By Beverly Army Williams

45 Makes Me Regret Not Having Kids

On January 21, I looked around me at the Hartford, CT Women’s March Rally, and I felt regret, deep like a splinter from an un-planed board. I was there with my friend Sarah and her 12-year-old daughter Ella. It occurred to me that by not having children, I deprived myself of the opportunity to raise humans who would be thoughtful, critical, committed citizens. Of course, the beliefs of parents do not always become the beliefs of their children, yet I was struck by the lost opportunity of passing on values that I believe are the very ones that make America great: tolerance, questioning authority, willingness to stand up for not only one’s own rights, but more importantly, the rights of the marginalized. Despite my regret, the number of children at the rally heartened me.

After the rally, Sarah and I exchanged emails about how and why she included Ella that day. Sarah wrote about bringing her daughter and son with her every time she votes, as well as family discussions about current events, politics and community. For her, it is vital that her kids understand the responsibility that goes along with their privilege.

While Sarah’s husband and son decided to forgo the rally, in part to avoid the overstimulation of the event, Ella decided, after much conversation, that she wanted to participate. Sarah did encourage her, sharing with me, “I told her that this would be a significant day for American women. I didn’t want her to miss out on the chance to be a part of such a special day. Ultimately, I hope that my daughter saw that there are things that we can not sit idle and accept.”

As we drove to Hartford, I got to see Sarah’s strategies for raising an active citizen. Ella, pussyhat proudly perched on her head, encouraged me as I knit as fast as I could to finish one for myself. Sarah made a point of reminding us that we should be prepared in case the media asked to interview us. She encouraged Ella to practice what she would say about why she was at the rally. I was impressed by her enthusiastic, smart answers about human rights and immigration issues. Clearly, making posters with her family, hanging out as her mom churned out pussyhats, and months of post-election conversations impacted Ella’s views. I could see that Ella had a sense of the rally being more than a new experience; she understood the protest she was about to voice.

About a month later, I asked Sarah what affect she felt the rally had on her daughter. She wrote, “It certainly normalized protest as a reasonable reaction to policy we find objectionable. She is also thoughtful about articulating the ideas that upset her and why. Ella got to see you, me, her grandparents, her ballet teacher, a friend and her mom among many other people in our community at the rally because there are ideologies that need protesting. Long term it remains to be seen if this creates an inner sense of civic responsibility, but I think it will.”

In the weeks since 45 has taken office–weeks that feel like decades–I’ve vacillated between relief that I don’t have children who will inherit this mess, and the same regret I felt at the rally. I feel encouraged, though, that there are legions of parents who are woke, and even more young people positioned to stay woke. And I see that my role in the lives of the young people I know is to be yet another adult who is unafraid to use her privilege and raise her voice in protest.

But what about my sisters who are on the fence about having kids? How is this administration shaping their decisions?

MotherShould? writer Ada Kenney weighed in, saying, “45 and the current Congress haven’t necessarily changed my plans about motherhood. Rather, they’ve heightened my ambivalence. I didn’t want to get an IUD before the inauguration as so many women did because I only have so many (if any) fertile years left, and seems like a waste to get it for just a year or so. But I also don’t want to raise a child alone with less of a social safety net than we currently have, and unless I meet The One really soon, that may be my only path toward motherhood.

“I have considered fostering or adoption before, and I fear those systems will be weakened in the next few years, so maybe I will do that. It would be a better move than having a baby in the face of the threat of nuclear war.”

In a recent episode of The Longest Shortest Time, Hillary Frank hosts a roundtable during which, among other topics, two lesbian couples examine the question of how 45’s administration affects their thinking about having children. Even within one couple, the partners’ views cover a wide range: eager to raise radical children vs. afraid to bring a child into the world where the parents (Black, queer) feel hatred around them.

How about you? Has the new administration muddied or clarified the decision for you?

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Let’s Be Friends Part 2: Childfree Woman Loves Mom Friends and their Kids

A thing that made me sad: getting ditched by a friend I’d had for about five years because I’m childfree. It didn’t happen right away, and trust me, I understand that life post-kids is hectic. After the baby arrived, I’d visit with easily reheated meals, a little chocolate, and arms happy to hold the baby while my friend showered. As the weather warmed, I’d join in jaunts to push the baby in her stroller around town, take in the air.

But then something shifted. My friend put together her wish list for the friend she wanted to make. This new friend would have a baby the same age. She’d share the same interest, like the same kinds of food. And she’d want to have a second baby at around the same time my friend would. Before long, it was nearly impossible to make plans together. She found her gal pal soul mate. And it wasn’t me.

What hurt was not her need for new mom friends. Of course, it makes sense for a new mom to crave a kindred friend, someone to share ideas, worries, and lack-of-sleep complaints with. It’s important for women to develop friendships that will help them feel strong and capable in their unrehearsable new role. As the childfree friend, though, it felt awful to realize that what had once been valued in our relationship no longer was and that her focus had shifted entirely to her mom friends.

I miss our friendship, now a courteous acquaintanceship. I especially miss it because, despite my being childfree, I have several deep, wonderful friendships with women who chose to have kids. It can be challenging, both for the childfree woman and the new mom, to maintain a friendship across the baby fence, but, at least speaking from the childfree perspective, it is absolutely worth the extra effort it may take. (read the reverse perspective here) The added bonus of these relationships? Now I’m fortunate to have friendships with their kids, too.

I wouldn’t say the role I have is that of an auntie, though being an auntie is one of my favorite identities. Instead, I’ve developed intergenerational friendships, which are vital for wellbeing and strong community.

Sarah and I became friends after she joined a knitting group I attended. Her quick wit, savvy understanding of human nature, and deeply caring yet no-nonsense personality won me over. If I’d had a younger sister, Sarah’s the woman I would want to be that sister. Before long, our friendship developed to include her whole family. When I had a recent loss, her husband made beautiful, labor-intensive food to bring comfort. She’s one of my only friends with kids who has asked me to watch her kids when she’s needed someone to step in for an hour.

All too often, I think women with kids don’t ask their childfree friends to help out with childcare because, well, a variety of reasons….maybe they don’t want to impose, or maybe they assume being childfree means disliking children, or maybe they’re not sure their childfree friends will know what to do with the kids.

