Jack and I have found ourselves back in couples therapy. We’re there because Things are Hard, which is my go-to phrase for when I’m angry and scared and don’t really want to explore the reasons why, though I know I should.
Things are Hard in large part because we’re finally in the midst of The Conversation that we’ve been putting off for, oh, nine years. We’re trying to decide, both individually and together, whether we want to have kids. Outside of a therapy office, we can only engage in The Conversation in two-minute spurts before despair and exhaustion set in.
What makes The Conversation so hard is that Jack knows exactly what he wants, whereas I’ve never had the chance to know what I want.
Sometimes I worry that I make half of my feminist shit up. When I say things like “I’ve never had the chance to know what I want,” I worry that that’s my own damn fault. So imagine the relief I felt when the most recent issue of Geez (a Canadian progressive Christian magazine that I subscribe to) had an article called “Childfree,” written by a near-40-year-old who never in her life wanted children.
I feel the suffocating weight of the narratives that I am a traitor to womanhood… that I am an incomplete woman… I am a selfish woman. A frivolous woman. Barely a real woman at all.
I am implored to consider the lonely death I will face, my future demise bereft of children to care for me, as if all children care for their elderly parents and such is their obligation. I am urged to imagine how terribly lonely it will be if my partner dies before me, as if his death would not be precisely the same heart-shattering misery even if we had children. As if anyone could take his place.
I am asked if I don’t worry about regretting not having had children, as though it would be better that I had children just in case, even if it meant that I might regret having them, once they were here.
I read that article with a grateful sigh. When Jack got home, I handed him the magazine before he even made it all the way up the entryway stairs. “This is required reading,” I said.
He put down his bag, sat on the couch with his shoes still on, and started reading.
“I get what she’s saying,” he said after a long two minutes, “But I really agree with the other people who are saying the things she doesn’t like, about how children bring meaning and self-worth.”
He might have had more to say, but I had burst into tears and left the room. “NOT THE RIGHT RESPONSE,” I yelled from the bathroom.
A minute later Jack called wearily “I’m re-reading it!” I came back in.
“I see what she means,” Jack said, slower and more carefully, “How unfair the expectation is that she should want kids. And I definitely get why you relate to that. But… Do you understand where I’m coming from?”
But what about me? The battle cry of the privileged. I couldn’t believe that just came out of the mouth of my own spouse, in my own living room, with Boob Jesus watching spacily over us. I wanted to look up at her and say, Step up, you useless bitch. You teach him. I’m tired.
I told Jack with a coldness I couldn’t contain that Yes, I understand. I understand his feelings because they’re the ones I’m supposed to have felt my whole life. The problem is that I understand that perspective— children bring meaning and purpose, children are the default for White married women, childlessness is selfishness— more than I understand my own thoughts.
And, I also understand because, unlike the author of this article who is all No, I am some Yes and some No when it comes to having kids. And I keep trying to pack up all my scattered belongings from the No campground and move them all to the Yes, because that’s where everyone, especially Jack, wants me to be. They’re all waiting for me, promising that when I move in permanently it’ll be a lifelong party with beer and s’mores, even though every time I visit it seems more like a sleepless hangover that never ends.
My own therapist, a man of very few words, recently suggested, “You want Jack to stay with you in the real possibility that you won’t have kids.”
He’s right. But that starts with me living in that real possibility, and that is a hard place to stay, even by myself. Words float unbidden into that space, words like meaningless, worthless, and, of course, selfish. Oh lord, selfish. What will become of me if I ever go a week without that word asserting its continued unwelcome presence in my life?
So that’s what we’ve been working on in couple’s therapy: Understanding Christine’s No, understanding Jack’s Yes. Living within each other’s reality, otherwise known as empathy. I’m furious at having to do this.
When we left our appointment last week I was ready to bid Jack a curt goodbye as we split off for our separate workplaces. Surely he must hate this process as much as me, I thought. He probably hates me, hates my No. Everyone has always hated my No.
But he opened his arms for a hug. “You’re so brave,” he said. “You have to speak against a lot of people who want to tell you what to do.”
So, with *some* help from Jack, I’m working on being brave, speaking my truth, and all those other phrases that sounds trite and peppy until you really know what they mean, and what they might cost.
My evangelical training taught me to keep my stories silent until I reached the happy endings. That is so tempting right now. I prefer to write when I’ve already had and acted on some brilliant insight. How I love to see myself at the end of every story, standing in the clearing and shouting encouragement to others who are still wandering the forest. But with this one, I’m in the thick of it. I’m ambivalent and angry. I am as uncertain as I’ve ever felt about anything. Every tree around me is so insurmountably tall and wide that I have trouble believing there are any paths leading out.