Parendhood is a decision, not a given. A lesson from Elizabeth Gilbert
A few months back, I was having a conversation with a man I'd begun dating. We were thinking about making things more official/exclusive. I asked him one night, while we were enjoying the spring weather at a local park, what his thoughts were about having children. He seemed surprised and said, "Isn't it a little early to be bringing that up?" I told him that I have known for years that I don't want to ever be anyone's Mom and that, if he really wanted children, I needed to know now before we got too attached as possible romantic partners. I would much rather part ways while casually dating than to have to deal with this issue after getting married.
That's what happened to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the book turned movie Eat Pray Love starring Julia Roberts. In that book, and the follow up, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, Gilbert candidly addresses this issue. Gilbert writes that, when she got married to her first husband, they both assumed they would have children one day. She says she thought she had plenty of time to enjoy her career first and that parenthood seemed like something far in the future. Eventually, though, time caught up with Elizabeth and she realized the idea of being a Mom still wasn't something she was interested in. “I was supposed to want to have a baby., “ she says in Eat Pray Love.
“I was 31 years old. My husband and I--who had been together for eight years, married for six--had built our entire life around the common expectation that, after passing the doddering old age of thirty, I would want to settle down and have children… I kept waiting to want to have a baby, but it didn't happen.” Her husband was ready to get on with having a family and her lack of enthusiasm about parenthood became a real problem.
"While the vague idea of motherhood had always seemed natural to me, the reality--as it approached--only filled me with dread and sorrow," she writes in Committed. "Unlike so many of my friends, I did not ache with longing whenever I saw an infant… Every morning, I would perform something like a CAT scan on myself, searching for a desire to be pregnant, but I never found it." She describes briefly trying to get pregnant and how thankful she was each month when she realized she hadn’t been successful at it. She says she felt like she’d been given more time to enjoy her life the way it was.
Feelings like that should make anyone stop and think about whether or not having a baby is the “right thing” for them. “Do I wwant to take on parenthood now?” is a valid question. “Do I ever want to take on parenthood?” is an equally valid question, though not as many people ask themselves this one. I wish more people would give more serious consideration to “kidding” as a conscious choice. Some people know for certain that they want children. Not everyone feels "destined" for parenthood, though. In the face of such uncertainty, much time, thought, and prayer should be spent on the decision. The problem is that this careful consideration is not encouraged most of the time. Our society treats parenthood as the "logical next step." Its treated as a given not as an option. The assumption seems to be that any "normal" adult in a stable relationship with adequate financial resources "should" want children.
Like Elizabeth Gilbert, I think most young women and men figure they'll begin feeling that urge to reproduce, will start sensing a pull towards parenthood, and will "just know" when the time is "right." If they're not exactly excited about the possibility of parenthood, they rationalize these feelings instead of seeking to understand what their lack of enthusiasm might be telling them. In Eat Pray Love, Gilbert admits to doing this herself. “I'd been attempting to convince myself that this was normal,” she says. Ambivalent was the word I used, avoiding the much more accurate description utterly consumed with dread." I was trying to convince myself that my feelings were customary, despite all evidence to the contrary.”
If someone decides for any number of reasons that they don't want kids, they know they're going to have to deal with a lot of crap about that decision. Its going to be hard to find a partner who feels the same way. Family members will be disappointed. Friends and associates will be genuinely perplexed. Something must be "wrong" with a person who might question whether parenthood is really something they want to take on, right?
Fortunately, more and more individuals and couples are pushing back against the dominant pattern. They care enough to give the matter serious consideration from various angles. Some consciously choose parenthood. Others decide, individually or as a couple, to pass on procreation. For the most part, these folks are educated, financially stable, career-oriented people who would theoretically make great parents. Most of these people aren't child haters. Many of them enjoy children and spend time with kids within their family and community. They’ve just decided (for diverse and personal reasons) that they don’t want their own.
Many people decide they’ve waited too long and would be subjecting themselves and their children to unnecessary health risks by trying to become parents in their late thirties or fourties. This happens a lot as people are spending more time pursuing advanced degrees, career success, and/or getting married later and later. It is reasonable not to be as enthusiastic about the idea of parenting when you’re already old enough to be grandparenting and to not want to face retirement and paying for a child’s college education at the same time. Others are not willing to go through the invasive, time-consuming, and expensive process of fertility treatments or adoption that are the “next step” if pregnancy doesn’t just happen due to age or other factors. For other individuals and couples who choose the “child free” life, they want to be able to focus on travel, careers, relationships, and other goals they’ve spent years working towards.
