Thursday, November 20, 2008

The (baby) elephant (not) in the room

As promised at Ruchi's place, a post about not having children. (Or, rather, not planning to have children; this is not always the same thing, as a couple of my friends have found out!)

Mr E Man and I had The Talk very early on - within the first six months of our relationship. Luckily we are on the same page, for many reasons. In no particular order:
  • Being parents is incredibly hard (conclusion reached through years of observation of friends and family who are parents, and the occasional verbal verification from one of them).
  • We have enough trouble looking after ourselves (we run out of milk and bread and clean towels all the time).
  • We're selfish and like our lives the way they are (I recently told two different friends that sure, if you're going up to Whistler at short notice on a weekend, call me! 5 am, whatever! I can grab my skis, my gear and a granola bar and be ready to leave in less than an hour).
  • Kids would inevitably increase our environmental impact, no matter how hard we tried to minimize their effect (plus, I believe that the planet needs extra people like I need, um, lice, or some other non-fatal parasite. I know Ruchi disagrees... but if we ever change our minds about having kids, adoption would be our first choice).
  • We're lazy and like our sleep way too much (did I mention that we're selfish?)
  • Childcare is ridiculously expensive and hard to find in Vancouver (I know two new mothers here on postdoc work permits who may have to leave the country, because they can't find affordable childcare, and therefore can't go back to work, and therefore can't renew their status in Canada).
  • I don't want to give up sushi for 9 months (yes, this is a valid reason. One of my friends really, really struggled with the lack of sushi. No booze, no caffeine, no problem - but no raw fish? Screw that. Another argument for adoption, in my book).
  • We'd truly, honestly, rather have a boat (did I mention that we're selfish?)
Don't get me wrong - I love kids, for at least a few hours at a time. We have six young nephews and a whole bunch of young cousinoids, and regularly spend time with friends' kids. I am Auntie Cath to, let's see, about 20 children? (I love being an Auntie). And obviously some people need to keep having kids if the species is to survive, just not everyone.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way. The majority of our friends and family just seem to assume that we'll be having kids soon, given that we got married a whole year ago and all. And it's incredible (but no longer surprising) exactly how many people will try and talk us out of our decision. Sometimes this manifests itself as a simple "when?" question, and then surprise at our answer ("really? But, but, but, are you sure?") And sometimes it get much more irritating and intrusive than that.

I would never, ever, give someone a hard time for choosing to have kids. So why do so many people fail to see that not having kids is a personal choice that we've actually thought through and discussed, rather than a personal insult directed at them or their lifestyle?

For example, at Thanksgiving in October we were at my mother-in-law's house. I was sitting around the dining table with my MIL (who has 5 kids), her eldest daughter (2 kids), and my brother-in-law's hilarious (not so new) girlfriend (1 kid + 2 stepkids). Mr E Man was washing the dishes in the kitchen while the rest of us shared some wine and chatted about various benign subjects. But then, with no warning, the two younger women unleashed a shock and awe pro-kids campaign on me. (BIL's H(NSN)G told me the next day that this had been planned over drinks the night before. She also apologised and said "that was incredibly rude, wasn't it?". I concurred). They both told me that we should totally have children, and will come around to the "right" point of view soon enough. Like, after we have all those kids that we should be having! The youngest child in the family is now almost 6, and it's selfish for us not to have children when everyone so badly wants a new baby to play with! My MIL, an incredibly sweet lady who I adore, chipped in at this point with "I'd really like another granddaughter, [name] is all grown up and there are so many boys in this family".

I could sense, even from behind a half-wall, that Mr E Man was getting really pissed off. His family, his argument - so while I made polite noises about "I'm sorry but having kids isn't for us, you're really not going to change my mind", he quietly seethed for a while before snapping "not gonna happen, now leave us alone!" They did, and hopefully they won't be trying that approach again.

In a few weeks we'll be heading to the UK for Christmas. We have yet to have the "no grandchildren for you!" conversation with my parents, although my sister knows the situation. It's coming... and honesty is definitely the best policy, despite the temptation to use Mr E Man's idea of saying "that's a hard subject for us [sob], we've been trying for years and nothing works [sniffle], there's this incredible clinic in Cuba but we'd need to go for at least a couple of weeks and we can't afford it... [pleading look]"

It's not going to go down too well, I don't have a big family and my parents looooove kids. Hopefully they'll be happy to be an extra set of grandparents to my cousins' kids (the aforementioned cousinoids, who they see a couple of times a year). And I can place some hope in the following conversation, reported to me by an intrepid spy my sister a few years ago:
Dad: "When are you going to give me some grandchildren?"
Sis: "But Dad! I don't even have a boyfriend!"
Dad: "Well don't let that stop you."
Sis: "Oh, yeah, you'd love that. Anyway, why don't you go and bother Cath instead? She's at least living with someone!"
Dad: "I don't want Canadian grandchildren".