One of the reasons I value my friendship with Sarah is that she makes none of those assumptions. She asked, making it clear that my saying no wouldn’t be a problem. And because she asked, I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon playing games with her kids, getting to know them better, and letting them get to know me better.

Now my husband and I look forward to our annual New Year’s hike, which the kids join us on. We laugh at videos of the kids telling jokes, feel pride when we see her son play piano with true musicality and feeling, look forward to her daughter’s ballet performances. We’re not family, yet we get to participate in the kids’ lives as if we are. As they grow older, I hope we can continue to enjoy our friendship, continue to model how much friendship matters. This is important because strong social networks can lead to healthier, longer lives.

A few weeks ago I visited another friend who is a new mom. She and her son had been out of the area for a couple of months, and I had not seen him since he was a newborn. She handed him to me to hold, talked about work, answered my questions about his development-the thing with being childfree is I don’t really know when babies start meeting their marks-sitting, crawling, teeth, etc. She treated me like her friend, as she always has. And she welcomed me into this new part of her life as though there was no question I’d want to be there. And I do.

I know parents are more than parents. They are people with ideas, opinions, lives beyond their children, and I want to know those parts of them, too. While I enjoy time and activities with my friends and their kids, I also believe the time sans kids is vital. Friendships are complicated, beautiful relationships, and one of the things a childfree friend offers to a woman with kids is the reminder of who else she is, who else she has been, who else she will be.

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My Mother’s Day Wish: Being Childfree Accepted as a Cultural Norm

It was Mother’s Day, 2003. On the Sundays when I was at home, I attended the Episcopalian church where I was trying to rebuild my faith and connect to a spiritual community as I had as a kid. I was newly separated, working as an adjunct professor at a prison college program in the evenings after my full-time grant-writing job was finished.

Ushers walked through the sanctuary with flat florist boxes filled with carnations, as the priest, Mother Claire, invited all of the mothers to accept one. I sat in my usual aisle seat, distracting myself with the Book of Common Prayer during this part. When an usher stopped, I shook my head to indicate I was not a mom.

Instead of the moment passing unnoticed, Mother Claire strode over, took a carnation, and thrust it at me.

“But you do mother,” she said. “You are a teacher. You mother your students. You deserve this.”

I was too embarrassed by the attention she drew to me to refuse. The priest had counseled me when my marriage started to dissolve, and she knew that I had been poised to shift my thinking and try to have kids. Her insistence felt like salt in the wound of my failures made more upsetting because I have never believed teaching to be a form of mothering. I took the flower, put it down next to me. Later I shredded the petals, threw them on the ground.

There are so many ways for humans to hurt each other, so many ways for women to undermine each other. This moment seems petty to me when I’m in full buck-up-I’m-a-stoic-New-Englander mode. Other times, though, it enrages me. Once in awhile, it saddens me.

I’ve never been clutched by the all-consuming need to have children; during the times I have wanted them, the prospect was like considering a long-term adventure, one that I felt more confident about with my new husband as my partner in parenting. Ultimately, my husband and I decided not to have children. Even though we consciously came to this decision together, I grieved for months. Once the possibility of motherhood was foreclosed, Mother’s Day went from being neutral to being charged, as it had been that day in church. The year we decided to not become parents, I could not even bear to go to the grocery store for fear of being stung by an innocent cashier wishing me what I would never have. Every time I have to respond to someone that I do not, in fact, have kids–whether I am grieving the decision or not–I am reminded that I am not the norm.

I delight in fixing a festive brunch for my mother and mother-in-law to celebrate them on Mother’s Day. Most years, I can keep my focus on the women most responsible for the life I have now. Most years, I can smile when a cashier says “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Even during those times, though, I chafe at the cultural norm that means a woman of a certain age is assumed to be a mother. A common reaction to my being childfree is pity. Mother Claire’s insistence that I take a flower upset me not only because it felt like betrayal of my trust; her pity was as unwanted as the flower. When a friend who had been trying to conceive shared the good news that she was pregnant, I could see her concern as she told me. She wanted to be kind, to be sensitive, but those well-meant feelings translated into pity, which was far worse than my feeling a moment of remorse that I would never have such news to share. Her pity made my sincere good wishes ring hollow.

I’m an anomaly, though the tide is shifting. By choosing not to have kids, I have chosen, unwittingly, to leave myself open to unsought opinions, bromides, observations, and advice offered, usually, by women who have had kids. Little thought is given to whether I might have wanted kids and couldn’t or if I might have lost a pregnancy or if I weighed the trajectories, considered what I know about myself, and made a decision that allows me to be the human, the woman I want to be.

Let’s start with Mother Claire’s comment that as a teacher, I am a mother. I suppose, seen through the triple goddesses as a lens, a teacher can nurture, and as a childfree woman who seeks knowledge as we–some of us who have been called selfish for pursuing our educations–teachers do, I should accept that title. But I work with young people a few hours a week, sixteen weeks a semester. I’m not guiding their lives. I’m not imbuing them with my core values. I’m teaching revision strategies and passion for communication at best. I would never claim to understand the bond of a mother to her child based on the relationships I have with even the dearest of my students.

When I asked a group of childfree women to tell me what kinds of comments they had heard, one of the common ones, and one I have been told myself, was this: you’ll never know love until you look in your newborn’s eyes. Take your own variation on it.

It’s hard to respond to a statement like that when you aren’t a mom. Maybe I won’t know what love is, or I won’t understand real love, or I won’t ever feel deep love. Since I won’t be a mom, I can’t argue. I can, though, consider what I believe love is, and I can determine if I have felt such a thing for another and from another.

When I was a girl, I once asked my mom how you know you love someone. My mom is not a person who waxes eloquent on such things–I come by my stoic-New-Englander persona honestly. But that day, as we sat at the kitchen table, she patted the two hand towels in front of her. See, every day my mom washed my dad’s hair in the kitchen sink and then washed her own. The towels would wrap their heads until they dried their hair.

“Every day, I put out the towels, and I put the nicer one on top for daddy to use,” my mom said. “And every day, when my hands are wet and I grab a towel for him, he’s moved the shabbier one to the top so I’ll have the nicer one. That’s how you know you love someone.”

