My name is Annie Em, I’m 45 years old, and I do not have children: never had, and never will.
This fact is no longer the issue is was in my 20s and 30s when I was asked repeatedly by both family members and strangers about my plans to “start a family” (as if it were like making bread). I usually brushed off their questions and looks of concerns with comments that were either sarcastic (to friends/family) or lighthearted (to strangers) and moved on.
Rebecca Traister of Salon.com has a recent posting about celebrity cook Rachel Ray who responded to that question on Nightline with a detailed and reasonable response (one I could have used 10 years ago). The reporter chose to ignore Ray’s response in order to hit her with the emotional zinger posed as a question: “Do you think you’re missing something?” Ray, who obviously has self control much more powerful than I do, said, “I don’t feel like I am. I really don’t” and changed the subject.
Reading that posting reminded me of two books that I purchased about 10 years ago, obviously in need of some support on the issue. I’m curious about how they will “read” now, when I reread them this summer:
- Laurie Lisle’s Without Child: Challenging the Stigma of Childlessness (Routledge, 1999)
- Rochelle Ratner, Ed. Bearing Life: Women’s Writings on Childlessness (Feminist Press, 2001)
I’m sure there are more recent books on the subject, but these two I bought and kept (through at least 3 moves, so that’s a big deal). The first book is pristine, not really a good sign since that means I didn’t feel the urge to take notes; but the second book is filled with notes, especially on the selections by Julia Alvarez, Margaret Atwood, Sandra Cisneros, Joyce Carol Oates, May Sarton, Grace Paley, Valerie Miner—this list of talented but “childless” women alone must have soothed me at the time.
Of course, I do have a husband and he fathered two children, which sort of let me off the hook to a large extent. Not that I had anything to do with raising them…
Last week I met with my students for individual conferences to discuss the drafts of their final researched essays. Of course, the conferences are sometimes emotional: it’s getting toward the end of the quarter and students are stressed. But during the conference in my very humble office, they see me in my natural habitat (books and papers everywhere, coffee mugs and water bottles scattered about, pictures of my cats, my Rosie the Riveter bobble head doll, and my box of tissues, strategically placed), and often their defenses go down as they see me as approachable and just a little less intimidating (not that I think I’m intimidating at all, but despite an easy smile, I often speak perhaps a bit too bluntly, as one friend kindly put it to me years ago).
This week there were few emotional breakdowns, but some shared confidences and some brave souls ventured a few personal questions, including the ones I haven’t heard in years: Do you have children? And then, Why not (though they usually try to phrase it in a less “blunt” manner)? But this time, instead of the student attempting to hide his or her pity while they nod at my explanation (see Rachel Ray’s interview for what I could have said), this time, the student sighed in utter relief that she had found someone who was perfectly (unless you see this posting as a crack in that perfection) happy with her decision not to have (or adopt) children. We had a pleasant conversation about the decision she herself had made despite much more external pressure than I got. She found someone who she could talk to and I rediscovered that although I am very sure I made the right decision, the nagging doubt doesn’t really, ever, go away.
I’d love to hear what Rachel Ray says in another 10 years when the next annoying interviewer asks her the question: Do you think you missed anything?