Childless by Choice (The Normal One, Part 2)

More self-analysis today based on a quote from Dr. Jeanne Safer’s book, The Normal One. It was a reference to this quote in a customer’s critique of the book on Amazon that convinced me to buy a copy. The quote is:

It is no accident that a disproportionate number of normal siblings choose not to reproduce.

Yep. That’s me. Childless by choice. I was intrigued to find out many siblings like me make the same decision.

I can’t remember a time when I ever wanted children. I didn’t even like playing with baby dolls. I can only remember asking for two, Mattel’s Baby Tenderlove, because my best friend Julie had one and I thought it might be fun for us to switch up from playing Barbies all the time, and Ms. Peep, because Jerri was so attached to hers, the doll obviously had charms not readily apparent to the casual observer. Neither of the dolls “took.” As a child and a teen, I was rarely exposed to babies and when I was, I was not taken in by their cuteness. They meant responsibility, something I had already had more than my fair share of.

Stan and I dated for 4 years in college and when we started talking about marriage, I was extremely direct about my lack of interest in kids. I said something to the effect, “Do you want kids? Because I’m not having any and if children are important to you, you need to marry someone else.”

In the U.S., particularly in the South, people judge you for choosing not to have children.

“So, do you have children?” they ask.

“No, we don’t. It’s just the two of us.”

“Oh.” Uncomfortable pause. They struggle with how to phrase the next part. Some are more straightforward than others.

“Did you want to have children and just never . . . did?”

“No, I’ve never really wanted them. I guess I just didn’t get the “mothering” gene. (I used to be quite honest. Of course, now I’ve learned my lesson, and I tend to be more vague.)

“Oh. Well. Motherhood isn’t for everyone. It is extremely hard work. There’s a great deal of sacrifice involved. Not everyone is up for that. You can’t really climb the corporate ladder with a kid in tow. You have to put a lot of stuff on hold while they’re young. But it’s so worth it. It really is the most important work there is. I’ve always taken the Bible quite literally, you know. The whole ‘be fruitful and multiply thing’? God is really all about the family. Don’t you think he wants all of us to raise families? You could always adopt you know . . .”

You might as well grow fangs as confess you don’t want children. You are a monster either way. You are selfish, self-centered, superficial, caring only about your career or getting ahead, unwilling to sacrifice your own needs for those of someone else, not valuing the things that really matter in life, like family, a sinner, willfully defying God. No one considers that perhaps you’re scared you just won’t be any good at it or you’ll emotionally damage the child the same way you were damaged or the responsibility might be the very thing that plunges you over the edge into madness or you’ll end up with your sister’s kids down the road and instead of 2 of your own, you’ll wind up raising 6.

Not to mention that your mother has told you repeatedly for years that it doesn’t matter how good a parent you are, it’s the luck of the draw. You can still end up with a child like Jerri who will make your life a living hell. That you’ve heard your mother say so many times “Don’t ever have children” it seems permanently tatooed on your frontal cortex. In case you find this shocking, here’s another quote from Safer that shines some light:

Parents need their children to see the world through their eyes; the more disturbing and precariously held the view, the more threatening a contrary perspective can be . . .

Maybe my mother is afraid she’s responsible for what happened to Jerri whether genetically or because of bad parenting. Her belief that “you can’t help the child you end up with” is precariously held. Maybe that’s why it’s so important for the rest of us to believe it too.

You have to read between the lines a bit in The Normal One to discover the reasons why many “normal” siblings don’t have children. Not surprisingly, they reflect my own.

  • Fear of repeating the past – a past that was so traumatic the first time around, you will do whatever it takes to avoid reliving it.
  • Fear you will fail your children the way you failed your sibling.
  • Fear you will damage your children because you have no model for how to be a good parent.
  • Assumption that you will acquire care taking responsibilities for your sibling. (This one never occurred to me since Jerri was expelled from the family as a teenager.)
  • Dr. Safer reflects that many normal siblings who do have children either go to great lengths to avoid the errors their parents made or don’t believe their parents made any. Either way, they will ultimately see the faces of their damaged siblings reflected in those of their children.

    Accepting that to some degree you are inexorably bound to reproduce at least part of the essence if not the form of your original family relationships, and not only in ways you consciously choose (or wish), is a crucial step. This involves giving up the grandiose notion that you can change history.