That daily moment between my parents echoes what the founder of Mother’s Day in the United States wanted to celebrate. Ann Jarvis’s intent was to honor the sacrifices a mother makes for her child. Ultimately, it is this willingness to help another person be their best, to give them our own best, that makes me believe I do know what love is, even without a child.

I am not opposed to Mother’s Day. The shift I long for is not simple. It isn’t that I want people to avoid the sentiment of celebrating mothers as a way to avoid hurting women who aren’t mothers. True, I, and many of my childfree friends, have often been made to feel uncomfortable, like something apart, something not normal because of our choices. Rather, I long for a shift where the decision to not have children is considered as valid as the decision to have children.

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“Natural” vs. “Unnatural” Women: Motherhood as Woman’s Duty

From the editors: Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal explores cultural expectations of motherhood she faced and resisted with the support of her mother (pictured with the author). 

I do not have children of my own, and, in fact, prefer the company of the young of other mammals, such as puppies and kittens. That may not sound unusual out here in the U.S, but it was seen as extremely odd when I was a young woman growing up in India, as most countries from the developing world tend to be extremely supportive of women as mothers, and dismissive of those women who are “barren,” and either unable, or unwilling, to produce offspring.

It is a far cry from the sane attitude of some other animal species such as elephants, where the role played by “aunt” elephants are as critical for the wellbeing of the herd as those of the mothers.

The good side of traditional societies is that no eyebrows are raised if a woman decides to discreetly feed her infant in a public place, and women there are adept at doing so. Here on the contrary, it is astonishing to see the brouhaha over this very natural act of a mother. Society appears to have forgotten that the function of the mammary glands are not to titillate the male species, but to feed the infants of the species.

But the bad side of traditional societies is that women are expected to yearn to become mothers from the time they are little girls. They are gifted little dolls for this very purpose, which they proceed to treat as their own infants. This is of course, a worldwide phenomenon and not just specific to my culture. However, what is specific to my original culture is the obsession that families have with parenthood. The pressure placed upon young couples by the husband’s parents is astonishing. From outwardly innocuous remarks like the jocular “Any good news? “ (accompanied by a knowing smile) to the more obvious and semi reproachful query, “When shall we hear the patter of little feet?”

In fact, young couples are pressured to feel that it is their duty to provide children / grandchildren for the aging parents and grandparents. This attitude leads to immense psychological pressure upon couples who are unable to perform their duty and produce offspring upon request. And of course it is expected in most communities, regardless of religion, class or caste, that the first born be a boy.

No doubt all these attitudes led to a reaction on my part as a rebellious young woman not to have children of my own, or rather, biological offspring. Any man I chose to spend time with would therefore be regaled with this decision. Small wonder then that most took to the hills. After all, who would want a wife who was not just an “uppity woman,” but “an unnatural” one, to boot?!

I recall the very hurtful comments made by a close male friend back in the days when my biological clock was supposed to be ticking: “You are an unnatural woman!”

I managed to cover up my feelings of hurt with a sharp quip, “And you, being a man, know what it feels like to be a woman?!”

But deep inside, I was hurt, very hurt. At weak moments I even asked myself, was it somehow strange of me as a woman not to feel this apparent universal urge to produce offspring? Did it even, in some way, make me a bad woman? When I came upon Simone de Beauvoir’s ruminations on the societal construction of womanhood I began to feel much better about my decision. But how many women of my generation back then had access to such literature in the first place? Most have access only to the sexist dictats of Manusmriti, the infamous Codes of Manu, the Lawgiver of ancient India, which were enforced by society in general, through the entire extended family, teachers, astrologers, the works!

In my case a casual visit to the family astrologer ended in disaster when the man concerned pronounced judgment upon my decision to stay single with a sneering accusation,”how selfish of you! You do not care for the suffering of your aging parents!”

My polite response that the parents concerned were not suffering but in fact were quite content to let me make my own decisions was met with horror. What kind of woman would behave this selfish? And how dare I wait so long and refuse all these offers of (arranged) marriage that had come my way? A sure sign of great arrogance! As to the lax attitude of my parents, no doubt this poor upbringing had contributed to my willful behavior.

As the years went by and I focused on my career and took up what appeared to be a permanent abode on the proverbial shelf, my mother stopped collecting items for my “Hope Chest,” (Or trunk, if you will, where jewelry, crockery and sundry other items would be collected by mothers for their daughter’s marital homes). The aforementioned “Hope Chest” became the family joke as “The Hopeless Chest!” Any conversation about my getting married or having a child was long dropped, to my great relief.

My mother even reassured me once, when I was in my late 30s with a pithy comment: “Marriage is not the be-all and end-all of life, my dear!”

It is only now, looking back on it, that I realize what an unusual woman she was of her generation, or even of generations to come, to possess such an unorthodox attitude towards life. For women in traditional South Asian society are usually led to believe that it is their bounden duty to get married and then produce children, preferably male.

I did eventually fall in love with a man who I went on to marry, once I had finished graduate school in the U.S. But we chose not to have children, partly because both of us travelled a lot, and rearing children under those circumstances would prove difficult, and partly because we were not eager to become parents. I am fortunate to have been born into a liberal and supportive family where a woman’s life is not equated to motherhood, but it is not the norm in my society even today.

However, I will add this caveat: I have discovered that society’s expectation of women is not that different even in the “modern, progressive West,” and not just in the developing world. Let us not forget that it is not just in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR that women were forced into motherhood, to produce good Aryan babies for God and the nation. That was the case in the U.S too, where, forget abortion, even contraception was banned right into the second half of the 20th century. The position of many world religions too has been that woman’s duty is to become a mother, and produce as many offspring as possible at that.

We do live in a brave new world where women are not forced into motherhood, overtly, that is. But what about the covert message of the mainstream media? Indeed, as numerous television serials and Hollywood films continue to show, women who are content with their careers and other pastimes rather than yearning for motherhood are portrayed as unnatural (yes, that word again!) Yet, somehow the most unnatural woman is redeemed eventually when she goes ahead and births a child. Although there is little support for either the mother or the child once she has gone ahead and had it, with working mothers reporting huge levels of stress trying to juggle work and home without much access to childcare in most jobs. But that is a different story.

