Sep. 30th, 2009

I'm currently 30 years of age. According to most news, magazines, etc. etc., in the next five years my ability to bear (healthy) children will significantly decline. Another ten years from then, and I probably will lose all ability to give birth.

This is the basis of the widespread metaphor of a biological clock for womens' bodies. Hurry! Or else it will be too late to have a family!

I'm not immune to it. I'm very aware that there is at most 15 years between me and an irrevocable choice. I don't particularly want children now. Nor did I want children 10 years ago, when I was 20. Although in fifteen years, a lot can change, I'm facing the question of whether it will. I know that I should not have children unless I want them, but I worry. What if I don't want children until it's too late? What if suddenly when I'm 50 years old I decide that I want to start a family? If I wait too long, the choice will have been made for me, by my body.

Almost all my role models growing up were women with families. I knew a few couples without children, but the assumption was always that they were not childless by choice. What does a childless life look like, at age 60? At age 70? At age 80? What does a life without grandchildren, or children, look like? If you don't have children, will there be people to take care of you when you get old? Can you provide for yourself after you retire, after you have health problems? How do you live without a family that spans generations? I only know of a family life which involves children, grand-children, aunts and uncles - and I very much appreciate the bonds of family. Without children, how do I have a family? When my parents' generation has all passed away, who will I spend Thanksgiving or Christmas with?

I don't want children, but my only model of aging involves children. There's a big great unknown there for me, and while I'm more willing to explore that than I am to explore what it's like to have children you don't want, I'm still scared. In a lot of ways it would simply be easier if I wanted children. Sometimes I wish I did, but something in me rebels at the thought of having children. I'm just not interested.

I don't particularly dislike children, but I also don't particularly want to take care of one 24/7 either. I've toyed with the idea of being an aunt. Taking on some childcare responsibilities without having the full responsibility of having a child. Or maybe baby-sitting for my friends. I've also often thought that I would be better suited to the "traditional" father role, than a mother role. If I could be responsible for supporting a family, going off to work and coming home to have dinner & spend time with my family in the evening, instead of being responsible for day care schedules or setting boundaries all day, I'd be a lot happier.

Part of the problem is that I'm scared off by the cultural messages which places the mother, and only the mother, as the ultimate and sole caretaker of the child. Sure, fathers are supposed to share in the childcare, but ultimately it's the mother who many people look to when assigning praise - and especially blame. Boston.com has a "Moms" section - not a "Dads" section or a "Parents" section. Discussion of raising children focuses on the responsibilities of the mother, in large part. And sure, my own child-raising and my own family doesn't have to look like that - but that pressure of society is there, and it does scare me. The pressures around "being a good mother" are extremely loud and judgemental, and arguably more so than anything else I've had to deal with so far.(*)

The popular biological clock metaphor tells me that I must make a decision by a certain age, or else I am doomed to live childless forever. It places before me an ultimatum. While it's true that childbirth gets progressively harder, the ultimatum is pretty much a fallacy. Who says I must physically give birth in order to raise a family? There are many solutions here, the simplest being adoption. Yet these solutions are never mentioned in scare articles about losing the chance to have children.

Our culture in general places a huge importance on blood ties. A common fear (or maybe fantasy) for small children is that they were adopted - and thus do not actually belong with their parents or are less loved than naturally born children. Yet I don't think that children who are adopted are necessarily any less wanted, nor any less part of the family than children who were born. I don't think that a family requires blood ties.

I've also heard that people who do adopt tend to prefer younger children (babies). I think we have this belief that if we get to them young enough, it will be easier to shape their beliefs, thoughts, and personalities. It's true that parents have an extremely large influence on children, but my belief is that that influence is very difficult to control. In crude ways we can instill our own beliefs and worldview on our children, but they will be sensitive to things we never even notice, and develop in ways we never intended. In actuality we can control very little about what a child grows up to become. In actuality, as children grow, we are meeting them, and making friends with them, and learning who they are alongside them. We like to think that there could be a foolproof recipe for churning out perfectly well-adjusted adult humans, but in reality it's far more a game of chance than science(**). Our one saving feature is that humans are resilient.

In all the conversation about biological clocks, I find it strange that adoption is never mentioned as an perfectly reasonable option for starting a family. Until I met someone who adopted children, it never occurred to me that this was a good solution to the dilemma of the biological clock. I still don't want children, but now I realize that when my biological clock runs down, I still have other options for starting a family. I don't have to make a decision now, or in five years, or in ten years. I can wait until I'm ready, whenever that is.

And if I'm never ready? I guess then I will be discovering what aging without children is like.

------------
(*) What's been really reassuring on this front has been seeing many of my female friends having children - and still being able to maintain the lives they want.

(**) We also like to blame the parents (particularly the mother) when things go wrong, but that's a whole other post.

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womanwarrior

November 2009

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