Even now, at age 64, watching my little niece try on costumes involving lace and taffeta is almost more than I can tolerate.
I made the decision to stay childless when I was 16. I’d been told that taking LSD "broke your chromosomes" and I was very definitely going to take LSD. It was my earnest conclusion that expanding my mind was going to be my life's work--it certainly looked like a better bet than becoming a parent, which had ill-suited my own mother, and hers before her. But there were environmental reasons, too. Then-recent findings on The Limits to Growth predicted a terrible shortfall between human population increase and the planet’s natural resources. At the time, the choice seemed easy. Birth control was available; the only adult woman I could remotely imagine emulating was Joni Mitchell. I can almost say, “I never looked back.”
Fortunately, I was never emotionally tested on the rationality of this decision. I never had a boyfriend who saw me as the inevitable mother of his children and, even more fortunately, I never found myself accidentally pregnant. Once, in my early fifties, I missed a few periods and my then-therapist urged me to consider the possibility of late-life motherhood, but it was just peri-menopause and anyway, I knew.
I do like children. I am not immune to their soft smells and droll remarks. I like them better than cats (which is saying something) but not as much as elephants (which seems only fair to elephants). I resented them immensely in my 30s, when they stole my best friends from me, but then those friends came back and brought with them those children who soon learned to talk and think and make the world a better place. I also have plenty of friends who made the same choice that I did, to remain <I dislike the word “childless,” as it implies a lack I don’t feel, but writing my way around it is hard.> To be fair, each of them made utterly different choices, of course. It’s just that now we are all extremely clear that those choices were for the best. I’m sure the childful feel likewise.
My last boyfriend (we parted company in 2009) often observed scenes of family life around us (in the park, at a restaurant, on the street) and whispered to me "they’re in hell!", which always made me laugh. We’d both been the standby friend or aunt/uncle often enough to see past the tastefully equipped family unit to the sticky, whiny, boredom underneath. Trips to Disneyland? Public toilets? Helping with homework? Listening to the Sound of Music on repeat on long car trips? Not for us.
Even now, at age 64, watching my little niece try on costumes involving lace and taffeta is almost more than I can tolerate. She is just having a good time; she is a happy kid. She doesn’t need to know about the patriarchy. I take deep breaths.
I say “even now,” as though patience should come easily, but let’s not pretend anything good about 2021. The only thing that’s kept me from going off on everyone in my path has been a renewed commitment to mind expansion (I have been getting fairly regular treatments with injected ketamine.) Between the no-win choices of the pandemic, the now quite tangible evidence of climate change, and the everywhere-at-once unintended consequences of industrialization, immunology, petrochemicals, disposable goods, democracy…fuck, even lawns are evil… who among us can defend her choices?
I am frankly astounded that anyone is still having babies (I saw no fewer than three round-fronted young women staggering around my neighborhood just yesterday). Their fetuses are going to have them in a far worse kind of hell sixteen years from now, when our climate has gone to extremes beyond Al Gore’s worst imaginings. “How could you?” they will snarl, “What were you thinking?” (as I know today’s teenagers are already saying to their parents). And I see now that that ire--the absolutist judgment of the angry teenager--is what most curdles my gut. She was so very, very right.
Rachel Cline's most recent novel is The Question Authority. Rachel has been a film and television writer (and production aide, and one-line actress), a content strategist, and a civil servant. She was also a fellow at Sewanee, a resident at Yaddo (twice), and a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome. She's taught writing at USC, NYU, Sarah Lawrence, and Eugene Lang. She has a BA from Oberlin College and an MFA in film from Columbia University's School of the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, a few blocks from where she grew up.
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