In a culture that is obsessed with children — especially OMG BABIES!!!!! — and motherhood, the decision to remain childless is one that is often be viewed as selfish. Jessica Handler recognizes this, and has written an excellent article for this week’s issue of Newsweek about why she chose not to be a mother. In Handler’s case, she chose not to have children because she felt it would be “a roll of the biological dice,” as she lost one sister to leukemia and one to a rare blood disorder and later learned she had a 67% chance of passing on the blood disorder to any of her hypothetical progeny. She is happily married, seems to enjoy her career as a college professor, and smiles contentedly when telling people she does not have children. Her life, in short, appears rich and not lacking in anything.
What’s disappointing is not anything that Handler says about her choice, but the fact that this choice is something that needs to be explained to people. American culture praises itself on rugged individuality, but it really prizes conformity when it comes to the state of your uterus — specifically, that your womb should be full of glorious life that turns into a human being at least once in your childbearing years. Women who reject this notion are painted as selfish, career women who don’t understand the moral benefits of domesticity for both themselves and the society. There are those who would argue that Handler could adopt if she is afraid of passing on her genes, but she has concluded that “adoption is wonderful, but not for me: I am too afraid to lose a child I love. I can’t take that chance, even with another family’s genetic history.” Her choice may be seen as driven by fear, but why is fear a less valid emotion than those that compel other women to embrace motherhood?
Some commenters on Handler’s piece think she is in denial because she wrote this article in the first place. Maybe, they think, she really does want children and is only writing the piece to rationalize her denial of this desire. I call major BS on that. Clearly, some Newsweek readers just do not understand the degree to which women are expected to be mothers with no questions asked, and Handler’s piece is as much about that as it is about her own personal history.
It’s astounding how our culture does not embrace the truth that many women just don’t want to be mothers and that they have lives that are just as fulfilling as their counterparts who have children. Can you imagine a man writing Handler’s piece? I can’t, mainly because women are so inextricably associated with children and, as Handler notes, “on any given day, flashy magazines are plastered with celebrity pregnancies, baby weight and motherhood.” Countless magazine covers have featured the childless Jennifer Aniston with some headline about her wanting a baby, whereas I cannot remember a single one with a hysterical headline asking when the childless George Clooney will finally be a father. Women who are deemed the guardians of an oh-so-precious next generation, and for them to slough off that responsibility is seen as careless and callous; men, on the other hand, do not fall into that trap.
So thank you, patriarchy, for making articles like Handler’s necessary because so many people believe baby-free women are selfish. Thank you for making it so difficult to get the point across that women are perfectly within their rights to choose childlessness. Thank you for policing the rights and wrongs of childbearing and the lack thereof for so long that women like Handler are told they are in denial for not getting focusing on their duty of raising the precious next generation.
To close, I’d like to include a bit of Handler’s article that encapsulates everything I am trying to say here: “Our culture presumes that a grown woman’s true responsibility is motherhood….There are a lot of women like me, and for some of us being child-free is our choice, our responsibility not to our culture, but to ourselves.”