July 7th, 2010

Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

July blogathon #5: Childless by choice

I just tripped over this article and it's kind of the right time to discuss this, given that I'm counting down to the tenth anniversary of my (childless) marriage.

Let me start by saying it up front - when I was younger, much younger, I wasn't actively AGAINST having children - in fact I probably assumed that I would have at least one, eventually. I mean, everybody did, right?... But then, as the years started to pile on, several things began to shape my life. I had the opportunity to marry relatively young (and by implication fertile) - I was asked, twice, before I was 25 years old. I could have done it, got on with life, been a wife, a mother, you know, the classic average two-and-a-half-children-and-the-house-in-the-suburbs-with-a-white-picket-fence kind of existence.

I ran from it. Instinctively. It isn't that I suddenly recoiled from the guys who had paid me the compliment of loving me enough to want to take me on for life - in fact I am still in touch with one of them, almost three decades later, and we're actually friends. But at 19, and in my early twenties, I was looking at life spreading out before me, sparkling and full of joyous promise like sunlight on water, and I wasn't ready to give up all that potential for an actuality that I wasn't sure I actively wanted. So I did not marry these early partners... and then, for a fairly long time, I did not HAVE a partner. And when I finally took up with a man again, it was one disastrous relationship after another.

And the one that followed those, the one which began with an instant attraction and then with the words - from HIM - on our second date, "If you don't want to make this a long term thing, walk away NOW..." - yes, that one, the one I was finally ready for, the one which might have given me kids even though I was in my early thirties at the time and (by all medical rules) would have been a relatively high-risk first pregnancy - that one went down in flames a year after it began, and left me shattered enough to stagger blind and reeling through my life in the year that unfolded in its wake.

It was after this that I made a connection to a man on the Internet, someone to whom I could talk for hours, who seemed to be on much the same wavelength as me. For a long time this Internet relationship was all we had - because, in large part, we were living on two different continents - but eventually we met in person (and the first thing I did when we did so was probably have a crying jag that lasted for hours, a release from the relationship that never was, something that was almost an inability to accept the fact that someone else cared for me -what if it ended the same way as the other? What if...? How much more could I stand?)

But, reader, I married him, the Internet bloke - yes, rdeck - and we have now spent ten happy and, yes, exciting years together. When we did get hitched he said to me that he'd had his family (it was a second marriage for him) but that if I wanted children he would be proud to have a family with me. But it was up to me.

I kind of... said nothing. And said nothing. And continued saying nothing, until it became obvious that my silence on the matter was actually saying something.

If I had ever actively wanted to reproduce, I was past it by now. I was getting older, and quite aside from the potential problems in the pregnancy itself (older primagravida, a Rhesus mismatch) I looked at the possibility of babies and diapers and toddlers and I wasn't seeing myself in that picture. If someone was handing out kids who were already compos mentis, at a minimum aged seven or so, I might have considered it - but seriously, folks, when God was giving out patience I was stuck in another line, probably the one which was giving out the writing gene. I know my own personality, all too well. I'm passionate, impatient, quick-tempered, never quite good enough for myself, and although capable of great love I was happy to lavish it on kids once removed (my nieces, children of another woman's body) and my cats. And there was the financial aspect of it all - kids are expensive. First they grow out of everything they own every six months, and then they go to college, and in between they have to be fed and housed and cared for and healthy and kept clean and well educated and - it never ends... and I didn't want to begin it. Perhaps that was selfish. If you want to call it that, I'll take it.

