Tagged childfree

The Facts of Life: an Interview with Paula Knight

Editors’ note: Dr. Elizabeth Starr recently interviewed graphic memoirist Paula Knight about her new book. Read on to learn more!

Paula Knight’s graphic memoir The Facts of Life is a powerful example of women’s work in autobiographical comics.  Recounting her childhood in Northeast England, The Facts of Life explores how we form expectations about fertility that then shape our adult lives.  Knight’s work illustrates the experience of miscarriage and living with ME/CFS/Fibromyalgia and offers alternative ways of valuing women’s lives beyond motherhood.  We’re grateful that she took the time to talk with MotherShould?.

ES: You studied Graphic Design and Illustration in college and have been writing and drawing professionally for many years. Did applying those skills to a graphic memoir about fertility and womanhood seem like a natural step—how did that come about?

PK: It was perhaps an odd step to go from illustrating children’s books to writing a book about not having children. Of course, some of those skills were transferable – certainly in terms of being able to structure and craft a cohesive narrative with so much information to juggle. My growing interest in graphic novels just so happened to coincide with the time in my life when I was trying for children (and ensuing problems), and it soon became the medium I wanted to use to tell my story, especially when I realised that other women my age were creating autobiographical comics. I began to read many more graphic novels about tricky autobiographical subject matter, especially health-related, and this made me feel that there might be an audience for my work in this medium. I also entered Myriad Editions’ (my UK publisher) First Graphic Novel Competition in 2011, and an extract from my book reached the shortlist the following year. This gave me the confidence to get on with the job after many years of ‘starting’ my book!

from “The Facts of Life” by Paula Knight, 2017

ES: There is so much silence surrounding the experiences both of dealing with miscarriage and living with a chronic illness, and there seems to be a lot of blame assigned to bodies when they aren’t working perfectly.  Your comics, for example, draw our attention to the language of carelessness or failure that is often used to describe miscarriage.  Chronic illness can also bring on feelings of self-condemnation or doubt, especially when there’s a delay in getting a clear diagnosis.  Do you think we tend to treat miscarriage and chronic illness in similar ways?  What was difficult or liberating in trying to break these silences?

PK: Yes, there appears to be just as much stigma surrounding the illness ME/CFS as there is around miscarriage, although the roots of the stigma are different. ME is a highly misunderstood invisible illness and miscarriage suffers its shroud of silence – possibly connected to shame around women’s bodily functions, and our fear of blood and death. There are also similarities such as feeling desperate to know the cause, and wanting a cure, when medicine can’t tell you what’s wrong or provide treatment, for example. Then, in absence of a satisfactory answer, the next step is to blame oneself. That vacuum also serves as a gaping receptacle for ignorant unsolicited opinions of others, unfortunately – if there is any room left in there alongside all the self-blame: Everyone gets tired; You can always try again, etc. It’s safe to say that neither miscarriage nor ME/CFS are patients’ fault – they are health issues that medicine doesn’t (yet) know how to treat fully. I try to fill some of that vacuum with comics, which, with its unique interplay of words, pictures and panels, is a medium well-placed to tackle subject matter that has traditionally been unspoken. I felt tentative about sharing the work online at first, but ultimately it was very connecting, and it encouraged conversations I would never have had otherwise. It felt very gratifying to receive emails telling me that my work has expressed something on behalf of people who was unable to.

ES: The Facts of Life makes such a persuasive argument that we could all benefit from getting out from under the sway of pronatalism: what are the things that help you do that?

PK: I’m interested in wildlife and the natural world. Environmental issues and the idea of the Anthropocene (the point in time at which human existence on earth is said to have caused ecological damage beyond repair) go a long way to comfort me over the fact that I didn’t have children. Human population growth is the greatest threat to the wellbeing of our planet and to our very own existence on it. I have a growing interest in organisations such as Population Matters and Eradicating Ecocide. Having said that, I’m not anti-natal either – I think extreme policies either way are a threat to reproductive rights (extreme pronatal policy might involve limiting access to abortion and contraception, for example). Of course I still have times of grief over not having children, and no doubt my child would surely have been a brilliant scientist who discovered new ways to feed everyone without harming ecosystems…. I also planted some trees as a memorial to the child I didn’t have. It seemed like a positive thing to do – trees last longer than people and are far more beneficial to the environment. The ritual of doing this helped immensely in our grief, too, so win-win!

