- People can go from desperately wanting a child, to “choosing” to be child-free.
- Anyone Can Adopt.
- Women wind up childless because they put off marriage to establish careers;
- Or were looking for Mr. Right instead of Mr. Good Enough.
- Anyone who wants a baby can get one, because this is America, where there is a solution to every problem.
- Pets, gardening, or spending time with other people’s children fills in for not having biological children of our own.
- People without children aren’t real adults, and don’t know what real love is.
- Infertility is a women’s issue.
Missing in these pervasive, reductive myths, mainly produced by prescriptive how-to books, are the infinite number of individual stories describing the long, complicated, and sometimes unspeakable circumstances that may have led up to someone’s childless status. There’s no category in the current zeitgeist for ‘When all systems fail.’
Here’s a real story:
My friend Elsa’s older fiance had two children from a previous marriage, vetoed more. She agonized and underwent lengthy soul-searching before deciding to go ahead with the marriage, determining to embrace a child free life. She was relentlessly badgered by everyone from neighbors to co-workers to family members to change her husband’s mind, force a baby on him if necessary. A cousin who’d tricked an older husband into a child advised the same strategy. In Elsa’s case, it would have been quite a challenge, as her husband had a vasectomy.
Elsa and I lived in the child-centered, Westchester suburbs, outside New York City. I, too, was involuntarily childless, for entirely different reasons, but I can attest the day-to-day experience was scalding. My friend was pitied, her husband demonized, Daily, she heard:
“You don’t know what real love is.”
“Your husband will leave you.”
He did leave, because with so few counterparts in her workplace and community, her sense of being cheated of her rightful destiny shook the foundations of her sanity and corroded her marriage beyond repair.
A good marriage wasn’t enough to counterbalance either her private loss or her public alienation. So much for the Child Free Myth.
The Invisible Woman
I come to this issue as a childless-not-by-choice woman in the midst of the biggest baby boom since the end of World War II, when newscasters tout their children on air and every actress seems to be having twins at 47.
But 44% of women in their childbearing years don’t have children, and some never will. While the world is rightly concerned with family issues, the constant focus on motherhood can make it easy for a childless woman to feel that she’s less than a woman, that in failing to reproduce, she’s failed at life.
Simone de Beauvoir famously said, “You can’t have the book and the baby.” History proved her wrong. But these days, those of us who wound up without a baby find that we can’t get a book either – to read or to publish.
In making initial inquiries for this column, I found very few books reflecting my situation, and talked to more than one aspiring author who found the door to publication shut smartly in her face if her story fell outside of the proscribed norms of Motherhood Achieved, or Happily Child Free. Uber-feminist Seal press has dozens of titles on motherhood, but not a single on the lives of women without children.
Laments my eighty-something, involuntarily childless friend Bea, “Even in the Bible, all these women who can’t have babies eventually get them!”
At City College’s Harlem campus, my professors helped me understand why African American writer Ralph Ellison wrote a book called Invisible Man. As well as being excluded by segregation, African Americans saw no reflection of themselves in literature, government, commerce, art or advertising.
These days, it’s the same for those without children. When I was growing up in the 70s, there was this progressive idea floating around that a woman could live a rich, rewarding life full of close, fulfilling bonds, even if she didn’t marry and have children. In Mary and Rhoda, I saw an alternative future self on the T.V. screen. Such depictions are nearly extinct now, as the publishing industry churns out book after book with a variation on the theme, I Overcame Fertility and You Can, Too!
The Bubble of Silence
In my own online search for kinship, I’ve come across dozens, if not hundreds of blogs whose purpose is to aid and abet the great fertility quest. Like a tenacious shopper at a discount warehouse, I foraged long and hard, and was finally rewarded with a shining jewel, multidisciplinary artist Tiffany Lee Brown’s blog Nymphe: Living Childless and Childfree, at http://magdalen.blogs.com/nymphe/www.Nymphe.com. Linked there was a piece published in the Oregonian Humanities Magazine, “Breaking the Bubble of Silence,” detailing how merely relaying to fellow artist friends the subject matter of her most recent performance piece — on the grief of being childless – stopped the conversation cold.
