Niger has the highest TFR in the world at 7.6. By 2050, the population of Yemen—geographically a little smaller than France—is projected to increase its 1950 population by twenty-four times, exceeding the population of Russia.
Here we were, just emerged from the tedious constraints of a seemingly endless education, financially independent for the first time, tasting our liberties at last, and the first thing they decided to do was to enter the prison of child rearing, with all its boring routines and dreadful responsibilities. Having children in my twenties would have spelled the end of everything I had spent my life working toward and was about to really enjoy: the ability to spend my money the way I wanted, travel where I wanted, choose my partners, live as I wished.”
My motto, as the years go by, has become that of Voltaire’s Candide: ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin.’ We need to tend the garden. Do it as well as you can. Writing is my only skill; I apply it to the best of my abilities.”
When I ask what she sees as redeeming her life, she balks. “I think that’s a very Protestant question! I’m not sure my life needs redemption. Maybe I’m too much of a hedonist.”
Frankly, if I can’t be troubled to replace myself with a reasonable facsimile, immigrants willing to nurse sick little boys through their fevers have truly earned the right to take my place.
And I would always love children. In fact, I find those who do not strange and even frightening. I get flustered when a person says to me, “I don’t like children.” I was a child, I want to say.
I believe that fear of being a failure plays a large part in goading many women who are ambivalent about motherhood into maternity.
And how would I have felt in that situation? I know exactly how I would have felt: angry, frustrated, burning with resentment toward the child, and no doubt toward its father, too. Full of self-loathing, tormented with guilt for having made my child the adversary to my vocation. And if there is one thing I am certain would have destroyed me, it is this conflict. Because, in the end, it came down to another question I kept asking myself: Can I be the kind of mother I would have wanted to have? Just give them lots and lots of love—oh, this I believed I could do. But I also believed that writing had saved my life and that if I could not write, I would die.
And not too much time passes in the course of my days without my remembering that I have missed one of life’s most significant experiences. But let me say this: the idea of having it all has always been foreign to me. I grew up believing that if you worked incredibly hard and were incredibly lucky, you might get to have one dream in life come true. Going for everything was a dangerous, distracting fantasy. I believe I have been incredibly lucky.
Some might call my trepidation at the idea of motherhood “selfishness”—I would call it “agency”—but those people are probably either (1) dudes or (2) self-satisfied professional parents, and I’m not sure I care enough about their opinions that I wouldn’t just agree with them and shrug my shoulders in shared chagrin.
In fact, kids aroused my impatience and jealousy, especially when their parents fussed over them or, worse, stopped everything to reason with them. I’d grown up without that kind of attention, and I begrudged it to others, even babies.
But I did get to build a life around writing, and it became a very good life, one in which I was able to work through my lonely, difficult, contradictory childhood without unconsciously inflicting all that residual pain on innocents.
Parenting doesn’t freak me out. But I spent the majority of my formative years healing from what felt to me like bad parenting, which made me realize that sometimes your willingness to be a parent isn’t enough. Sometimes love runs out. It took me a long time to figure out how to fill my life with the love my parents didn’t seem able to give me. I decided to take the love I’d have for a child and give it to myself instead.
“I don’t know,” said Ms. Red White and Blue, not aggressively. “I’m pretty sure that having it all might not be. I think maybe having it all is chopping yourself into too many little pieces, taking care of everybody’s needs except your own.”
My score on the LSAT indicates that I have the mental capacity to be a lawyer, but I have not gotten one single letter from a stranger or anyone else telling me that I would make a really great lawyer, that the fact that I am not a lawyer must be related to some deep-seated childhood trauma, that if I would only straighten up and become a lawyer, I could pay off some unspecified debt to the world.
The turning point came when, after seeing that I had run out of excuses and still wasn’t enthusiastic about pregnancy or motherhood, I finally said to myself, “I don’t really want to have a baby; I want to want to have a baby.” I longed to feel like everybody else, but I had to face the fact that I did not.
I realized that my initial instincts were right; I didn’t want to be torn between my needs and those of another, particularly someone I had brought into the world.
Asserting an Affirmative No means rejecting attitudes and courses of action (for example, always forgiving wrongs, or reflexively following doctors’ orders) that most people treat as gospel. It also often means saying yes to points of view that may be unpopular but are in fact authentically in line with your own thoughts and feelings. Such conclusions are reached only through relentless self-awareness. Any decision made in this way is not an act of rebellion; it is an act of willed self-assertion, of standing your ground on your own behalf. Refusing to act against your sound inclination is a profound action, not simply a reaction to something external.
Real self-acceptance, real liberation, involves acknowledging limitations, not grandiosely denying them.
Quite a few friends who’d been indifferent to having kids found that once the plunge had been taken, often accidentally, their lives had a meaning and purpose that they previously lacked. People realize that a life that had seemed enjoyable (travel, social life, romance) and fulfilling (work) was actually empty and meaningless. So they urge you to join the child-rearing party: they want you to share the riches, the pleasures, the joys. Or so they claim. I suspect that they just want to share and spread the misery. (The knowledge that someone is at liberty or has escaped makes the pain of incarceration doubly hard to bear.)
Not having children is seen as supremely selfish, as though the people having children were selflessly sacrificing themselves in a valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated island of ours. People raise kids because they want to, but they always emphasize how hard it is.
Childhood is the dawning of understanding that the world is set up in ways that would force one to bend or subjugate one’s own will to the will of society. This is why I love children: I feel for them. And this is the main reason I don’t have them.
I know, for my own part, that not having children wasn’t the consequence of some carefully deliberated decision, taking into account the world population, my bleak economic future, or my incapacity to take care of anything more demanding than a cat. It simply never even once occurred to me to have children, any more than it ever occurred to me to enlist in the Coast Guard or take up Brazilian jujitsu. I never understood why anyone else was doing it; I did not get what was even supposed to be fun or fulfilling or whatever it was about parenting that compelled everyone else to do it. Everyone seemed to have agreed, on some day of class I missed, that this was obviously the thing to do. Who knows why I’m devoid of such a nearly universal human impulse?