“No. Absolutely not. You’re not reading this,” my co-worker said last Friday, picking up the copy of Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed that had just arrived on my desk that morning, thanks to free two-day delivery. The book is a collection of sixteen essays from writers who are childless by choice—like me.
“The only reason you’re reading this is to talk yourself into breaking up with Craig, and I won’t let you do it. He’s too good,” she said.
She was only partially right—Craig is certainly a good man—but I didn’t buy the book to as a how-to manual for leaving a good relationship. I was looking for a clue from one of my people—my fellow childfree adults—on how to stay in a relationship with a man who challenged my identity as “woman without a child.”
Craig is actually more than just “good.” He is the best man I have ever dated. We’ve been together for nine months, and he is thoughtful and funny and loving and generous. He tells me I am beautiful and smart and sexy and funny that he loves me every chance he gets. When we walk down the street on a cold day, he’ll take my ungloved hand in his and slip it into his jacket pocket with his own. He never gets annoyed when I refuse to order my own soda and then I insist on “sharing” his. He is open and adventurous in bed, and takes immense pleasure in sex in general and in pleasing me specifically, and claims to love how much I sweat during sex.
He listens to me and is tender after a fight. He is proud to call himself a third-wave feminist, even if he doesn’t always perfectly understand what that means. He laughs at all my jokes, hardest at the stupidest ones. He is fiery and doesn’t deny his anger when he feels it, or cower in the presence of mine. He is everything I have always wanted in a partner.
Except that he has a kid.
I have always known that I didn’t want to have kids. And I don’t mean that I feel ambivalent about children, or that I simply have an absence of desire for kids. I actively do not want children, which is a real feeling all on its own. Not wanting children is a very real part of who I am, so it has been surprising and challenging to find myself in a committed, loving relationship with a man who has a toddler.
To get around this conflict, at first, I rationalized that Craig having a kid was actually perfect for me; since he already had one, it meant that I was off the hook for squeezing one out for him. And plus, if the kid and I hit it off, we could probably team up to blackmail Craig into getting us a kitten. (There is strength in numbers.)
But as time goes on, I remain skeptical of my ability to get excited about structuring my life around the needs of a child, in part because I feel like I’ve only recently found the structure that works for the needs of my own.
I see myself reflected in the words of one the sixteen writers, Anna Holmes, in the book now sitting on my desk: “I find that I am only now beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin, to find the wherewithal to respect my own needs as much as others’, to know what my emotional and physical limits are, and to confidently, yet kindly, tell others no.” In finding this same, hard-earned respect for my own needs, I’ve been able to build a relationship with Craig that feels equal and supportive; I’ve never had that in a romantic relationship before.
As a result, it’s painful to be confronted with the idea that I may have to tell Craig, and myself, no: caring for a child is outside my emotional limits. Because even if Craig is prepared to work with me to rewrite the rules of what a family looks like, I’m still not sure that I want to be bound by any sort of rules contingent on a child in the first place. Conscribing my life by any set of rules feels like a sure way to conscribe my self—to limit the person I can or will be.
That I do not want children is a fact I know about myself as strongly as I know many other things about myself, like how I know I will always choose chocolate over vanilla, and how I will never be okay with a spider being anywhere near me. These things have always been true, and will never change.
As a girl, I can remember being frustrated by my friends encouraging me to imagine what I would name “my” girl child and boy child. I always came up blank. It was more fun for me to imagine names for future pets. I could take much more creative license with names for animals. For example, “Smoosh” and “Hambone” and “Dance-Pants” are all fun words to say out loud, but you could really only get away with calling them to an animal’s face without robbing them of their dignity. Those names would really be wasted on a child.
Trying to imagine being a mom just wasn’t in me. I don’t have memories of enjoying pushing dolls around in a stroller or playing mommy. I was more apt to take my bunch of Barbies up to the attic so I could strip all their clothes off to touch their naked plastic crotches to the Ken doll’s naked plastic crotch. There was only one Ken doll but multiple Barbie dolls, so sometimes the many Barbies would take turns smashing their shiny plastic bodies against each other and then with the one Ken doll, but ultimately things would always lead to one big beige orgy of non-descript genitalia. That was really living.
When I got older, it was liberating to realize that not having children was an option for me. It was a literal choice. It was such a comfort to me that I began to fold it into my identity. My name is Jenna, I am a liberal and a Vermonter, and I do not want kids. I’ve worked hard to become the person that I am, and I’m proud of all my complexities, my emotional strengths and limitations, and my independence. I’ve made my peace with my humanity, and accept my emotional lows and intense needs for alone time. But would a child?
I am not sure I want to open myself up to that, to attend to both my own vulnerabilities (now compounded by the vulnerability of loving a child) and the demands of a child, all at the same time.
To me, being a woman is not synonymous with being a mother, and I’m fine with that. I’ve never felt pressure to have kids. So when I bought Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, I wasn’t looking for validation of my life choices or a reason to break up with Craig. But I did hope that at least one of the sixteen writers would have found themselves in a situation that approximates mine: they met someone online, hoping only for a good date and maybe even a little fooling around, but accidentally (and inconveniently) found love-at-first-sight with a man with a son. If they had, perhaps I’d be able to glean how they made it work, in spite of their original choice to be childfree.
