The nurture assumption

A woman borrows a baby to test her theory that some people don't want to have children, the way others don't want to hear Michael Bolton.


Jennifer Kahn
March 20, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

| I do not want, have never wanted and do not expect to ever want children. For the record, this is a personal, biological decision and not a political statement, a matter of national security or a renunciation of my female citizenship. I am not childless because the world is overpopulated, because I am overly ambitious or because I had a bad childhood, as many people seem to expect. Simply put, I do not want children -- the way that many people would not want to own a horse.

I have developed an affinity for this comparison because it is one that APs (Avid Procreators) seem to understand best. That APs often don't understand is evident in their questions, which are typically "Never?" and "Why not?" The latter is an odd question, I think -- like asking someone why she doesn't like peas or flowered wallpaper or the music of Michael Bolton. There are complex answers to be given, but the most immediate response is a visceral one: It's just not appealing.

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A friend has observed that the decision to bear children is unusual in that it is an intimate topic about which everybody feels free to opine. Parents of adult children (though not mine) can be positively proselytizing about the virtues of grandchildren. Acquaintances send photos (always the same -- the "angelic" baby asleep or else smiling vacuously, eyes crossed as though medicated) and ask not so subtly when they can expect word of your own foray into fecundity. At dinner parties, women one has only just met rush to share their stories: the doubts and misgivings, the putting on hold of the career, the financial worries and the body-change vanity, the difficulties of raising a child in an Increasingly Dangerous World -- always ending with the happy assessment that the "rewards made it all worthwhile" -- all to better direct the wayward down the road to multiplication.

One might expect such propaganda to persist in more traditional parts of the country, but the pro-procreative view pervades even the quintessentially liberal city where I live. Here, I've found, one can be openly gay, socialist, Buddhist, Scientologist, naturist or anarchist without incurring looks of either disapproval or consternation, and without being subject to the tacit assumption that it's "just a phase." Strangely, though, these are the very responses that greet the admission that one does not intend to have children. There is a moment of disbelief, during which the AP's mouth actually falls open, followed by an almost visible dredging of possible explanations. "She just means not yet," the AP concludes first, relieved. Assured that this is not the case, the perplexed pro-natalist is then forced to consider a less pleasant possibility: that of physical defect. As the mind races over the possibilities -- Hodgkin's disease?
scarred ovaries? insanity in the family? -- the boggle morphs gradually into a softer, more pitying expression. The idea that a person simply may not want children, the way some men do not want to have sex with other men, or the way some women do not like flowered wallpaper, rarely occurs. Hence the horse.

"If someone suggested that you buy a horse," this simple-minded comparison begins, "and told you that you'd have to feed it and brush it and exercise it every day (thereby cramping your schedule radically and forcing you to miss out on a good number of other things that you might like to do), have to spend nights sleeping on the stall floor when the horse gets sick, pay for vets and farriers and blankets and bridles (which aren't cheap), and moreover have to continue to live this way for roughly the next 20 years -- you might be reluctant."

Granted, there are good things about horses. Horses can be ridden and petted. One can feed them treats, braid their manes and buy them particularly snuggly sheepskin blankets. Moreover, much as parents take pleasure in a wide variety of otherwise unappealing tasks -- changing diapers, feeding, bathing, dressing -- so horse people enjoy grooming, polishing tack, cleaning hooves and forking hay. The difference being that while there's a lot to dislike about both these endeavors, if you're not a "horse person" you will decide very quickly that the so-called advantages of equine parenting are outweighed rather dramatically by the constraints put on your otherwise carefree life. If you are not a "child person," however, chances are that you will decide nothing quickly, but rather will obsess, doubt your femininity or your sanity, reconsider, worry, feel bad and, often as not, decide just to go along with the wishes of your more reproductively inclined mate.

Having trotted out this particular comparison more than once, I know that it typically raises objections. "Tut tut!" one of these goes. "Owning a horse is not the same thing as raising a child. A child grows, questions, argues, learns and ultimately becomes a functioning (with luck), moral, intelligent (again, with luck) adult." This is true. Children are more rewarding than horses, assuming you find children rewarding at all. If you don't, I venture that the two are not so dissimilar.

