Motherhood Isn’t Always A Choice

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For years, Tamara Linse wanted to have a baby, and she could get pregnant, just couldn’t stay pregnant. So “choosing” to have kids isn’t always that simple.

As I read the recent article “Having It All Without Children” in Time magazine, I was struck time and again with the word choice. Women choose to have children, while other women choose not to. Some variation of the word occurs throughout the article.

Choice is not a word I would have applied to motherhood in 1998. I was 29, and my husband and I had been married for five years. We wanted to wait to have children until we paid off our car payments and student loans, both of us working two jobs, and had remodeled the early 20th century Victorian we bought the year we married. We were nesting. We didn’t think of it that way, but there’s no other way to put it.

I should take a step back. Growing up, I was not a baby person. I was the youngest of seven, so there weren’t a lot of babies around for me to take care of. I didn’t gravitate toward babies, but I liked them, and I always thought I’d have a couple. Of course I would: My mom had had seven, and one of my sisters had seven, along with four step-children.

But then, at age 29, my husband and I lost our first baby at six months’ gestation. I went to that particular appointment by myself, and so I was alone when the matronly OB/GYN told me that the ultrasound showed no heartbeat. She had this look in her eye I will never forget. Compassion and empathy, certainly, but also a withdrawal, as if I had something, as if I were something that she had to protect herself against, the emotional equivalent of crossing herself.

It’s hard to describe how I felt. I was in shock certainly. I didn’t cry until I called my husband. But what I remember most about that time—and the four subsequent times we lost babies at eight to twelve weeks’ gestation—is how I’d rearrange my whole world, my whole future, to include my son or my daughter. I would plan the due date and how I would work in my maternity leave and fill my days. I would wonder what color his hair would be—maybe dirty blonde like mine or brown like my husband’s, which would be peppered gray in his late teens and early twenties? Would her fingers be rubbery and flexible like my husband’s or stiff like mine? Would she be strong and funny? Would he be sensitive and athletic? And then it would happen. My future would be taken from me, ripped away while I stood helplessly by, betrayed by my own body.

The next day the doctor induced labor, and I gave birth to a son. He was perfect and dead, and they gave me so much Versed—for their comfort not mine, I’m convinced—that when I held him in my arms afterward I could not feel a thing.

As it turns out, we could get pregnant—we just couldn’t stay pregnant. I use that euphemism, the royal “we,” but we didn’t lose the baby—I did. It was my body that could not sustain a pregnancy. It was me who failed. 

Well-meaning friends tried to assure me. They said things like, “Stop trying. Then it’ll happen.” Or they said, “Why don’t you begin adoption proceedings? You hear of people all the time who get pregnant when they start to adopt.” What they didn’t realize is that what they were saying is that it was my fault, that I wasn’t doing it right. If only I would eat the right foods/have sex in the right way/relax for God’s sake, it would happen. Didn’t they know that I would have given anything in the world to do it right?

The worst was one of my own sisters. She said, “If God meant for you to have a child, you’d have one.” As if God had singled me out for this torture, as if I’d done something to deserve it. 

But, I’m one of the ones that modern medicine has saved. I have my happy ending, and I had a choice after all—one that many women do not have because they lack the financial resources to take advantage of it. I now have my own twins, flesh of my flesh, a son and a daughter who are 7. But our solution was expensive, out of the price range of many families.

So you can see why the word choice galls me. We’ve made tremendous gains, and a lot of women do have much more of a choice than we used to, as evidenced by the 9% decline in the fertility rate that is mentioned in the Time article. And that’s great. But let’s not pretend that we’ve completely fixed the problem. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10.9% of women ages 15-44 in the United States has impaired fecundity, which amounts to 6.7 million women. Six percent of married women ages 15-44 are actually infertile (not being able to get pregnant after one year of unprotected sex). And there’s no way to quantify the number of women who have children who don’t want to. 

The Time article glosses over these issues: “With fertility treatment widely available, not to mention adoption, even clinically infertile women have more options than ever to become mothers …” To make it sound like we’ve come so far, that women can blithely either have kids or not, ignores a fundamental truth: Women often don’t have a choice. Every day women are forced to have children when they don’t want to, either because of social pressures or lack of access to contraception or other reasons, and every day there are women who want children but cannot have them. 

To put a point on it: “In the past we assumed it was out of a woman’s control (whether or not she had a child). Now we think it’s her choice, so we can blame her,” the article states, quoting Amy Richards, author of Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself. Let’s not forget that there are still many women who do not have a choice.

Tamara Linse is a fiction writer and an editor for a university foundation in Wyoming. She writes the blog Writer, Cogitator, Recovering Ranch Girl and captures the world’s beauty in a photo Project 365. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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