“At 40, I’m still constantly told I will change my mind about not wanting children.”
I recently watched a viral video of Chelsea Handler clapping back at conservative commentators Tucker Carlson and Jesse Kelly after they criticized her decision not to have children. In it, she laughs about her successful career, six bestselling books and Netflix comedy special, while reveling in the fact that we as women can do whatever we want to do, children or no children.
But as I listened to Carlson and Kelly disparage Handler’s choice, I wondered if that was true. Sure, she is wealthy and successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, but she still has to listen to the likes of Kelly comparing her womb to “a dried-up tumbleweed blowing down an Old Western town.”
I understood once and for all that choosing not to have children — for Handler and for me — meant that for the rest of our lives, we’d have to defend our decision not to fulfill capitalism’s antiquated idea of our biological destiny.
Writer Adrienne Rich provided a grave distinction between two meanings of motherhood: “the potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children” on the one hand, and to “the institution, which aims at ensuring that that potential — and all women — shall remain under male control” on the other.
“Patriarchal motherhood” is the idea that all women want to be mothers, and that motherhood is how women find their joy and purpose. But what if some of us don’t?
In the 1990s, I took a high school elective called Parenting and Familial Systems. I don’t recall anything about the class except the plastic babies we had to take home for the weekend. This was supposed to prepare us for motherhood and help us understand what to expect when we married our high school sweethearts approximately two years after college.
“To stop it from crying, stick the key in its back,” said Mrs. L, demonstrating on a waxy infant I knew was meant to be a boy because of its fuzzy blue onesie. “But try to soothe it first, and understand what it needs.”
We left eighth period that day with our babies in tow, praying we’d gotten one that wasn’t programmed to cry too much. I managed to make it all the way home without a peep from the baby. Lucky me, I thought.
The first time my plastic baby cried, I was fooling around with my boyfriend.
“Shut that thing up!” he half-laughed, out of breath. I rolled my eyes. I didn’t need any kind of maternal instinct to know that yelling at the baby to shut up wouldn’t stop its wailing.
The baby continued to cry.
“Now what?” My boyfriend said while hovering over me, angry as though we were the actual parents of this fake baby. Was this what it would be like to raise a child? Would the creature cry while whatever man I chose to be its father asked ridiculous questions and offered no help?
“I don’t know, dude, I’m not a mom.” I matched his frustration.
“Good thing, too. Maybe you shouldn’t be one. Like ever.”
It felt as if he had just slapped me. He was only 17, but his words carried the weight of a hundred-pound anvil. That was the first time I wondered if I should be a mother. And if I shouldn’t, what would that mean for my future? Could I find success and happiness without children?
My ambivalence haunted me throughout my 20s and 30s as I waited for an alarm to go off, hoping my biological clock would ring loud enough so I could hear it.
I constantly thought: When was I supposed to want a child? And what happened if I never did?
Drunk at a friend’s wedding, I jokingly slurred to my husband, Steve, that we should start trying to get pregnant, as I swayed back and forth on the dance floor to some ’90s hit. We were 28. Married for one year but dating for nine, we’d always said that we’d have children if and when we decided we wanted to. But so far, there was nothing pushing us toward baby making.
That night, I decided to test the waters of my marriage by demanding that we conceive. “We should have a baby now,” I said to Steve, balancing on one heel. “Like tonight.”
Steve stared at me, partially smiling but also worried, unsure if I was serious. When he realized I was, “no way” was his response.
Rage filled my body as he stood there taking long swigs of a Miller Lite. At that moment, I wanted to punch him. We should want kids, right? That’s what you’re supposed to do when you love someone and build a life with them, isn’t it? I was mad at his hesitation even though I had been hesitating too. I wanted him to want a baby with me even if I wasn’t so sure that I wanted one myself.
Every so often I would mention a baby name out of the blue and Steve would get quiet. His silence infuriated me. The conversation continued like this for years — Steve assuring me that we could have a baby if we really wanted one, and me feeling unsure that it made sense but angry anyway when Steve didn’t jump at the chance.
