The ‘Everybody Must Procreate’ Myth: Freeing Myself From the Societal Imposition of Motherhood

Lately, I’ve been thinking some unhelpful thoughts about the future that rob my mind from experiencing joy in the present moment without distraction. Thoughts that lead me to feel guilty about things that I can do “because I don’t have kids.” For example, I set my alarm many a Friday night to a leisurely waking hour that some folks with toddlers can only dream about. I feel guilty over having time to myself-some might call it ‘me-time,’ but I think that denotes selfishness instead of recognizing our own individual needs for renewal. This is free time that I get to choose how to spend. Time to workout for as long as I’d like, read for pleasure, or simply sit by candlelight in quiet meditation before going to bed. All of this is self-inflicted guilt because I believe I fall into the whole “oh-she-doesn’t-really-get-it-yet-because-she-doesn’t-have-kids” category. I think about the myriad of things my parents did for me and my two siblings; things I cannot even remember, like the hundreds of smelly diapers they changed, or all the times they were patient and forgiving towards me when I threw temper tantrums. And while I’ve been getting better at turning my guilt over these things into expressing gratitude for my parents’ dedication and love, I still get caught feeling like I might be selfish if I don’t do the same for future offspring one day, as though my entire worth as a human being is dictated by whether or not I chose to “selflessly” procreate.

I’ve always intended to have children one day, that is, through the means of adoption. I never was interested in having children biologically, though I’m grateful that there are women who choose to do so, giving the precious gift of life to another human being. Adoption can slow population growth, thus preserving our Earth’s precious resources. It can provide loving parents to one of the 132 million orphaned children on this planet. Additionally, the cost of adoption is not nearly what most might think, with adoptions ranging from $0-$2,500 in US foster care systems, $5,000-$40,000 in private agencies, and $7,000-$30,000 internationally.  Conversely, average costs for a vaginal delivery are $18,329 and $27,866 for a C-section. Despite my research, I’ve been criticized by some for my interest, and was even told surly, “That won’t REALLY be your child!” by someone close to me. I remain undismayed by this, knowing firmly that an adopted child is every bit as much MY child— yes, the kind of child you see on stage or in the pool and want to stand up for all to see, shouting, “That’s MY kid!” Beaming, overflowing with pride. Pride because I’ve dreamed of this child for so long, wondering in which country s/he would be born. Pride because I’ve wanted you, imagined you, and—if I decide to follow through with this desire– will one day treasure you as my very own child. So when asked if I want to have kids, my response is usually: I want to adopt one day, but the age that I wish to adopt gets a little bit later every year as time moves forward while my desire for motherhood halts.

And so, when I see pictures of my friends’ babies on Facebook, or see frazzled parents running to practices and meetings all over town, I lie in bed at night, wondering if that’s my same fate. I see women with pregnant bellies and am grateful that they would be so giving as to spend nine months, sometimes in discomfort, to give someone the opportunity to experience the incredible gift of life. Though I’ve never been pregnant, I contend that we, as a society, are sometimes inattentive on how to treat a woman who is pregnant. I’ve seen people excessively stare at a woman’s belly instead of make direct eye contact with her face. I’ve seen people lose interest in a woman’s personhood, ceasing to ask questions about the woman and her life, instead solely talking about her embryo, as if they choose to now view her exclusively through the identity of mother, instead of a mother AND a person. I imagine myself pregnant and cringe. Some months, I experience dysmenorrhea so intensely, that one time, I had to lock myself in the bathroom at work to lay down on the dirty floor in privacy to relieve severe menstrual cramps, as lying completely flat and popping round-the-clock ibuprofen are my only anodyne. Given my experiences with just having a monthly period, pregnancy sounds like a nightmare that you can’t wake up from until you’ve given birth…and then, there’s breastfeeding.

Let’s be clear. I know what I’m saying is probably skewed. I lack the perspective and maturity to understand the full realm of pregnancy as both a beautiful, miraculous thing to be celebrated, in addition to being something that can be painful or potentially socially isolating for some women. I don’t balance both sides of the beauty/discomfort scale, and my perception of pregnancy is entirely skewed because of it.

