Truth: When I was a teenager, I hated babysitting.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I liked the extra spending money. I loved the satisfaction that I got from receiving a crisp twenty in return for doing work.
But let’s be clear: babysitting was work.
Maybe it’s because I wasn’t one of those little girls who loved playing with dolls. I had dolls, but mostly I just liked to braid my Cabbage Patch doll’s hair. I didn’t play mommy/baby.
So by the time I got around to babysitting age, I guess it really wasn’t all that surprising that I groaned in dread every time I got asked to babysit.
I’m almost positive that I was not that babysitter that the moms raved about. I don’t think a single one said, “Oh that Lauren. She’s just so good with kids!”
I was more of a, “so, you guys want to watch another movie?” babysitter. -i.e., the bad kind.
As you might imagine, college was pretty great for me. Why? There aren’t a whole lot of children in the vicinity of a college campus. Ages 18-22 were more or less a kid-free time, and I was totally in my element.
And then I got married at 23.
You know what happens when you marry your high school sweetheart at a relatively young age in a family/social circle that is primarily Catholic?
People start asking when you’re going to have kids.
It was easy to dodge the question in those early days. “Oh, we’re going to just enjoy being married for awhile.”
People respected this. Because, we had plenty of time.
But my late twenties, the “when are you going to have kids?” questions increased. Always friendly, but also … annoying. This was at a time when I made a career change from corporate life to full-time author and moved to New York City. I was as happy as I’d ever been, I was thriving, and yet somehow all people wanted to know was when I was going to have a baby.
See, if you’re single or casually dating in your late twenties, people assure you that you still have plenty of time to start a family. But when you’ve been married for 5+ years, people start looking at their watch and then your uterus. As though you’ve had enough time to play newlyweds, to prioritize your career, and to just get to it already.
I hid behind my career-change and relocation. I used it as my public excuse why I hadn’t had kids yet, and my new response to The Question because a cheeky, “Ask me again when I’m 30!”
I was feeding people a line, yes, but it was one I actually believed. Which leads me to the next truth:
I really believed that my baby-clock would magically switch to READY! when I hit 30.
You get where this is going, right? My thirtieth birthday came and went, and there was no magic moment. My uterus didn’t twitch in excited anticipation.
I still cringed every time I thought about pregnancy and infants and carpool and soccer practice and teenagers.
But more and more of my friends were having children, some of them on baby number three by this point, which meant that I forcing myself to think about it more and more.
No amount of thinking about it made me want kids more, and by then there was another element: fertility.
Yes, women are having kids later and later these days, but while it was easy to say “some day” in my twenties, that gets harder in your thirties. Because what if some day comes too late?
And so I started reframing question in my head. I stopped asking myself when I wanted kids.
I started asking the scandalous if.
I started questioning whether I wanted children ever, at all.
Perhaps most importantly, my husband and I started having that conversation together. We’d always been pretty good about checking in with the other person over the years. i.e., “How’s your kid-clock? Ticking? Silent? Status quo good for now? Cool, speak up if it changes.”
But now our conversations started feeling a little more specific, a little more honest.
We started playing through scenarios in our head. If we didn’t have kids, what would our life look like at 35? 45? 70?
Were we okay not having big family holidays, were we okay not giving our parents the prized grandbaby, were we okay not having anyone to come visit us in the nursing home?
Over and over, we’ve come to the same conclusion, and it shocked me, although in hindsight, the signs were there all along:
I don’t want kids.
Neither does my husband.
People still ask when we’re having kids (hardly anybody is enlightened enough to ask if, it’s always when), and our response is no longer a nervous “some day!”
Now we smile and say calmly that kids aren’t on the agenda.
You guys, almost nobody is cool with this response.
Our families, while ultimately supportive, are disappointed. Our friends are puzzled and often skeptical, as though we just haven’t been enlightened yet. Even my niece (seven, at the time) informed me that it was “really weird that I didn’t have kids.”
Strangers are the worst. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve chatted with a fellow patron at a bar, been asked when we’re having kids, only to receive a dismissive, “Oh, you’ll change your mind.”
Oh, or here’s a good one: “I didn’t think I liked kids either, but it’s sooooo different when it’s your own, trust me!”
As if it’s an impossibility that their experience isn’t the universal experience.
Look, maybe we will change our mind.
My husband and I are fully prepared for the possibility that we’ll hit 39 or 43 and realize that we want kids after all. Maybe this means we’ll adopt or need some major help from modern medicine, and we’re okay with that.
But it’s nobody’s business but ours. I’m tired of apologizing, of feeling guilty, of being expected to make a case to perfect strangers on why No Kids is an acceptable path.
We have some very good friends with whom we used to discuss All The Important Things in our early twenties, and children was a frequent topic. I remember so clearly the moment they told us that they decided to have kids, because the people in their life without kids were “self-absorbed and selfish.”
That conversation has haunted me. I suspect these same friends would likely reframe their question a decade later, knowing that we have opted for the same path of that self-indulgent aunt and uncle. They likely wouldn’t say to my face that I’m selfish.
But it’s a still frequent refrain. I can never resist clicking on an article or blogpost about childless women, and I (stupidly) find myself reading the comments again and again, seeing a litany of people saying that we intentionally childless people are selfish. That we’ll never know what we’re missing. That we don’t know the meaning of love. That we only care about ourselves.
I wish I could say I shake it off, but the truth is, I’ve let it eat at me. I’ve spent many a sleepless night wondering if I’m defective. Wondering if I’m a selfish, miserable shrew. I feel like I know pure joy, pure love, but everyone keeps informing me that I’ll never know because I’m not a mom.
But with each day that passes, I get a little more confident. A little more sure that motherhood is one path for women, and a popular one, and not the only one.
Here’s the lie: Not wanting children makes women broken.
And look, about that “selfish” thing … I’m following the path that makes me happy, choosing what gives me joy, yes. Just like so many women choose to have kids because it makes them happy, and gives them joy.
I guess that makes us all selfish, right?
But let’s stop that. Let’s stop calling our personal happy paths selfish. Let’s stop calling joy self-indulgent.
Instead, let’s start celebrating self-awareness. Let’s start embracing the euphoria that can come from being true to yourself, from doing what feels right for you.
I am self-aware. I’m aware that not wanting to be a mother does not make me less of a woman.
I am whole. Just as I am.
Lauren Layne is the USA Today bestselling author of more than a dozen romantic comedies, with just enough sexy times to make your mother blush. Lauren lives in NYC with her husband and Pomeranian, where she writes full-time (at least until it’s time for happy hour).