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Today, I am a mother. I have secured a baby on loan, and I have even been granted permission to take it out of the house. It is a pretty child, 5 months old, with downy blond hair and brown eyes. We have spent the first part of the hour indoors, eating lunch (a jar of apple-plum purie consumed via a small plastic spoon) and lolling about on the floor amid toys. Baby cannot yet crawl and so tries to drag itself forward commando-style, stomach down and legs bent. After some minutes of this, it gets frustrated and begins to cry, and then one must turn it over and place a pacifier (or, in this case, the nipple-shaped beak of a small rubber duck) in its mouth. This continues for some time and, as it is not exactly absorbing, gives me ample opportunity to observe Baby.

Among the things I note: Baby is soft. Its stomach is soft, its legs are soft, the bottoms of its as yet unwalked-on feet are soft, even its skull is soft. Although I can't squeeze as hard as one would in the interest of science, I conclude that the faintly veined cranium has the consistency of an unripe grapefruit: firm, fleshy, pliable.

Note No. 2: Baby drools copiously, even alarmingly. This is saliva on a Rio Grande scale, a constant overflowing of the gums. Although I know babies drool, I worry that they are not supposed to drool quite so much and that perhaps Baby, lying on its stomach and wriggling cutely, is in fact suffocating or, more accurately, drowning. I sit Baby up and put the duck in its mouth, but the drool just keeps coming.

Note No. 3: Baby's motor skills are poor, though not as poor as you might think, and seem to work perfectly when moving objects from fist to mouth. Leaves, paper towels, cat fur, sand, everything moves briskly in the direction of the digestive tract. I come to believe that if Baby cannot yet walk, it is only because all neural function has been concentrated on perfecting this single motion of consumption.

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This last becomes most obvious at the park, where I have chosen to take Baby for a change of scenery. The park is an unfamiliar place. There are mothers galore and nannies, all seated on benches around the edge of a circular sand pit. In the pit are the children, toddlers mostly, who, like Baby, have round, dark eyes that are too large for their heads, which in turn are too large for their bodies. Unstable on their feet, these over-craniated creatures lurch heedlessly from swings to slide to fireman's pole, dig voraciously in the sand and the dirt, run, fall, shriek, throw their plastic shovels and occasionally fall asleep under the swings.

Mothers and nannies alike watch this spectacle unperturbed. I fret. Baby is not mine, after all, and I worry about returning it scratched or dented in a way that will upset the original owner. Nor is this an idle concern. Baby keeps trying to eat the plastic candy wrappers that other children have left scattered on the grass, and more than once I have to pry such material out from between its well-lubricated gums. And then there's the weather. It's hot in the park but also windy, and I worry that Baby is either overheated or chilled. There is an ominous passage in Mark Twain's autobiography, in which he confesses to having let the blankets blow off his infant daughter during a sleigh ride. Although it's unclear whether his daughter's subsequent death from pneumonia was the result of the blankets slipping, the account is a grim reminder. I bundle up Baby but good anytime the wind picks up.

Oh dear. I see now that the preceding description is all very cute, and I suspect that I have begun to sound like one of those women who protests too much: the ones who explain (wearing a suitably pained expression) that they just don't think they could be a good enough mother. It is, embarrassingly enough, an excuse that I've hidden behind before. "There are enough bad parents out there already," I would say woefully to my AP friends, who would cluck in sympathetic agreement. It was a very neat way of turning the tables. Women who say they don't want children are invariably perceived as somewhat selfish, or at least immature. By confessing to the other extreme -- admitting how very seriously indeed I took the responsibility of raising a child -- I put myself, if not on the moral high ground, at least on a legitimate footing. How can a woman be criticized for caring too much about her adequacy as a mother -- even if, ironically, that prevents her from having a child at all?

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It is hard for any woman who has chosen to remain child-free (as distinct from women who unwillingly remain childless) to pass up the chance to feel socially acceptable. And while I occasionally like to pretend that I am in the vanguard of what will become a sweeping sea change, there's little evidence that this is really the case. Although
birth rates seem to have declined (a 1988 U.S. census reports that 18 percent of women 35 to 39 were childless, up from 12 percent in 1976), in reality this may
merely reflect another trend: Women are waiting longer to have
their first child. In fact, the arc of childbearing is nearly
impossible to extrapolate. Reliable birth control has only been around for some 30 years, and the idea that a woman could be "complete" sans child is still little more than a whisper in the cultural consciousness. More likely, birth rates will rise and fall cyclically for decades to come, based on factors that are economic and technological as much as cultural or philosophical.

