No baby on board

Why being an environmentalist prevents me from being a mom

Published August 17, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"You might consider getting a hysterectomy," the surgeon said to me. We sat in his office on squeaky desk chairs, the smell of rubbing alcohol floating in from the hall. Several weeks before, the surgeon had cut out one of my ovaries, which had grown to the size of a grapefruit, and discovered a borderline malignancy. Now, I was healthy -- except in a sort of vague and statistical way. But I had become a woman "at risk." "Don't think of yourself as a 30-year-old," he said. "It's more like you're 40. You could lose your fertility at any time. I would suggest," the surgeon went on, "that you go ahead and complete your family."

Ever since I was about 10 years old I had questioned the idea of having children. It started when I saw a cartoon of the earth covered in people, crawling over each other like maggots. An adult explained that the cartoon had to do with the population crisis -- soon there'd be so many of us that we'd crowd each other into sickness and starvation. The idea took root in my mind. It was the early '70s, and I was just figuring out that grown-ups had no more clue than I did about solving problems like Vietnam, pollution and world hunger. This terrified me, so I often tried to fix things all by myself.

I'd forbidden my parents from using Final Net after reading about CFCs in a kiddie magazine. When I learned about a species of fish on its way to extinction, I scratched a hole in our backyard and filled it with water, but then I wasn't sure how to alert the authorities that a new fish habitat had been created in suburban Maryland. Overpopulation, at least, seemed easy to solve: I announced to my parents that I would not be having babies.

As I grew older, I forgot about the population crisis. Everyone forgot. By the time I was in my late 20s, I rarely heard a discussion about, for instance, the ethics of adoption vs. making your own baby. Now the buzz phrases were "baby hunger" and "biological clock" -- phrases that did ring true for many women. My friends told me about craving the smell of an infant, or watching a stroller go by and feeling a pang of sadness. Not me. I'd watch a woman in the supermarket juggling five cereal boxes on one hip and a baby on the other, a 2-year-old in the cart, and I'd feel a wave of relief that my own shopping cart was near-empty.

But sometimes I did want babies. Not in the tender transcendent way you were supposed to. I wanted them because I was afraid to "grow old alone." I was afraid to be a freak. I was afraid to make the wrong choice and like a horror story out of a women's magazine realize too late that my life of adventure had been a big boo-boo.

Mostly I was afraid my boyfriend would leave me, since he'd announced that he wanted biological children. I had told him I could do kids if we adopted and if I could be the breadwinner. No, he said. And, because I loved him, I tried to change how I felt. I attempted to visualize myself giving birth, how beautiful it would be, but instead the idea made me feel like a one-woman population bomb. And then I came down with a bad case of stomach cramps. The first time, I thought I had food poisoning. The second time, I found out my ovary had ballooned to the size of a softball or a 14-week-old fetus.

Up until then, I had usually pleaded the fifth. "Maybe I'll do it someday," I told people who wanted to know when I'd begin breeding. "I think maybe I could change," I'd tell my boyfriend. But now, walking out into the Cambridge sunshine, a hysterectomy looming in my near future, I knew there was no middle ground. I could not hedge. The next several weeks only made this clearer. Some friends whispered, "You should get pregnant." I was floored by the number of people from the surgeon to acquaintances that assumed a baby was the answer. I began to see the world around me with new eyes because a lot of people seemed to have an interest in convincing me and other educated white women to procreate. Articles in magazines warned that childless women got cancer (neglecting to mention that most cancers are caused by environmental factors spurred by industrialization). Advertisements treated babies as the ultimate status symbol, to be accessorized with teeny Gap clothes or tanklike minivans. Older women were encouraged to shell out big bucks for fertility treatments.

I got a second opinion: I didn't have to have a hysterectomy. I was free to return to my conflicted feelings about babies again. But somehow, after my Hysterectomy Month, I never could go back. I had crossed over into some new place, where the baby issue was black and white. And I made a decision and that changed everything. I hooked up with a new boyfriend, a guy who didn't mind my lack of maternal instinct. I began telling anyone who asked (and many who didn't) that I'd decided not to have kids. And I began to seek out soulmates, people who questioned the idea of having kids and had pioneered another kind of life. That's how I ended up, a couple years later, having a beer with a man who called himself Les U. Knight. Les believed (as do I) that nearly every environmental problem can be traced back to overpopulation -- particularly in the first world, since one of us consumes as many resources as 500 Ethiopians. Les was not your stereotypical antipopulation activist; he worked as a substitute teacher and was an outspoken advocate for children's rights. In fact, he saw population control as an issue linked inextricably to children's welfare since, according to him, 40,000 kids die of malnutrition every day. Hanging out with Les made me realize that there are many ways to be a mother. Some of us will bear babies, and some of us will adopt, and some of us will march with signs, and some of us will volunteer, and some of us will watch over sick friends. And we will all be right.

By Pagan Kennedy

Pagan Kennedy is a writer living in Somerville, Mass. Her latest novel is "The Exes."

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