closer to this end.

Laura Carroll is the author of Families of Two: Interviews with Happily Married Couples without Children by Choice, which received international recognition and paved the way for her to become an expert and leading voice on the childfree choice. For the last 16 years, she has tracked and researched the childfree. Laura is also the author of The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds from Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World.

In addition to writing nonfiction, Laura is a seasoned editor and communications consultant. She has been featured on ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS morning shows, a variety of radio talk shows, U.S. and Canadian public radio, print/digital media, including Fortune, The Wall Street Journal and New York Magazine to discuss social science topics. Find Laura at lauracarroll.com.