It’s been happening since my mid-20s: right around the second Sunday in May, I receive greetings from passersby in the street. “Happy Mother’s Day,” they say, almost reverently, as we walk past one another.
At first, this startled me. I would feel tempted to stop this stranger and explain what he could not possibly know: I am no one’s mother. It felt blasphemous to receive well wishes for a holiday I hadn’t earned. However, over the last decade, I’ve learned to simply appreciate these moments of kindness. I smile, say thank you, and keep walking ― even though I do not want kids.
This is a personal truth that I’ve gradually begun sharing with people. When someone asks if I have kids, I now say more than no; I add that I don’t want any. Sometimes, I bring it up myself in conversations about goals or potential plans. I’ve become assertive in stating my choice, no longer saying, “Maybe one day … ” Perhaps most importantly, I’m also learning that I do not need to justify my decision; after all, how often is a mother asked to explain her reasons for having kids?
With few exceptions, even among loved ones, the most favorable response I get is forced politeness: a quick cough, an awkward chuckle, a few blinks of the eye before we find a new subject. Many people, though, are not so delicate. There will be an immediate change in tone — of their voice, and even our relationship — or, sometimes, an interrogation. People just do not seem to know what to think about someone, especially a woman, daring to declare that she does not want children.
In my more empathetic moments, I can understand how this mindset could be nearly incomprehensible. After all, regardless of when or where we were once children, most of us were raised to anticipate when we will have kids of our own.
Choosing not to have kids is countercultural virtually everywhere on the globe. During my own childhood, I owned multiple baby dolls — evidence of the rampant expectation that, eventually, I’d have real, live babies.
We’re taught ― directly or by social cues ― that little girls grow up to have their own little ones. Many afternoons, my dolls would join my friends’ in imaginary play groups; more than just toys, these dolls were tools to train us to think, talk and act like mothers.
Although I don’t recall actively wanting to be a mother, I also never questioned that one day, I would be. We’re taught ― directly or by social cues ― that little girls grow up to have their own little ones. Many afternoons, my dolls would join my friends’ in imaginary play groups; more than just toys, these dolls were tools to train us to think, talk and act like mothers.
Then there are people who see the decision not to have kids as more than defying social expectations. They consider it unnatural. Women especially — because we are supposed to be endowed with a biological clock and maternal instinct — should instinctively want kids, we’re told. And this is certainly true for a lot of us. I can only imagine the heartbreak of women who desperately want to conceive and struggle to do so. Close friends of mine have adopted, or attempted IVF, after months of doctor appointments and tests. I’m grateful that these alternate routes to motherhood exist, and that stories about them are becoming more mainstream; however, they also make it harder for people to believe I’ll remain childless. “Oh, you just think you don’t want children right now,” I’m told. “You could freeze your eggs, just in case. And you can always adopt.”
The insistence, on both cultural and individual levels, that I should want to become a mother frustrates me. I’m not sure how many more times I can smile and shrug in response to the wails of “You don’t want kids? But you’d be such a good mother!” It took me years to admit to myself that I don’t want children. Now that I have, I know that no one can talk me out of it, but that doesn’t mean I’m interested in talking about it anytime the topic comes up.
I don’t want to have to explain that, even though I know this is the right decision for me, sometimes I still feel shame around it. It’s easy to feel like I’m letting people down, or have chosen a lifestyle that defies the natural order of things.
I also often feel that because I don’t have kids, I need to do more to prove my value as an adult, and especially as a woman. If I had kids, there would be no question of what I contribute: I would be nurturing life. Without offspring to refer to, I feel pressure to be more productive, more purposeful, more prosperous.
If I had kids, there would be no question of what I contribute: I would be nurturing life. Without offspring to refer to, I feel pressure to be more productive, more purposeful, more prosperous.
Presumably, one of the reasons people tell me I would be a good mother is because I’m good with kids. I just finished up my eighth year of teaching high school English; during that time, I have loved, laughed with, cried over, celebrated, worried about, and learned from, over one thousand teenagers. I call them my lovelies, and after almost a decade of teaching, I still haven’t figured out how to express what they mean to me.
I also have important relationships with younger children. Once, a friend’s daughter said, “I love Ms. Kerry like I love my favorite color.” The father of a child I absolutely adore often says, “She only wants you to read to her before bed. She never asks for anyone else to do it.” I’m grateful to know, love and spend time with these kids.
And still, I don’t want my own.
What I do want is for people to respect this decision. I want to say that I don’t want kids without being questioned, judged or persuaded. I want people to recognize this is my life, my family and my body. Especially now, when nine states have passed laws banning early abortion in the first half of 2019 ― when politicians in nearly 20% of the states in this country are telling women what we cannot do with our lives, families and bodies.
Now is the time to do a better ― not worse ― job of listening when a woman says what she wants, whether she explains herself or not. So, let’s trust that when a woman says she doesn’t want kids, she has made an informed decision that is best for her. In my own case, I’m delighted to have led the life I’ve had without kids. What’s more, I’m confident that living without kids will be how I continue to find myself the most fulfilled.
Kerry Graham lives, teaches, writes and runs in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has appeared in The Citron Review, Gravel, and Role Reboot, among others. Kerry runs a weekly collaborative newsletter called In This Together. Connect with her, @mskerrygraham, on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to learn more.