Are we free to be child free?

Don’t you want to have children? All the book clubs in my area are busy with Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and I’m still thinking about the various kinds of mothers in The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd).

It’s eleven, and it’s hot, and for the forty-seventh time in twenty miles, Emma has asked when we’re going to get home.  I understand.  Before dark, the fields of harvested farmland we passed were unendingly similar.  Now the nighttime offers small variations in the sizes of porch lights, or in the uneven shadows of trees.  We’ve been driving for a little over an hour, and in kindergarten time, that’s either a nap, or a snack, and on most days, both.  It’s well past bedtime.  Emma has been rooting in my camera bag for Teddy Grahams or her doll, Lula, neither of which are inside our car.  Her mother, Adele, exchanges a resigned smile with me from the rear view mirror, and I try to imagine something which would make the trip more fun for my six year old traveling buddy.  Where is the child lulled to sleep by road noise?

Emma aims her stoniest glare directly at me, peering out from under a shaggy bang. I hide a smile.  When I was twelve, I’d wheel her mother around on her Fisher Price go-cart, and Adele would command me from the front seat.   ‘Faster!  Look out! Turn now! NOW!’  The scar on my knuckle, the bump on her head that we got the day she rocked back and tipped the whole thing over, girl pile on the cement.  Her furious, imperious gaze just before her tears.  I barely cried; she ran screaming into her house.  I was entrusted with her safety.  I let her down.  The glare is the same.

At work, I see the children go down to the nurse with bloody palms.  A Band aid and an ice pack sends them along – it’s raised a few questions in my mind.  I’ve heard the same questions more times than I care to remember outside my own musings, from family members first, then co-workers, volunteers at my job, even, lately, students, who give me the Cliff Notes version of 80% of the conversations I’ve had with my grandmother in my adult life. ‘Miss P., do you have a fiancé?’ ‘No, Zhenya, but I have a boyfriend.’  ‘How old are you?’ ‘Did my grandmother send you?’  ‘No, but do you have children?’ ‘No, Zhenya.’  ‘You’re old.  Don’t you want to have a fiancé?  Don’t you want to have children?’

Some questions are unanswerable.  I love working in a school.  I have questions about having children of my own.  I think about the effects it would have on my body, never fit in the best of times.  I think about what it did to my own mother.  I think about the times I’ve witnessed mothers half drag, half carry a crying child past the checkout lane at Wal-Mart, whispering threats and orders.  How easy it is to become a mother, how difficult it is to be a mother.  I want to cuddle Emma, but I also want her to be quiet, and to go on drawing on the fogged passenger side window with the tip of her finger.  I want to be alone in the backseat, to fade into the landscape without consequence.  Depending on your translation of unwritten rules, that could mean either Children are consequences, or Children have consequences.

When I was two, my mother died.  Her heart had given out while carrying a third child, leaving my two year old self and my one year old sister to be raised by my grandparents.  I overheard this at the doctor’s appointment where they were testing me for the same disease she had.  From that point forward, in my own mind, I was everyone’s older sister, everyone’s favorite aunt.  I learned about mothers and mothering by watching the women around me.  I grew up wondering whether life would be different for me if I were raised by my mother.  I couldn’t seem to find a foothold in anyone’s family tree, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to.  I could clamor around freely, without really being troubled for an explanation until I started working with children. How could I be a mother?  How could I not be a mother? It’s not just that everyone else is doing it.  It’s a role I play for stranger’s children. Through their eyes, and the eyes of their own mothers, they question me, and that makes me question myself sometimes.  Why not?  It always comes back to this.  The backbone which grew straight and strong while I was exploring the kinds of mothers who surrounded me as a child is the one that supports me now.

Twin decencies.  Let me figure it out.  Support by not asking.  Stand there, with your Baby Bjorn only newly in the closet, after the three long years you tried to conceive. Stand there, with your sister in law who recently miscarried.  Stand with your own small tragedies and large fears.  You don’t have to be silent.  I’ll support you, I promise.

Regardless, I always carry emergency supplies. Cat’s Cradle string, and a piece of gum.  I’ve got my Blackberry set to record, let’s make up a song together.








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3 thoughts on “Are we free to be child free?”

  1. Beautifully written, Sarah! I think you articulated well the fact that one can love children and still not want to have one (or two or three).

  2. On Ms. Magazine’s blog I read about this new memoir called: Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood and the Harem Within by Elif Shafak that speaks to some of your concerns. It would be interesting to check out!


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