I decided not to have children when I was 13. In fact, I thought that no one related to me should ever have children, I just assumed that my own fertility was the only one that I could control. I used to say that I was descended from long lines of alcoholics and missionaries, which was true as far as it went. What I really meant, though, was that every family member that I knew or knew of regardless of generation or how many times removed they were as cousins was desperately, miserably unhappy. I don’t mean sad, I mean mentally ill. The diagnoses change with the person and the era, sometimes with the month and the therapist, but it comes to this: they were all, they are all, to a person, self-destructive. Many of them destroyed others, sometimes intentionally, in the fall-out, but I can’t think of a single relative who didn’t despise themselves.
Alcohol, drugs, and hard-core religious adherence would keep them functioning for while in a world they couldn’t ever square themselves with, but these exact a heavy toll. Perhaps that’s a feature, rather than a bug. Slow suicide is popular with my family and they tend to die of things like liver failure, emphysema, and untreated STDs. Starving themselves to death was an acknowledged choice with my mother’s family. Quick suicide attempts are common, as well, they just tend to have a low success rate. It’s not hard to imagine that people who are this unhappy do not make good spouses or parents. In the wider world at schools I kept hearing that if you wanted to be good at something, like dance, sports, math, writing, music, you had to start early or it would be “too late”. My 13-year-old mind extrapolated from that to parenting. I had never seen a happy family, never learned how such a thing could be achieved. I couldn’t be a violinist because I might hurt someone’s ears. Logically I shouldn’t be a mother, because the pain I could cause was so much greater.
Fast forward to the age of 20 when I met the man who is now my husband. Nothing in my life had changed my mind about children. I was a genetics major, and I’d bolstered my nurture arguments with some nature ones, but the decision remained the same. It didn’t really matter whether the self-hatred in my family was genetic or learned, it existed. It existed in me. Every day was a personal battle. A battle to leave my room, to go to class, to speak to people, to do anything. It was exhausting. My (now)husband loves children. How to explain? I don’t hate children. They’re just people. I neither love nor hate them as a class. I simply don’t think that I should have one. It was important to be clear about that. I wasn’t waiting to have children. I wasn’t going to have them.
We lived together for five years before we got married. During that time we had a birth control failure and I got pregnant. I was in therapy at the time, and taking anti-depressants. I had an abortion. It wasn’t the choice that he would have made, but he respected that it was my choice, and he supported me. The decision not to have a child was not because I thought they would interfere with my life, not because I didn’t like them. It was because I was a monster. It was because I was completely incapable of raising a human being. That’s important to understand. It wasn’t that I didn’t want children; it was that I shouldn’t have them. On his side, my husband wasn’t hounding me to have a child. We’d been honest from the beginning about our respective desires.
Here’s the thing. I never misled him. He met my family. My parents. The sister who was regularly admitted to the hospital after suicide attempts. The sister who supported her drug habit with prostitution. He saw me in the periods of retreat from the world and struggle. He loved me anyway. This brilliant, amazing person was willing to spend his life with me, despite it all, even if he wouldn’t have children. So maybe I wasn’t all bad. Maybe I wasn’t a monster. Maybe between us we could raise a child. Maybe it would be ok for me to have a family after all. We had been together for ten years when I agreed to have a child.
For her childhood it seemed fine. She was quieter than most children, but she got by. She got great grades, most of her teachers liked her. The ones who didn’t just said that she was quiet. She got incredible scores on standardized tests. She did gymnastics and danced. She moved up levels quickly and did well, until the coach or teacher decided that she wasn’t “visibly enthusiastic” enough. She quit dance in the eighth grade. In the last quarter of that year her grades dropped. When we went to talk to teachers they told us they couldn’t work with her. She was just quiet. Her geometry grade had dropped from over 100% for three and a half quarters to a D. She ended up with a B for the semester. She started cutting herself. The teachers told us she just didn’t try hard enough. She was lazy.
Now she’s 16. She’s in therapy. She’s taking medication. It’s up and down. The trouble is that the downs can destroy anything good from the ups. I know that road. I’ve lived my whole life on it. The PhD? Didn’t finish it. It was too hard to explain how I could turn in great work one month, and barely get by another. She’s an artist, and the scars on her arms are beautiful. She got a B- in chemistry last year because she didn’t turn in her lab reports. She got a 99% on the final. They tell me college isn’t for everyone. She’ll find her level in life.
I adore my daughter. I am watching the person that I love most in life self-destruct. When the anti-choice crowd push waiting periods and mandatory ultrasounds they voice concern for the regrets that women will feel. They seem to think that we don’t know that we will produce a human being if the pregnancy goes to term. I know that this argument is not truly in good faith, but I still want to scream. I made two choices in my reproductive life. It is not the abortion that keeps me awake crying every night. I had more foresight and wisdom at 13 and 20 than I did at 30. I should not be a mother.
featured image: Wide Old Railroads by Sergio Monsalve