In the two months since the Supreme Court took away people’s right to control their own bodies with their decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the discourse has rightfully centered on people with uteruses—their agency, their safety, their identities as anything other than vessels. Meanwhile, anti-choice activists have continued to rail about how they’re providing a voice to those voiceless zygotes and fetuses, claiming omniscience: They’re confident each and every one of those clumps of cells, if given the choice, would choose to be born.
But maybe those unwanted babies don’t deserve this either. I’m part of an amorphous group of people, distinct from adoptees, born to mothers who never really wanted children, and my experience—my own stunted emotional expression, my cold, lonely childhood, and my scrambled idea of what a healthy relationship looks like—makes me more convinced than ever that no one should be forced into parenthood.
When my mother conceived my older sibling in the ’80s, it wasn’t an accident—rather a sign of defeat, a white flag she waved in both my father’s and society’s faces. From childhood on, she knew she didn’t want kids. She’d envisioned a future with a bustling farm and far-flung travel, the science career she loved. (She told me this later, matter-of-factly, the way you’d relay that you studied Spanish in high school.) I’m not sure why, straight out of college, she married my controlling, traditional, from-a-huge-family dad. I think I understand why he married her though: He figured she’d change her mind. Surely she’d believe those who assured her that her motherly instincts would kick in when she held her child in her arms. And if the ticking of her biological clock didn’t crescendo on its own, he’d convince her. And he did. Two kids, one after another.
She quit her job to raise us…and never forgave us for it.
From the outside, we were a normal family: playgrounds, picnics, a literal picket fence. It wasn’t until my 30s that I recognized just how deeply my mom’s resentment affected me. The groans and eye rolls, signs that I was nothing but a pain in the ass. I can still hear her power-sigh, an audible signal of her resignation or exhaustion or exasperation or sometimes all three.
We were punished for annoying but inevitable kiddie things, like spilling a cup of juice, skinning a knee, or singing a song too many times in a row. One of my earliest memories is of calling my mom into the bathroom shortly after I’d been potty-trained because I needed help wiping myself clean. My chest still contracts remembering the annoyance in her eyes—how she looked trapped, miserable, exasperated with messy, relentless toddler-age me, always needing, needing, needing.
My survival instinct kicked in. I knew I needed my mom’s care—her love—to survive, so I studied her responses like they were a code to decipher: If I could just learn how not to annoy her (in other words, if I could be perfect), I’d be okay. She seemed to hate doing things for me, so I did my best to stifle my needs, to become autonomous ASAP. I read the room and kept the peace and elevated her comfort above my own (ingrained habits that have me people-pleasing and suppressing my own needs decades later). I could bathe and dress without assistance when I was 3 (a fact relatives later recounted with pride). In the eighth grade yearbook, I took home the superlative “most mature.” Recently, a high school friend told me her mother still recalls with horror the time I called her from a pay phone and calmly, politely asked her to pick me up because I couldn’t get ahold of my own parents. (What does it say about my childhood that I don’t even remember that?)
With little-kid logic, I also felt compelled to excel, to earn my mom’s acceptance and give her a solid reason to love me. I figured if I could just be good enough—a star student, polite and charming, a pleasure to have in class—I could stem her exasperation. (Former “well-behaved” kids, I see you.) I had no way of knowing that the “annoying” things I did (needing a permission slip signed, cutting my leg on a fence, asking for the meaning of an unfamiliar word in a book) were normal and natural, not cause for disgruntlement, let alone punishment.
But the damage was done. Cue the oh-so-common ramifications in my adult life: conflation of performance with worth, fear of abandonment, an aversion to being vulnerable or letting someone get too close, difficulty stating my needs, extreme self-sufficiency, shame and guilt around asking for help, doubt that anyone could love me unconditionally, etc., etc.