“If I’d announced that I was having a baby, the others would have heaped congratulations on me. If I’d brought out a photo of my lovely stepdaughter and told them of her soccer exploits, they would have chuckled and asked questions. Even if I’d softly admitted that I’d been having a hard time since my aunt passed away, they’d have offered condolences or a hug.
But childlessness is a pain experienced in silence. There is no place in civilized conversation for such discussion. No one really knows what to say, and there are no social rituals with which to mourn miscarriages or unsuccessful fertility treatments.
The grief of childlessness visits us for many reasons. Some are infertile. Others don’t have a partner and don’t want to be single parents. The deep need to procreate hits us with a staggering intensity, as primal and undeniable as the need for food, water, and sex. The enormous role of children and family in our cultural, community, religious, and political environments reminds us constantly of what we’ve lost–what we’ve never had in the first place. Many of us feel ashamed to discuss childlessness in public for fear of undercutting the joy of parents and families. And when we do bring it up, we often hear clueless, insensitive, and sometimes cruel responses. So, most of the time, we keep the discussion safely shut away.”
Her year-old blog offers a round-up of mini-book reviews and links thoughtful pieces in the alternative press, like a recent Mother Jones piece on the preponderance of new “fertility movies” like Baby Mama and, And Then She Found Me, asking “where are the women without bassinets?”
The Portland-area artist has been deeply engaged in exploring the issue of infertility and childlessness in her art – music, visual, performance and writing.
Her art goes beyond the issue of personal grief to explore socio-political concerns and the family-centric society.
Entering a childless marriage (her husband’s decision) brought into question her entire lifestyle, and all the choices she had made. Her work is engaged on a global level, examining the very concept of Creating.
“What makes us create?” she asks. “There is this tremendous excitement in our culture about creating – whether it’s babies, buildings, or bombs.”
Currently, her Easter-Island project, touring and interactive on her art site, explores this issue: http://www.magdalen.com. It also gives visitors a chance to participate and offer their own tribute to their own infertility situation.
Lee Brown has been fascinated the South Pacific island since the age of six. “In a way, I see it as a micro-cosm of a world, tied deeply into the whole concept of creating, fertility and childlessness. Once well-populated, the island was filled with fertile, abundant tribes, who fought each other.” Easter Island is known for its huge monolith face-sculptures, ancestral totems worshipped by islanders. The tribes were thought to have moved the figures around the island, in the process cutting down the trees, destroyed the ecosystem, and deprived themselves of the means to go out on the sea and fish. Thus, Easter Island, once a baby-happy place, became greatly depopulated and barren.
“It’s the idea of making babies, and making art, and the ancestral chain. People have babies as a way of connecting to their ancestors, by continuing the line,” she says.
“Giving birth is a way of connecting with their grandmothers, an unofficial spiritual ancestor worship we all practice,” she says. “Yet, this practice helped wipe out much of the wildlife and population of Easter Island.”
Says Lee Brown, “Our society is messed up when we’re viewed and defined by roles we’re supposed to occupy, as Mom and non-Mom. The system that tells women motherhood is going to be endless bliss, and that finds so women distressed at their real, challenging and less than blissful experience is the same one that tells non-Mom’s that they’re lacking for not being mothers. There’s the ancient regime telling us we have to be mothers – and the new one where it’s constantly in our daily lives, and a media pitting working Moms against stay at homes and Moms marginalizing and devaluing non-Moms. The divisiveness of pitting child-free or childless against Mommies keeps us from understanding each other.”
While Brown characterizes herself as feminist, she sees the issue as “Totally crossing gender boundaries. Men, women, transgendered and other-gendered people — all of us experience the pain of childlessness, whether by choice or circumstances, and prejudice as a result,
Further reading: An intelligent discussion of fertility blogs appears at: