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  • Why We Don’t Have Children
  • Tarn Wilson (bio)

Waiting in the cluttered lobby of my car repair shop, I chat with the man across from me on the faux leather couch. He’s a round, red-faced, happy grandfather of sixteen grandchildren. We exchange the typical pleasantries of Silicon Valley, comments on the weather and the crazy housing prices, our conversation natural and lilting, until he asks the question—the conversation-stopping one I’ve been asked hundreds of times since I hit my fertile years.

“Do you have children?”

“No,” I answer.

In most casual talk with a near stranger—“Do you like horror movies?” “Are you a football fan?”—a simple yes or no answer is too curt. Social niceties require at least a line or two of explanation, something light and charming—or surprisingly honest, a revelation that creates a sudden intimacy, but doesn’t burden the listener.

But I don’t know what to say, so I don’t elaborate.

As usual, he shifts in his seat. Looks to the ceiling and then over my shoulder.

Sometimes I think the questioners fear they’ve been rude: they imagine the fertility treatments, the miscarriages, the fumbled adoption [End Page 19] attempts, a failed marriage, a single life I didn’t choose, the child we lost too young. Other times they seem intensely curious, as if they have to will themselves not to ask why. Do I dislike children? Am I too devoted to my career? Does my partner have children from another marriage and won’t agree to more?

Finally, the grandfather says, “That’s okay.”

He’s of a smaller group, the ones who feel sad for me. He uses the same tone he’d use comforting his grandson after he’d just lost the game for his baseball team. It means, “This loss is hard, it wasn’t my first choice for you, but you will be all right.”

I don’t elaborate because, truth is, I’m not sure why I don’t have children. I have only guesses, stories I’ve told myself over the years. And I don’t think I’m alone in my bewilderment. A recent Time Magazine article on childless couples cites a Pew study: one in ten women in the 1970s didn’t give birth in their lifetimes; now that number is one in five. Many of these women have straightforward explanations. For the rest of us, the reasons are often complex and murky, even to ourselves. So I’m going to try and sort them out, poking around in biology and sociology and psychology, stabbing at religion, peering into my past, sharing secrets I’ve never told.

We’re in denial.

When I was a teenager in the ’80s, I saw a character in a movie wearing a T-shirt with “I can’t believe I forgot to have children” plastered across her perfect breasts. I remember nothing else from the movie but that shirt, which lodged itself in my mind as something important. Sometime later, when I was in my early twenties, I read a book—which I have also forgotten—in which the author warned of a new trend: women who didn’t believe they were aging, who imagined they had infinite time, who surprised themselves by arriving, suddenly, at expensive fertility treatments. Even with the early siren sound, I too have been fooled. Now I teeter on the far edge of my fertility, which means, unless I want to adopt or spend a fortune, I’ve made my choice by not making a choice. [End Page 20]

What has caused this mass amnesia? Women are entering challenging careers that take years to establish. We live so much longer, we can’t imagine we’d lose our chance to have children not even halfway through our journey. We see media images of women luscious and fertile-looking into their late years. We want to wait to have children until we have time, money, and settled love, none of which come easily. We are busy plowing the fields of our lives, trudging steadily; we lift our heads for a pause, for a glimpse of the...


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pp. 19-38
Launched on MUSE
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