Or even if they’d failed, maybe I could learn from their mistakes. And even though every single one of their stories resonated with me, none of the writers’ stories echoed my own. None offered me the map for a way forward with Craig; I am still on my own when it comes to reconciling what I want for my future with Craig’s present reality.
One writer, Pam Houston, came within spitting distance, eventually revealing—in the final 200 words of her 20-page essay—that she actually has a stepdaughter. The stepdaughter is mentioned only in passing, at the end of a story that had been devoted entirely to how the many successes and joys of her life had been afforded to her thanks to her choice to be childless. It didn’t detail any of the ways she may have had to restructure her life to accommodate this child, the day-to-day minutiae of how she renegotiated the terms of her life in order to maintain a fulfilling relationship with her partner, a full workload, and a vibrant travel schedule.
And those are the kind of clues I desperately need. It is not enough for Houston to gloss over how she got from Point A (no child) to Point B (step-child) in her life, arriving with her happiness still intact; I need more concrete detail in order to take that leap of faith myself. After all, it is one thing to be deliberate about not making a baby, but it’s something else entirely when a pre-existing 4-year-old suddenly comes bursting onto the scene. Now, it’s no longer an easy yes-or-no question about whether I want kids, but a messy “rate your comfort level” mandate for having one around 50% of the time.
I don’t know where I fall on that scale, or whether I can make room in my life to be in a relationship with not just one man, but two. Because the problem is, I know how I feel about Craig: I love him deeply. But when it comes to his son, the truth is, I don’t feel much of anything at all. This nothingness is not an absence of warmth, but a blank canvas I don't know how to paint.
Lately, I have been Googling the parental brain. Supposedly, this is the area of the brain that regulates parental sensitivity towards one’s child. Unfortunately, the only research I can find on the subject mostly involves how this part of the brain changes and becomes flooded with various hormones during and after pregnancy, and in the presence of an infant. I haven’t come across any studies of the parental brain among women who simply never wanted children in the first place. And I’ve found nothing on women who seem to lack all maternal instinct.
In other words, I’ve found no explanation of my inability to conjure up a feeling of love for a child so completely lovable. Because it isn’t that Craig's son isn’t a great kid—he is. He is like a tiny, curly-haired J.Crew child model who loves to giggle and give hugs. And while I do not want to fall into the societal trap of trying to explain away what feels like a natural behavior with clinical pathology, I do worry there is something not quite right about a person who can feel so much nothing. I have always thought of myself as extremely self-possessed, so it is not the not-wanting that makes me feel so uncomfortable, but the not-feeling that so disturbs me and makes me feel alienated from myself.
What kind of monster can’t at least begin to approximate a feeling of affection for an innocent and adorable little human? I want to be a person with an infinite and indiscriminate capacity for love, but apparently, I am not.
Still, I am trying to be open to change. I am trying to be open to the possibility that I could become a person who is okay with having a kid—and that I could be a flexible and accepting person, willing and able to love a partner exactly as they are, with whatever strings of attachment they have. When M. G. Lord tells her own tale of trying to come around to her then-partner’s decision to get pregnant, she writes, “When the prospect of a baby loomed on my horizon, I felt pure horror. But I thought I could white-knuckle my way through this and become a different person, a better person.” I, too, hope I can brute-force my way into better-personhood.
I am holding onto hope that perhaps all I need is a bit more time. Time to adjust, time to create a bond with the kid in question, time to grow up and grow tired of my life as a successful single woman in Brooklyn, who sleeps when she wants, rides around town on a dangerous motorcycle, and sometimes eats ice cream for dinner. I hope that eventually, when Craig relates anecdotes about his son, I will stop feeling like he is constantly telling me stories about an old college buddy that I don’t know. I hope that eventually, when I make weekend plans, I will naturally remember to include child-friendly activities. I hope that eventually, when I ask Craig about his day, and he answers, “It was good; D---- had a good day at school today,” I will share his joy instead of silently wishing he would stop erasing himself from his answer.
But mostly, I hope to feel anything at all for this kid, about this kid. I hope that when Craig texts me a picture of his child on the swings at the playground, I will stop staring at it blankly, wondering what it is I am supposed to feel in response.
Last weekend, Craig and I went to brunch after attending his son’s fourth birthday party, hosted by his ex-wife and her new girlfriend in their small Brooklyn apartment. There were a thousand other things I would have rather been doing on a Saturday morning than being surrounded by a pack of screaming children and their requisite adults. But it was important to Craig, so I tried to give good face.
Still, the chaos and the boredom and the small talk and the discomfort left me exhausted to the point that I had found it difficult to do anything at the table but make eyes with the beautiful busboy. He was tall and muscular and covered with tattoos, and seemed so full of mystery and possibility that I genuinely considered leaving Craig right then and there for him, for this beautiful man that I imagined didn’t have a child and with whom I could start afresh and never be denied my fantasy of a responsibility-free life.
When we left, Craig teased me and told me that we could go back the following weekend and proposition him for a three-way if I really wanted him that badly. But he wasn’t actually teasing—he really meant it. Because that is the kind of man Craig is. He wants me to have everything I want in life, and in return, I hope I can give him what he wants: wanting his child as much as he does. Because though I didn’t expect to end up here, it’s like Jeanne Safer says the book, about her own experience with coming to terms with not having kids: “I finally said to myself, ‘I don’t really want to have a baby; I want to want to have a baby.’ I longed to feel like everybody else”.