Other people know that, due to physical or emotional issues of their own, or just how their personalities are, they wouldn't be patient and nurturing enough for children. They know they would resent the time and energy (not to mention money) they would have to invest to be decent parents. Again, as a counselor, I applaud this self-awareness. I've worked with plenty of people who's parents had them for self serving goals an truly didn't show much sensitivity to the childrens' needs or wants. They wanted children to make them look like the perfect family, to make spouse or parents happy, to stabilize a shakey marriage, or to live out their own dreams. Maybe they believed the often stated idea that, “You’ll want them once you have them,” only to find that they still didn’t. Many people have children but then want to continue in lifestyles that don't allow them to spend enough time and focussed energy being involved parents.
Some people who choose not to reproduce are following spiritual callings and want to devote themselves fully to the service of God. For those folks, of course, this often means avoiding marriage, too. Others make the choice due to more global concerns. They believe there are already enough kids around and don't want to add more of them to the earth due to concerns about overpopulation or depleting already limited natural resources. They aren't sure they want to bring children into a world full of violence and challenges of all sorts. Some people simply want to be available to children who already exist. In fact, these are often the folks with time and resources to help kids who need extra responsible adults in their lives. “We need an abundance of responsible, compassionate, childless women on hand to support the wider community in various ways,” Gilbert writes in Committed. “Even in my own family's recent history, there are stories on both sides of truly magnificent aunties who stepped in and saved the day during emergencies. Often able to accrue education and resources precisely because they were childless, these women had enough spare income and compassion to pay for lifesaving operations, or to rescue the family farm, or to take in a child whose mother had fallen gravely ill.”
“I have a friend who calls these sorts of child-rescuing aunties "sparents"-- "spare parents"--and the world is filled with them,” Gilbert writes. I would broaden this idea to include uncles, too (spaunties and spuncles?). These "sparents" are on hand to help in times of crisis, to babysit or provide financial or emotional resources, to take children into their homes temporarily, and to offer skilled child related services such as being teachers, counselors, or health care professionals.
The bottom line, as Elizabeth Gilbert stresses, is the need to feel passionate about becoming a parent. She refers to it as being a pulling that should feel like a calling or destiny. Her sister and other mothers told her not to even consider having a baby until she was absolutely sure she really wanted one. Her sister even said it was like “getting a tattoo on your face.” Once you’ve done it, you can’t undo it and you’re stuck dealing with it.
I agree. Under the best of circumstances, I think parenthood is much harder than anyone expects, no matter how prepared they try to be. It costs more in time, money, energy, sleep, patience, and sacrifice of personal wants than anyone can begin to calculate in the best of situations, much less if anything out of the ordinary comes along (which it often does in countless unexpected ways). It should only be undertaken with certainty and with as complete an understanding as possible of the sacrifices and challenges involved.
As we know, Elizabeth Gilbert ultimately decided to, as she puts it in Committed, “join the Auntie Brigade rather than enlist in the Mommy Corps.” This was a major factor in the collapse of her first marriage. She knew that she got much more excited about writing and traveling than she did about the idea of parenthood and followed the path of honesty. That path lead to Eat Pray Love and becoming a best-selling author who’s book was made into a major motion picture. What if she’d gone against what she truly felt was right for herself? Would she have been glad she did? Would she have been miserable and resented her husband? Its impossible to say. What if, like Elizabeth Gilbert, you’ve never thought much about this, get married assuming the desire for kids will happen, and then one or the other of you just never starts to feel "ready" to start a family? Those are risky propositions. Ideally, its probably a lot easier to have some clarity around this issue way before getting married to avoid the painful reality of divorce Elizabeth Gilbert had to face.
By the way, she eventually met and married a man who didn't have a wish for her to have kids with him. Gilbert enjoyed her husband’s already grown children without feeling any need to “mother them. They had a mother and a father and had already been successfully parented. "For some reason, I had never once considered the possibility that I might be allowed to have a lifelong male companion without also being expected to have children," she says. "Even now, the freedom and abundance of it all feels something close to miraculous."