FAIRBANKS — The first time it happened, I was in the dentist’s chair with a bunch of gauze and metal in my mouth.
“It’s pretty uncomfortable,” the assistant said. “But it’s not as bad as giving birth, right?”
“Mmm hmm,” I nodded while my mind raced. Did I just lie about being a mom? Why did this woman assume I had given birth? Did I look matronly? Had she seen me arrive in my Subaru Forester?
To be fair, it was an honest assumption. The majority of women my age, late 30s at the time, are mothers. Still, the dental assistant seemed more presumptuous than the cashiers at Safeway who always said “Thank you Mrs ... ” though I wore no wedding ring.
Americans gave birth to more than 4.3 million children in 2007, an all-time high, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Since then, the birth rate has slowed to the level of the Great Depression. I’m part of the slowdown, though my childlessness — or as some prefer, my “child-free status” — has nothing to do with the housing bubble, the economic downturn or any big decision. At least, I didn’t think so.
As a teenager, I imagined I’d be a mother someday. I assumed I would stay home to raise my children. I also assumed I would work full time. The incongruity of this fantasy was lost on me, likely for the same reasons that at 16 or 17, middle-age seems impossibly old and far away. Life then lacked context or consequences.
When I moved to Alaska 15 years ago, I fell in with a group of seemingly like-minded 20-somethings. None of us had children. Nearly all of us focused on careers and hiking or skiing or travel or art. Not having children felt typical, normal. Then suddenly it wasn’t anymore.
In the past six years, most of my girlfriends gave birth. The mothers’ ages ranged from 33 to 45. Perhaps not coincidentally, since that banner birth year in 2007, the only demographic in America for which births increased was women aged 40 to 49. Here I thought Alaska was the exception. Turns out it’s the rule.
Now it seems like every decision I’ve made has plenty of context and plenty of consequences.
Friendships change when people get married. They change even more when people have children. I worry about how I’m going to find time to walk my dogs. My friends confront nursing, immunizations, teething, potty training, balancing work and parenting.
Yet parents almost inevitably extoll having children as the best thing they’ve ever done. “It’s unbelievably difficult but I wouldn’t change it,” they say, as though every new mom is handed a script on her way out of the maternity ward. Children make life worth living, children are our greatest joy, children are our future (thank you, Whitney).
Sometimes I feel left out, or worse, deficient.
I think about what it must be like to hold a tiny human and know I made it, or to be the only person who could calm my baby’s cries. I imagine what I’d buy my daughter for her first day of school or how I’d teach my son to throw a baseball. I don’t much consider how I’d handle cyberbullying or sex or talks about drugs. That’s not as fun. Besides, the truth is, I can’t really imagine any of it. It’s something I’ll simply never know.
The website “Happily Childfree” offers a bookshelf where one can peruse titles such as “The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless,” “No Children, No Guilt” and “The Baby Trap.” Some childfree websites have forums where people post anonymously about their regrets in having children. Moderators praise their honesty and candor, as though these parents have blown the whistle on a great conspiracy. The bloggers write about exotic vacations and personal exploration, freedom and fine wines.
I haven’t been to Europe in more than a decade. Most of the wines I buy cost $10 to $15.
A story on NPR the other day challenged a study that declared people with children were less happy than the childless. That study, done back in 2004, asked mothers to rate their level of happiness while engaging in the previous week’s daily tasks. It concluded that while these women did the daily duties of child rearing, they were distinctly unhappy. The new researchers on NPR said the 2004 research had it all wrong. While parents may enjoy less moment-to-moment happiness, they said, they were generally happier because they felt their lives were “more meaningful.”
I don’t buy that. We all make meaning in our lives in different ways. Parenting is one. When I struggle to find meaning — whether in a moment or a decade — it’s far too easy to believe life would be better if only I’d chosen to have kids. The day-to-day reality, probably a lot like parenting, is more complicated.
Sometimes I tell myself that being childfree (or childless or without children, you choose) wasn’t my decision. But it was. It wasn’t one decision. It was a series of choices, some not made fully consciously. I’ve thought about the context and the consequences a lot. Part of me will always wonder. I’m OK with that.
Lynne Lott teaches journalism at UAF. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.