Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Choices we choose that choose us

It can hard not to feel faintly (or overtly) accused when people you respect and admire make different choices from the choices you've made. Or the choices that made you: the choices that erupted from nowhere - the volcanic variety - and shaped you.

I feel there was never a time I chose to have children, for there was never a time I seriously considered not having children. I felt the flow of my life as inevitable as a tide, towards the period in my life where babies would come. Lucky me that these babies did come one, two and three, with no real problems along the way. We tried for number three for a while between Una and Avery and I began to think there might be something wrong. Certainly it would appear as I neared 35 my fertility was not quite so whack as it had been the month we conceived Una practically by sharing the same apple. In fact the month we did finally conceive Avery we had just about given up on the idea. Still, when it did happen the months of it not happening were instantly forgotten really, because - fatalistic as I am - when we had a third baby, we were always going to have a third baby.

Yesterday I read two things about babies and choices. One was this article by Clem Bastow. She writes about her own lack of maternal desire and her perceptions of what society expects of her. At 29 she is feeling societal pressure from various quarters (family, friends, media) to reproduce. Some of this pressure, it seems to me, is also coming from within as her close friends start having babies she is obviously feeling a need to qualify and articulate her own position.

The other thing I read was this post by my sister. She had a baby very prematurely two years ago due to pre-eclampsia, a condition that threatens the life of both mother and child. Kylie had had a long journey towards motherhood. She collected baby clothes as a young woman, but by the time she was thirty was quite convinced children weren't for her. She met and married Corey and still believed that she would have trouble conceiving. This was not the case and Joseph was conceived easily enough, though clearly the pregnancy was fraught. Kylie has been advised by doctors that any subsequent pregnancies would be considered high risk for both her and the baby. In the post I've linked to Kylie has made a list of reasons not to have another child. These include the health factors that are the biggest consideration, but also other more general concerns. There would be many people who have had fairly straightforward first children who would relate to at least two or three points on Kylie's list, and lots of people consciously choose to stop at one. Kylie told me all the time we were growing up she wished she were an only child, now her son will probably be one. I think the saddest thing for Kylie is that, because of her health complications, she will never know what she would have really chosen. Maybe if her first pregnancy had been a dream she might have stopped there anyway, for the other reasons on her list.

The choice not to have children is not actually an event but a continuum, a decision that for various reasons Clem Bastow will revisit many times over the next ten to fifteen years, something Clem acknowledges. Kylie will revisit it too, grimly, because some choices we don't get to make.

I wanted to say something here, about choices. About the many women I know who have chosen not to have children, and those of us who have chosen it. I wanted to say that choices pretend to be bipolar, especially in mainstream media, but they are actually nuanced, complex and as individualistic as the individuals who struggle with them. Clem snarks that motherhood is not "the pinnacle of existence" that *insert they here* make it out to be. I quite agree and I am not sure who, apart from lady's magazines and nappy ads, is peddling this crap. Motherhood is nuanced too. My children are people that I share my life and my home and my stories with. I have shaped my life around them for now, because they are vulnerable to the weather and hunger and bodies of water and wild animals and need a place where they are protected and can grow and be provided for. My body and my lover's body made them and they brought enough love with them to keep them alive (through our parental fascination), and then more love grew. We have made a life for ourselves, hewn it out of raw materias, carved it from the landscape. There are rich rewards for this kind of life, and there are penalties too, and you show me the kind of life where that isn't true.

There's a quote about parenthood that I often think of. It's from the movie Lost in Translation. This is a movie about self and identity, a movie about personal journeys. And amidst it all springs this moment, spoken by Bill Murray's character about his kids: "The most terrifying day of your life is the day the first one is born. Your life, as you know it, is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk... and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life."

Parenthood is something other than the pinnacle of existence. But this is because existence is a continuum too. There's no pointy end. Motherhood doesn't have to negate ambition, creativity, professional success, sexual desire or individualism(as Clem Bastow comes dangerously close to implying). But neither does the desire to be childless negate a sense of family, community, love or selflessness and I support both Clem Bastow's choice and her need to write about it.

Anyway, I wanted to say something about choices. Something sad, because Clem Bastow still feels this needs saying in 2011 when we have a childless female Prime Minister. Something terribly sad because my sister doesn't get to make the choice she wanted to make. Something slightly guilty because I could make that choice. And something defensive and apologetic because I have children and I openly love my kids and celebrate that love and that's one of those social pressures right there that people like Clem Bastow feel they have to kick against - and probably kick harder than they really mean. And I wanted to say something happy because my babies came to me, and though I couldn't have made an informed choice about motherhood before I had babies (how could I have known what it would be like?), I choose this life. I choose these kids. I choose this me – because of and despite everything.

As I finished writing this Una said, engrossed in a game on my iphone, "Mum? Do you like kids or smelly animals better?"
I said, "Kids."
Una didn't look up. "I would have said smelly animals."