Women who have abortions are still represented in a negative light in Hollywood films in this day and age. Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown may have incurred Dan Quayle’s wrath in the 1990s, for being a single mother. But she was a mother nevertheless, not a woman who had resolved to remain childless, and, moreover, a content childless woman at that. Even films that masquerade as progressive such as the Indie film Juno (2007) have a dark side when they enforce the hegemonic view that woman’s natural calling is to be a mother. And God forbid that a popular television series show a woman reject the role of motherhood and get an abortion.

We may seem to have come a long way since the dark days of The Feminine Mystique (1963), when Betty Friedan wrote of the oppressive standards that women were expected to uphold within American society. Women in this part of the world today can do anything, take up any profession, be whatever they want to be. And yet, as our television serials never cease to remind us, the one thing we deeply yearn for, regardless of all our outward posturing, is to be mothers. Small wonder, then, that women who have postpartum depression or parental ambivalence even years later feel abandoned by society, as they are made to feel they are not “normal.” Because, isn’t it “normal” to feel complete as a woman only when one has become a mother?

Perhaps East and West are not so different after all…

Shoba Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal x received her Ph.D. in Media Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Spring 2003. She moved to the East coast to take up a position as the Coordinator of the then Women’s Studies Program at Westfield State University and is currently in charge of the Women and Gender Studies Minor in the Department of Ethnic & Gender Studies, where she teaches courses that focus on gender issues and religious extremism in South Asia. She has worked with colleagues across campus and helped develop an Asian Studies Minor at the university. Dr Rajgopal traveled widely across Asia and Europe in her previous avatar as a broadcast journalist and reported for the Indian networks and for CNN International from various international locations.

Holiday Sparkle sans Kids

I cried myself to sleep Thanksgiving night.

There were no family fights, no drunken uncles or politically-charged conversations gone bad. The food was delicious, the company delightful. I made my Grandpa Davis’s turkey stuffings with a few adjustments for the vegetarians at the table. We sipped excellent wine, discussed education and societal trends, traded suggestions for movies worth watching.

It was a very adult holiday.

Yet when my husband and I arrived home, took care of the dogs, put our generous share of leftovers in the fridge, the click happened.

The click that reminds me the holidays of yore are, at best, rare occasions.

Thanksgiving and Christmas of my childhood meant generations of family together, older siblings willingly playing board games with the little ones, and singing along as my oldest sister played carols on the piano. During my 20s and early 30s, the holidays were marked by even larger gatherings as my siblings started their own families. The sweetness of wrapping my arms around tiny niblings as I read to them, of taking dictation as they composed notes to accompany the snacks left for Santa and his reindeer, of filling stockings after kids reluctantly went to bed–that sweetness remains unmatched and now seems unattainable.

Before it seems like I’m asking for pity, know this. I made the decision to be child free. The times when I have wanted children are minute compared to how often I have been content to be without them. The gut wrenching feeling of holidays without kids is a new phenomenon, starting around Halloween and lasting until my annual New Year’s Day hike. Maybe it’s because my not having children is absolute. Maybe because I am at an age when I once thought I might be a grandmother, or maybe because I no longer have little niblings to fill the wonder and delight gap.

This longing for past festively chaotic holidays–which is not a regret about being child free– gave me pause, made me curious about how others sans children view the holidays, and caused me to examine how I can work towards creating a new type of holiday season that keeps my tears in check, that feels as meaningful as they used to.

My child-free Christmas is not tradition free, nor am I alone in that. Writer and professor Marisa P. Clark told me how her holiday tradition developed. “I celebrated holidays with other gay friends who either couldn’t or weren’t allowed to spend that time with their families. It turned into great camaraderie among different groups of people. We saw movies, played games, put together pot-luck holiday meals, and just hung out and laughed, only sometimes exchanging gifts. This is now my favorite way to spend holidays–not to have too much of a set plan but to find out who’s around and wants company.”

My siblings are spread around the country, and it’s rare for us all to be together at any time of year, let alone during the fall and winter holidays when obligations make travel a burdensome prospect. My husband and I mix up where we spend our holidays. Some years we’re with his (very adult) family, some years with varied members of mine. I’m learning, though, that it isn’t so much where or with whom I spend Christmas day that matters to me, but how I have embraced what the season means in the weeks leading up to it.

Here’s an example. For the last twelve years, my dear friend Cheryl has spent a weekend in mid-December with us. We bake hundreds of cookies and box them up to distribute to colleagues, our favorite businesses, and friends. Cookie-baking day has morphed into an event—my parents always come by for samples, and we turn on Christmas music for the first time of the season. Cheryl and I spend about ten hours in the kitchen, but the good conversation makes it feel a lot shorter.

And this year, for the first time, my husband and I are making our holiday cards. He carved blocks and printed the cards while I mixed ink and addressed envelopes. While some people—my own mother included—dread writing cards each year, I welcome the chance to remind people I haven’t seen in a while that they matter to me.

A recent exchange with Samantha Hoyt Lindgren, a child-free-by-choice woman who has worked as a photojournalist, photo editor, and is the co-founder of Rabelais Books and founder of A Gathering of Stitches, examined meaning and the holidays for those of us who are not religious. Samantha writes, “Showering someone you love with gifts is a powerful action, one that can cause much joy. But at its core it is usually about the person giving more than the person receiving. If you don’t have that religious component to hang the whole season on, it is all about gifts. And certainly our culture emphasizes that with all the obsessive shopping, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and bargain hunting that seems to be the American way. So if you strip all that nonsense out, and you don’t have kids to indulge, then the season can be pretty hollow. At least for an Atheist. At this point the majority of the gifts I make are for the children within my universe. And that part is sweet and joyful.”

Like Samantha, one way I imbue the holiday season with more meaning, at least for me if not the recipients, is by making most of my gifts. I don’t stitch gifts as a form of Martha Stewartish showmanship. It is not that doing so is superior to buying gifts, but rather that handcrafting provides me with the opportunity to dwell on the recipient, to reminisce about them, about time we have spent together. And my hand crafting keeps me far from the crowds of anxious mall shoppers. The hours I might spend alongside the crowds are instead spent in joyful creating.

Some years, my holidays may be completely sans kids. There may be no marathon Monopoly games after dinner, no tribe of little ones putting on dance performances. Those adult holiday seasons may be as painfully sad as this Thanksgiving was. But in creating, in being self-aware, I may have found the poultice.

