Just Saying No to Motherhood

One alumna decides to defy society's expectations

The first question people ask me when they learn I work at home is: Do you have children?

My answer--no--puzzles many. Some consider my status as a work-at-home nonprogenitrix self-indulgent. To prove I'm not the selfish person they suppose me to be, I quickly add that I have one dog and two cats. That statement rarely serves to raise the person's regard for me. Pets, after all, as people are quick to remind me, are nothing like children. I would argue the contrary; sometimes they can be very much like children.

My husband, Chris Hedden, and I found out to what extent that is true when we adopted a seven-year-old Basset-Foxhound mix--Seamus--from the Basset Hound Rescue League two years ago. He came with a caveat: severe separation anxiety. We thought we knew what that meant--a solid crate and good chew toy in our absence--and we didn't care. We loved him, and we wanted him to be part of our family.

Accommodating his condition, we quickly learned, meant completely rearranging our lifestyle, the way a couple with an infant might. Seamus introduced a profound element of change into our lives. After he breached his crate, broke a tooth, splintered toenails, reduced blinds to ribbons, wood trim to wood chips, and drywall to dust, I didn't go anywhere if I couldn't take Seamus with me or find a sitter for him. That meant a lot of Friday nights at home eating pizza and watching videos.

Seamus tested my patience, my resolve, and my stamina in unpredictable and unimaginable ways. Each day was spent establishing limits and defining the rules of acceptable behavior. Some days were better than others, and I didn't always like what these daily tests of will revealed about my character. For the first time in my life, I was trying to relate to a being who operated on a completely different plane of understanding and motivation: it proved both exhausting and rewarding. I realized that, to some degree, this seesaw of sensations--joy, anxiety, frustration, wonder --was what it must feel like to be a parent.

Recently, when Chris and I went on vacation--our first since bringing Seamus home--we boarded him at a kennel. I carefully packed his "suitcase" with his favorite food, treats, and toys, along with his medication. I included exhaustive feeding instructions, a detailed itinerary, the name and telephone number of a local emergency contact, and our veterinarian's name and number. I prayed Seamus wouldn't injure himself or destroy anything in our absence, and then I called twice to make sure. I remember thinking, "Thank God he's just a dog."

My dog-owning experience has reaffirmed for me something I knew at an early age: I never want to have children. I also learned I'd make a lousy carpenter. I've always known I wanted to remain childless the way some people have always known they wanted to be doctors or lawyers. I can't readily explain what circumstances led me to this conclusion. I am not a careerist or a feminist, nor do I subscribe to the belief that an already overburdened planet will sag beneath the demands of one more child. I am not a coward or a narcissist, nor am I a latchkey kid from a broken home. All I can say with certainty is that I have never felt the twinge of a maternal instinct or the tick-tock of a biological clock.

Unfortunately, announcing at any early age that you want to remain childless when you grow up rarely earns you the praise of announcing you want to be a doctor. Rather, it gets you a patronizing pat on the shoulder and the inevitable, "That will change when you get older." From this experience, I learned that there are few statements more polarizing than announcing my no-baby stance. A Kenyon classmate so doubted my determination to remain childless that we made a wager, with him speculating that, despite my declaration, I would be the first in our group of friends to become a parent. He has yet to collect.

No matter how progressive the time or the people, some societal conventions remain the same, specifically the expectation that men and women will marry and reproduce. I sometimes wonder if my non-desire emerged in defiance of what was expected of me socially and biologically. This may have been the case as a student at Kenyon, where every day added one more brick to the path of self-definition, but as I've grown older, I see how well this choice suits me. This is a decision that comes from a deep understanding of myself--my strengths, my limitations, my goals. It's a conscious decision about how I intend to use my body and live my life.

However, this doesn't prevent the impertinent inquiries from strangers about my childbearing status. Strangers feel as comfortable discussing my lack of children with me as they do the weather. My deliberate childlessness makes some people visibly uneasy and others openly hostile. For these people, why a young married women would want to remain childless is a gripping mystery they have to solve. So they want to know is my decision career-oriented? Physical? Political? Psychological? No, I tell them, just personal.

The fact that there is no hidden agenda seems the hardest concept for some to grasp. In a family-first society, I'm as conspicuous as a dandelion in a well-tended lawn. One man reassured me, after learning I had no children, that maybe one day I would be the world's greatest mother. There was still time to fulfill my potential. He thought my life was empty. He refused to accept that my lack of children hadn't diminished the richness of my life. My life is far from empty, I told him. I have my family, my pets, my work, my volunteer efforts, and my garden. That is enough for me.

Another woman sermonized that children are a blessing and that's why God in Heaven put men and women on this earth. She offered to pray for me. But I've never felt it was an imperative, religious or otherwise, that I reproduce. Let others be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.

A member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group, Jennifer Hedden--a political-science major and an editor of the Collegian while at Kenyon--lives with her husband, Chris Hedden, and their dog, Seamus, in Mount Vernon, Ohio, where she is a freelance writer. Her most recent Bulletin article was "Blighted homecoming," which appeared in the Fall/Winter 1998 issue.

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