relationships & love sisterhood

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Selfish

by Wendy — May 18, 2012

I didn’t see it coming. “People who decide not to have kids—that’s just selfish, isn’t it?” Wide-eyed, earnest, entreating. Oh no, here we go again. I brace myself. A rhetorical question from an acquaintance who knows that I don’t have children but has somehow failed to make the connection that, well, I don’t have children. I smile politely and hope that she doesn’t belatedly come to and follow with an awkward backpedal.

It’s been a while since I’d heard the S word from someone I barely know. Almost always it’s come from friends of friends, or strangers, whose casual use of such a weighty adjective tells me that my decision not to have a baby is somehow offensive, antisocial, an affront to humanity! I’ve also long ago stopped being offended back. I’ve learned to let someone down easy when, eyebrows raised, a genuinely puzzled albeit microagressive challenge is issued: Why don’t you want kids? (To date, the best one has come from a relative who pulled me aside and whispered, “Who has the problem…you or him?”)

I’ve heard it all before. Kids are wonderful. When you see our baby you’ll want one too. You’ll regret it later on. I feel sorry for your parents. Are you and your husband OK?
So that’s why you have a dog. You can still freeze your eggs
. Who’ll take care of you when you’re old? You’re going to die alone. When I’m feeling cheeky, I look them in the eye and tell them everyone dies alone. Most of the time I nod sympathetically, even apologetically (especially with older family members), and try to offer words of comfort. I don’t think I’ve ever fired back and questioned anyone’s desire or decision to procreate. Because it’s none of my business, and it wouldn’t be polite.

Child-free people are often defined as those who decide not to have children as a negative reaction born out of fear, or misgivings, or distrust of their own abilities to nurture, or mistrust of the world at large. Some cite economics or not wanting to burden the planet. My reasons are not that complex, and no, they’re most certainly not altruistic. In any case, do my reasons matter? Does it matter whether any of us decides to have one? Or eight? Or none?

Every so often I re-watch “The Hours,” not for Nicole Kidman’s infamous prosthetic but for Julianne Moore’s suburban housewife character trapped in a perfect life that wasn’t her own choosing. (OK, spoiler alert coming up.) She abandons her children, is branded a monster, and as an old woman in the end, she says, “It would be wonderful to say that you regretted it. It would be easy. But what does it mean to regret when you have no choice? It’s what you can bear. There it is, no one’s going to forgive me. It was death…I chose life.” I cry each time over the unbearable lightness of her singular, devastating, indefensible decision to cling to her life on her own terms.

An extreme example, but it does make me wonder about the choices we make when there is no do-over. Are we all not equally weighed down by the agonizing lightness of our existence?

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