In my favorite picture of me as a child, I’m standing on my big sister’s Big Wheel. I couldn’t ride it, yet, because my legs were too short to reach the pedals, but I knew it was meant for me.
Once my toes could reach just well enough to turn the enormous front wheel, that toy and I were bonded until I was too big for it.
I know it’s easy – convenient – to assign any chosen value to things in your past based on what you know of yourself in the present, but I can’t help thinking that car represented independence. That even as a little girl, I wanted freedom. Options. Choices.
The kinds of things it made me feel sick to imagine losing when, at 20, the man I’d married at 19 started talking about having “a family.”
When I met him, he was in the Army and stationed not far from where I lived in Germany. He’d walked into the bar when it was still pretty empty, so he was easy to notice. I didn’t like GIs, as we called them, as a rule, but his hair was different, a little longer in the bangs area, so how bad could he be?
We both liked to drink, the way some almost-adults often do, and there was a lot of partying: hanging out in the barracks with his friends, listening to loud music with the door to his room left open so anyone could drop in, weekend nights spent downtown at one or more bars. He never gave a hint of interest in our life being anything other than what we did and who we were.
We got married within a year and moved to his next post in upstate New York.
A year after that, kids started easing their way into his side of some conversations–“When we have kids…” this, “Our kids will be…” that.
He was a nice person, really (and I’m sure he still is – now with a different wife and two children), but once the expectation of children came to live with us in our Army post housing unit, he started to look less like a nice guy and more like a Husband with Expectations Destined to Bury Me in a Hole of Immeasurable Depth and Endless Despair.
He’d become a threat. The enemy.
Naturally, everything he did started to aggravate me. And I do mean everything. For example, one afternoon after a day of bagging groceries at the post commissary, I drove home and opened the front door to him standing in the entry, presenting a small vase of delicate purple wildflowers he’d clearly picked. They were a happy tangle in a little vase we kept on a shelf in the living room.
Instead of being touched, instead of even faking being touched, I gave no thought to his sweet gesture or his feelings when I scowled at the flowers and told him the vase wasn’t supposed to be used; it was decorative.
I was a nightmare.
I couldn’t help it. His desire for children, what I perceived as a demand on the rest of my life, tainted every boyish smile he gave, every hug he pulled me into, every flip of meat on the grill. In any talk about a future family, I’d mutter, “Well, not now, but maybe later,” at the same time hating him for what he represented.
Whenever our eyes met, I knew we were seeing two completely different relationships.
I also knew the problem was mine, not his.
After all, everyone else had or wanted kids. They were all going the same direction. There had to be something wrong with me if I didn’t want to join in, but even that–the feeling that I was supposed to join them–angered me, inflating me with the hot, defiant refrain of every good teenage rebel: “You [parent, guardian, society] can’t tell me how to live my life!”
No one likes being trapped under a thumb, whatever form the thumb takes.
I was happiest away from my marital home and loved going to work every day at the commissary. There, I wasn’t a wife; I was a bagger. Filling bags was a game of real-life Tetris (cans on bottom boxes on top fit to the paper bag cleaning and frozen separate arrange on bagger cart fit into trunk [receive tip] repeat).
Aside from the families with children who came through the lines, none of whom I gave much thought beyond, “No, thanks,” nothing about work had anything to do with parenthood. In fact, because I’d been bagging groceries since I was fourteen, it suspended me in a state of non-adulthood and whatever adulthood was supposed to mean for a
woman wife woman.
But each day would inevitably end, and I’d have to drive two miles home, park in the driveway, and walk in the door to an apartment where a man who wanted children would be waiting.
He didn’t bring it up daily, or even weekly, but it was there, a humming tension underlying all we did together. When the hum would reach a screeching point and he’d lightly (to him – lead heavy to me) bring it up, I’d ignore the dread flutter in my chest and say, “Are you sure?” and “Not quite yet, but maybe we can talk about it next year,” always convinced that I couldn’t possibly be right about my desire to not ever have a child.
I was afraid to be certain. It would mean accepting I was different in the wrong way, I thought, from everyone else.
But that ended the winter day I met the most important and most memorable stranger in my life, and it was in the commissary parking lot.
I was trailing my full bagger’s cart behind a woman who was leading me to her car. The small talk started the regular way, with the customer asking questions. “How do you like the job?” “How long have you lived on post?” “Are you in the military?” (No.) “Your parents live here?” (No. Married.) “How long have you been married?” “Do you have kids?”
“No,” I said. “No kids.”
As she watched me fit the last of her groceries into her trunk, she said, “Do you want them?”
I almost sighed. I knew if I said, “I don’t think so,” she would say, as they all did, “Oh, you’re still young/You’ll change your mind/You think that now/You’re clueless now, but someday you’ll want kids, and that will mean you’re finally self-aware,” etc.
Maybe it was the weather. It was extra cold, and the salt and snow in the lot made pushing the cart a challenge. Or maybe I’d gotten sick of cowering behind words like “Maybe” and phrases like “We’ll talk about it later.”
Maybe I just wanted to finally fight about it, but with someone who meant nothing to me and who I’d never see again.
“No,” I said. “I don’t want kids.” My resolve ended there. I added, quickly, “I know, I know. I’m only twenty, so–“
“Not at all,” she said. “Good for you.” She handed me a three-dollar tip. “Stay strong. Don’t let them make you change your mind.”
She offered a kind smile and got in her car.
I walked back toward the commissary, the cart’s hard wheels bumping over road salt behind me, but it felt more like cart and I both were gliding on smooth ice.
Good for you, she’d said. So, I wasn’t a bad person.
Stay strong, she’d said. So, whatever I was feeling was apparently something that required strength. Something uncommon, something people would question and judge. But that didn’t mean it was wrong, only that it might not always be easy.
Don’t let them make you change your mind, she’d said.
Or, don’t cave in defeat.
The next time children came up with my (then) husband, instead of maybe-possibly-later-ing my way through the conversation, I said, “I don’t think I’ll ever want children.” (It was a start.)
“Well, okay,” he said, “but maybe in a year or–?”
“I don’t ever want kids,” I blurted.
The triumphant spirit music of mythical gods swirled around my head.
I had never known this particular freedom. It’s the kind that can only be known when there’s been a cage. The confinement of the possibility of children had been worse than any grounding, any impatience as a teenager longing for adult independence, worse even than the few hours I’d spent in a jail cell after getting caught, just two months shy of twenty-one, sipping beer in a bar.
“Definitely?” he said. “Never?”
Sitting beside him on the couch, my hands tucked between my knees, I said yes, definitely never.
A few months later, we were on our way to a divorce, each of us moving toward the different futures we’d both been imagining – or hoping for – when we would look at each other in our little military home unit.
One woman, a stranger buying groceries, with just sixteen words gave me the resolve I needed to stand still in the rush of a thundering herd.
It’s strange to think that that’s all it takes, sometimes–a single person, a brief encounter, just enough to confirm “different” doesn’t mean “wrong.”
Has anything like that ever happened to you? I’d love to read your stories in the comments.
And if you want to be that person for someone else, do it! If they need more than one person’s support, they might enjoy Comfort Food for Thought, a little book the three of us at CFG put together that we hope can make a critical difference to someone feeling pressured or insecure about their desire to have a life without children.
Kristen Tsetsi (AKA childfree blogger Sylvia D. Lucas) is a former journalist and the author of the childfree-focused novel The Age of the Child, the semi-autobiographical Pretty Much True, and, under the name Chris Jane, the novel The Year of Dan Palace. Her website is KristenJTsetsi.com.