About three years after that wedding, something shifted for both of us. Perhaps it was because we were more settled into our careers and lives, including a move to New York City, which bought us some time to decide what we wanted. We had a respectable amount in our savings and retirement accounts, and we said, what the hell, let’s try. Or maybe we just didn’t want to regret anything when sitting alone in a nursing home decades later, with no kids to take care of us or feed us applesauce.
So, we decided to just see what happened. There was no real memorable conversation attached to this choice. It almost felt like we were both throwing in the towel. It was simple. All of a sudden, the voice in the back of my head convinced me that I was doing it all wrong. I should definitely want a child, and we needed to start trying now.
Once we decided to give the whole kid thing a go, we moved quickly. “Should we just let ’er rip?” Steve asked, and we laughed at the idea of planning to have sex. The first night we got into bed, sex felt awkward, robotic. Over the next few months, I worried because nothing happened. Every time I took a pregnancy test, I saw the single blue line staring back at me. Negative. I began to wonder if this was a sign from the universe that maybe we weren’t meant to be parents after all.
That is, until I finally saw the word “PREGNANT” blink on the stick I held between my fingers, and I felt anxiety surge through my body. I took all three pregnancy tests in the box at different times. There was the initial test, after a champagne-laced afternoon of hanging with friends. Positive. Then immediately afterward I took it again. In my right hand I held my phone, Googling “false positives” and coming up with hundreds of message boards telling me they were possible but not likely. The second pregnancy test was positive, too.
I called Steve at work. “Are you by yourself?” I asked, my voice shaking. Before he could answer, I blurted out that I had taken two pregnancy tests. One after the other. Both positive. He took a loud, deep breath that echoed in my ear.
Was he happy?
“We need to go to the emergency room. Something isn’t right,” I said, standing in the doorway of our bathroom three weeks later.
I don’t remember anything after that until I was at the hospital in a paper gown. With a reassuring voice, the doctor said, “Sometimes bleeding happens during pregnancy.” Everything was all right. I was just overreacting. So, Steve and I took an Uber back across the Queensboro Bridge.
A few days later. More bleeding. More doctors. More exams. More ultrasounds. This time, I’d miscarried.
After my miscarriage, I no longer felt excited about having a baby. My friends continued to get pregnant, and I would try on the role of mother just for a moment to see how it looked on me. But I couldn’t conjure an image of myself as the permanent version.
One afternoon, Sarah asked me to babysit when her child, Ellie, was just a few months old, so I made my way to her Brooklyn apartment on that humid June day. I hadn’t taken care of a baby in years. Would I remember how to change a diaper? What would I do if she cried? I felt a pang of nervousness wash over me.
But four floors up in Brooklyn, alone with Ellie as she snoozed peacefully in her swing, I stared at her beautiful, milky skin, her blush cheeks, her chest moving up and down, and I wondered: Did I make the right decision?
The dull ache I felt eventually turned into a sharp pang of guilt, shame and sadness. I was never going to have a baby.
It took me 30 seconds to realize I was crying. It took me another 10 seconds to realize I was crying into Ellie’s head. And then I was sobbing.
I cried for myself and the decisions I had to make. I cried for Jennifer Aniston, Tracee Ellis Ross, Oprah and all the women who had to make the decision, for whatever reason, not to mother too. The uncertainty of whether to become a mother is a carousel that never seems to stop. At 40, I’m still constantly told I will change my mind about not wanting children.
But more recently, with Handler, other A-list celebs and a gaggle of MomTok influencers speaking out about their decisions not to have children, I’ve grown more comfortable with my choice. Aniston told Allure last year that she has too. Now in her 50s, she said she finally has zero regrets.
The women paving the way for all women to choose the life that best suits them are pioneers. They are opting out, pushing back against the prison of the patriarchy. And like any rebellion, those who are entrenched in upholding the power structures, those like Carlson and Kelly, will fight it.
Let them fight. I no longer feel the need to defend myself. I no longer feel the need to explain. I no longer feel the need to prove to the haters ― and the rest of the world — that the choices I make for and about my body are valid. Instead, I take Handler’s words as a prayer — that we as women can do whatever we want to do, children or no children.
There’s no one path to happiness and fulfillment. Some people may have known the minute they stuck their key in a plastic baby in high school that they wanted to be parents. And others, like me, stared into the doll’s shiny face and felt unsure.