ES: Some of the most powerful visual scenes in this graphic memoir depict how the ability or the inability to have children shapes the way people talk to you at parties or at work.  These casual encounters can happen so quickly, but can be so traumatic.  What do you want to say about how to talk to people who don’t or can’t have children?

EK: Perhaps we could try to steer clear of the more direct and intrusive questions. I understand that for people with children these conversations can be very connecting, but you don’t need a degree in psychology to read between the lines. Perhaps try more open-ended ice-breakers, such as: How are you?; What have you been up to recently?; Did you see Game of Thrones this week?; Where do you come from?; or How do you know *person*? This gives more scope to steer a conversation away from talk about children and avoid the risk of opening up raw wounds for someone who is hoping to have a nice relaxing evening out. Never ask why someone didn’t have children, or offer unsolicited advice. I wouldn’t ask someone why they didn’t ever do X job; or why they don’t own a bigger house, or have a partner, for example. Why didn’t you ever succeed in becoming an astronaut – whatever went wrong there? Why don’t you try buying a space suit and jumping up and down on a trampoline instead? Having said that, there was a very clever lad at my school who wanted to be an astronomer, and I would really like to know if he made it. It’s natural to be curious, but you don’t have the right to know personal details about someone’s fertility problems – and that’s what you might find yourself inadvertently poking around in when you ask someone if they have children.

ES: Do you have any advice for women who “can’t draw” but might want to after reading your book?

PK: I don’t believe in ‘can’t draw’ – anyone can! You don’t have to be a trained artist to draw – you weren’t when you were a child, after all. You didn’t care if it looked right then, so why now? It’s still possible to communicate an idea or emotion using stick figures or very simple drawings. Don’t let draughtsmanship, and not being able to represent subject matter accurately, put you off. It’s good to carry a small sketchbook and pen/pencil around at all times and that way you can fit in some drawing whenever the opportunity arises – in a café, work canteen, or on the train etc. Drawing from observation in this way is great practice, and you’ll never forget an idea if you always have a sketchbook or notebook with you.

Learn more about Paula’s work at her website, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

 

 

 

Elizabeth Starr teaches writing and literary study at Westfield State University. Her academic work brings nineteenth-century narrative techniques into conversation with contemporary literature, specifically in terms of how we tell stories about illness. She is especially interested in writers who open up new ways of thinking about illness and health in their creative work.

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MotherShould? Reading List

We’re launching a new feature on MotherShould?: a round up of articles we believe you’ll find worthy of reading. Co-editor Beverly Army Williams compiled today’s reading list.

As a double-income no-kids woman, I’ve been fortunate in having little push-back about my being childfree from family and friends, though strangers have been less understanding. Lesson learned? Stay surrounded by people who don’t feel compelled to poke their nose in my business. Laura Barcella’s article in The Washington Post makes it clear that I am not alone in being stigmatized for my choice. In all fairness I confess to a little judgement of parents on my end, and I appreciated JoAnna Novak’s Today’s Parent article in which she reflects her own judgements. Among the common unsolicited comments I’ve heard is that I’ll regret the choice later in life. Well, I’m getting to the later-in-life stage, and other than some grieving around holidays and baseball games, I align with the women interviewed in Self in not lingering in regret. One of my husband’s (an environmental analyst) reasons for not wanting kids is to have a smaller impact on the environment. Who knew that our decision creates a bigger impact on the economy? Read on, and feel free to share articles that help you make sense of being on the fence.

The Washington Post writer Laura Barcella responds to a study examining stigmatization of voluntarily childfree women (and men) in Americans are having fewer kids. But child-free people are still stigmatized.

Recent MotherShould? essayist JoAnna Novak examines her shifting judgement of parents in her Today’s Parent article Parents, I’m judging you (and I’m sorry, mostly)  .

Wondering what childfree women think about their choices later in life? Take a look at Self‘s article 10 Women Look Back on Living Childfree by Choice .