I hope that this was said for more than comic effect - but I suspect not!

Wish me luck... and please do share any of your own coping strategies!


  1. hurray for staying true to yourself cath! i am on the other end of the baby spectrum.... i desperately want to have kids and would immediately if boyfriend agreed (doesn't stop me from "joking" about "accidentally" missing my bc pill)... and while i dont get shit for that from my family- i do get it from my peers, who are, in general, anti-baby. i say- fuck everyone! why should we have to defend our choices? why cant we all just stop judging each other and mind our own business? i think its awesome that you and your hubby are on the same exact page about kids- enjoy your boat!

  2. Wanna swap friends?!

    But yes, we shouldn't have to defend our choices. It is really really hard to get people to mind their own business though!

    The boat is a long-term dream...

  3. I once told my mom that I didn't think I would ever have children, thinking maybe I'd be preparing her for something she wouldn't like. I was with my later-to-be husband, but we were not yet married (he's now deceased). My mom misunderstood me, and thinking that I was sad about my statement, tried to console me. I just left it at that, and never said anything again.

    I was fortunate not to be given any pressure by either sets of families. I have 3 siblings. Two of us didn't have kids. The other two had enough kids between them to equal 2 per each of us, and my parents are very happy and active grandparents.

    I do wish you luck, and think it really isn't anyone else's business, not even parents or siblings. And especially not "well-meaning" friends.

  4. Cath-

    I loved your post. You can't force someone to be a parent.... and we shouldn't try. I have several friends who have chosen not to have children- and that's absolutely the right thing for them.

    Stick to your guns and do what's right for you!

  5. To be fair, I just don't think population numbers by themselves is a MAJOR problem. But I do think a lot of societal factors are big problems, including the fact that people feel pressured into having children. I think it is absolutely ridiculous that people who choose not to have children are routinely harassed by family to have children. If there was less social stigma attached to being child free, you might see a lot more people making the choice to go child free, and population would cease to be such a major issue.

  6. I am with you on all of your reasons to not have children. I'm conflicted about it though, so I'm still unsure about whether I want it to happen. We shall see - fortunately, not too much pressure from anyone yet!

    Good luck. Funny how your uterus becomes everyone else's bidness once you get married.

  7. I tried the pathetic, sniffle approach once. It worked really well, but I felt so guilty about lying! I never thought of the Cuba angle, though.

  8. OMG Cath, what did you get yourself into... this is not something that people like to discuss, at least this is what I learned a long time ago. It's the closest thing to discussing religion that I have found so far.
    I used to give the same reasons that you are describing, to no use. Now I simply say " 'cause ", and if people keep asking "but, why ?" I walk.

  9. I really like the way you and Mr E man discussed this early on. So important to be on the same page - especially with everyone else ranting on around you.

  10. I am totally with you on this. I've had similar discussions so many times and they always end with me feeling extremely irritated. I don't understand why anyone (especially someone who is a parent) would want someone else to have kids because they were pressured into it. If someone doesn't want children, that is their choice and they probably shouldn't have children if they feel that way. You should have kids because you want them.
    For me, the jury is still out. I am just now at a point in my life where I feel I can even consider having children, so I need more time to think about it.
    I am not too fond of babies, so I wouldn't mind adopting a slightly older child.

  11. You totally HAVE to have children! Only b/c then I won't be jealous of you being a DINK. haha. All joking aside, I get your reasons for not wanting kids. They are the reasons why I personally was torn and still sometimes wonder about my choice - until the monkey comes running in to say mommeeee, with a huge smile

    Having children is a huge huge commitment, one that you shouldn't jump into without alot of thought. Bravo to you for making the best choice for you.

  12. Oh and the no sushi for 10 months was utter and complete HELL. BIL#2 was told that he was not allowed to come to the hospital to see his new nephew w/o sushi. It was monday and most sushi places are closed on mondays so he had to drive from work (downtown) out to the burbs (past the port mann) to find a place that was open and then drive back to the hospital that was just outside of downtown. He's a very good BIL

  13. well, I wasn't ready for it, but accidents happen and now I want another but probably won't get it(unless I become a millionaire... :-). But I don't really give a rats ass about other people kids (but I'm good at pretending).

    Stick to your ideas and ideals and tell others to /&%# off if they don't leave you alone!