    The truth is my history haunts me and it always will. I had hoped by not having kids I could somehow rid myself of it. Or at least, loosen its grasp. I’m not sure that I succeeded.

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    2 Comments on “Childless by Choice (The Normal One, Part 2)”

    1. Rose says:

      Terri,
      I understand your reason for not having children.
      For years, I was afraid to have children due to the risk of having a child who inherited my mother’s schizophrenia. (In those days, we were told it skipped generations.)

      I observed each of my 4 siblings having a child – all boys (one sister had 2 boys) who all seemed “normal”. Then I accidentally got pregnant and when I realized my son had red hair like my mother, I began to worry.if he would inherit her mental illness, also.

      Yes, he did. He had his first psychotic break when he was 21, although he had exhibited unstable behaviours before then. None of the doctors he saw when he was in High School could diagnose his problem even though I told them about my mother. His psychologist never referred him to a psychiatrist – a big mistake.

      While my mother had to wait decades for anti-psychotics that actually heal the brain (generally not available until the 1980’s), my son started taking the “healing” anti-psychotics as soon as he was admitted to John Umstead Hospital (now called Central Regional) in Butner in 2007. Unfortunately, they have not healed his brain adequately; he had a relapse about a year ago when he stopped taking his medication. His Dad and I have been secretly administering his medication since then.

      Even though people with schizophrenia usually live 25 years less than the average, I am 34 years older than he is, I worry about how he will cope after his Dad and I are gone. He can not take care of himself in many ways, dropped out of community college his first semester, has not had a job in 5 years, and has regressed emotionally and socially. He is an only child. I am trying to help he stay in contact with some of his cousins and hope they will help him later. He currently does not live near them and has no contact with anyone except his father, me, and his psychiatrist with OASIS.

      I remember Violette B telling us that schizophrenics usually get better after 20-30 years. I hope it is not that long. He will have a lot of catching up to do when he does get better.

      In the meantime, I will have many stressful years of trying to care for him, just as you will with Jerri. (Perhaps one day her children will undertake this responsibility?)

      • Hi Rose,

        What’s funny about my decision not to have kids is, at the time, I didn’t know Jerri had a brain disorder. I thought she was just rebelling against my parents, had used drugs and formed an addiction. Back in the 80’s, it was thought that everyone who used drugs could get addicted. I think we are now realizing that’s not really the case. That addiction is itself a brain disorder and it doesn’t happen to everyone. Plenty of kids have experimented with drugs and walked away to become contributing members of society. I believed my parents were basically good parents and there was no way to ensure your child would grow up to be a healthy, normal adult. I wasn’t willing to take the risk.

        Now of course, I look back and see how very damaged we were as a family. I think I couldd have had a child and i would have been a better parent. But maybe not. I know a lot more today than I did in my child-bearing years. I also understand there is a genetic link to mental illness. Jerri’s illness could not have been prevented by better parenting. But I do believe, her life could have been much different had my parents responded with more maturity and compassion once she was sick. I’ve been very impressed with how you have responded to your son. It is incredibly hard for you but you haven’t abandoned him. You’ve taken steps to educate yourself about his disease. You continue to work for his recovery and love him. You are living a good story. You are a hero in my book.

        Sadly, I don’t think Jerri’s children will take care of her but I do hope there will be healing in their relationships one day. Jerri’s children are estranged from her as Jerri and I are estranged from our own parents. Our parents raised Jerri’s kids. Our Mom controls the relationships. For reasons I may never understand, she didn’t want Jerri’s children to be in relationship with her and all through their childhood, she kept up a steady backlash of condemnation against Jerri. They grew up believing she was an addict who would stop using if she really loved them. They were told she was a slut and a worthless human being. When they rebelled in any way, they were told they would grow up to be just like her. They were told she was a user and if they tried to have any relationship with her, she would use them to take care of her, buy her drugs, etc. I remember what a nightmare it was when Jerri first started showing signs of illness. Despite this, I’ve had a really hard time forgiving Mom for how she has divided the family. I worry about the emotional damage that has been done to the kids. I know what it’s like to wonder what is so wrong with you that your parents can’t love you. No child should have to experience that.

        One last thing – you mentioned your son had stopped taking his medication and now you secretly administer it. Are you aware that a number of anti-psychotics are now available by injection? Zyprexa, for example, is available in a long-acting form via injection and 1 shot can last for up to 4 weeks. You probably know this, but wanted to mention it just in case.

        Terri


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