Then, too, these factors often cut both ways. If we had a sexual
revolution in the 1970s, with birth rates at a 30-year low, we
experienced a counter-revolution in the 1980s: Public opinion changed,
the economy boomed and birth rates shot back up. Some more political
friends of mine believe that such a reversal was inevitable, given what
they darkly refer to as the "forces of pro-natalism" (a phrase that
inevitably leads me to picture a flying phalanx of supermothers,
descending on New York City in a cloud of talcum powder). These same
friends can point to the absence of childless couples on TV sitcoms and
the role of Glenn Close as the crazy childless Everywoman in "Fatal Attraction." Perhaps more significantly, they note that billions of dollars in research money has been poured into technologies that allow
infertile women to have children, while similar efforts to improve the quality and ease of birth control are, comparatively, scraping by.

For whatever reason (perhaps because I've never been a major consumer of popular culture), I never felt particularly pressured by these seemingly ubiquitous forces. Instead, in my late 20s, as the question of children became the sticking point in an otherwise happy three-year relationship, I did what any self-respecting academic would: I went to the university library and searched the card catalog for books that addressed the question of non-motherhood. It was a disappointing survey. In the end, I found only three that even sounded promising: "Motherhood: A Feminist Perspective" by Jane Price Knowles and Ellen Cole, "The Retreat from Motherhood" by
Samuel Blumenfeld and "Reconceiving Women: Separating Motherhood from
Female Identity" by Mardy Ireland.

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Lying on my bed that night, I chose "The Retreat from Motherhood" to look at first. Written in the mid '70s, it turned out to be one man's diatribe against the anti-natalist forces that were supposedly brainwashing women away from their natural inclination to make babies. Clearly alarmed, Blumenfeld went so far as to assert that "the 44,340,000 potential mothers in our country have become the target of an immense amount of propaganda urging them not to have children," and added that mothers were beginning to be regarded as "villains" and "contributors to
'people pollution' [rather] than givers of the gift of life." Would
that it were so! The idea that pro-natalist propaganda has been both ubiquitous and at a giant ideological advantage by virtue of its long-standing cultural preeminence is one that eludes Mr. Blumenfeld -- whose view is, after all, rather reductionist. (The 44,340,000 women in our country
are all potential mothers? Why not potential astrophysicists or
poets?)

Nor was the anthology "Motherhood: A Feminist Perspective" much better, despite being compiled almost 20 years later by a pair of feminist scholars. The sole chapter devoted to childlessness, written by one Anita Landa, begins: "Since I am a developmental psychologist rather than a therapist, I do not feel competent to advise clinicians on the
treatment of voluntarily childless women ..." and goes on to characterize voluntarily childless woman as "androgynous" and "atypical, but not
abnormal."

There are, of course, many reasons why these atypical women have ended
up childless. The "difficult childhood" is Landa's favored hypothesis, and she specifically cites the "death or disabling of sibling, the
institutionalization of parents, divorce, the disruption of war, the
insecurity of economic setbacks and the upheaval of major geographic
moves" as likely causes of voluntary childlessness. It is a strange list. Taken together, the first two causes point to very deep
psychological trauma indeed, while the latter four are so general as to be meaningless. Surely not all women whose families were "disrupted" by World War II went on to be child-free. And one likewise doubts that women whose families suffered "the insecurity of economic setbacks" eschewed
motherhood purely out of financial fear.

Strangely, after perpetuating any number of stereotypes herself (that
childless women are somehow mentally ill and require treatment; that they are more masculine than "normal" women and related more to their father than to their mother), Landa goes on to say that "nowhere in the literature is there evidence to support the stereotypes" about childless women. "While manhood is not defined in terms of fatherhood, the female archetypes remain bound to reproductive functions," she notes, rather obviously, and adds, "Childless women feel defensive
about the confounding of womanhood with motherhood, but they are in
continual danger of internalizing the prejudicial stereotypes."

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Alas, that this is so true. As Mardy Ireland observes in "Reconceiving Women," "It is nearly impossible to think about the adult woman who is not a mother without the spectre of 'absence.' Why?"

