An important new study of women who never have children found that in some ways, women seem to know, even from a very early age, whether they are going to have children. For example, at age 24, women who said they expected not to have children were 4.5 times as likely not to ever have children than the women who said they did expect to have children.
The predictive power of women’s expectations increased steadily with age. By the time they were 46, women who said they did not expect to have kids were 7.7 times as likely not to have kids than women who said they did expect to have kids.
And yet, another finding stood out, too. The 4,473 women in the study were asked 19 times, over the course of their child-bearing years, whether they expected to have children. Of the 611 women who never did have kids, only 2 percent of them said no, they did not expect to have kids, all 19 times they were asked.
My first reaction to this finding was to declare myself a member of the 2 percent. I can’t remember a time in my life when I ever wanted kids.
But was I, really? I don’t think I should have ever doubted myself, but there was a time when I wondered. (If you don’t like hearing about personal medical stuff, stop reading now.) When I was around 36, I had a medical problem that dogged me for the next 13 months. It was the sort of thing that should have responded to birth control pills. I think I tried every one ever created; none helped. I had various minor procedures. They didn’t work, either. It looked like my only real hope was a hysterectomy. I was trying to avoid that, but only because I had never been hospitalized before and was scared of that and the surgery.
Then the serious conversations started. My surgeon kept telling me I could change my mind, even at the very last minute. (She offered that option again, even on the morning of my surgery.) My mother reassured me that I could adopt. Others seemed very somber when I told them about the surgery. The message was clear: with this surgery, I was doing something irreversible. I had better think hard about the decision.
That made me wonder if I was fooling myself about not wanting children. Or maybe I just did not know myself as well as I should have, and I would change my mind in a few years. So I talked to a therapist about it.
No matter who I talked to, I just could never get to a place where I could imagine wanting kids. I have loved lots of kids, including ones I am and am not related to. I just never wanted any of my own.
I had the surgery and never once regretted it. I never changed my mind about kids.
But when I had to make that big decision, I doubted myself. Me, a person who has never, ever wanted kids.
I think that’s a problem, and the problem isn’t mine. Even in open-minded, progressive societies, having children is something women are all supposed to want to do. In the stories we tell, it is essential to womanhood. It is a natural part of being a woman.
When very young women are asked whether they expect to have kids, I wonder how many still answer that they do, even if they are not feeling it and never have. Do they doubt themselves? Or are they reluctant to own up to their true feelings? Are there some who, even today, never even consider the possibility that they may not want to have kids?
I think the psychological dynamics are similar to the matter of staying single. How many young adults would say that they want to stay single for the rest of their life? Without a new way of thinking in which that option seems obviously valid and respectable and attractive, it is hard even for the single-at-heart to admit that single life is the best life for them.