Sari Botton on why we shouldn't need a doctor's note to be excused from having children.
I wasn’t lying when I told my first husband I was leaving in large part because he was ready for a family, and I just wasn’t there yet.
There were other issues, but I was fairly certain that what we were facing, above all, was a scheduling problem. I was only 26. There was plenty of time for me to come around to feeling the urge to have children. People assured me I would instinctually know when the time was right, and I believed them.
Fourteen years later, I still had no maternal instinct. Newly remarried and in no rush to make babies, I tried not to focus on this lack, fearing what it might say about me.
When I did focus on it, I couldn’t help but believe I suffered from some kind of psychopathology. Maybe struggling through my parents’ divorce when I was 10 had given me the impression that raising children was a marriage-killer. Maybe, as my therapist had theorized, my primal biological instincts were being overridden by low self-esteem, which led me to believe I didn’t deserve to have children.
In any case, I no longer had time to figure it out. I was now 40; my husband, Brian, was 44.
That year, Brian, became a granduncle. On the day his nephew’s baby was born, we drove from our new home in Rosendale, N.Y. (a family-ready three-bedroom with a yard) to a birthing center in Rhinebeck, N.Y., to meet him.
The occasion should have been cause for celebration, but I cried the entire way, because their baby had entered the picture during the period when Brian and I were halfheartedly trying to conceive, which basically meant ditching birth control and “letting the universe decide.”
More than a year in, with no pregnancy, it seemed the universe had decided.
We weren’t supposed to question the decision. On the dating site where we had met, Brian and I had both used the word “ambivalent” to describe our interest in having children. When relatives asked about our plans for a family, our unified stance was a shrugging, “If it happens, it happens.”
But when the universe handed down an unwavering “No,” we entered a strange alternative reality where I no longer recognized us. It was as if we were characters in some bittersweet tragicomedy. There we were, diligently taking out a calendar to schedule sex around my ovulation cycle, with me hanging upside-down in a shoulder stand for 10 minutes after each go.
We didn’t think our infertility was Brian’s problem. He’s one of six children and had been party to two accidental pregnancies before I met him. But it’s easier and less invasive to rule out men’s fertility issues, so they’re tested first. We figured once we had gone through the motions with him, we could see what might be wrong on my end.
Cut to the scene of my boyish, typically upbeat husband looking stunned and crestfallen upon the news of his staggeringly low sperm count. Brian surprised us both by going wobbly and collapsing into the nearest chair. He’s not a terribly macho guy, and yet he was devastated by this news.
It also scared me. Did Brian’s response mean he really wanted children after all? I was afraid to ask. But he had always been more inclined to engage with other people’s children, and now and then he would say, “I can sort of see myself being a dad.”
I had never expressed thoughts like that. I was just moving along the path I thought we were supposed to be on.
And if he did really want children, what then?
Next came the most unlikely scene in our little montage: Our visit to a fertility specialist to find out what our options were. Yes, us, the couple who had been content to outsource this major life decision to whoever is in charge of the universe.
The day we drove to Northern Dutchess Hospital to meet Brian’s new grandnephew (the trip I wept through), we were grappling with what we had learned hours earlier at the clinic: Fertility treatments were a serious long-shot for us. And our health insurance wouldn’t pay for them anyway. The doctor there suggested we put one $15,000 round of in vitro fertilization on our home equity line of credit.
The prospect of meeting a brand new baby suddenly felt heartbreaking. This was unusual, because newborns have never held much appeal for me. That’s putting it mildly. Newborns freak me out.
When I see a newborn, I see a bottomless well of urgent, indiscriminate need. I fear not knowing what’s needed. I fear feeling besieged and trapped.
Heading to the hospital, the triggering thought had been, “I’ll probably never have this.” Heading back, it was, “I’ll probably never want this,” and the sense it signaled something fundamentally wrong with me.
Actually, there was something wrong with me. But it had nothing to do with my mind or heart.
Before we could gamble away $15,000 on IVF, I needed to undergo an X-ray of my uterus and fallopian tubes that included dye being shot through them. I was told it might hurt a bit, but it was so painful I screamed on the table.
My doctor was alarmed. I was alarmed. Pain in that region wasn’t unusual for me; I had been living with a worsening pelvic agony that I had been experiencing for up to 15 days a cycle. Sometimes I would writhe in bed for days, unable to work.
My gynecologist focused on my pain instead of our fertility. She sent me to see a few uterine specialists, who all agreed: I had adenomyosis, a condition in which the uterine lining penetrates other layers of the uterus. It usually develops in women over 35, and it’s benign, but can cause severe pain and intense bleeding during menstruation. It doesn’t mean a woman can’t get pregnant, but keeping a pregnancy to term can be difficult, and doctors say a hysterectomy is the only way to cure the pain completely.
Some part of me expected to fall apart when I heard those words. Instead, I felt myself relax. It was as if I had been granted a reprieve from some difficult, looming test, like the SAT. Or it was as if I had been given a doctor’s note: “Please excuse Sari from procreating, as she is in no way built for it.”
I probably didn’t have to ask Brian how he felt about it, because I recognized the look of relief that washed across his face the moment the doctor delivered the news. But I asked anyway. Often. Our script:
“So, you’re O.K. with us not having kids?”
“I’m so O.K. with it.”
“You’re not going to want to adopt?”
“No, this feels right. This is us.”
People sometimes commend me on how “brave” it was for us to not have children. I laugh, because to my mind, I arrived at it in just about the most cowardly way: I lucked into childlessness (if having a defective uterus can be considered luck). Deep down I didn’t want to have children, but I kept limping toward motherhood anyway, because I thought I should want them until, in the end, my anatomy dictated my destiny.
I wish it hadn’t taken a serious medical condition for me to feel permitted to embrace not wanting children. I hope that in future generations, more women will feel free to be childless without feeling they need a doctor’s note.
Sari Botton is the author of the memoir in essays, And You May Find Yourself…Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo.
She is a contributing editor at Catapult, and the former Essays Editor for Longreads. She edited the bestselling anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York.
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