Adina Solomon covers Adults who opt to have kids cause ripple effect in US housing market in The Washington Post.

 

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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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Queer, Disabled, and Childfree

In Portland in 1998 I felt my back clench and ache. I couldn’t focus on the words in my art history book. Phrases kept racing through my head with that same image of bulging. Expanding. Blowing up. I took a pregnancy test the day before and found out I was pregnant.

That same day, there was a series of urgent raps on the door. I scrambled to pull it open. My boyfriend Kelvin leaned in. His eyes on the floor. He stepped inside.

I reached for him. Pressed my face to his shoulder, shaking.

He grabbed me around the waist. Held me. Not speaking. I couldn’t either. I could feel objections. Frustration. Panic. I couldn’t articulate them. I just wanted to fall into his body and close my eyes.

“This is such a cliché, I know,” Kelvin said. “But I can’t help feeling like I’m ruining your life.”

“No, I don’t care.” I said. “I have no maternal instinct, I never have. I have no will to nurture. I want the thing to fucking die and leave me alone.

At the age of 22 I got an abortion so that I could finish my thesis and graduate. My ambition outstripped my maternal instinct as became usual. Kelvin broke up with me immediately afterwards, not unexpectedly.

At the age of 40, I still do not want children but it’s even more complicated than it was in college. As a queer widow disabled by several chronic mental illnesses and forced to survive on the charity of SSDI and my parents, child-rearing is not a responsible choice. I may not have passed completely out of the window of fertility, yet I am eager for menopause to seal the deal.

My Schizoaffective Disorder, a rare co-occurring blend of Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia matched with PTSD and anxiety is genetically inherited. I am on Disability. I cannot work ever again. Schizoaffective Disorder has a very high probability of being genetically passed on to any child I would have.

I do not want to bring another person into this world who would suffer as I have suffered. I have struggled with addiction, alcoholism, poverty, and mental illness. I feel like consigning my spawn to a life of homelessness on inadequate government benefits because I couldn’t be bothered to handle my birth control would be terminally irresponsible. I have a gynecologist in my phone who would perform the abortion if my IUD ever did fail. I am protecting my imaginary future child from a cruel world. I am protecting society from my child. I am trying to make responsible choices.

Like any story, there are a few ways to frame my story. Given my circumstances I believe I am making a responsible choice but maybe I’ve just chosen not to have kids because I don’t really like children unless I’m related to them. Their messiness, screams, crying and unpredictability irritate me. I prefer to see children from the safe distance of Facebook. Far away and quiet.

Others will tell my story, my choice to end a pregnancy, as a story of selfishness. I have been vilified on Twitter for being willing to use the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion. I am aware that some in the comments section may criticize my way of thinking. But do you want your tax dollars taking care of my spawn? On seeing an online photograph of a 1948 mother put her children up for sale, I shuddered in recognition. Children are very expensive, and I can’t earn my own money. The reality of my mental illness is cruel, no matter what pretty illusions I like to tell myself about being an artist.

The other way to tell my story is that I simply could not have children. With the limitations of my mental illness there are only so many things I can achieve. As a disabled woman I have fewer spoons, to quote spoon theory. A spoon is a unit of time and energy that it takes to do something. Disabled people have fewer spoons then non disabled people. So I put my spoons towards writing and art and cut out everything else that befits a normal life in order to have the bohemian life that I want.

There was a time, though, that I let the thought of motherhood enter my mind. I married a wonderful woman in 2011. We happily lived together for three years before tying the knot slightly before it was even legal. Prop 8 brides. Lesbian homesteading in Echo Park. We contemplated children but as two vain gamines, neither of us actually wanted to get pregnant. With me on SSDI and her working at a bookstore, we couldn’t really afford it either.

Watching San Francisco queer punk writer Michelle Tea’s struggle with artificial insemination online I wondered what lesbian parenting would be like. Our cat wore a pink sweater that read, “I have two mommies.” Yet conceiving is more difficult than kitten adoption. I see Instagram images now of an old girlfriend who just had a baby with her partner. Their family is adorable. I see that it is possible. I missed my chance.

