As a Christian woman who has no desire to procreate, I’ve often felt like an anomaly or a mutant. In the various church communities I’ve called home at one time or another, I haven’t been aware of a significant number of Christian women like me — women who are happily married, without children, and who remain childless intentionally and unapologetically. For a long time, I was left to assume that I’d either have to forego marriage or have a child on behalf of my husband. And I could imagine both — lifelong singleness or loving a man so much that I couldn’t deprive him of the joys and privileges of paternity. What I found it impossible to imagine (until it happened) was that there could be another anomaly out there like me — a man who would love me and marry me without having to sacrifice his parental dreams (or impose them on me).
Is it any wonder that I thought my options were limited to remaining single or having a child against my ambitions? As a woman, and perhaps especially as a Christian woman, I run into assumptions about procreation all the time. So often I hear, “When you have kids…” (Notice the when as opposed to if.) These are the people who ask when I’m going to have children — as though it’s a task that could slip my mind. Sometimes, I wonder whether they’re expecting me to respond to their inquiry by running off in harried haste yelling, “Oh my goodness! I knew there was something I was forgetting to do! I really must get going. Sorry! Bye!”
I haven’t forgotten to become a mother. I’m not procrastinating. I’m aware that my womb won’t be willing and able forever, so I keep checking in on that part of me. My decision to remain childless is one I’ve revisited repeatedly — a regular internal temperature reading I take to see if I’ve warmed to the idea of doing the traditionally expected thing.
My certainty hasn’t made my decision easy. It’s not one I’ve made flippantly. I’m not apathetic about the fact that my choice has an effect on others. I’ll admit to feeling small pangs of guilt and sadness — pinpricks in my conscience — for not giving my father or my in-laws their first grandchild. But I can’t have a child for someone else, to make another person happy — not even my beloved family. I will not have a child just because that’s what others expect or hope. I cannot live in opposition to myself or keep pace with someone else’s biological clock.
When my husband and I get asked about having kids, the precise wording varies, but most inquiries can be sorted into one of two categories: circuitous (“Have you two talked about having kids yet?”) or curt (“When are you two going to start having babies?”)
I am as emotionally allergic to these questions as I am to all the auto-fill inquiries of life. But of all the formulaic probes, I dislike the relationship and procreation questions the most. Why? First, if I’m uncertain, you’re forcing me to wallow longer in my uncertainty. You are asking a question I can’t possibly answer. Second, if I am certain but haven’t already volunteered the information, then perhaps the answer is private or a sensitive topic for me. You’ll find out if I’m dating someone when I introduce you to my boyfriend. You’ll know we’re getting married when you see my engagement ring or receive a wedding invitation. And you’ll discern that we’re planning to have children when I announce that I’m pregnant. Few milestones remain secrets forever. Time will tell.
It’s not that the questions themselves are wrong. It’s that, so often, the person asking the question is drilling deep but has little stake in the answers. Intent matters. When asked by a confidante, such questions can be mined for meaningful or cathartic conversations. But when asked by an acquaintance or in the context of small talk, they can feel intrusive or inappropriate. They also have the potential to hurt me. What if I’m depressed because I’m single and lonely? What if I’m painfully aware of the fact that I’m the only one of my friends who isn’t happily married? What If I’m struggling with infertility? What if I just miscarried?
Asking a childless woman when she’s going to have a baby is like walking through a minefield and making her take the lead. You have no idea what kind of wounds your questions might inflict — or how sensitive or explosive the topic is. Are you prepared to stick around and take responsibility for the damage if the fallout is extensive? Or is your question flippant and designed to require minimal engagement from you, while (potentially, at least) being highly destructive to your target?
My answer to the question isn’t painful. It’s just tedious to keep reiterating: I simply don’t want children. It’s something I’ve known about myself since childhood. I had dolls, but I didn’t play mommy.
When I was very young, my disinterest in maternal play got the attention of my nursery school teacher. She had a talk with my mom because I never played house and only ever wanted to erect building-block skyscrapers. She asked my mother to remind me that I should take turns playing with all the various types of toys in the classroom. (I suspect that none of the little boys in my class were ever scolded for hogging the fire trucks, but I am making a conscious decision here to avoid exploring that sexist tangent.)
Suffice it to say, I never spent any time looking forward to or expecting to have children. To the depths that I’ve always known I love to dance and hate artificial sweeteners, I’ve known I wasn’t destined for motherhood.
I don’t dislike children. Most of them are adorable and beguiling. But you can like something without wanting one of your own. Not all dog people have dogs — or want one. I don’t doubt my ability to love my offspring, and I don’t worry that parenting is too hard. And I’m not fearful of repeating negative patterns that were present in my home growing up. I have/had wonderful parents whom I overwhelmingly respect and love. But just as I don’t want to be an astronaut, own a giraffe, or climb Mt. Everest (as much as I respect those who do), I don’t want to have children (though I’m happy for those who do). The desire simply isn’t within me. Any latent seeds of maternal yearning that might have once been buried deep (deep) in my subconscious — and that might have blossomed one day — died when my mother did.
I understand that the question about having children is natural and that the expectation is as well. Such is the norm — especially among Christians. “Be fruitful and multiply” is a well-known component of the hegemonic Christian discourse. We marry and have children. It’s almost a cause and effect. Often the only question is how long a span of time will separate the two events. So knowing that people are simply expecting the expected, I do my best to smile graciously and endure the mundane exchange that almost always follows. Since the person is usually not expecting a deep or lengthy conversation about my choice, it doesn’t take long.
To be honest, I’m not really sure what people are expecting in the way of a response. I’ve been tempted to say, “We’re trying really hard; we have unprotected sex every single night. Fingers crossed!” Perhaps that would stave off the predictable follow-up I get so often: “But you’d make such a good mother, and you’d both be such great parents!” As if aptitude were reason enough.
I’m also really good at being neat, but I don’t want to clean your house.
[Headline image: The photograph features a young black couple holding each other to the left of the frame. Both are facing front and smiling. The man has his arms around the woman, and she has her hand on his arm. They are outdoors with a blurred tower-like structure behind them.]