“Now you have free time, you should have children. Maybe two. At least one.”
I was too hurt to deliver one of my carefully-practiced witty responses.
It was late afternoon on the third of November, five days before the election that shocked the world. I vividly remember the cloudless blue skies over the Roosevelt Avenue train station in Jackson Heights, in the borough of Queens in New York, even though more than three years have slipped by. Just a few days earlier, we had gathered at the cafeteria of a primary school in the nearby Woodside, across the street from Adhikaar, a women-led social justice organization I had helped build and nurture for more than a decade. It was a multi-generational celebration with five-year olds to seventy five-year olds sharing a Nepali feast and dance moves. Members, staff, board, a council member even, recounted their memories of the organization and wished me well in the next phase of my life. An amazing group of women had stepped up to lead the organization into the next decade, as I had envisioned. “Mission accomplished!”
Just a few days later, someone would tell me that my life’s mission was still incomplete. It was not the first time someone had hurled a proclamation like that towards me. Family, friends, casual acquaintances, and even strangers I had just met have preached about the importance of childbearing and joys of motherhood. But this time the statement hurt more because it came from an Adhikaar member. It hurt more knowing that instead of an organizer trying to build power of immigrant workers like herself, she saw me as just a childless woman.
I am childfree by choice. My husband and I have been together for fifteen years. Early in our relationship, we deliberated “no kidding,” a life without kids. We started with different rationales but came to the same conclusion. We did not want biological children. We did not want to become caught between continents, worrying about childcare in the U.S. and elder care in Nepal. We did not feel the need to own a child. If we ever changed our minds about raising children, we would consider adoption. We have revisited the decision from time to time, and reached the same unanimous verdict.
More and more women, and men, are choosing to remain childfree. I no longer feel like a unicorn or a freak. But when we made the decision fifteen years ago, we did not have any peers or role models. Even now, among our circle of family and friends, we are still an anomaly, especially among first-generation immigrants.
We are surrounded by nieces and nephews we love, related by blood or by heart. I happily crawl around on the floor when they are babies, read books, watch reruns of “Lassie” and help out with homework assignments as they get older, or listen to the teenage angst they are not able to share with their parents. I get to pamper them, and provide much-needed time off for their parents.
I have deep respect for parents, especially immigrant parents who are raising children without the support network of their families. Parenting is not a decision to be taken lightly. Women’s reproductive choice is often synonymous with the right to abortion, but it should really be a deliberation about both when and if to bring another life into this world.
When people launch into lectures about procreation, they have no idea if I can conceive or carry a pregnancy to full term. Having decided early on to not become pregnant, I have never had to directly grapple with questions about fertility. But for more than one in ten women who struggle with infertility or for almost one in five women whose pregnancies end in miscarriage or have to make the difficult decision to end their pregnancy, it is more than a theoretical exercise.
I have seen many friends and family members struggle. Married couples have gone through multiple fertility treatments, draining their bank account and their health, not resulting in pregnancy. Many others have had miscarriages. Some had stillbirths or had to end pregnancy due to the danger to their own health. Friends who are not in “traditional” heterosexual marriages have faced additional discrimination whether they are seeking fertility treatments or adoption.
The double standards of the society puts the burden of childbearing, along with the guilt and shame of not procreating, primarily on the woman. My husband is hardly ever asked if he wants children or told that he must. Although men are responsible for 20–30 percent of infertility, surveys and statistics focus on women, and I have not come across a single essay on struggles with fertility written by a man.
My friends and family members have made many different parenting choices. I respect them all.
Most are in two-parent households. Some are in single parent households. Some friends did not find the right partner and decided not to have children, and others chose motherhood without waiting for the right partner to enter their lives. I also have friends who love their kids but still think parenting has ruined their lives. I know immigrant families who could not afford childcare in the United States and sent their young ones back home to be raised by relatives, many of whom struggle to maintain parental relationships with their children.
Not having children has allowed me to focus my love and energies elsewhere — to be there for the people I love and in the fight for justice. I spent years birthing an organization from an idea and nurturing it to sustainability, and supporting movements led by immigrants and women of color. When my father passed away, I took two months off to be with my mom. When a friend needed me, I stayed up late nights to talk and travelled halfway across the world to be with her. When a massive earthquake devastated Nepal, where I grew up, I was able to work round the clock for months to raise funds to support relief and rehabilitation efforts and support Nepali immigrants living in the U.S.
I am not a mother, but I am more than my womb. I am good at what I do — a good partner, a good daughter, a good friend, a good organizer, a good writer. I have friends who are parents, and are better than me in all of the above. I recognize that parenting is not mutually exclusive from excellence in other spheres. However, I also know that my physical and mental health would not accommodate it all. I needed to make a choice and I am perfectly happy with my imperfect life.
So, whether you can relate with my choice or not, stop asking me when I am going to have a child. And stop telling me that I should.