My wife committed suicide in 2012. When she died I gave up on marriage. I will never marry again. I will never have children. I have a Paraguard IUD that will last until menopause. I will never have a traditional normal life, yet I am rapturously happy doing what I love all of the time.

I see my story as a story of acceptance. I sit alone in my Hollywood apartment with my cat typing into the void of the Internet. I am content to die this way in 40-50 years having done more of the same.

I accept my limitations. I hope to have a happier more fulfilling life as a result of this acceptance. As I learned in AA, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I accept my childfree life. I am learning to flourish within it.

Andrea Lambert wrote Jet Set Desolate, Lorazepam & the Valley of Skin and the chapbook G(u)ilt. Her work appears in 3:AM Magazine, The Fanzine, Entropy, Queer Mental Health, HTMLGiant, Five:2:One Magazine and ENCLAVE. Anthologies: Haunting Muses, Writing  the Walls Down, Off the Rocks Volume #16, and The L.A. Telephone Book Vol. 1, 2011-2012. Her website is andreaklambert.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.

Depression or a Child?

Sheri McCord explores how long-term mental illness has impacted her decision-making around motherhood. 

It was the early 90s, Kurt Cobain was on MTV Unplugged, and I was a teenager. I was hospitalized for overdosing on medication for the first of two times in my life. I met someone while in the hospital who was living with postpartum depression. I watched her sob as her husband yelled at her in front of us, patients. He was an Alan Thicke look-alike, and she was diminutive, brunette, and fragile—a scared bird with hollow bones. Alan was questioning her, “Why did you do this to us? Why? Can’t you even give an answer? Why?” He stood there over her, holding both of their sons, one clearly the latest baby, and the other about two-years old. While she sat hunched at a table, he seemed to lord the now-crying babies over her while continuing to badger. She could not hold her littlest one, and I thought that she might have wanted to, but she just couldn’t. He could not understand, and her continuous crying infuriated him. It was the kind of quiet sobbing we do when we don’t want to attract attention.

Ten years later, when I considered having children, I remembered this woman, and I imagined myself in this same state.

Postpartum depression is only one of the reasons why I am afraid to have children.  

Depression is in my genes. Born in 1927 and brought up during the Great Depression, my dad had all the qualities of someone extremely depressed while also being paranoid and anxious and an alcoholic. He was explosively violent oftentimes to my mom and half-siblings and verbally abusive to us all. Children were to be seen and not heard, so in one of his lectures, he told a very stoic, steely eleven-year-old me that I “wouldn’t make nothing of myself” because I’d “have a baby in eighth grade and have to drop out.” This “pep talk” eventually drove me to do well in school. But he didn’t believe in “book learnin’” or psychology for that matter. Therapy was never brought up in our house, even when I began to throw books around my room in anger and sleep all day and night.  

I eventually did get therapy. I’ve been prescribed every drug on the planet for depression and anxiety as well as snapping a rubber band on my wrist when I had negative thoughts. Eventually, I realized the rubber band method was actually punishing myself.

My psychiatrists finally figured out my medicine, and I acknowledge the tremendous time and patience of trial-and-error for both patient and physician that takes place to find a suitable cocktail. After a few years, I plateau, and then I usually need to find something else. That trial-and-error period is frightening since I do not know how I will respond to the new drugs, or if I will be pulled into a deep depression with no getting out of bed. This uncertainty contributes to my reluctance to have a child.

My mom first saw a difference in me at eleven during menarche. The joy was sucked out of me, she said. I used to be such a happy child. From then on, I was a worrier. Suicidal thoughts have run through my mind since I was 17. They still occur today but they’re more like those annoying pop-up ads on the web; they stick around for a few seconds until I click “off” and then I’m back to whatever I was doing.  

Though I’m not suicidal, living with depression has kept me from attending class or work when I had no energy to get out of bed. I have been bed-bound for weeks at a time and unable to focus, read, or remember what I did day-to-day. A panic attack once sent me to the campus counseling center because I was so worried about the discussion in my Chaucer class. Most of the time, I am just trying to make it, much less form a complex thought about Middle Age poetry.  But I still managed to get through three degree programs and earn a Ph.D.

