Why I'm Childfree / by Jessie Tseng

By Jenny Williamson

Jenny reading her essay at the Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty.

Jenny reading her essay at the Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty.

I don’t want to have kids because I don’t want to disappear.

Even in childhood, I couldn’t picture myself as a mother. But I remember the day it came to me clearly that having a child would mean being erased.

I was in English class, discussing a short story in which the narrator—a teenage girl—finds clips of old articles her mother wrote, buried in a closet. The mom had been a journalist before having a child. Until this moment, the daughter had never seen her mother as anything but a mom.

The professor asked us our reactions to the story. The girl sitting next to me said “that will happen to me someday,” just as I said “that’s never going to happen to me.” 

Other women in class read that story and saw the trade-offs they might have to make at some point. I saw a kind of death. I’d always wanted to be a writer too, and I couldn’t imagine anything worse than having my teenage daughter discover my old novels in a closet someday. Like discovering an old me in there, packed away and thoroughly dead, long since suffocated under the weight of other people’s needs.

And as I grew older, I saw this story play out over and over in the lives of my female friends. I can remember so many of my driven, educated, newly-pregnant friends swearing they wouldn’t let this baby derail everything else they’d worked for.

But it seems that so many of us don’t get to choose. I’ve watched brilliant, ambitious friends struggle heroically to keep their careers before eventually letting them go in favor of motherhood. And I’ve seen otherwise independent women crushed with anxiety when separated from their babies for just a few hours.

It’s always been put to me as mandatory—that having kids drastically changes your priorities and outlook, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve even heard some people put it down to hormones—your body makes you give up your old self; you don’t have a choice.

It seems to me that when you have a baby, you don’t get to choose what parts of yourself you get to keep—if you’re a woman. I am not seeing most of my male friends struggle so hard with this. There are exceptions—but by and large, it seems that in many hetero relationships, the woman’s ambitions and goals are disposable and the man’s are not.

Weirdly, I can understand it. As progressive as your politics are, sometimes it makes sense for the lesser wage earner to stay home, and that’s frequently the mom. And sometimes when your baby won’t stop crying at 4 AM, it’s easier to fall back on the gender roles you know than negotiate something new.

Now is the point where I feel the urge to reassure you. To add that I don’t hate children, and to acknowledge that some women get to live big, free, ambitious lives even as they become moms, while some men sacrifice a lot to be primary caregivers. All those things are true. But in my experience, they don’t seem to be the norm.

And I’ve always felt awkward about this urge to reassure. As if I’m agreeing that there’s something inherently wrong with how I feel, and it’s my job to make it less upsetting to others.

The truth is, like adults, children are situational for me—I like some more than others. And sure, some couples are exceptions—but it’s far likelier gender roles and hormonal changes and brutal economic reality would push me down the more well-traveled path eventually. I’d rather opt out of that fight.

If I could picture stepping into motherhood without it swallowing me completely, I might have different feelings about being a mom. But I don’t want my goals and priorities and outlook on life to change. I love my life, and I want to stay who I am. For me, that means being child-free.

Jenny Williamson is a poet and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. Her work is published in journals including 24cc, East Coast Literary Review, Burningwood Literary Journal, and Vox Poetica. Her poetry chapbook, Collection of Flaws in a Black Dress, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2016.