One morning about a year ago I was in my local supermarket buying bacon and eggs. It was Mother’s Day and, as a childfree woman, the one Sunday a year when I wouldn’t consider going out for breakfast (unless of course it was with my own mother, although that usually doesn’t happen since we live in different states). Brunch reservations on Mother’s Day are the domain of moms, and I wouldn’t dare compete for a table—a reservation at Gjelina is hard enough to get, even when it’s not a major breakfasting holiday.
So back to the grocery store: I was just paying for my breakfast-to-be when the checkout clerk wished me a happy Mother’s Day. I momentarily froze, disoriented by his assumption that I was a mom. It was, of course, a perfectly reasonable assumption to make about a forty-year old woman grocery shopping in a family-oriented Santa Monica neighborhood. But I was fresh from several years of working up the courage to admit to my family and the world that I didn’t really want kids, and had only just recently embraced the mantle of a “childfree” woman. It is a title that is reasonably used to distinguish those who don’t want to have kids from those who want to but haven’t been able to—the childless by circumstance—but it asserts a certain confidence and clarity in the situation that belies my experience.
You see, I would like to be able to say I always knew I didn’t want to have kids, but the truth is a lot less clear. Sure, there were indications early on that this might be the case, like how as a teenager I used to stand in front of the microwave when it was on and proclaim I was radiating my uterus to prevent impregnation. (In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I did that because I enjoyed shocking my mother.) Then later, as my friends started to have babies, I was not blind to my uncanny ability to make infants cry instantly upon contact.
But still some part of me held out for the possibility that my biological clock would start ticking. This was what was supposed to happen, right? After all, I had grown up in the eighties when well-meaning feminists were still pushing the belief that women could and should do it all: husband, kids, and a glass-ceiling-breaking career where you got to wear jewel-colored power suits with linebacker-worthy shoulder pads. Convinced I, too, could and should want to do it all, in my late twenties I even went as far as to threaten to break off my engagement to my anti-children fiancé if he wasn’t willing to leave open the possibility that one day we may have kids. He caved, and I was a married woman at twenty-nine.
Then, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, thirty-five arrived and there was still no sign of my biological clock. This state of affairs made me uneasy. I knew beyond that age I was entering into high-risk territory for a pregnancy, my parents were highly vocal about their desperation for grandchildren, and my husband—eager to know once and for all if his life was going to involve children or not—was becoming as vocal as my parents in expressing his desire for me to just make a decision already. I caved to the pressure and, that Christmas, my husband and I announced to my parents that we were going to “try” for a baby in the next year.
But even this game of chicken I had played with myself and my poor, unsuspecting family was not enough to kick start my biological clock. This became clear as the next year wore on and each month I somehow ended up at the pharmacy to pick up a refill of birth control. Despite the fact that it made me feel somehow less of a woman, I was finally starting to admit to myself that I didn’t really want to have kids. It was both a surprise and a relief when I finally said aloud what I had felt for a while: I was complete without them.
Despite all logic to the contrary, I was somehow surprised the grocery store checkout clerk hadn’t been able to intuit my entire backstory of my struggle with motherhood. For a fleeting moment I wondered if I should correct him. It felt odd and somehow dishonest to impersonate a mother, however passively, especially on this particular day. If I said thank you, I was taking credit for "the hardest job on earth." If I corrected him, I risked sounding a little crazy and making him uncomfortable. He was, after all, just a well-meaning teenager trying to be polite. I thanked him, gathered my groceries, and headed home.