In the northeast where I live, our days are at their shortest, and our nights are at their darkest. It is all too easy to succumb to sadness. While I know the longing for kids to fill my house with their chaos may rear up every year from Halloween to New Year’s Day, the holidays can instead be a time for me to find sparkle and light, to find some optimism about this complicated world and spread it.

 

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My Pregnancy Choices and the Economist Inside My Head

From the Editors: This essay was submitted by Hillary Sackett-Brian. Continue the conversation with Hillary in the comments.

I recently read an article in The Atlantic titled, “Thinking About Pregnancy Like an Economist” and it reminded me how much my own economic brain has weighed in on my decision whether or not to have children.

As a child I played “house” with my friends and younger sisters, imagining the wonderful husband and cherub-faced babies I had in my future. Even as a teenager, those who knew me wouldn’t have predicted that I would stray far from that path.

My journey took a sharp turn in college, when I came out as a lesbian the summer after my freshman year. My mother insisted it was just a phase. I vehemently denied it, but secretly felt a sense of loss, wondering if this meant I was giving up the fantasy life I had dreamed of as a child. I worried my new identity would prevent me from becoming the wife and mother I always thought I’d be.

I grew to know myself better over the next four years, as many do during college. I moved to the Midwest for graduate school and started dating a straight cis-gendered male, as if confirming for my mother that my foray into lesbianism was indeed just a phase. He had no interest in having children. He was a proud member of what I soon learned to be called the “zero population growth movement” (ZPG) and I, too, now in love, was soon convinced of its principles. According to those in the movement, a demographic balance where the population neither grows nor declines is an ideal to which the whole world should aspire in the interest of pursuing long-term environmental sustainability. (American sociologist and demographer Kingsley Davis is credited with coining the term).

I was in the thick of my Ph.D. program in resource economics, and I endeavored to apply what I was learning to my real life. The overarching goal of resource economists is to better understand the role of natural resources in the economy in order to develop methods of managing those resources to ensure their availability to future generations. So, naturally, the zero population growth movement intrigued me.

Essentially, followers of ZPG recognize three ways to achieve this goal:

  • voluntarily limit births
  • enlist coercive family planning policies (many will cite China’s “one child policy”)
  • do nothing and let nature limit population growth through famine, disease, and war

Sounds scary right? So, I thought I should “do the right thing” and voluntarily have no children. After all, I was born into a situation of privilege – unlike many women without the financial, physical, or political means to access contraception and other family planning services. They would not be able to make this voluntary choice, so it was my responsibility to share the burden.

I carried the torch of the ZPG movement even when that relationship ended.

In Spring of 2011 I met the woman who would become my wife. She had dreamed of having children her whole life and told me many times over the first year of our relationship what an amazing mother she thought I would be. But I continued to beat the drum of ZPG, now adding even more economic flair to the narrative.

In a lesbian relationship conceiving a baby is no small expense. The methods available can cost anywhere from hundreds, to tens of thousands of dollars each try. I posed this to my partner, “Think about all the things we could do with that money instead.” We could save, travel more, invest in our hobbies, live for ourselves and be perfectly happy. Or so 25-year-old me thought.

After a couple years, I had convinced my wife of the storyline, and she no longer pushed the baby plan. Then, in 2014 everyone I knew (or at least it seemed) started having babies. It wasn’t until my younger sister gave birth to my nephew that year that it really hit me. “I want this”. But now it was me who had to convince my wife that having a baby was a good idea. I was flip-flopping and she wondered why. Except this time I didn’t have any economic storyline to provide. I could no longer employ cost-benefit analysis as to why we SHOULD have a baby, it was just a FEELING.

Ugh, feelings. I was confused and conflicted with these things I hadn’t felt since childhood. I even felt guilty for wanting something that I knew I couldn’t reason through. When I try to explain WHY I want to have a child, all the reasons sound narcissistic at best. But, here we are…(maybe?) back on the baby plan. And boy, does it involve a great deal of planning.

Every day I tell my students that every decision involves costs and benefits, and only by carefully and intentionally weighing those costs and benefits can we hope to make good decisions. I do think that approaching my pregnancy planning with an economic eye will help me, but I think there may be more wiggle room than I was previously willing to admit. But one thing that I can agree with in The Atlantic article is this: “It became clear quickly that I’d have to come up with my own framework–to structure the decisions on my own.” So here I am, with economic tool box in hand, accepting that as methodical as I may plan to be, sometimes I might just have to wing it.

Hillary Sackett  headshotHillary Sackett-Brian is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Westfield State University where she teaches Environmental and Natural Resource Economics among other courses. She lives in Brattleboro, VT with her wife Rachel, three dogs (Gunner, Duke, and Raisin) and two cats (Grover and Gatsby). In her spare time she enjoys trail running, garage-saling, and coffee drinking. Follow her on Twitter @HillarySackett.

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A Doula’s Wisdom: Interview with Sarah Thayer

From the Editors: We recently interviewed Sarah Thayer, a certified and trained birth doula who is now a nursing student with plans to become a nurse midwife. With eleven years experience working with pregnant and laboring women, she offers us an observer’s perspective on pregnancy over 35. 

MS: Can you describe your role as a women’s health care professional?

Sarah: I worked as a certified and trained birth doula from 2003 until 2014. I am also a licensed massage therapist and have been licensed in the state of Connecticut since 2004. In my massage practice I see both men and women but have specialized training in pregnancy massage. I have an undergraduate degree from Central Connecticut State University in sociology. I am a nursing student at Capital Community College in Hartford, CT and will graduate with an associates degree in nursing in 2017. Upon receiving my RN license, I intend to continue to graduate school to become a nurse midwife with a clinical doctorate degree.

As a birth doula I worked with women and their families to help them have their own best birth experience. Birth doula’s do not provide clinical care, but rather help their clients during pregnancy, labor, birth, and the immediate postpartum to have a positive birth experience. This is different for every woman and family. This element made my job endlessly interesting.

Primarily I listen to women. I try to understand how I can best support each mother and family in a way that empowers her to make her own best choices. Because I am familiar with the policies of hospitals and different medical practices, I can give referrals, when asked, to providers and facilities that may be a good match for the goals of an expectant mother. There isn’t a wrong way to have a baby, but knowing all of your options and picking the provider and place to birth that is in alignment with your goals is the first step to a positive birth experience.