  1. Excellent post Penni. I love that Bill Murray quote too and also think of it often.

  2. Beautifully put, Penni.

  3. I love this post (and all your posts about your family), although I also felt sympathy for Clem Bastow when I read her article.

    I'm in my forties, without children - partly through choice, partly circumstances, including medical reasons - and at times in the past, the criticism of my life felt relentless. Sometimes it was overt - for example, my boss saying gleefully after I'd had gruelling surgery for endometriosis: 'Ha! That's what you should expect when you choose not to have kids!' (as if endometriosis is caused by not having kids). Sometimes it's more subtle: parents going on about how they were so immature/stupid/selfish/uncreative before they had kids, implying 'childless=immature'. Luckily I'm happy and fulfilled as I am, and hopefully Clem will come to feel that way, too, whatever happens in her life.

    Also, I like kids AND smelly animals.

  4. Just loved this post. Gorgeous writing and thinking. Captured the internal conflicts and the problematic nature of even using the term "choice".
    Thanks so much,

  5. As someone not planning to have kids, I find plenty of people 'peddling that crap'. Mostly nice, rational people who are clearly shocked by my reality and find it a threat or an accusation. People who had to make a variety of choices and non-choices, and struggle with that. The easiest way for them to convince themselves that they made the right choices is to tell me that mine are wrong.

    And then there are my dear friends who truly love being parents - and it does seem like a lovely thing, I can't deny it. They love it and they want, with kindness and warmth, to let me share in that experience. They try to convert me in the same way that loving family members who want to see me in heaven try to get me to go to church.

    I've been thinking about having kids since I was a teen - because I never wanted to, and I wondered if there was something wrong with me. Unlike Clem babies do not make me nervous. I love babies and kids, they are a joy. I just never had the desire to have my own. Partly that was my own childhood, but I think it's deeper than that. If we acknowledge the urge to mother and parent to be deep and real, surely you can't expect me to know when it's not there? (Rhetorical you, of course).

    My partner has two almost grown kids (who I have no desire to step parent). He has had the snip, and he's done. When we got together my main feeling was one of relief - I didn't have to choose. The decision was made. I wouldn't have to second guess myself all the time, and defend my vague feelings of 'I don't think that's a good idea for me' under the huge pressure that's out there. I probably could have been talked into having kids, and I doubt I would have regretted it. But neither do I (currently) regret not making that choice. Time may tell on that one, of course.

  6. This one got me. A lot of them do. But this was just... it. I have pinched it. Let me know if that ain't cool...

  7. beautiful post penni. i've composed 3/4 of a post of my own in response to it, but i'm deciding whether to post it or not. choices are so personal! and you're right, there is a little bit of guilt in that i have been able to make this choice at all when some who so deeply want to cannot.

  8. Lovely post Pen, but the white on black is really hard to read!

  9. Anonymous4:28 AM

    Hi Penni - I found this link through Meli's blog. Thank you for this absolutely wonderful, sympathetic, compassionate, and understanding piece. As a young(ish?!) woman who, with my wonderful partner, has decided not to have children, I've found myself receiving subtle and not so subtle hints about our choice as well (Michelle's and Kate's comments above really resonate with my experience) - including someone who remarked that it was well that my parents hadn't felt the same way! I love my friend's children and I'm really looking forward to being an aunt one day. Thank you again - reading this has soothed something in me.

  10. You've hit the nail on the head saying that both childfree/less and parenting are nuanced. Well put. You're post has been linked here http://deliberatelybarren.blogspot.com/2011/06/is-motherhood-pinnacle-of-womans-life.html

  11. Penni I loved this and agreed with it in so many ways (as you may remember I felt the same way about my journey into parenthood, I fell into it without much thought). I feel very in tune with your thoughts here which is lovely as it helps to clarify my own thoughts on the matter.
    To be honest I really don't care if people choose to have or not to have children, what I do feel strongly about is the ability to change your beliefs over time, and not hold rigid views for the sake of it - be it about motherhood, religion, refugees, or your favourite ice cream flavour.

    ps: thanks Zoe, agree .. love the new layout Penn.

  12. I've really appreciated people sharing their experiences here, I am glad this resonated for you. I think it's endlessly fascinating and utterly beautiful in a fractal kind of way that we all make different choices.

  13. Three years after we were married I realised that the most exciting thing that ordinary (and I stress ordinary - not rich or famous or amazing) people can do is have children. I had a suspicion it would be like going on a roller-coaster ride. It has been and the greatest thing a human being can do if they're so inclined. I'm not saying it has to be for everybody But there is an element of some kind of adventure, a way that it makes you a member of the human race and links you to every human being who has ever reproduced through the millennia that we've been around, and all the animals. For me it's been wonderful, and I mean full of wonder.