To be clear, I’m not blaming my mother. I didn’t write this to enumerate her shortcomings or whine about my upbringing. To some, my complaints will seem minor: The only physical abuse I endured was spanking, and my basic needs—food, shelter, clothing—were always met. And I cringe at the ribbon of misogyny running through my logic: Why was it exclusively my mom’s job to make us feel safe, accepted, and loved, especially when my father was the one who wanted kids? But here I sputter out, bereft of memories of anyone other than my mother taking care of us. She was a full-time homemaker and he brought home the bacon and frequently traveled for work. Why did she seem to blame us for the A Doll’s House–esque prison she found herself in? I don’t have the answer. But I do know firsthand what happens when even someone with a safety net (wealth, health, a partner, insurance…) brings a baby into the world when their heart’s not in it.
I suspect my experience is more common than you’d think. One study estimates that 40 percent (!) of adults have an insecure attachment style, meaning when they were infants, their primary caregivers weren’t responsive to their needs and failed to form a close emotional bond with them—events that shape their goals, coping strategies, expectations, and relationships for the rest of their lives. About 1 in 25 people has complex PTSD, a condition linked with ongoing childhood trauma (ding, ding, ding). Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child (aimed at adults in my boat, ones who learned at an early age to repress their feelings and needs in an attempt to please their parents), published 33 years ago, was an international best seller.
The huge size of my cohort isn’t surprising when you consider that just a couple of generations ago, women (like my mom) were simply expected to have children—their dreams, hopes, and desires be damned. In fact, the “childless by choice” lifestyle is a recent invention: Witness this 2013 Time magazine cover story spotlighting the buzzy new “Childfree Life.” Thirty years ago, the proportion of women in their late 40s who didn’t have kids was half what it is today. Societal pressure was pushing women into motherhood even before draconian Supreme Court rulings codified that coercion.
While my parents intended no malice, I mourn for my younger self, who from birth intuited that her existence was a burden—and for my mother, who was talked out of pursuing the life she wanted. I can’t really blame her for disliking raising us, especially given how strictly my parents adhered to gender norms. After all, study after study shows that parenthood—and motherhood in particular—is tough…and possibly getting tougher by the day. A landmark report found that women enjoy childcare less than cooking and about as much as they like housework. A University of Austin study comparing happiness in parents vs. non-parents found that the U.S. has the largest gap among industrialized societies. Why? UNICEF’s ranking of countries’ parent-friendly childcare policies sheds some light: The U.S. is at the very bottom.
Even in the face of all the evidence blaring, “Child-rearing is not super fun nor is it for everyone!!!” few parents, especially those who identify as female, can publicly admit they don’t enjoy parenthood (journalist Arianna Rebolini is one memorable exception). But it’s time to stop pretending every baby is a blessing, because it isn’t just the reluctant parent who suffers—the kid feels the brunt of it too. The Turnaway Study, a long-term analysis of women denied abortions, confirms the obvious: Their children fare worse than peers. An unrelated study of unplanned pregnancies put it this way: “There are significant and important improvements in the lives of mistimed children if they are instead born when their mothers are…more prepared to be a parent.”
Years of therapy (and a spate of self-help books: May I recommend The Dance of Intimacy, Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, and Codependent No More?) helped me slowly unlearn unhealthy coping mechanisms and let go of lingering anger. But the Dobbs decision, a cruel declaration that the state knows better than those who are pregnant, brought the fury right back up to the surface. Even my decision to publish this essay anonymously stems from those childhood insecurities—the ferocious fear of displeasing my parents, pure panic at the thought of them feeling hurt by my actions. I learned that the way to survive was to make them happy and proud and to never ever have (let alone share) thoughts and emotions that they wouldn’t like. I’m embarrassed that those ropes bind me still, but even now, I can’t help prioritizing their comfort and approval over my own experience.
My friends are starting families now, and I see firsthand how incredibly difficult child-rearing is even when those tots are desperately wanted and fiercely loved. My partner and I are on the fence about having kids ourselves, especially as we watch the planet heat and our nation skid toward fascism, and we’re lucky to have the option to wait….If we reproduce, we’ll give our offspring the gift of two willing, committed parents, not prisoners locked into a lifetime of parental servitude. No one should be forced into that, and when people have no choice but to raise kids they aren’t ready for or sure they want—even when there’s no rape, incest, danger to the mother’s life, or even birth control failure—their kids will pay the price.
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