Skewed or not, though, I’ve given myself permission to not even have kids. To not even adopt, though my ardent depiction of adoption I mentioned earlier might suggest otherwise. Oh sure, I may very well change my mind. But by giving myself permission to not have children when many of my friends and family members are and when many societal, religious, or familial voices expect that each woman “should,” I am discovering blissful freedom. By loosening myself from the forced grip of motherhood, I am better able to love, understand, care for, support, and be present in the lives of women who wholeheartedly desire and embrace motherhood. I can love such friends (and their kids) without feeling as though I have to be doing what they have chosen to do with their lives. And who knows. One thing I’m learning about life is that things change. Despite being an obstinate person, I’ve changed views and decisions on things that I was once so sure about (like deciding not to go on my Peace Corps assignment). Perhaps in another 5-10 years, I will feel differently about the whole parenthood thing. My views, beliefs, and opinions that I held 5-10 years ago are not tit-for-tat those that I hold now. We exist in a life that is fully evolving, each day marked by choices that twist and turn us into people reignited, perhaps now with gifts like perspective and maturity

MotherhoodChoosing to become a parent is a deeply personal, intimate decision that only you as an individual, and then ultimately, you and your partner as a couple, can make. It is indeed a choice, though, especially if you use effective birth control (I understand that “oops-es” can happen- and I’ve met some beautiful people that were brought into this world through an unintended pregnancy). Having children is not a requirement. It’s not a demand. Certain religious voices might tell you otherwise. That’s what Evangelical Christians tried to tell me for years- that “motherhood is a woman’s highest calling.” But, like author Rachel Held Evans points out, “A Christian woman’s highest calling is not motherhood; a Christian woman’s highest calling is to follow Christ.”  What’s more freeing than anything else, though, is remembering that none of us have to do anything that isn’t the best choice for ourselves, just because it is the best choice for many others. You can serve and love unselfishly without having children, just like you can serve and love and have children. Not having children can be a great choice for you, just like having children can be a great choice for you. The important part is not to judge other’s decisions and to remember that you have a choice in the matter.

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My friend Jasmine with her daughter Alana, age seven.

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Dad and Sister, April 2010

I keep meeting and spending time with couples who have intentionally chosen to be childless. I’m amazed by their firm commitment to serve their communities, places of worship, and for using their time to promote goodness and peace in this world. Similarly, I’ve been meeting couples that have intentionally chosen to have children, and I’m amazed by how they love their kids with such character, teaching me so much about patience and dedication- what it means to truly love when it’s easy, and even more so, when it’s hard. They’ve taught me that if you quit and give up early, you miss out on beautiful memories that would have never been possible. I’ve watched my own parents deal with behavioral challenge after behavioral challenge in raising a daughter with Down Syndrome. But everytime I see her smile and hear her laugh, I am once again so grateful for their steadfast commitment to not give up on unconditional love, patience, and kindness, when anyone else would understand if they did. Yes. I’ve watched couples create identities as mothers (and fathers) as well as identities in their own personhood, interests, and dreams. Both of these kinds of couples- childless and child-filled alike- help mold, shape, and stretch my perspectives as I carefully, prudently choose the path that fits best for my life.

So until I’m ready to make a firm decision, you will find me musing, and asking questions- LOTS of them. I thank all of you who have patiently let me ask you very personal questions. I especially thank you for your honesty and vulnerability. It’s been said that “maturity is not believing everything you’re told.” So I’m ready to maturely move forward into my adulthood, freed from the critical voices that used to clobber my mind, and unburdened by anyone’s unspoken expectations, knowing that one day, if I decide to become a mother, it is because it was the cry of my heart, the melody of my passion. No expectations. No demands. Just love.

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Happy World Down Syndrome Day (Thoughts on Growing Up With a Sister With Down Syndrome)

Today is March 21st— World Down Syndrome Day. For those not familiar with Down Syndrome, Down Syndrome is a congenital genetic disorder in which a baby is born with three copies of the 21st chromosome (hence why it’s celebrated on 3/21). One extra chromosome sounds rather innocuous, but results in several physical differences, such as small ears, eyes that slant upwards and poor muscle tone, to name a few of many listed by the CDC.  One thing the CDC forgot to add to their list, though, is that people with Down Syndrome seem to have some of the most joyous smiles. There are often times behavioral differences too, as many people with Down Syndrome face obsessive-compulsive, oppositional, and inattentive behaviors, to name a few listed by the National Down Syndrome Society. One thing, though, that NDSS forgot to add is that people with Down Syndrome tend to be very affectionate, resulting in some of the best hugs and “I love you’s” imaginable.

Photo: MO 2012

Photo: MO 2012

So now, I want you to meet who I’m celebrating this World Down Syndrome Day: my sister Lauren. In case you have any doubts about her age, she is quick to remind anyone that, “I’M the big sister.” Side by side, she at 4’9 and me at 5’4, it’s easy to mistake Lauren as my younger sister. But I’m the baby, and both she and my brother used to make fun of me for that. They even tried to wrestle with me growing up, and, like the picture to the left shows, Lauren still does.

