As A Queer Woman, I Can't Afford To Be Ambivalent About Motherhood
My ambivalence toward having a baby is not uncommon, judging from a spate of new motherhood books this year — but as a gay woman, I won't be able to have one without wanting one desperately and consistently.
Out of nowhere, I am 31: an age by which a woman should know whether she wants kids or not, surely. Thirty-one is just four years short of the age often cited as fertility’s soft deadline, beyond which health risks increase, and one’s pregnancy becomes “geriatric.” I have gotten my period since I was 16, which means I’ve let 15 potential baby-making years pass me by, though that is not how I thought of them at the time.
I didn’t really spend much time in my twenties thinking about babies, because I was single, and always had been. I took for granted that once I did enter a relationship, the trajectory of my adult life would follow just about everyone else’s: boyfriend–fiancé–husband–baby–baby–[???]–grandchildren–death. I thought about having kids only enough to decide that two sounded optimal, and that for a hypothetical daughter I liked the name Jude.
But then, when I was 28, I decided to stop (barely) dating men, and start dating women. Somehow, finally, I realized I had a choice in what had largely, until that point, felt uncomfortable, and compulsory. I realized I did not have to become the person even I expected myself to be. I could, instead, be the person I wanted to be. It’s been one identity crisis after another ever since — the latest of which involves reckoning with my often-wavering desire to be a mother, and with what it would cost for me to become one.
My ambivalence toward having a baby itself is not, of course, uncommon. Three of this year’s new books on motherhood — Meaghan O’Connell’s memoir And Now We Have Everything (out now), Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (an autobiographical novel out now), and Laura June’s memoir Now My Heart Is Full (out July 24), — find their authors grappling with the same question my age now begs of me: to be a mother, or not to be?
As a woman partnered with another woman, pregnancy can only be deliberate, expensive, and lucky.
Though I connected, often deeply, to these authors’ mixed feelings, it was impossible to ignore what we did not share. For all their differences in opinion and outcome, all three authors are partnered with cisgender men, and pregnancy is conceptualized accordingly: a natural bodily function, available (up to a certain age, at least) should you choose to accept it. Writing of a conversation she had with a friend, O’Connell writes that she said, “You have sex and then it just happens to you. At you.”
But it won’t, for me. As a woman partnered with another woman, pregnancy can only be deliberate, expensive, and lucky. Perhaps the simplest, most straightforward option is to be artificially inseminated. Intrauterine insemination is on the cheaper end of available options, ranging from $300 to $1,000 per insemination, but the cost is generally higher when the patient requires donated sperm, as queer (and single) people necessarily do. According to the Sperm Bank of California, it takes the average person between four and eight rounds of insemination to become pregnant — which means the total cost can easily cross over into five-digit territory.
In vitro fertilization — the process by which an egg and sperm are combined outside the body, with the resulting embryo then transferred to the uterus — typically costs upward of $15,000 per cycle, and the success rate is fairly grim: On average, fewer than 30% of individual IVF cycles result in a pregnancy, and only about 22% result in live births. Repeated rounds of IVF increase one’s cumulative likelihood of pregnancy somewhat: 65% of women achieve pregnancy after six cycles. But 65% isn’t especially reassuring when it costs in the ballpark of $90,000. That is an awful lot of money to spend on a maybe.
Of course, women in heterosexual relationships aren’t guaranteed successful pregnancy, either. We are all deeply reliant on biology and circumstance — and, crucially, money. Motherhood remains more of a choice for some than others, and yet our varying degrees of agency are rarely acknowledged by the mainstream narrative upheld by the vast majority of what has (disparagingly) been referred to as “mommy lit.” Only certain women can afford to hope for “accidental” pregnancy, just as only certain women can afford to avoid it.
No book needs to be written with every possible reader in mind, and it’s safe to assume that the bulk of these books’ readership will consist of women like their authors: white, middle-class women in their twenties or thirties who are partnered with men, or hoping to be. But what are queer women meant to do with the onslaught of motherhood messaging we’ll inevitably face in our twenties and thirties? What is our place in a conversation that pulls us in with one hand and pushes us out with the other?
The longer I’ve been out, and the more I become aware of the dominant dialogue surrounding pregnancy and motherhood, the clearer my dissociation from what is meant by “all women” has become — the "all women" who, O'Connell writes early on in her book, have "the litany of pregnancy symptoms memorized." O’Connell also writes romantically of the great female “we”: “We were city dwellers, and dating in a pool of people who always had other, better options. … We knew how to play it, how to not need anything. We could almost convince ourselves. Most of us swore we were not interested in having children, and those who might be were supposed to act blasé about the idea. … Wanting to have a baby was a desperate quality in a woman, like wanting a relationship x 1000, and it got more desperate with age.” O’Connell, at age 29, was the first among her friends to have a baby, and I don’t doubt that she felt othered by the experience. But is there any trajectory more cherished, more encouraged by our culture, than for a woman to marry a man, and have a baby (or three) with him? Passages like these brought to mind the time a straight friend of mine told me, “It just isn’t cool to be in a monogamous, heterosexual marriage anymore” — something only those in that privileged and culturally sanctioned class could claim.
