“But didn’t you ever have doubts?” It is a question I’ve been asked when I talk about choosing single life and staying single my entire life.
What’s interesting about the question is that it is never posed to married people. Sure, they are sometimes asked whether they ever had doubts about the particular person they married. But about the choice to marry? Not so much.
That double standard grows out of the assumption that just about everyone wants to marry (they don’t) and hardly anyone would choose to be single. If you do choose single life, then people expect your choice to be wobbly. Some suspect that you will get to a point in your life when you will regret your choice to be single. That way of thinking can also result in the condescending comment that is sometimes directed at single people who are happily single: “you are not really happy; you are just fooling yourself.”
Here’s my answer to the question of whether I ever have doubts about wanting to be single: No, I don’t. When I was young and didn’t know anyone else who seemed to feel the same way I did about staying single, I thought I might change my mind someday. But eventually I realized that I was never going to change my mind, and I was right about that.
For women, a desire not to have children is often met with similar incredulousness, as Keturah Kendrick explained in her terrific new book, No Thanks: Black, Female, and Living in the Martyr-Free Zone. “Regret,” she said, “is one of those worries everyone has for the woman who consciously chooses not to have children.” Kendrick is one of those women. She’s not worried about regret: “How can I regret not having something I have never wanted?”
Defying all conventional wisdom on the matter, women who make the expected and celebrated choice to have children are among those who do sometimes experience regret. Kendrick writes at length about a book on the topic, Regretting Motherhood: The Sociopolitical Analysis, by sociologist Orna Donath. Some of the women interviewed by Donath never even considered not having children. They did not realize there was such a thing as a woman who did not want to be a mother.
So they had children, and then they regretted it. They “grieved the loss of themselves. The loss of freedom.”
When women opt out of motherhood, their choice is sometimes understood as a way of prioritizing a prestigious and demanding career. But that template still assumes that the women really did want to raise children, but could not do that and have a successful, high-powered career, too.
Some women would be happy not having kids or work that is challenging. Isabella Dutton is one of them. She wrote an op-ed admitting not just regret over her decision to have children, but resentment of her children, too. As Kendrick explained:
“Going to work every day as a typist, coming home to eat a meal with her husband, and lying in bed with a good book as they fell off to sleep were activities that would have brought her more joy over the course of her life than what everyone presumes women need if they want to wake up one day feeling empty: children.”
Women who choose not to have children get the same question I am asked about my choice to stay single: But don’t you ever have doubts? The women who do what they are supposed to do and have children are exempt from those kinds of queries. As Kendrick notes, “there is no concern for these women. No worried loved ones who check in every few years to make sure they don’t wish they could get a do-over.”
Marriage and children. Growing numbers of women are opting out of both. And yet there are still many who don’t realize that both are choices. It never even occurs to them not to marry and have children. That needs to change. Informed choices are better choices. They are the path of few regrets.