The over all arc of my work with families includes informational support in pregnancy, connecting women and families to community resources, 24/7 on call availability from 37 weeks of pregnancy through birth, continuous labor support with guaranteed back up doula support in the event of emergency or illness, immediate postpartum support, and a postpartum follow up visit in the first 6 weeks after the birth.

MS: From our perspective, there seems to be some fear mongering when it comes to tests,for women having geriatric pregnancies. Can you share your perspective on that?

Sarah: We have the ability to know more about fetal development because of new genetic tests and advances in technology. I think it can be difficult for patients to navigate understanding what the tests are, what the purpose of them is, what the results mean and don’t mean, and if they have to undergo all the screenings that they are sent for. For example, some screenings simply say that there may be an abnormality that may indicate that further testing is needed to see if there is, in fact, something not developing normally. Further testing could reveal everything is progressing perfectly fine, but more invasive tests, like amniocentesis, come with risks of their own like infection or miscarriage.  It can be a roller coaster for women who feel anxious and frightened while waiting for results when, in fact, everything is fine.

It is true that there is a higher increase in fetal genetic abnormalities when a mother is over 35. It is also true that there are higher risks of miscarriage and other complications when a mother is over 35. I think that women need to soul search a little bit and make informed decisions about the purpose of testing. Is there a family history of congenital abnormalities that warrants exploration? Does the mother have a history of recurrent miscarriage that would indicate genetic testing? Is the woman thinking she may end a pregnancy that has markers of genetic abnormalities, or is that not a choice that she is considering? Is this a woman that finds comfort in more information rather than less? I think one of the problems is that the medical system doesn’t always do a great job of educating patients about which tests are mandatory and which tests are optional and what the pros/cons of a test are. In general, the medical establishment functions in a “More is Better”, mentality without the shared decision making between patients and providers which would empower patients to decide which tests are most valuable to this woman in this pregnancy. Again, this is where provider choice is extremely important. Pregnant women should never hesitate to leave a practice where she doesn’t feel listened to or where she isn’t given informed consent of every test or procedure that is entered into.

I think pregnancy can feel so overwhelming that women forget that they can ask questions or change providers at any time. Women should learn to ask “what is the benefit of x, what is the risk of x”? and “is there any reason why I can not do x?”.

MS: If a woman is deciding /trying to get pregnant for the first time over 35, what health-related considerations do you advise?

Sarah: In my present roles as doula, massage therapist, and nursing student I am unable to give medical or health related advice. That said, my best non medical advice is to think about the type of care you want to receive, how you want to experience pregnancy, what kind of birth experience you think you want. Ask other women about their doctor and midwife recommendations. Women generally like to share their birth stories, so ask them! What did they like about a doctor, midwife, or hospital/birthcenter/home birth experience? Midwifery care is different from OB care. Hospitals that look very similar from the outside may have vastly different policies on the inside that impact patient satisfaction and health outcomes for mother and baby.

Living an active, healthy and balanced life is a great way to start a pregnancy. Common knowledge like being at a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet full of fruits, veggies, whole grains; these are great things to do for general well being. Everyone’s experience of pregnancy is different. Some people just feel awful the whole time, while others glow and adore every aspect of pregnancy. Most of us fall somewhere in between with highs and lows across the full 40 weeks.

MS: In your role as a doula, did you find significant differences in pregnancies of women over 35 vs. those not over 35?

Sarah: There are differences between a pregnancy in your 20’s and early 30’s vs. over 35. Again, I am harping on the point of choosing the right provider again. Some providers view pregnancy as a normal physiological event that only requires intervention once there is a deviation from normal. Other providers see pregnancy as inherently risky that requires constant vigilance to avoid complications. Healthy women, age 35 and older often have normal boring pregnancies. Finding a provider who views pregnancy as a normal process is the first step to having lower interventions. Women over 35 are more likely to be offered higher level screenings that may not be necessary or helpful if the results are not something that you need.

Sometimes women who are over 35 may have had history of pregnancy losses, fertility difficulties, or complicated fertility treatments to become pregnant. Even women who have had hormone therapy, IVF or IUI to become pregnant can have a low tech, low intervention pregnancy. It can be difficult to change gears from frequent progesterone shots and ultrasounds to monthly appointments with no tests at all. We bring all of our life experiences, hopes and dreams right with us to pregnancy and birth. Our journey to pregnancy certainly shapes our experience. Someone who has tried for a long time with losses and disappointments along the way will have a different pregnancy than someone who conceived the first try. A complicated conception doesn’t mean a hard pregnancy and birth, nor does an easy conception promise a care free & easy pregnancy and birth. I do think that the harder the journey to pregnancy the more difficult it can be for expectant families to decline higher levels of screening which may or may not be needed. More information does not always illicit better outcomes; it can create anxiety where it doesn’t need to be experienced

MS: As a doula, nursing student, and mother yourself, what do you believe a woman should think about when deciding whether or not to have a baby when she reaches 35 + ?

Sarah: Deciding to have a baby is deeply personal. Pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood are nearly ubiquitous roles for American women in their 30’s; so much so that my friends without children can be made to feel like outsiders as women. I wholly respect the decision to have or not have children. In my opinion there often isn’t a ‘perfect time’ to have a baby. Physiologically, a woman’s fertility does start to decline in her 30’s and significantly declines at 40 and beyond. If a woman is 35 and knows she would like to have a baby but isn’t ready or hasn’t found the right partner, harvesting and storing eggs is an option, although a pricey one. There are better IVF outcomes with younger eggs than older ones. So if a woman has the means and wants some more time, this can be a decent option.

If you are 35 or older, you shouldn’t let the whole ‘geriatric’ pregnancy label dissuade you. Consult with your MD or midwife about your plans to get pregnant and ask questions about how long it should take if you are coming off of hormonal contraception. There are ways to track ovulation to make sure your cycles are the appropriate length while also determining the best window for conception.