Some might look at me and wonder if I just didn’t choose school or a career over children, but I can tell you it is much more than that. Depression can be all-consuming. Depression is selfish, taking away time, motivation, and energy. Many of my relationships, and one marriage, have failed because of depression, anxiety, or a combo.

Sometimes the pressure to have a child is too much but how am I supposed to raise a baby when I feel like that baby is constantly me? I’m always monitoring my mood, and more specifically, my anxiety and level of energy. I was and still am raising myself. I know I am living with depression and anxiety and who knows what else, and I just can’t see bringing another human being into my world.

head-shot_mccord-1Sheri McCord writes creative nonfiction, studies seventeenth-century literature, and continues to research literature, medicine, and early modern perceptions of the body. She began her teaching career in 2001 and graduated with a Ph.D. in English in 2010. She has taught across the St. Louis, Missouri, area and currently is a writing consultant at Saint Louis University writing center.

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Suddenly Uncertain: How My Post-divorce Love Makes Me Reconsider Motherhood

Adamantly childfree her whole life, this week’s writer finds herself considering motherhood at the age of 37. 

I was a lifelong “I never want kids, ever” person until divorce at 35 nudged me into some unexpected indecision.  I didn’t think I’d ever be considering children, especially at this age.  I also didn’t know I’d find the type of relationship that I have now, which has revealed how incredibly different one pairing of people can feel from another.  Being with a new partner for the first time in 15 years suddenly revealed possibilities and emotions I never imagined having.

When I was married, I felt secure in my decision to remain childless.  I had someone bound to me by the commitment of marriage who felt the same way, at least at the time, and was relatively fine with it.  Sure, I felt some pressure from society (and maybe a tiny bit from his mother), but most of my closest friends and family knew better than to question me on my decision.  I felt generally accepted; my husband and I were a united front, for the most part.  When I no longer had the partnership of a marriage to lean on, to hide in, I was suddenly exposed.  I was well aware that the possibility of meeting many different kinds of partners was out there:  among them, men who would want children, who would expect them.  Men who would judge me and reject me for not wanting them. I saw my lack of desire for children as a major strike against me.  For the first time in my adult life, I felt afraid to be myself.

The whole landscape changes when you become a single person again.  Lots of people who heard about my divorce would say “Oh, it’s so good that you didn’t have any children.”  Really?  Because it was totally different when I was married and everyone wanted to know why I didn’t have any.  That left me to consider what was so fortunate about not having children with my ex husband.  Was that concern over kids being caught in a nasty or dramatic split?  Maybe it was because then I could make a clean break, and I wouldn’t have to deal with my ex again.  Whatever the reason, those statements and all related discussions stopped as my identity as a single person settled in.  It was as if not having a family was now a foregone conclusion and wasn’t worth talking about anymore.  I guess I’d blown my chance…at something I didn’t even want to begin with.

It’s hard to say what exactly put the current uncertainty over having children into me.  Divorce is hard and terrible because you lose a lot, even when it’s relatively amicable.  You lose future, love, security, money.  I lost a lot of those things, but the scariest thing I lost was time.  If this had happened to me five years ago, I could’ve had a chance to relax and think for a minute.  It takes time to meet someone, and know them and love them.  The relationship I have with my current partner is so different from anything I’d known before.  I can only describe it as a deeper connection, sort of a stronger emotional engagement.  Loving someone and being loved in that way soothed just enough of my fears about the commitment of having a child with another person that I ended up on the fence when I thought my mind had been made up for as long as I’d been alive.

That deeper connection, plus the insight I’ve gained by going through a divorce, has made me uncomfortable with absolutes and that’s where the fence comes in. It seems fair to be honest that I’m not eager to have children, or that I don’t see it is a necessary life goal.  It doesn’t seem appropriate right now to say no to a partner unequivocally.  Sure, I would be most comfortable with someone who knew they didn’t want children, because I think deep down, I don’t really either.  But how can I say I never want something when I don’t even know yet where this relationship will take me?