  14. Good post. The main thing about having children is you can't send them back. Lovely as they are (and mine are) you are limited from fulfilling your potential in many ways - or you just ignore them and let someone else look after them while you do your own thing, in which case why have them.
    Just do what you want to do and resist all efforts to persuade you otherwise. (Good advice for any aspect of life!).
    When one is pregnant, everyone makes a big fuss of you - friends, family, health people etc. The instant you have the baby, you disappear.
    I made a positive choice to have my children, and I am very glad I did, but I wasn't romantic about what the deal would be. By the time they grow up and leave, you are probably too tired (and broke) to do all the things you didn't do because you had them. And all those job opportunities in foreign lands that you or your partner had at inconveniently different times.... etc.

  15. It's interesting this child thing... especially in regards to being married. and/Or being over 30.

    The last couple of months I've heard, more often than before, "Why don't you have children?" and "Have you chosen your career over children" when the actual truth is that I think about children all the time.

    If I'd met my significant other when I was younger I am quite sure I would have kids now. But as we all know, it's not always possible to plan who to meet and when.

    And I've found that there are some women around me who want kids (just a child) wheras I would place myself in the category "I want a child with the one I love"... small difference but still, an important one for me.

    And yes, the fear factor - the thgohuts about practical things like child care costs, work visa (as a post doc on a visa I can't really get pregnant unless I find a rich man) and future costs... it is a bit much.

    That said, I admire you to be so calm with your inlaws. And I wish you good luck with the talk with your parents. I'm an only child, far far away from mine and I don't think it will go over good at all, if it turns to no children... (although at the moment I am more pro children than against) so I am not talking about it. (Then I am not married so the talk is still a few months away, right?!)

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  17. I guess I could've said it shorter like this; if I'd been married(couple) as an undergrad/grad I'd had children easy and then moved on to trying life with children as a post doc or something like it.

    Since I didn't find that Man to conceive with at the time, I'm now over 30 and childless. Although I am in a foreign country and doing a post doc. Futurewise, I don't know. It all depends on that "other person" and staying in a couple.

    shorter. clearer. easier?

  18. I tell you, I have the exact same thing happen to me all the time. I think my favorite comment is when people tell me "Oh, well you'll change your mind in a few years" Like this is some flippant descision I have made about a hairstyle or buying a new car! Go Cath, go!

  19. Wow, a whole load of comments while I was at my conference yesterday! Apparently this issue is even more important than the whole Mac-PC thing. Thank you to everyone who has commented!

    Silver Fox, if my sister had kids, things would be easier, but if she does decide to have kids it probably won't be for a while, given that she's only been seeing her boyfriend for a few months. Mind you, a gaggle of other children isn't preventing my in-laws from interfering...

    DrDrA, thank you for your comment and for being one of the "good guys" amongst the parents!

    Ruchi, sorry that I misrepresented you - I guess we're just at different positions on the same spectrum! I like that you used the term "child free", it sounds so much better than "childless". -less always sounds like you're missing something that you'd actually like to have. I sometimes use "god-free" instead of "godless", but people tend to mishear me and say "Godfrey who?".

    Phizzle, glad to hear you're not facing any pressure - that should help you to make the right decision for you! I hope people continue to give you space!

    Mermaid, that route is just soooooo tempting. I'd feel too bad though, knowing that I have some very good friends who are struggling to conceive for real, it wouldn't be fair to pretend to have the same problem just to get people to back off. Plus then I'd have all the extra problems of people giving advice about vitamins and "you shouldn't be drinking that wine / eating that sushi you know".

    Massimo, apparently people do want to talk about this - lots of comments! But yeah, real life is different. I don't reel off my full list of reasons to people who start getting intrusive - well maybe one or two. We usually try to deflect the onslaught with somewhat silly answers like "we got the cats so we wouldn't need to have kids", or "we'd rather have a boat"...

    I think it's good to get this discussion going - like Ruchi said, societal pressure to have kids is a problem for many reasons, and maybe having these conversations in public will help to create a little bit of wriggle room for other child-free people!

    Anon, thanks - you'd think it would be common sense, but a failure to discuss these basic issues before marriage is probably the cause of many a divorce!

    MXX, I wish you luck in your own decision - I hope you are able to make it based just on you and your partner, not on outside parties! And yeah, tiny babies scare me, I always think I'm going to break them. I refuse to hold a baby until it can support its own neck. Plus kids are more fun when they're talking. I have a friend who loves babies but doesn't like the talk-back - so we once jokingly said that she could have a baby, hand it over to me when it started to talk, and we'd flip a coin for the teenage years, which no-one really wants, right?!

