Do I want children?

Paper Art: Elsa Mora

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Do I Want Children?
"Start trying for a baby now," a friend said, moments after I told her I'd met the One. "It can take forever." Then, last summer, a month after my wedding, a stranger at a cocktail party casually whispered, "Can I give you some advice? Freeze your eggs. Make sure they're ready when you want them."

If you're a childless woman of childbearing age, people like to remind you that you're not getting any younger. That you don't want regrets. That they'd like to be grandparents before they're 103. Implicit in these comments is an assumption: You are a woman, so you must want children.

I know a handful of women who have been sure all their lives that they never wanted to be mothers. I find their certainty curious, just as I am baffled by those who return from their honeymoons and immediately start decorating the nursery. For me, all of life's big changes are marked by some degree of ambivalence. I want children someday. Eventually. But I like knowing I could fly to Europe tomorrow if I chose to. I like writing at home, where the only distraction is my dog's occasional request for a walk. I need that solitude to do what I do. Sometimes I think of our imperfect world and wonder if I want to expose a child to the realities of poverty and misogyny and middle school.

My closest friends are up all night and pumping breast milk at the office the next morning. It's exhausting, but they tell me that they wouldn't trade it. Last winter, when a friend's husband had to leave on business a few weeks after their second baby was born, I flew to Wisconsin to help out. We were snowed in for a week. My heart practically exploded every time the baby's head lay in the crook of my arm; every time his 3-year-old sister and I made up a song about her stuffed animals; when I followed her command to let her clean her own teeth and watched as she unspooled five feet of dental floss. But lovely as it was, until you are really doing it, it's all just theoretical. I want children, but I hear a voice that says, "Not now, not yet," and I listen.

Delaying is no small thing. There is a window, and one day it will close. But there is comfort in knowing that one does not need to be a mother to know great love, and further solace in the contented lives of many who remain childless. Whatever any of us decide, the important thing is to ask the question "Is this what I want?"—rather than do what we feel we are supposed to. No one else is going to rock your wailing infant to sleep. So nobody else gets a say in the when—or the if.
J. Courtney Sullivan, author, most recently, of the novel The Engagements (Knopf)