But perhaps it’s all about wanting what we do not or cannot have, be it children or status or so-called freedom. In 2016’s The Argonauts, a seminal text at the still-underpopulated intersection of work on queerness and motherhood and art, Maggie Nelson writes:
What is our place in a conversation that pulls us in with one hand and pushes us out with the other?
“For all the years I didn’t want to be pregnant — the years I spent harshly deriding ‘the breeders’ — I secretly felt pregnant women were smug in their complaints. Here they were, sitting on top of the cake of the culture, getting all the kudos for doing exactly what women are supposed to do, yet still they felt unsupported and discriminated against. Give me a break! Then, when I wanted to be pregnant but wasn’t, I felt that pregnant women had the cake I wanted, and were busy bitching about the flavor of the icing.
I was wrong on all counts — imprisoned, as I was and still am, by my own hopes and fears.”
Nelson’s desire to be pregnant is more involved than just that “wanting” — her partner is a trans man, and there is no room for her ambivalence. She is artificially inseminated “a few times” without success, she writes, and takes a few months off to stew in frustration before ultimately getting pregnant by the donated sperm of a friend. After the briefest disappointment at learning she’d be having a boy instead of a girl, Nelson is overjoyed by the birth of her son. To him, she writes: “I want you to know, you were thought of as possible — never as certain, but always as possible — [because] two human animals … deeply, doggedly, wildly wanted you to be.” It feels as though the queer-born baby can only arrive in this way: a long-held wish, finally granted.
Laura June was 36 when she gave birth to her first and only child, and in her book, Now My Heart Is Full, she describes her feelings about children up to her pregnancy as deeply ambivalent. Somewhat stressfully to anyone without children reading the book in her early thirties, June (who is, full disclosure, a friend of mine) has her “I want a baby” epiphany at the age of 35:
“I could tell you I had a change of heart, and I did. I could tell you that I was finally comfortable enough, finally felt financially stable enough, owned a house that had a spare bedroom; all of these things took years to fall into place. But really, I was also rather suddenly overcome with an everyday, very common desire: I wanted to be a mother, and I knew that it might take a while to become pregnant. At thirty-five, I thought, ‘Well, better start trying, I guess.’ And then I got pregnant almost immediately."
June is honest about the largely aromantic pragmatism behind her decision-making, and it’s clear she knows she’s lucky. That the conclusion of a decade’s worth of disinterest should result in a deeply wanted baby is the best-case scenario. In recounting an earlier abortion, and her troubled relationship with her now-deceased mother, who was an alcoholic, June implicitly acknowledges that not every woman is “meant” to be a mother, even if she becomes one, and even if her child is glad she did. Motherhood isn’t a woman’s destiny, but rather a choice she makes — and, it must be said, an easier one to make for some than others. Of her own mother, June writes that she was “catapulted” into it, having four children by the age of 29. They were her whole life, so much so that June attributes her developing a drinking habit to “pre-empty-nest-syndrome.” June was estranged from her mother from the age of 18 onward; she died at the age of 54, when June was 29 years old. “I loved her so much,” she writes, “but she also was my greatest — really my only — source of pain.”
It is the newfound nuance with which June reconsiders her own mother as a result of having a baby of her own that most compelled me, I think, toward considering a similar path: What intergenerational wisdom and kindness might be hovering in purgatory for me? Then again, June’s mother might have experienced no such revelation. To ask that a mother successfully keep one (or four) children alive and become serene and all-knowing because of it seems unfair.
As June writes: “My mother didn’t leave me much, but she also left me everything that she had. What more could I ask for?” And here she alights on the part of the Big Question that troubles me most: How much of a mother’s life belongs to her child, and how much of mine am I willing to give over? Who is owed the bulk of my life, if not me? Perhaps every woman feels some resentment toward her future time-stealing child. Normalizing ambivalence is crucial for those women who do wish to become mothers but aren’t always thrilled about it. But these books also raise the question: How much ambivalence is surmountable, and how much is so much it’ll kill you if you try to climb over?
Because I am a gay woman, I will not be able to have a baby without wanting one desperately and consistently. And maybe not even then. I can’t afford ambivalence, or believe in chance. At times I’ve resented straight couples for the ease with which they create life — wondered why I should have to clear such a high bar to have even one child when, say, the Duggars can have 47. And then, on top of my inability, I am still so unsure. It would be easy to feel bad about this — Indecisiveness and inaction are not, generally speaking, celebrated character traits, especially in women. But they are not, as these books clearly demonstrate, uncommon.