    SM, I'm sure your cute little monkey boy makes up for any lingering doubts. And your BIL sounds awesome!

    HGG, I love your comment about other people's kids! I know a few parents who say the same thing - "I don't like other kids, just mine!". Oh, and yeah, if an accident happens then we will just say bye-bye to the boat dream and do the best we can... but accident prevention is high on our list of priorities!

    Maxine, thanks! Your comment echoes some things my parents have said in their more honest moments... about how they would have liked to travel more, or how my Mum might have made it to deputy headmistress if she hadn't taken 7 years off to stay home with us until we were both in school. But they (usually) end with "but we wouldn't change anything"!

    Interesting what you said about people disappearing. Last weekend I was out with a friend who has a 9 month old boy, and I reminded her that I'd told her when he was born that I'd be happy to babysit as soon as he could support his own neck. "You know I was serious about that, right?" I said. She replied that she didn't want to impose, thought I was just being nice, etc. So I told her to choose a date and let me know (pending a baby tutorial of course). She still hasn't called... I will have to keep badgering her. Of course it's possible that my comments about neck support have scared her off letting me anywhere near her son!

    Chall, sounds tough... I hope you find a way to make it work for you. Being in a foreign country really does add extra complications - see my comment about Vancouver childcare... tonight I am going to a leaving party for a friend who is going back to Ontario for the same reason, in Ontario they will have two sets of grandparents close by and can actually afford to buy a house. I'm really sad that they're leaving, it really sucks.

    Dr Zeek, welcome! That comment is all too familiar - my internal response is "yes I have thought about this! A lot! Now go away". Sometimes I wish I wasn't so polite.

  20. I don't know why people insist on telling others what to do; our choices may differ but your choice is as valid as mine, and that's all there is to it.

    Good luck talking to your parents though - all I am telling parents/in-laws/etc. is "later," and apparently that just means they have to ask me the same thing the following day again. Not sure what would happen if I tried to say "never"!

  21. At least you don't get hassled about why you aren't married and you aren't getting any younger etc. That was my grandmother mostly - some of us got little booklets on relationships in our Christmas presents!

    The poor thing died before any of us got married and never did see any great-grandchildren. I think it made her feel inferior to her sisters. And yes. I did get married and we did decide to have 2 children but it was totally our decision. My sister went the other way and has none.

    viv in nz

  22. ScienceGirl, you're right, there shouldn't be any more to it than that! Too bad the world doesn't work that way. "Later" will work well for you until you have finished your PhD at the very least!

    KK, relationship booklets - that is pretty funny! My sister was single for a very long time (now dating a guy who I haven't met yet), and used to get a lot of hassle from various friends and neighbours of my parents. One guy in particular just wouldn't leave her alone - constant comments along the lines of "but what are you doing to try to meet someone? You're clearly doing something wrong", if you can believe that.

  23. Hi,

    It took a while for us to have kids, not because we did not want them, but because we could not support them. Even with a clear cut argument, the pressure kept piling up. We developed a standard answer, which was to say "we will see about that, who knows what the future will bring?" And that was that - no corners to probe anymore. Bared fangs and dark looks also helped :)

  24. SeaSalt, I like that answer - maybe I'll give it a try!

  25. Hi Cath; sorry for commenting late but I just want to thank you for stating your reasoning on this child vs. no child matter. We're debating and it is soooo good to read other people's thoughts.
    Now I would just like some of the people with children to set up six bullet points of advantages instead of just the one "then they smile and you forget all the hardship"... NOT encouraging enough! :)

  26. LOL - yeah that never really did it for me either! Like I say, nephews and nieces and other kids that belong to other people are ideal, because as soon as they stop smiling and the hardship begins, you can give them back.

    Good luck in navigating your own decision. It's tough, isn't it?

  27. Thanks Cath and yes, it is a tough decision. And I'm afraid that even if we do decide to have a kid, the nagging won't stop there: "So when are you having the next one?"
    What I find strange about these questions (whether it is wedding, kids, degrees, 'proper' jobs, buying a house, returning back to the home country etc. ) is that the assumption is always 'when' never 'if'... which leaves you to defend it if making life choices that are out of the norm. Nobody ever asks "So how long do you plan to stay married/ keep this stable job/live in that newly bought house?" although the first round of questions are just as personal and controversial as this last batch..

  28. It's like in the first Bridget Jones book, when she keeps wanting to reply to the question "how's your love life?" with "fine, how's your marriage holding up these days?"


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