We’ve got friends who are around the same age, even a year or two older, who recently had their first babies and seem really happy.  My partner sees it too, and I secretly overanalyze his responses to every online picture and status update.  He’s happy when people have babies, like a normal person.  When I hear about people having babies, it’s riddled with anxiety, like it somehow holds a mirror up to some dysfunctional or broken part of me.  It’s not something we talk about a lot, and I realize that’s counter to my earlier description of a deep connection.  Now, I’m approaching 37 and realizing that there isn’t much more time to think about this before it becomes a decision I can’t reverse.  Maturity and hindsight have ensured that my days of rushing into things are over, but rushing is quickly feeling like the only solution.

lyon

Mina Lyon is the pseudonym of a New Englander with incurable wanderlust.  She loves national parks, dirt roads, maple syrup, and solitude.  She is pretty sure she wants to get into bicycle touring and has her whole life ahead of her.

MotherShould? is One!

One cold afternoon in 2013, we sat in our university’s Writing Center together. Catherine said, almost in passing, how she wished there had been a place where she could have read stories about how other smart women made their decisions about whether or not they wanted to have kids. We commiserated about how little baby ambivalence (what Catherine later coined “bambivalence”) was discussed.

About a year later, another wintery afternoon, we bounced ideas about website names back and forth while we ate lunch we’d fixed together. We represented the two sides of the baby question fence. We represented the complexity of the decision. We represented the desire we share to melt the walls between women who have kids and women who choose not to.

Nine months later, we published our first essay.

MotherShould? is a labor of love. While that sentiment is a cliche, in this case, none seems more accurate. As we’ve grown as editors, and as the site’s readership has grown, our commitment to our mission has, too. We feel privileged that so many women have trusted us with their stories. We hear from our readers how important the stories are to them. MotherShould? is a place where bambivalence is not judged.

We spend a lot of time with every piece we publish. We work with our writers as they “…sit down at a typewriter and open a vein” as Ernest Hemingway once described writing. Writing for MotherShould? isn’t always easy, but nearly all of our writers have called it cathartic, have been buoyed by comments and emails from readers, have felt that by sharing their story, they have come to a richer understanding of their experience. If you have a story you want to share, we invite you to send us a note.

We love everything we publish, and we hope you’ll revisit all of the work here and share it widely. In the meantime, we’d like to highlight a few pieces published in the last year. Thanks for being here with us!

In the Waiting Room by Tara Parmiter

Choosing My Choices and Stuff by Ada Kenney

Have I Got a Deal for You by Nicole Savini

Who Decides by Joyce Hayden

Creativity 2.0 by Leah Gotcsik

How I Learned I Want to be a Mom by Jennifer DiGrazia

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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Selfish, Careerist, Regretful? Not the Childfree Women I Know

In this season’s House of Cards there’s a memorable scene between first lady and VP candidate, Claire Underwood and the presidential opponent’s wife, Hannah. The two  women are sitting across from one another drinking coffee in the White House residence and although they are on opposing sides, they are finding common ground around gun control and making the role of the first lady meaningful. Hannah manages to soften the normally rigid Claire by telling her she is a role model and that if she wins she’ll make an excellent vice president.

This moment of female bonding is interrupted when Hannah’s son jumps up and loudly asks for a drink. When Claire says that Hannah’s son is cute, Hannah unthinkingly ask Claire if she regrets not having kids. Claire’s stony face makes Hannah immediately apologize for asking a question that she admits is “too personal.” Claire pauses and responds pointedly in between sips of coffee: “do you regret having them?” And the scene ends.

This scene was so striking for a couple reasons:

First, it brings into sharp focus the assumptions our culture has about women who do not have children: they regret it.

It was actually on an episode of Oprah that I first confronted the powerful narrative of “woman pursues a career and regrets her decision not to have kids when it’s too late.” I was so frightened by this possibility that I remember the moment like you remember where you were when someone important died. I was in my late twenties, lying on my faded couch, hungover, in my Brooklyn apartment watching Oprah. I didn’t typically watch Oprah, but it was the comfort food my hangover brain craved. On Oprah’s stage sat a group of sad women in their forties; whether they were or not, I remember them dressed in suits. These women, in pursuit of their careers, missed the baby train, and they were gathered on stage to share their stories of regret. While I don’t remember their individual stories, the emotional weight of their collective regret stuck with me, and ten years later it motivated me to jump off the fence and get pregnant.