There are many things to consider when starting a family and every woman’s priorities are different. Motherhood and parenthood is a rollercoaster that impacts every single area of who you are as a person. Once a new baby enter’s a family their entire lives are totally changed. You learn to know yourself as a mother, your partner as a father/mother, and what was amazing and or horrible about your own childhood and parents. The desire to have children is great and biological. No one really knows what they are doing, but overwhelmingly we parents get a lot right and some wrong along the way.

MS: How can an older woman best prepare for pregnancy, birth, and/or motherhood?

Its really hard to prepare for something so unknown. My best advice is to have community. Read books, listen to the stories of women and mothers you aspire to be like, and attend childbirth classes that empower you to make your own best choice. Dream with your partner about how you will parent together and get through the big scary fears we all have, and go for it! My oldest child is 11 and there wasn’t quite the deluge of information on the internet when I was pregnant and home with a newborn. I distinctly remember being at home with a 2 week old baby, pouring through a baby manual, and coming to the realization that no one really knows what the hell they are doing. As parents we are all winging it to some degree. There is something comforting about this because it allows you to let go and get in touch with your instincts. Since then I have had clients show me elaborate graphs generated from Apps that show the number of feedings, diaper changes, burps, etc over the course of a day, week, month. This would not have been helpful to me. Read encouraging things, and not frightening things. There is no shortage of internet advice, child raising books, or anecdotal information that will undermine the power of your presence and your expertise about what your own child needs. Once you have read the facts about something, make an informed decision, follow your gut, and don’t look back.

My first baby what what we call a ‘high needs baby’ who wanted to be in arms and nurse constantly. I learned quickly to try my best to have a short memory, to not calculate how much sleep was accomplished or lost. Be in the moment. Try to find the joy in right now, or the hard in the moment with the knowledge that this too shall pass. In my mothering of older children now, I have to remind myself of the same lessons. Enjoy right now and let tomorrow worry about itself. That joyful/annoying stage is fleeting and will be different next week.

MS: Describe a doula’s role and how a doula can be important to a geriatric pregnancy.

Sarah: A doula provides physical, emotional, and educational supports to women and their families during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. One of the things that can be a pro and con of a ‘geriatric pregnancy’ is that there is more life experience for expectant families. Older women who have careers and are used to being in charge of things can be really broadsided by how little control we actually have in pregnancy, birth, and the early days of mothering. Older women are used to be being competent and knowledgable about things, and suddenly they find themselves having no idea what to do. It is an uncomfortable yet completely normal part of the experience. Having an experienced doula to listen to you and normalize something that feels foreign can be very useful. Doulas are supportive of dads and partners too. Partners do not have to feel like the experience is solely riding on his shoulders. Birth is extremely intense for loved ones as well. They want to be helpful but often don’t want to do the wrong thing. The doula is like your birth consultant. She knows what is most important to you and will help you achieve it. The doula will let your partner be at his or her best. The birth partner should be there to love you and experience this with you. The doula can remind the partner to eat, take breaks, show how to rub the laboring mom’s back etc. Older couples often see the value in this type of service because it is like having expert comfort advice right at your finger tips. Doulas also have a knack for placing a cool cloth on your neck or feeding you ice chips without you needing to ask.

MS:  Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Sarah: You have options. Just because you have been seeing the same OB/GYN for 20 years doesn’t mean that they are the best fit for your care during pregnancy and birth. Your birth experience is something you will remember for your entire life. I have heard the most beautiful and appalling birth stories from elderly women who can recall very specific details about their births. Women remember.

Talk about your fears! Don’t hide them and foster them without the care of others. If you are being kept awake at night because of fear of childbirth, talk to your care provider and get connected with people who can share their positive stories. Our bodies are structured to do this. Look around at all the people around us and know that a mother somewhere birthed that person. There would be far fewer people on the planet if childbirth were always as horrible and scary as the worst story you have heard.

Lastly, ignore the cultural hazing of pregnant women. People scare pregnant women. You will never hear more awful birth and death stories or parenting nightmares as when you are pregnant. Unfortunately, women who are hurting often don’t have a place to share their pain about births that have gone wrong and a lot of that sharing lands at the feet of pregnant women. Its okay to not listen to that. More importantly, find positive and realistic stories rather than the worst case scenario tales.

Adopting Motherhood

From the editors: this piece was submitted by Erin X. To continue the conversation with Erin, leave a comment!

I always wanted to be a mom. I was changing my siblings’ diapers and rocking them to sleep by the time I was nine, and it suited me. I have had friends who did not feel that way about children at all, but when it happened to them they said “oh yeah, I was meant to do this,” and I felt pangs of envy that became stronger in my mid-thirties.

When the idea of adoption entered my radar, I felt an internal struggle that I couldn’t quite explain. I had to challenge my own assumptions about marriage; I had just figured that it would happen for me someday, and then I could have children. In the span of a few months, random conversations about the possibility of adopting a child on my own started to creep into my consciousness. One of my high school students told me that she wished we could go back in time, and I could adopt her. Friends at a poker party mentioned some friends of theirs who had recently adopted a baby, and I found myself hungry to learn about the process. I began to yield to the possibility and believe that someone might give me a baby even though I was not a celebrity with lots of money, and that maybe I could raise a child by myself.

As I began to feel confidence in the idea, I noticed outside resistance from well-meaning friends and family. Some asked, how will you afford it? how can you do it alone? how will you ever find a boyfriend if you adopt a kid by yourself? Do you think you could love a baby that wasn’t really yours? It was hard to explain to them that I was not asking for their advice or blessing, I was just sharing my plans. In retrospect, I know that there were supportive voices as well, but all of the questions made me feel like I was not enough, but I wanted it so much that I moved forward in spite of my fears.

Little Big Man came to me through foster care weeks after he was born, and I had only been licensed for a month. I am grateful that I was so naïve about the complexity of “legal risk” because I may not have had the courage to adopt through foster care if I knew. Essentially, I was agreeing to raise him, but the courts could give him back to his biological parents at any time. In the first eighteen months of his life, I was able to live in the moment in a way that I have not done before or since. In my memory, our early months together are suspended in time. Not everyone likes the demands of a newborn, but I relished every moment. People often asked me how I could risk the loss of a baby that was not really mine, but I knew somewhere in my soul that he was worth it. Our life together had value no matter what would happen next. He and I talk now about how he did not grow in my tummy, but I was waiting to be his mama the whole time.