Why indeed? A friend once asked me whether I would feel differently
about having children if I were a man. I agreed that I would, at least in terms of my willingness to go along with the wishes of a
procreatively inclined partner. Why this is, is unclear. Certainly it goes beyond the onus of bearing children; nor does it arise purely out of what Ireland coyly calls "the limited role of the traditional father in childcare." Even assuming that I would have a husband who puts in more than his 50 percent, I can't shake a certain conviction: that if a man walks away from his role as a parent, it's considered irresponsible; if a woman does, it's unforgivable.

If acculturation is but one component of the woman-as-mother solipsism, however, it is still a broad and subtle one. That afternoon, with my own charge sleeping peacefully in the stroller, I watched a woman who looked to be in her 30s walk quickly past the scattered groups of mothers and children that had aggregated on the park's green lawn. Head down (as I imagine mine would also have been -- the guilty, eye-averting posture that one adopts when passing panhandlers, religious zealots and other groups that make one feel both embarrassed and a little fearful), she hurried along the path. To my surprise, I found myself thinking that this woman -- this woman with whom I instinctively identified --
looked lonely as she hurried by, strollerless and babyless. For the
briefest of moments I even felt sorry for her: for the fact that she would never experience the powerful open-heartedness of parenting; the great, weightless relief of dedicating so much of one's time and effort to the welfare of another being.

It was an illuminating moment, and a perplexing one. The great
stereotype about non-procreators is that they are selfish -- an odd
claim given that few people, if any, have children out of altruism. Aside from the most dogmatically religious (who see it as a duty to God)and the most dogmatically nationalist (who see it as a duty to their race), people have children because they want them, because having children has its perks: the chance to create and shape another being, to see one's genetic material continue into the indefinite future, to give one's life a larger sense of purpose. And yet, I understood. Understood how for parents this dedicating of oneself to the greater purpose of one's children can be an almost religious conviction. And how this can lead the "saved" to regard the "unsaved" with both horror and pity -- much the way I look at people who watch a lot of TV.

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And yet, the fact remains. I have tried to foresee regret, to imagine
myself old and alone, the well of my writing run dry, the companion of my life deceased. But even then the idea of children seems neither
appealing nor consoling. I cannot imagine that the monthly visits and
weekly phone calls would sustain me, nor can I abide the notion of
living vicariously: proudly informing friends or, worse, supermarket strangers, that my daughter has just gotten into an
Ivy League school, had a baby, earned a promotion. Related to this, if obliquely, is the idea of posterity. The production of a body of work has long been understood as somehow equivalent to the production of a physical body. In this sense, I suppose, I fit the stereotype: a woman who remains childless only because her creative impulse has been redirected.

And so I find myself a babysitter. At one point during my temporary appointment, my charge grows drowsy, tips its blonde head against my breast and falls asleep. A magic moment for most parents, and even for most of the progenitally inclined. For me, it is a pleasant moment. Such trust is flattering, and I appreciate the view: the open o-shaped mouth; the strangely adult posture of Baby's arms as they rest on its stomach, like the arms of a middle-aged man asleep in his recliner; the
haze of fine, babyish hair curling delicately against fine, babyish
skin. Parents, I can only assume, feel something more than this -- a rush of love, a swelling of joy, an inflation in the chest. It is an intense and arguably unique
feeling, one that rolls together several emotions of the highest order -- love of one's mate, pride in one's work, the bond with one's kin.

And yet. Even understanding this, I cannot feel that my life will be
less without children. Different, indeed. Without question. But
different as our lives will always be when we make a choice. Do we
travel to Europe or take the summer job? Do we drop out of college,
buy the house, follow the person we love to Alaska? A friend of mine
sagely observed that the decision to have children is never a wholly
rational one. But neither is the decision not to have them. Like all
important decisions, it is a mixture of rational thought, circumstance and a gut sense of what really matters. What we ask ourselves at any crossroads, if only quietly, is: What will I regret? I do not regret
not having children. I do not think I will come to regret not having children. But I cannot know. We cannot know. We can only move forward and hope that in the end we arrive at a place that suits us.


Jennifer Kahn

Jennifer Kahn is a freelance writer in Berkeley, Calif.

MORE FROM Jennifer Kahn



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