Because of my ominous genetic history, I decided I would never have children. Got a problem with that?
Like roughly 27 million women in the United States of childbearing age, I do not have kids. The Census Bureau’s statistics don’t reveal who is voluntarily child-free, who is infertile and who is distracted by other goals. But I, for one, am childless by choice. I knew long ago that I would never be a mother.
I am the oldest of three sisters, and by the time I was 32 I was the only one still alive. My sister Susie died of leukemia when she was 8 and I was 10. Our younger sister, Sarah, who was 4 when Susie died, was born with a rare, fatal blood disorder. She died at 27. As a child, I witnessed firsthand that our bodies can betray us. Loving parents start out with the best intentions for a happy, healthy family, but rotten luck has a way of altering their paths, and their children’s paths, forever.
Medical research continues to advance. Children with leukemia today often have better prognoses than Susie’s. The chromosome responsible for Sarah’s illness may soon be identified. And yet I still see raising a child as a roll of the biological dice. Adoption is wonderful, but not for me: I am too afraid to lose a child I love. I can’t take that chance, even with another family’s genetic history.
When I got married 11 years ago, at 38, I thought I was ready to get pregnant and have a family. Maybe with my loving husband beside me, I could move past my own ominous history. But genetic testing showed that I have a 67 percent chance of passing on the illness responsible for my younger sister’s death. The statistics were sobering, and they meant that my husband and I would never have a child of our own. I grieved the loss of that version of our future. But knowing my child was likely to carry danger in her cells, I chose not to take the risk. My husband understood.
I knew that in deciding not to be a mother, I was making a choice that would define the rest of my life. But my fear surpassed longing: fear that my child would be ill and die before her time, or that my child would be well and I would worry her away from me.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m no anti-child curmudgeon. I teach at a college, and my students are a big part of my life. When I led a writing workshop for middle-schoolers, I loved every minute. My husband’s teenage niece taught me how to text-message. But little girls remind me of my sisters when they were young. They stop my heart when they run across a playground or walk past me hand in hand. They turn back time in a way that nothing else can.
Our culture presumes that a grown woman’s true responsibility is motherhood. We’re obsessed with babies, even as we expect career success, hot sex and designer style.
On any given day, flashy magazines are plastered with celebrity pregnancies, baby weight and motherhood. “Brangelina” trot their biological and adopted children around the globe, beautiful role models for the modern family. While few can pull off parenthood with the glamour of Hollywood stars, the underlying message is hard to ignore: if you’re not having a baby and enjoying it, something’s wrong with you.
More than a decade into a happy marriage, I answer any stranger’s conversational gambit—”Do you have kids?”—with a smile and one word: “No.”
No, I don’t have kids, and I’m fine with that. Sometimes I wonder about children I might have had, or I watch friends with children and wonder what their experience is really like. But when I think about my own genetic predisposition for carrying a deadly illness—and reflect on how my parents’ marriage strained and broke caring for two sick daughters—I know I made the right choice for me.
Had my own little-girl years been different, I might have grown up to be a mother, but our lives shape us. I don’t miss the children I might have had. I miss my sisters. Some of those strangers to whom I say, “No, I don’t have kids,” might perceive my choice as selfish and wrong. It’s a privilege to have a child, and it’s a privilege not to. Setting aside the fact that our world is groaning under the weight of its current population, it’s still a woman’s choice to enter the realm of motherhood.
There are a lot of women like me, and for some of us being child-free is our choice, our responsibility not to our culture, but to ourselves.