Although I experienced great joy with Little Big Man, I did find the challenge of caring for a baby who had been exposed to drugs in utero daunting. The frequent trips to the doctor’s office and occasional hospital stays took their toll in those early days. When he was almost 2-years-old, I started to imagine him having a sibling. I desperately wanted another baby, but a part of me wondered if it was fair to expect Little Big Man to go through the risky process with me. I thought about it for a long time, and it was watching the way he loved other children that made me willing to try. He was about to turn three at the time, and I told him that we might take care of a baby who needed our love. He was all for it. As much as everyone loved my sweet boy, many expressed wonder that I would risk my heart again to adopt another child, and many questioned my ability to “handle” two children. However, they stood by me when I had a baby placed with me only to be reunited with birth relatives a few months later. In my weakest moments Little Big Man provided solace that I never imagined such a tiny creature could contain, and I began to heal. In spite of the grief I experienced, my heart and my home were still open two years later when Baby came along.

The road has been rockier for me and Baby, and I am facing my demons about that. He joined our party when he was two, after time with his abusive biological family and a temporary foster home, and he is still not my legal child a year and a half later. I imagined that I would love my children the same, and although I am deeply connected to both of my boys, so much that I sometimes wonder where I end and they begin, the time that Baby and I were not able to share has made the bonding process slower and more unsure, but we are making progress. The sensation I had the other day when he told me, “I love you too much, Mama,” gave me such hope for our future. He has suffered so much at the hands of the people who were supposed to protect him, and I stand awed in the face of what he has survived.

In the car this afternoon Baby was talking about a stuffed animal his biological mother gave him at a recent court-mandated visit. He asked me, “Mama, why did my ‘new mother’ give me a stuffy?” Before I could answer with a catch in my throat, Little Big Man said, “No, that was your old mother. Erin is your new mother,” and I had trouble seeing the road through my tears. The truth is that I am not enough. It is in my lack, in my inadequacy, that I am reshaped by my children into the mother that they need me to be.
ErinErin holds a Master’s Degree in Communication from Northern Illinois University and has been teaching since 1995, including Northern Illinois University, Springfield Technical Community College, and Westfield State University. She is the mother of two energetic boys adopted through the Department of Children and Families.

 

 

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Why My Dog Calls Me Lady, Not Mama

Have I completely undermined my ethos by asking you to imagine my dog calls me anything? Here’s the deal.
I became a dog person in my early 30s when my then-boyfriend now-husband introduced his puppy to me. When I moved to New Mexico a year later, I adopted my own pup, Maddie, with the idea that she’d be my companion. She was special in that way a needy border collie can be–loving, attentive, but a bit of a pain in the ass at times with her clingy affection. I called her my baby, and in our pretend conversations–hey, we lived alone, and I’m a chatterbox–she called me Mama.

That was when I still toyed with the notion that Neal and I might have kids together. Many women will tell you that once you’ve adapted life around your dog’s schedule, it isn’t that much of a stretch to adapt to a kid’s schedule. It seemed like we were rehearsing for parenthood.

Two years ago, Maddie died suddenly, and I’m not ashamed to say that I miss her every single day. What I wouldn’t give to have her tripping me up with her anticipation of where I’d move next. Losing her was the end of an era for me, not just because she was part of my great graduate school-living-across-the-country adventure. Not just because she was there when Neal and I got married. Not just because she gave me comfort when I wrestled with the decision about having kids.

I lost her and at about the same time, lost the impetus to have kids. Health issues unrelated to fertility caused us to say no to kids. The dogs would be the creatures to receive our parental affection.

A month after losing Maddie, we adopted a malnourished Siberian husky, Oskar. He’s stop-you-in-your-tracks handsome. He requires a lot of exercise and leadership, and I’ve enjoyed providing both to him. I’ve helped him build his strength and learn to be a good pack member.

But when we started to have pretend conversations, when he first needed a way to address me, I couldn’t bear to have him call me Mama. I’m not a Mama, and even though there are days when I would give up whatever is precious to me that day to have a kid, most days I am just fine with my decision.

A dog has got to call his human something, though. So Oskar calls me Lady with Thumbs, Keeper of the Kibble, Warden of the Door, Scolder of Bears. These are the things I imagine he admires in me. He’s not clingy the way Maddie was; he’s a cool customer, this one. He knows I’m not his Mama.

When outsiders refer to me as Mama in reference to my dogs, I feel an agitation I never used to. The possibility of becoming a mother is gone, by my choice. I don’t pretend that the care I give my dogs compares to the care a mother gives her children. I don’t pretend that the responsibilities are in any way equal. I don’t want to be perceived, as I fear I sometimes am, as a woman who believes she knows about motherhood because she cares for dogs. And my heart can’t take pretending these precious pups, with me too short a time, are my children.

So I am Lady. And I’m happy in this role. I think Oskar agrees.

Why MotherShould? When the Decision is Made

Not long after she returned from maternity leave, Catherine mentioned to me her craving, pre-pregnancy, for resources that would have helped her make a decision about having kids. I agreed. Smart women who have, for whatever reason, waited until they are aging primates (my former doctor’s description of me when I talked to her about having kids. I was 35.) to consider or start trying to have kids lacked good resources.

I remembered being in my mid-20s, standing in my Hudson River-town library, feeling as furtive as I had when I’d read Judy Blume’s Forever in sixth grade. I perused the shelves looking for information about not having kids. I don’t mean information about birth control or abortion. I mean information about how to get pushy in-laws to lay off, how to function in a world that, to my eyes, privileges mothers and questions breeding-age women who deliberately don’t have kids.

As Catherine and I continued the conversation about resources for women choosing–or choosing not–to have kids, as well as resources for women on all points of that spectrum, we hatched the idea for a clearinghouse, a place where women could share our sometimes difficult stories sans judgement, sans advice, as a way to provide other women with resources to help them in their own decisions.

I am child free, but there are times I consider myself childless. In my work with MotherShould?, I’ll explore the ever-shifting way I identify, and I’ll also strive to find resources to help all women figuring out how they feel about becoming a parent. To steal from Sylvia Plath, I want us–me and Catherine, you, and all of the MotherShould? community– to melt the wall that all-too-often divides women without kids, for whatever reason, from those with kids.