While this narrative helped nudge me in the direction that was right for me, for women who do not have kids it can be painful to have people  assume you live in regret. (See Ambivalent and Grieving and My Mother’s Day Wish.)

Second, the moment between Hannah and Claire depicts the divide between women who have children and women who do not. Perplexed by a woman’s choice to remain childfree in a pronatalist world, many mothers don’t really know how to talk to childfree women and as a result we judge, we say things that are unintentionally disparaging, and we ask questions we shouldn’t ask.

My husband and I both cheered at Claire’s response to Hannah, which  was dubbed a “feminist moment” by Bustle Magazine.

But while her response rang feminist, at another level this show is just reinforcing the confining narratives that exist for childfree women. Claire fits into the stereotype of the cold childless woman whose DNA is sequenced for ambition rather than motherhood. Just as there’s the virgin/whore binary, there’s the mother/ice queen.  As if to emphasize how anti-maternal she is, Claire’s character has had not one, not two, but three abortions. Claire is ruthless in her ambition–while she does not commit, she does condone the murder of people who stand in the way of her and her husband’s ascent to the White House.

So established is the stereotype of the selfish childfree woman that Meghan Daum titles her edited collection of essays of thirteen childfree women writers, Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed to mock the negative stereotype of women who chose careers (in this case creative careers) instead of motherhood. This book shows us that the decision not to have children tends to be responsible rather than selfish. After all, what good does it do a child to have a half-hearted mother? While Daum’s collection turns the selfish stereotype on its head, as a collection of essays by successful women writers, it reinforces a parallel narrative that has emerged: the super successful childfree woman.

This is the story, too, in Hillary Frank’s recent interview of Terry Gross from NPR’s Fresh Air about her decision not to have children on the wonderful podcast the The Longest Shortest Time. Gross explains that she did not have any models for leading a successful career AND having a family, so she decided to pursue a career. She feels that her decision not to have children and pursue her career was a feminist act. I agree. Gross was a maverick.

That said, there was an underlying  if unintentional message in this interview and in Daum’s collection: if you are a woman choosing not to have children then you better be EXTREMELY successful, otherwise, how do you justify your decision? How do you justify your life?

So what roles are available for childfree women?

There’s the spinster and/or cat lady. One of my unmarried childfree friends who LOVES cats actually googled “how many cats can you have before you become a cat lady?” When the answer came back as “three,” she decided not to adopt a third cat.

There’s the successful woman–selfish or not– and she typically dislikes children. Then, there’s the woman who has achieved success but regrets not being a mom.

The stories we tell are powerful. These stories shape us for better or worse  (I had a child and my friend didn’t adopt a third cat), and they shape how we interact with one another. It is always the case that when a group is marginalized or othered, the roles available to individuals in those groups are limited. Acknowledging these limits and checking our assumptions when we interact with people from marginalized groups is a step in the right direction. What else do we need? We need more stories of typical childfree women who are just living their lives.

Sure there are wildly successful childfree career women, and some of them, like Terry Gross, might not want to snuggle babies. Sure there are old, childless women who have houses full of cats. Sure there are women who are consumed with regret for not having kids. But I don’t know these women.

The childfree women I know live rich and meaningful lives. There’s my friend Shoshannah, a metalhead with a black belt in karate, who regularly visits her mother who has had Alzheimer’s for nearly ten years. There’s my friend Melissa, a teacher who adopts and fosters dogs and regularly visits a youth detention center to offer pet therapy. There’s my friend Kerri, STEM teacher of the year and tireless Zumba instructor. There’s my friend Stephanie, writer, editor, bartender, PhD, and trailblazer. There’s my friend Jocelyn, a vegetarian, an animal lover, and  an artful wedding and family photographer whose calming presence enables her to capture genuine moments of connection. There’s my friend and co-editor for MotherShould?, a teacher, writer, knitter, sewer, crafter, perpetual student, and convener of porch nights for a community of friends.

The lives and stories of childfree women I know don’t adhere to the stereotypes yet the narratives persist. Likely, as more and more women make the choice not to have kids, childfree women will be able to just be. And that’s a good thing.

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