can feel my body trying to get pregnant each month. Halfway through my cycle, odd thoughts pop into my head about male friends and acquaintances. His arms look strong, and they have a nice amount of hair on them, I think. While I don’t hear the individual words, the idea enters my brain, full-bodied, without my permission or conscious thought.
What on earth, another part of my brain chimes in, the part that seems to be detached from my reproductive system. Loud and emboldened during this time of the month, my body sagely replies, You’ll change your mind about kids.
I can physically feel it, too. “I used to have ovulation pain all the time,” my mom tells me, noting that wine was her go-to cure. Once a month, one side of my lower abdomen gets fixed in a mild cramp for a day or two — not bad enough to take medicine, but enough to let me know something is up. It’s gotten a little louder as I’ve entered my 30s — my body must be toying with me, knowing how much I hate a cliché, no less becoming one.
“Have you tried vodka?” my mom asks, always wanting to cure her child’s ails.
Some part of me likes feeling something so raw and body-driven. It’s the same part that quietly harbors thoughts that don’t quite fit the rest of me — someone whose beliefs are 99% progressive, someone who generally thinks women can do what they’d like with their bodies, however natural or unnatural. Why would anyone go through years of fertility treatments to have a baby? I wonder silently when the neighbor mentions her struggle to conceive, handing her seven-week-old daughter out for me to hold. To me, the idea of trying and failing to get pregnant would be a relief, like planning a get-together with a taxing friend and getting thwarted by a snowstorm.
“Oh well, wasn’t meant to be,” I’d say, happily cozying up in my quiet house.
But even though I don’t want to have a baby, my body does not tolerate birth control. It has rejected all the methods I’ve thrown at it one by one. Occasional migraines came as a package deal with my developing fertility, but on the pill, they became weekly. Pain would wrap around my head from my eyebrow to my jaw, making me vomit four or five times, sometimes more. My vanity has always been a driving force, though, and my previously acne-covered skin was astonishingly clear. Finally, when a doctor said, “You should stop. I’ve seen young women have strokes,” I decided that a few pimples were sexier than a brain injury and threw the pills out.
A slow-moving latex allergy crept up on me next, perhaps from too much exposure. “How do you react to band-aids?” my OB-GYN asked.
“My skin puffs up and — sometimes bleeds,” I said, realizing mid-sentence the obvious answer to what had been causing months-long irritation and the sensation of my hackles being raised. That was enough to inspire my husband to finally make us “real” childfree people instead of people who might be transported to another life at any moment.
“I thought you did that years ago,” my mom said to my husband when he proudly announced that he scheduled a vasectomy. He told every friend and relative, probably to psych himself up to actually do it.
“Snip, snip!” he’d say, motioning towards his testicles.
In the middle of my cycle, my sex drive is real and intense, nothing like the muffled pleasure I felt while on the pill. Not long after going off it, I had to brace myself to stay upright during an orgasm, surprised by the intensity after having the off-brand version for years.
Not wanting kids sometimes makes me wonder if I’m missing a vital chunk of something that everyone else has, so I find odd satisfaction in knowing that at least that part of me is real, natural. Not as much can be said for my husband at this point.
My brain, always loud, reliably tells me when something doesn’t feel right. It occasionally sends me a warning that I’ve been knocked off track and have ended up in the wrong spot. I’m not supposed to be here, I thought each time my parents dropped me off at piano lessons with a mean teacher who clipped my fingernails down to the pink before each session. I have the same thought when I envision what it’d be like to have kids. The thought that it’s not right comes to me without effort, and I don’t think I can change it.
“We won’t have children until action is taken on climate change,” kids all around the world have begun to announce. After feeling like a rare breed for so long, I was surprised to have so much company. Do they mean it? I wondered, suddenly feeling possessive of something I’ve long hoped a few more people would do.
The environment is something I’ve historically brought up too when people ask me about having children. But to be honest, it’s something I’ve brought up to make other people more comfortable. It’s a factor, but I doubt it would stop me if I really wanted kids. I have plenty of environmentally conscious friends who dutifully compost while trying for baby number two.
Still, it’s easier than explaining that even though my body sends me strange ovulation thoughts, I just don’t want kids.
“You’re my last hope,” my aunt said in a hushed tone, a minute after my cousin announced her pregnancy at my grandma’s 91st birthday party. The youngest (by far) of three sisters and considered to be the wild child of the family, my aunt has settled into a quiet childfree existence — one of only two other people I know in real life who’s made and stuck to the decision.
My mother didn’t want kids either, which would have probably been shocking for a baby boomer like her if it had actually worked out that way.
“Your sister was an accident, but we had you on purpose so she could have a sibling,” my mom told me over a margarita and Mexican food one day when I was in high school. “We weren’t planning to have kids — ‘childfree,’ not ‘childless,’ is what we called it.”
The evidence on my family tree suggests that not wanting kids is genetic. Maybe it is, but people with the “no kids” gene had babies anyway.
Sometimes it feels that at the very moment people felt safe enough to admit they don’t want kids, the very next generation doesn’t feel safe having them. It seems there was only a split second in history where people like me said they didn’t want kids, just because they don’t.
In the Midwest, where the styles of the ’80s were big in the ’90s, it wasn’t enough time for anyone to socio-culturally catch up.
“So, are you going to have kids?” asked every realtor within five seconds of meeting my husband and me when we were searching for a house in Iowa, our home state. No one where I live seems to care about the things I care about in a house: a gas stove so I can make scrambled eggs in one minute, the sex appeal of a claw-foot bathtub, a fresh, clean feeling.
The very opposite of the feeling that a house has endured 30 years of jelly-covered hands touching every inch of it.
I calibrate my response, carefully squeezing into the tight space between seeming rude or seeming hesitant. I produce a strained smile and a polite “No,” a weak way to try to communicate that I’m nice, regardless. Don’t come off like a she-devil, pretend you want to fill this house with babies, my body says, transforming my face in bizarre ways to show how normal I am.
Standing there with a pained smile, I feel that familiar feeling like I’ve been knocked off the tracks I’m supposed to be following through the world. To compensate, my instinct is to act like an alien, gently poking at the walls and picking my feet up too high as I walk around the house.
We have a tremendous amount of space in Iowa, and in the suburbs of the larger cities, it’s filled with big houses separated a great distance from our neighbors. It’s not just having kids, but the way we have kids in places like where I live that’s so tough on the environment.
Unlike people my age, who were gently and slowly horrified by climate change as they grew up, teenagers have known about it their entire lives. They’ve rightfully considered it when deciding to be childfree, but for me, the decision comes from somewhere internal — maybe my DNA. I wonder which is harder — having kids when you don’t want them or not having them when you do.
The kids will change their minds, my brain says skeptically.