The decision to have children is one of the biggest a person can make in their life, or not. By that I mean that for many, becoming a parent is an assumption they have had about their future since they can remember, but for others it really isn’t. And I can relate to that.
A familiar path in so many cultures is to ‘grow up’ (which means different things depending on where you do your growing), find a partner, have kids, and then wait for them to have kids. It’s a heteronormative and cis centric expectation that works for some and not for others, but it is the default, and any deviation requires a full and thorough explanation to family, friends, and strangers. Any couple who has been together for ‘long enough’ has been asked about their plans for procreating. The interrogator’s entitlement to this information is so complete that almost no answer will be satisfactory. Their message is clear; children complete you.
I did my growing in West London right next to Heathrow airport in the 90’s and 2000’s where the prevailing feminist message was that women could ‘Have It All’. At the time I assumed ‘It’ included children and this always struck me as odd. From my observations it seemed like children would prevent you from doing a lot of stuff that you could otherwise be doing in your quest for completeness. What I knew about children – and this was confirmed once I had one – was that they have no regard for your priorities, goals, finances, or happiness. Contrary to popular belief you can love your child unconditionally and still understand this.
I wasn’t exactly sure what the other components of 'It' were, but this was my best guess on the package: 1) an impressive career; 2) a nice husband who was completely obsessed with you; and 3) kids who thought you were a great mum. The noughties, as us Brits call them, were a particularly harsh time to be an adolescent girl and few of us came out of them with self-esteems unscathed. The criteria for beauty were strict, unobtainable, and revolved entirely around the ability to satisfy men. Lad mags ruled and girls were surrounded by billboards showing white, blonde women of impossible proportions with their titties pushed together and upwards in aggressively underwired bras. Looking the same as those women seemed to be an important part of the equation to achieve component no. 2) because how else would you hold a man’s attention and possibly no. 1) because attractive people get promotions.
As for component no. 3), what I knew about having children (and again, this has since been confirmed for me) was that they didn’t leave your body in the condition that they found it. I’d heard that pregnancy and childbirth would leave you with all kinds of hideous deformities, like torn vaginas, stretch marks, saggy boobs, facial hair, and wide hips so it was unclear how my nice husband would find me attractive again after I had his kids. Obviously, it never occurred to me until much later that women could hold their new bodies with pride or be grateful for what they were capable of. Instead, my question was how was I supposed to progress in my impressive career now that I looked like a mum (heaven forbid) and had to spend all this time with these kids? Not to mention the additional challenge of finding a nice husband who would be proud of me for my impressive career, as long as he earnt more money than me. I came to a terrible realization; my components of 'It' were incompatible with each other, and I had nothing to replace them with.
Having a baby did not complete me or my family. What it did do was quiet the relentless negative commentary in my brain by focusing my attention on an altogether different set of demands; 1) feed me; 2) change me; 3) put me to sleep. With these three clear possibilities, I didn’t need to replay conversations in my head on a loop or spend precious time and energy trying to decipher coded messages. I didn’t need to wear makeup every day or think about how skinny I looked. All I had to do was one of those three things and although I was tired, it wasn’t in the same way that I had been. It’s also important to note that I was on a hefty dose of Prozac at the time, which helped no end. Was a newborn baby the only thing that could have achieved this mental peace for me? I have no idea, but it’s the unexpected thing that happened.
With my newly found quiet mind I had the space to consider what ‘It’ meant for me. I decided that the main things I wanted to focus on were to banish the constant negative self-talk, take steps towards liking myself, and nurture the creative spark that I thought I had lost forever to see where it would lead me. I didn’t realize at the time how intertwined all those things were.
I used to think that the biggest lie women had ever been told was that we could ‘Have It All’. Now I think it's the definition of ‘It’ and how it has been manipulated to control our bodies and thought patterns and to sell us an ever-growing list of stuff we’ve been told we need. The only possible reason a person would maintain the definition of ‘It’ that has been forced down our throats and that is in direct conflict with itself, is if they haven’t yet found the time, space, or energy to think about what ‘It’ means for them. When I think of time, space, and energy, I definitely do not think babies. Maybe we can ‘Have It All’, but we'll need to decide what that means for ourselves.
**In this article I refer to women as those affected by the pressures to ‘Have It All’. This is for simplicity only. I believe that trans women are women and trans men are men, meaning not all women have uteruses and not all those who give birth are women.