“This above all: to thine own self be true”. – William Shakespeare
When I was in my twenties, I was diagnosed with a cyst on my left ovary. Fortunately, it was nothing serious, but I did have to have surgery to remove it. Some cysts can get pretty big. Mine was so big I named him Seymour. Seymour Cyst. By the time I had Seymour Cyst removed, my doctor assumed she would have to remove the entire left ovary. She informed me it would reduce my fertility. I had always known I did not want biological children so this was not a concern of mine.
Still, my doctor would not be dissuaded from considering the issue of fertility in her decision to try and save my ovary. When I woke up from surgery my doctor announced she was able to save the ovary by cutting the cyst around it. Five years later, however, the cyst had grown back. I insisted that my doctor remove the ovary this time and she did. Again, she expressed her concern about fertility. Again, I confirmed that I still knew what I had known before. I would not be having children.
The appearance of Seymour Cyst was one of many times that I have bumped up against the stereotype that all women desperately want to bear children at some point in their lives. Well, I’m here to set the record straight. That isn’t true. There is no ‘default setting’ in any human being causing us to want children. It is not as if something must have “gone wrong” in order to arrive at a childfree place. For some, the idea of having children was simply never considered in the first place.
Back to my doctor and the removal of Seymour Cyst. Just prior to surgery, I asked my doctor for advice on permanent birth control options since I didn’t like the idea of exposing myself to the risks of stroke or heart attack while being on the birth control pill. Instead of rattling off a myriad of options, my doctor told me that I would probably change my mind someday and decide to have children. She actually said, “What if you meet a man who wants you to bear his children?” She tried to convince me that I was too young to do anything permanent.
I asked her if she gave that same speech to the younger patients who come into her office looking for guidance on starting a family. Would my doctor try to convince that patient that she was too young to do anything permanent – like have a child? Somehow, I don’t think that conversation ever happened. Needless to say, I promptly found another doctor.
I felt such frustration at my repeated attempts to be seen and heard. I felt that I was being told that I did not know my own mind. I was disgusted at the message women were given – that they were powerless and had no control over their options in life. I felt that many women had passively accepted that gender bound them to a life of taking care of other people. I knew this was not my purpose and I resented it when others – especially women – perpetuated these myths.
I have now officially passed through my childbearing years and as I have always intended, I do not have biological children. I thoroughly enjoy being an aunt and more recently, a stepmom.
I am not alone. In 2010, one in five women will end her childbearing years without having any children. This is compared to only one in ten women remaining childfree in the 1970s. The availability of career options and birth control are cited as reasons why birth rates among women have changed so much over time. I have seen this shift in my lifetime and I guess I had assumed that the younger generation of women understood that they had options – even more than my own generation did.
So, I was pretty heartbroken recently when a friend’s 14-year old daughter who said she didn’t want to have children was told by her female friends that she “had to”. In an instant her story brought me back to how I had been ignored as a young woman and told that I had no choices in how I led my life. I guess we still have a long way to go. Isn’t it time to stop sending limiting messages to women once and for all?