What did I lose by this decision? Well, my husband is quite a lot older than me, and at some point in my life I will probably end up alone with no progeny to "take care of me" in my old age. That's not here yet, and when it comes, I'll deal with it - I'll become the mad cat lady of the neighbourhood or something, if that's what it takes. But what did I gain? I gained a career I love which would probably have never really happened if I'd had children on my hands (I know my limits. I would have focused on those children if I'd had them. Not on the stories. Not to the point of actively working to get any of those stories published. And half my mind would have been on other things, anyway). I gained a relationship between two adults where we can talk about things OTHER than whose turn it is to do dishes or change diapers. I have gained the freedom - finances permitting, of course - to have a lifestyle where travel features quite prominently - would I have made it to Japan with kids in the background? I doubt that, the finances would not have been there and I could not have just abandoned a kid for two weeks while I went gallivanting off to a Worldcon in a fascinating foreign country where I had never been. But I could leave the cats behind for that period of time, and a husband who understood the matter on an adult level and sent me off with his blessing. And then there are the trips that we took together - Alaska, the redwoods of California. In all honesty, I don't think I would have enjoyed them as much if I had had to spend three quarters of my time chasing after wayward children. I've gained a life where any algebra and trigonometry I have ever have to deal with are long in the past, and I have never been called upon to help a tearful baffled kid with their homework - granted, I'll never share my favourite books with that kid, either, but it's a trade-off.

I'm childless. By choice. And I keep on looking at the sort of world that is coming and I think that I might have made the right decision after all - my heart would be breaking far harder than it already is when I watch things like the Gulf gusher and the possibility that dozens of species of animals whom I love - polar bears, lions, others - might be extinct in my own lifetime. I don't think I would have wanted a child of mine to live in a world where any lions that he or she might have seen would have been behind bars in the local zoo, until those too died of old age and of captivity and faded away into memory.

*I* am living now. Right now. I share my life with whom I choose, not according to dictates of biological imperative. I completely understand that others feel differently - I applaud the idea of having the babies if that's what gives you joy - but it never seemed to be on the cards, for me. And I just turned 47 years old - the boat has sailed, even if I had wanted to step upon it. That era is over. I'm done. I'm childless, by choice. It isn't that I would have been appallingly bad at it all - I seem to get on just fine with the young readers of my YA books, for instance, which implies a certain connection with the younger set - but having a human being for whose life, the quality and the kind of whose life, I bore complete responsibility for - that, I don't know. I think my own life was very wise, guiding me along roads that might have included heartbreak but which finally got me here, to this spot, without having to make those choices.

I have never - will never - sing a lullaby. I have never - will never - have a young child's arms go around me, or hear the word "mummy" (outside of a Museum of Egyptology). I have never - will never - feel the rush of seeing a child I have taught its letters fledge from that nest and take the leap into flight, into the wide sky of literature and reading. But I have also never, and will never, struggled with tears and tantrums and the child's guilt at having failed to live up to what it might have perceived as my expectations. I will never have to worry about my child's future, about what kind of a world my child would live in, wonder where the next pair of shoes is coming from (or at least the next pair of shoes which will allow that child to hold its head up in a school playground against a mocking jury of its peers). I may or may not have been able to provide the kind of life for any child of mine which I myself have had - rich in experience, overflowing with love, never hungry, never going without, always fed and dressed not just adequately but well beyond the minimum, well educated, broadly travelled, multilingual, the kind of life that I feel any child of mine would have deserved and which I would have spent a lifetime feeling guilty about if I had failed to provide any one given aspect of it. Instead, I will... write my books. I will give the sum of my experiences not just to one baby, but to many readers and granted I may never know how any of my words have affected them because they will be other people's children and their excitement or their disdain will not have been expressed directly to me. But in the meantime... I will babytalk with my cats, I will have a rich and meaningful life with my life-mate, and I will remain - childless and solitary as I am - a member of the human race, a citizen of the world, and a dreamer about all the stars in the heavens; a poet, a writer, somebody who loves animals and trees and mountains and the sea and music, and life, even if it turned out to be a life unshared by something physically born of me.

I don't think I was ever issued a biological clock. If I was, it stopped working a long time ago. I am here. I am now. Did not having children make me happier? Would having children have made me more fulfilled? Who knows? All I can say is that right now instinct tells me I made the right choices for ME. And I'm about as happy about that as a human being ought to have a right to be.