At times I’ve resented straight couples for the ease with which they create life — wondered why I should have to clear such a high bar to have even one child when, say, the Duggars can have 47.
Heti’s, though, is unique among them for leaning into its protagonist’s indecision, sitting with it until it’s no longer an issue. At the start of the book her narrator is 36, and when it’s done, she’s 40: For all intents and purposes, her time is up, and her question answered. The stated motive of the book is as “prophylactic,” and in the course of writing it, her ambivalence transforms into determination, if not certainty. By devoting so many pages to her conflicted, sometimes contradictory thought process, Heti honors the weight of this singularly assigned-female decision, and lends power to those who make it — those who choose not to have children and those who do. “For a woman of curiosity,” she writes, “no decision will ever feel like the right one. In both, too much is missing.”
Interestingly, for many of the book’s reviewers, Heti’s often-tortured uncertainty seemed to prove that she should have had a child — that her life would have been more meaningful, and her art better, if she had. That this kind of criticism came largely from women who are both mothers and writers cannot be coincidental. In the end, Heti is so deliriously certain of her choice not to have children that perhaps women who chose otherwise can’t help but feel defensive. (She writes: “I feel a new giddiness and wonder that I managed to pass through my childbearing years without bearing a child. It really feels like a miracle.”)
Neither mothers nor single women nor queer women are well supported by the American government, and it’s tempting — perhaps especially among otherwise privileged people — to assert one’s own identity group as the one that has it worst. Absent genuine political and cultural influence, we must make do with empathy.
That mothers are unsupported in all realms but the symbolic is inarguable; and yet, so are those who could be mothers, but aren’t. If child-rearing is said to come with a great deal of unpaid labor, cost, and pain, it is also presumed to be a woman’s best hope for joy, the best (and perhaps only) way to give her own life meaning. It follows, then, that so much of Motherhood finds Heti struggling with how to conceptualize her life’s meaning without a baby: “What is the main activity of a woman’s life, if not motherhood? How can I express the absence of this experience, without making central the lack? … Maybe if I could somehow figure out what not having a child is an experience of — make it into an action, rather than the lack of an action — I might know what I was experiencing, and not feel so much like I was waiting to act.” As long as motherhood remains the default choice, women (straight women, at least) who do not want children must explain why not. A woman without a child is defined by her very not-having: childless, as if it went missing, or she forgot.
A woman’s having children is so assumed that perhaps not having them is, in a way, another form of queerness altogether. Heti makes this argument, I think convincingly: “Why don’t we understand some people who deeply don’t want children, or don’t want children in a certain way, as those with a different, perhaps biologically different, orientation? Wanting not to have children could even be called a sexual orientation, for what is more tied to sex than the desire to procreate or not?” Heti refrains from claiming the word “queer” for herself, but I wonder if it might be fair to. Queerness invokes otherness — a life lived outside the presupposed narrative of a “normal,” heterosexual love life, a nonconforming presentation of gender, a recognition that biology need not necessarily determine one’s destiny. A woman who chooses not to have children does all of these things. Her oppression is not equivalent to that experienced by trans and nonbinary people, or gay couples who want to adopt, or working-class mothers and mothers of color, for that matter. But she is undoubtedly scorned. It is plainly visible in the critiques of Heti’s book, which describe her narrator as “self-indulgent” and “childish,” “solipsistic,” and her book — her art! — as “a way of killing time.”
But why must a life without offspring be understood as meandering, or purposeless, or selfish? There is no greater gift we can give our planet and its existing inhabitants than to not bear children. One’s children are not the only people deserving of love and care and attention. There is more than one way to make a family.
When consumed back-to-back, as I read them, these books form a sort of Goldilocks’s choice, and if you are at all suggestible, the way you feel about motherhood afterward may depend on the order in which you read them. After I finished June’s, I wanted a baby. After Heti’s, I was exhilaratingly certain I did not. After O’Connell’s, I was confused as ever, and substantially more terrified. In each, I found pieces of myself, and perhaps that is the most any of us can hope for as both writers and readers. I still don’t know if I want to have a baby or not. The best reason to procreate I can think of is that, more often than not, I find myself embarrassingly, ecstatically grateful to be alive, and having a baby is the only way I know to return the favor. But then I think: What if my baby didn’t end up feeling the same way about their own life, and what if having it made me a little less happy with mine? I don’t want to raise a child who will feel anything less than desperately wanted, and I don’t know if that is a guarantee I can make. I try to tell myself it’s a good thing that pregnancy isn’t something that will ever just happen to me. I tell myself that indecision can be a blessing, and inaction the right choice to make. Whether I have a baby or not, I will be happy sometimes, and sad others. Which of these (having, not having) will make me happiest, I can’t know for sure. You can only compare the life you have to the ones you imagine. ●