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To Have or Have Not

A woman uneasy about her decision not to bear children seeks validation by surveying other childless women.


"Somehow at 5, I was past childbearing age," writes the poet Molly Peacock in her recent memoir, "Paradise, Piece by Piece."

I know exactly what she means. At 13, I wrote in a class essay that I did not want to have children. If such a sentiment made me different from most girls, I didn't care.

I grafted my adolescent sensibility onto Nancy Drew, that winning detective of girls fiction. I assumed that Nancy--content to solve mysteries, pal around with her girl friends and boss around her boyfriend--had no interest in having children.

But as my 30s clocked into my 40s, a decision that had been effortless and reversible began to seem eccentric and isolating. I knew there were other intentionally childless women, but they existed on some rarefied plane--the world inhabited by Katharine Hepburn and Gloria Steinem.

In my personal life, I knew almost no woman without children who wasn't planning on children, going to extraordinary means to get children, or lamenting that she didn't have any. My six college roommates have borne--or adopted--a total of 14 children. I became accustomed to going to school reunions and being the only childless one there.

I wasn't embarrassed. I didn't feel judged. The bonds with my closest friends were forged on a deep understanding of the things that bedeviled us--careers, men, family.

Still, I wondered how I could make a choice so different from the one made by women I knew so well, women I trusted and respected and loved.

More disturbing was that some of the intentionally childless women I knew were brooding neurotics or aging princesses. I feared that I mirrored the worst of them.

"You need to find a support group for women who don't want to have children," a longtime friend--a man who happens to be a psychiatrist--suggested several years ago.

In fact, I was always looking for those women, searching for a soul mate, wondering if I was an aberration or part of some small but significant sorority.

It turns out I am both. Women who decide not to have children are increasing in number. But the choice remains unusual. It seems to defy biology, sociology, even our love of baby animals. It sets women apart.

Despite the acceptance of women in nearly every vocation--prime minister, CEO, movie director, space shuttle commander--there remains in the eyes of society something odd, off-kilter, surprising about the woman who rejects motherhood.

"I think there is this feeling that you haven't completed the circle as a woman if you don't have children," said author Susan Faludi. She finds herself, at 41, in a long-term relationship with a man and undecided about children, content for the moment to mother her two tabby cats, Hedda and Pogo.

Unlike a man, who has an almost lifelong option to father a child, a woman has a limited time to bear children. The path to that decision is as varied as the women who forge it.

As I began to approach the end of my own childbearing years, I looked for companions.

Mythology and Literary Images

Of course, there have always been childless women. Mythology depicts them as goddesses or witches. Television and movies render them as crotchety spinsters or workaholics or women pining to become wives and mothers. In 18th and 19th century literature, women characters--like their real-life counterparts--had little control over their maternal fates.

If they were young and childless, they presumed they would become wives and mothers. Otherwise, they were generally governesses, prostitutes or nuns.

While the cultural images of childless women may stagnate, the statistics have been changing. Childlessness among women ages 40 to 44, the years deemed the end of the fertility spectrum by the U.S. Census Bureau, has climbed from 10% in 1980 to 19% in 1998.

Part of the increase in childlessness is because women have the power to make a choice. Oral contraceptives have been available since 1960, and abortion has been legal since 1973.

"More and more women are getting educated and postponing their marriages and childbearing and probably finding satisfaction in their jobs rather than having babies," said U.S. Census Bureau demographer Amara Bachu, who has tracked fertility statistics for 20 years.

Bachu, herself, chose not to have children. "I always thought I could not give full attention to having kids and doing this work," she said.

Eight years ago, I interviewed Sherry Lansing, now the chairwoman and CEO of Paramount's Motion Picture Group. At the time, she was an independent film producer--and had spent several years as president of production at 20th Century Fox. Then 48, she had not only navigated her way around the land mines of Hollywood but, I suddenly realized, she had also sailed through the years without bearing children. Was that deliberate?

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