When I recently started worrying that I might die childless, I decided to talk to my only intentionally childless friends. To protect their privacy, let's call them Nick and Nora.
Did you ever want to have children?
Nick: When I was younger I never believed in getting married or having kids. I liked relationships, but I thought marriage was a silly bourgeois institution.
What changed your mind about marriage?
I fell in love with Nora.
But you didn't change your mind about kids?
No. Early on, I told Nora that having children wasn't important to me. Reproducing seemed anachronistic. It's a kind of immature sentiment, but it's there.
She agreed with me. But we left it open to maybe change our minds. Then 11 years into the marriage, Nora had major heart surgery. After the surgery, it was like, ‘OK, we're definitely not gonna have kids.' I decided to have a vasectomy. And then during that process, I started to feel emotionally agitated, so we made an appointment to talk to a counselor. I was surprised to find that there was this sense that it might be wrong.
Did the counselor help?
She was sympathetic but really couldn't help. So I meditated, did tarot readings, ritualized it in a pagan way. I discovered that I had to mourn the possibility of being a parent, accept it as a loss. And it became a source of power. I stepped into embracing being childless when I accepted the death of that future possibility. It ritualized giving up one range of possibilities for another. Maybe I wouldn't have been as committed to art if I had kids.
Have you subsequently ever had doubts about the choice?
No. Ultimately, the quality of our marriage is that it is directly correlated with our choice to be central to each other's identity.
How did you come to decide not to have kids?
Nora: I adored my aunt and uncle. They didn't have kids and they traveled, were wealthy and seemed to lead these fabulous lives of travel and adventure, and that appealed to me. And I had another friend, a teacher I admired who had no kids. And she had such a free life.
Years later, I find out that my aunt and uncle were bummed out! They really, really wanted kids. And then I found out recently that my teacher friend also desperately wanted them. I had always looked up to these people as my examples, and now I feel more like an anomaly. I totally love kids, but I'm always happy to give them back. I have pangs that I won't have that experience of giving birth, but I nurture the ones around me. I think Nick and I would be marvelous parents, but it would be dangerous.
So what about those pangs?
It's just a fleeting feeling. We've had a few intense moments. For instance, Nick and I have two very different memories of why we saw a counselor before the vasectomy. My memory of it is that we had to go because of insurance. Suddenly, it was clear [having children] wasn't going to happen. At the counselor, I couldn't stop crying. Just deep sadness, intense emotion.
Did the counselor help?
No, it was not really useful. It was just because of the insurance that we went, and it provided no resolution. But the deep emotional-sure, it was cathartic. It was a step toward finality. But I wouldn't say I'm sorry I don't have kids.
Did you ever want them?
When we were just friends, I told him I wasn't smoking or drinking, that I was being healthy in case I ever wanted to have kids.
What happened to make you so certain you didn't?
I think it's how I really felt. I was just trying it on, saying, ‘I might have kids.' I've never agonized over it. I remember when Nick was very, very ill, thinking, ‘I wish I had a kid because if I lose him, I have nothing else but him. But he got better. But I didn't really picture having kids.
How much do you think your health has played into your decision?
I'd say it's 10 percent health and 90 percent I just don't want to have them. People who have kids don't know what it's like to have our kind of amazing relationship, just a partnership. Maybe it's a little selfish. And that's why I'm in the streets, you know, trying to save the planet. There's a nuclear threat. And little kids need healthcare. My political activism is for future generations. I love my life and I cherish our time. I like being us.
Their story deflates the myth of the easy, selfish path of childlessness: Consider Nick's intellectual struggle to create a ritual of meaning to formalize the choice in a sacred context or Nora's deep emotional catharsis when that ritual literally and figuratively severed the possibility from their lives. Or consider the private agony underlying the glamorous lives of Nora's childless heroes. Childlessness may simplify your life, but that doesn't make it a simple choice. As for selfishness, this is one righteously generous, productive and unselfish couple; clearly, the world needs as much art and activism as it does kids, maybe even a little more.
But it's not just the myth of childlessness as easy street that Nick and Nora debunk; it's also the myth of the imperative to have children. It may be a struggle to make sense of a unique choice, to give up a world of possibility-even what feels natural or normal. But it's good to have people like Nick and Nora to remind us of the power of “accepting the death of future possibility” for the sake of finding new, creative ways to live. I don't know that my future is any more certain after talking with them, but I'm certainly less worried about it.