Growing up with Lauren has helped me to see a spectrum of life so rich and big that leaves me in awe of the Image of God in every person. But it wasn’t always that way.
I confess, growing up, Lauren and I went from best play pals to me feeling somewhat jealous of the sisterhood my friends with older sisters experienced. I thought it would be cool to have an older sister to talk about boys with, share clothes with, and who could show me new places, especially since she would get her license before me. But we had our fun, too. We liked putting as many stuffed animals as we could onto my bed then jumping up and down as high as we could on Saturday mornings. We’d dance to loud music in the room we shared and play with chalk outside. I didn’t notice any differences then. She was my sister, and I was her sister.
Then, in elementary school, I remember being in public with Lauren and sometimes kids would stare at her. I would intently glare back at them, hoping they would see how good that doesn’t feel either. But two wrongs don’t make a right. We need to have grace with people who don’t understand, or who are not ready to understand. We need to recognize that there are people who are curious, but aren’t sure what to ask when they don’t know why someone seems so much different than themselves. We need all people to know that respectfully asked questions are always welcomed, and they lead to a special understanding of each other as humans. It’s easy to huddle in groups of your own gender identity, sexual orientation, race, age, and ability level. But something beautiful happens when we spend time with those whose gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, age, and ability levels are not our own. I have a feeling a lot of walls could not only come down, but come down with a beatific, thunderous crash that opens up the sky with refulgent rainbows welcoming audacious freedom to dance, dance, dance beneath these wide open spaces.

But let’s be real, here, too. Not everything that goes on in a home with someone who has special needs is rainbows and dancing. I watched my parents cry, throw their hands up in the air, and then use those hands to hug each other as they got through challenge after challenge. Around the time Lauren was seven, her speech was very far behind. She would try to tell my parents what she wanted or needed, but my parents couldn’t understand what she was saying. They would try to talk to her, but she couldn’t understand them. After months and months of feeling misunderstood, anyone would get frustrated and maybe even have a temper tantrum or two, or thirty two. Sometimes when my sister’s routine changes, she gets so upset that she starts yelling and crying at the top of her lungs. It can be hard to understand what exactly causes her to become so distressed in the first place. She’s even thrown things before. But who am I to call her out on this, when just last week I used very colorful language to describe my frustration in not being able to find my cell phone, that lo and behold, was simply hiding behind the one part of the couch I overlooked on the previous 20 search attempts. Oh, and yes, I threw the couch pillows that time when I got mad. No matter how mad my sister or I got, I was fortune enough to grow up with a dad who has the patience of a saint, whose unphased resiliency consistently gives her space and time to breathe in order to calm down, while he goes back to creating Special Olympics track and field practices, or folding laundry, or simply relaxing as though nothing happened. He and my mom teach me just as much as my sister has.

I’m so thankful for my parents’ persistently loving examples. Because everytime I make a trip back to visit, no matter how late at night I get home, one of the first things I do is run upstairs, hop in Lauren’s bed, and give her a big hug. “Sister! You’re home!” she’ll exclaim, half awake, forgiving me of waking her up at 11 PM some Friday night (at which point she’s already been asleep for three hours). She’ll fill me in on how work was and any other important events of the week I missed. It won’t be long before she’ll say, “Alright, Sister, I have to go to sleep. Goodnight.” And usually I honor her request, but sometimes I stall and we get in an extra five minutes that usually consist of us laughing late night giggles over something that probably wasn’t that funny if we were to have talked about it earlier in the day.

Photo credit: SO 2013

Photo credit: SO 2013

When my sister was seven years old, our family got involved in Special Olympics. In 2003, my dad became involved as a track and field coach and introduced me to their team. Sometimes I get to run with them, and meet amazing people like my friend Rob, pictured here. Rob is one of the most joyful people I know and he’s taught me so much about how to love life. His great sense of humor teaches me not to take life so seriously. I love every minute of being around his positive presence.

Photo: MO 2012

Photo: MO 2012

One October weekend in 2012, my dad took a van full of Special Olympics athletes and I to Rhode Island where we competed in a long distance running competition. We all ran fast, earned medals, stayed up a little too late, and laughed the car ride home (once one of the athletes stopped asking my dad every five minutes, “Where are we, Coach Scott?”). On that trip, I captured this picture of my sister’s laugh and I can almost hear her hamming it up as I smile at her face.

Life with Lauren has taught me so much that when I stop and think about all I’ve learned, my eyes well up with tears, seeing how every challenging memory my parents experienced was recycled for something more beautiful and compelling. She taught me patience. That going on walks is more fun when you tread slowly, unlike me, who always seems to be in a hurry. My mom calls her “my pokey puppy.” She’s my pokey puppy, too, and I would never want a race horse instead. She taught me that you can never say, “I love you” too much. And to take people by surprise every once in a while by shouting “cheers!” to life, chugging a glass of wine or beer (She limits herself to one small glass, though. Promise.) She taught me how much more awesome the world is when we practice inclusion, and that parties are so much more fun when everyone has a seat at the table. She gave me eyes to see the Image of God in every single person, and my eyes, heart, the lens with which I see the world are forever tinted with a shade of tight embrace, sanctifying the everyday and turning every moment into the perfect time to laugh.

Happy World Down Syndrome Day.

I love you, Sister.

Photo: SO 2013