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Mama Don't Preach: Thoughts on Respecting Parenthood Decisions

woman smiling down at pregnancy test

I just got off the phone with a customer service representative at my credit card company. I called to dispute a charge -- the hospital where I birthed a baby boy seven weeks ago made a billing mistake -- and the next thing I knew I was having an extended conversation about labor and delivery with the stranger on the other end of the line.

She's due in a few months with her second child. She told me the birth story from her first: They overdid it on her drugs and she was totally numb up to her ears for hours. I told her mine: I had a c-section that didn't heal right and had to be (stop reading if you're squeamish) reopened, picked at, prodded, and allowed to just sit there as a gaping wound for weeks, healing gradually.

Yes, it hurt. More than labor, in fact. I was in the hospital for a week and a visiting nurse came to tend to me twice a day for more than a month after that, at which time my husband was charged with latex-gloving up and ministering to my slit midsection on a daily basis. Sexy? I think not.

Sharing Stories, Not Sentiments

Though my childbirth scenario was a bit heavy on the pain and hers a bit too light, we both agreed that actually having the baby was completely amazing. True, we'd suffered, but we'd each been rewarded with a big prize -- a healthy child.

"I cried for three weeks afterward every time I looked at her," she shared.

"Yes," I agreed, having dampened many a onesie with tears of both the gently rolling and the sobby gulping variety. "I've done a lot of that, too. The whole thing is pretty emotionally intense."

Then she said, "I don't understand how anyone can not have children. They're missing out on the best thing in life."

At that point, I got off the phone. Because you know what? Thrilled as I am to be a mother and to hang with this astoundingly adorable little person sprung from within, I refuse to jump on this particular parental bandwagon, the one packed with proselytizers peddling their baby-centric life view.

If you're living a child-free life, you probably know what I'm talking about: People who start out celebrating their own decision to have kids and end up casting aspersion on your choice not to -- or at least not to have them just yet. They'll carry on -- with great concern about your ticking biological clock, of course -- about how their lives before children were (and implicitly, your life without them is) empty, lonely, devoid of meaning, even downright selfish.

These procreation proponents stepped up a few years ago, revved up by Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, in which the author declares that women today are in a "crisis of childlessness." Wait too long, she warns the ladies, and you may suddenly wake up seized with regret and unable to conceive.

I'm past 30 and a brand-new parent. At this point in my life, though not before, having a baby feels completely, euphorically right for me. I'm deliriously happy with my decision to spawn. But who am I -- or who is anyone else -- to say that having a baby is the best thing for everyone?

They Say No -- and That's Okay

Not only do I not think that the only meaningful life is one that includes children, but I'd also go so far as to say that there are people in the world who should not have children.

I'm not talking about people who are, say, prone to abuse. Those people are givens. I'm talking about perfectly nice, everyday folk who don't really want children. People who are happy with their lives as they are and are uninterested in turning them upside down to meet the needs and whims of a growing child.

Like marriage only more so, having children is an irrational act, a total leap of faith for all who attempt it. If you worked up a cost-benefit analysis of childbearing and -rearing, the cost side would be filled with real sacrifices -- financial, physical, emotional -- and the benefit side would feature things like "When my baby smiles at me, I go all gooey inside."

Having a baby and raising a child pushes you to your physical and emotional limits...and way, way beyond. You need that fire-in-the-belly thing to light your way through the dark patches: the exhaustion from middle-of-the-night feedings, the incessant worry over every random cough and snurfle, the physical strain of hefting an infant who refuses to be put down, the constant suspicion that you and your spouse simply don't know enough to be parents. It's an emotional labyrinth, and you can really get lost in there.

Particularly if you happen to be a woman.

New Mommy Body

The physical consequences of pregnancy and childbirth alone can be unpleasant and ongoing. I have friends (at least two of them in my immediate circle) who are doomed to lives of maxi pad wearing because, since giving birth, they can't sneeze or cough without a little pee leakage.

I have another friend who, more than a year after her son was born, still consistently endures nether-regional pain -- mild on a good day, not so mild on a bad one. Another buddy recently told me that, since the doctor stitched her up "a little too enthusiastically" after the birth of her first baby, sex has been downright unpleasant.

Not to mention the new sags, bumps, lines and wrinkles that will keep your body from ever looking the same. "The new normal" is what my husband calls it, but he's just being nice, considerably nicer than I am to myself when I work up the courage to look in the mirror. Factor in the toll that sleepless nights and random bouts of worry -- or out-and-out fear -- take on your skin and other odd corporal goings-on and, well, sister, you ain't no nubile teenager anymore.

And that's just the physical side of things. A friend of mine who just had a textbook vaginal delivery told me she felt so traumatized by the exigencies of labor and delivery that she's planning to start therapy just to come to terms with the emotions it all stirred up. Another friend has been coping with postpartum depression so debilitating she has been unable to return to work as planned.

Even in the best new-baby scenarios -- mine, for instance, if you discount the abdominal-wound factor -- there are moments of severe self-doubt and self-pity in the midst of the baby bliss. Is the baby nursing enough? Is he nursing too much? Why won't he go to sleep? Will he ever go to sleep? Is it my fault he won't go to sleep? You have to summon all your own inner strength -- and the help of your partner (if you're lucky enough to have one), family and friends -- to pull through the first few hormonally rocky, sleep-deprived weeks.

Get past them and you're hardly in the clear. The need to make a living can feel, as a friend who went back to work last week, leaving her 14-week-old daughter at home, put it, "like some kind of primal wrong."

Think the trouble's all in her head? Try in her breasts, swollen beyond belief with milk her baby is not around to drink on her normal schedule. Pumping only goes so far when your baby goes on a hunger strike, refusing a bottle and crying incessantly until you get home to feed her from your own body, only to wake you up every two hours all night long because she's starved from her milk-free day. But have fun explaining that to a boss who doesn't understand why you never work past 5:00 anymore or why you're too tired to take on extra work the way you used to.

See you on the mommy track, girlfriend.

And while we're doggedly running round and round it, we can talk about all the things we miss from our old lives. Like going to movies or the theater or the ballet. Like enjoying a leisurely meal at a restaurant. Like getting up in the morning and going to the gym without first negotiating with your spouse for your 40-minute parental leave.

I'm not complaining. I wanted to be here, gazing into my newborn's eyes instead of, say, getting all dressed up and going to the spate of black-tie shindigs I get invited to each spring. The little fella may not say much yet, but he's already a better conversationalist than most of the tablemates I've been compelled to chat with at such events over the years.

Taking a Stand

But parenthood as panacea? I'm not buying it, and neither should anyone who's not really into the idea of being a mom or pop.

I'm here as a new parent to stand up for all those nonparents out there -- the ones who haven't yet made up their minds about kids and the ones who definitely have -- and proclaim that there is nothing wrong with not having children. I did it for more than three decades and led what I'd consider a pretty rich life, filled with learning, love, travel, adventure, laughter...and other people's children.

You're not being selfish. Your life won't be empty. And you're certainly not destined for a sad, lonely end. People can find meaning in their lives in ways that don't include progeny.

So the next time some well-intentioned parent harasses you about your decision not to have kids -- or at least not to have them yet -- just let yourself off society's hook, go out and live the life you've chosen with no regrets. Find fulfillment by climbing a mountain, jumping out of an airplane, taking a job in Asia or, hell, reading the Sunday paper without interruption. Then tell us breeders about it. And feel free to gloat.

Maybe Baby

Amy Reiter is a writer and editor at Salon. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.