Ambivalence, grace, and the choice to have kids

No one ever asks a man, “Are you planning on having children?” But it’s a question that is often lobbed at women between the ages of 20 and 40. And it’s a question that I often ask myself. Am I going to have children?

Ann Friedman’s recent piece on women’s ambivalence toward having children struck a chord with me. Like the women Friedman characterizes, I am open to having children, but I’m also not sure if I particularly want them. I find that many of my childless friends express a similar sentiment. It is, perhaps, one of the first times in history in which women have felt confident enough to say such things out loud.

Growing up, I never envisioned myself as a mother. I did not play with dolls or play-act at breastfeeding or other mothering activities. At a young age, I was teased, by my older female relatives, for my considerable lack of maternal instinct. I preferred reading and bossing my peers around; I didn’t want to be anyone’s mother. I baby-sat often in my teens, and even now, I am still quite adept at diapering an infant, but I never particularly loved watching other people’s children. Unlike many of my female friends, I never begged to hold people’s babies; I didn’t know what to do with them. I preferred the solemn six-year-olds to the babies every time.

Partially because I’ve never imagined myself as a mother, I find the joys and trials of parenting very difficult to envision. As an outsider, I just see all of the sleep-deprived, home-bound, strung-out young parents — who, by the way, are doing incredible jobs at raising their children with great love and daily sacrifice — and think, “Why would I want that?” Because I’ve never experienced or even witnessed these parenting highs (naturally, because they surely occur in the intimate, private moments between parent and child), they seem so foreign when mothers describe them to me.

Furthermore, I also wonder, what is the point of having children? On a purely rational and self-preserving level, it’s so that we can have someone take care of us when we are old, because our beloved dogs won’t be able to afford our retirement homes. On the evolutionary level, it’s so that we can push our genes (regardless of whether they are genes worth preserving) onto the next generation and thereby further the human race — despite the fact that the world is already grossly overpopulated with our species. It’s the emotional level that I don’t understand. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a compelling reason for children from the emotional or psychological perspective. Surely that reason exists; I’m just not sure what it is. (If you are a parent, chime in!)

I reject the notion that because I have a womb, I ought to fill it with offspring. Further, I roundly reject the notion that God will love me more if I procreate. I am deeply opposed to any denomination or branch of theology that asserts that the more children you have, the holier you are. This is an incredibly short-sighted, reductionist, and offensive stance.

I am so glad that many people have decided to become parents. I know so many wonderful, loving, shining exemplars of mothers and fathers, and I know they do good, hard work every day to raise their little humans. I just don’t know if I’m cut out to join their throng.

In intimate moments, this is a conversation that comes up often among the women I know. I said all of these things, the sentiments above, to Tara, one of the best mothers I know, and was a little fearful to hear her reaction. Tara is one of those gloriously sympathetic human beings who was born to be a mother. She is smart and compassionate and sacrificial; her kids are her pride and joy, and for good reason (they’re amazing little kids). She seems to really revel in motherhood, in this beautiful, awe-inspiring way.

And so I was worried, to say all of these things to her. But this is what she said: “Abby, if you do have kids, that is great. God will give you the grace to be a great mom. And if you don’t have kids? That’s OK too. God will give you the grace for that too.”

It was such a simple sentiment, but it brought me to tears. No one has ever said that to me before. To receive such grace! And especially from a Christian mom, who have, up until this point, always said that I need to stop being so fearful, so selfish, so cold-hearted. To be told, regardless of what you do with your uterus, you are loved and accepted. I have been waiting so long to hear this from someone. It brings me to tears even now, just writing about it.

I have always assumed that I would have children, because that is what you do when you are a married person (and when, in my case, you are married to a person who wants children). But I feel no great fervor for child-rearing. And I am OK with languishing in this ambivalence for now. I have a few more years before the demands of biology start to become urgent. And then to wait, to receive grace for whatever comes.