I was thirty-two years old when Caitlin Moran set me free.
I was sitting on the toilet in my tiny apartment in rural Platteville, Wisconsin, a town I’d moved to get some thinking and reading and writing done, a town where that’s about all you can do. At that particular moment, I was reading Moran’s astonishing book of essays, How To Be A Woman. The line which blew the locks off the mental cage I didn’t know I was inhabiting were as follows:
“We need more women who are allowed to prove their worth as people, rather than being assessed merely for their potential to create new people.”
I sat bolt upright when I read that. Then I read it again. I couldn’t believe the sensation of openness and freedom that passage gave me—I wanted to grab a penknife and carve it into every doorframe in my house. More than freedom, those words gave me something I hadn’t realized I’d wanted: permission.
Let me explain.
If you are a woman in 2018, even if you are lucky enough to have a relatively feminist family, you’ll be endlessly prompted by friends, co-workers, even well-meaning strangers to fulfill a checklist: Home. Marriage. Children. For women who hesitate before bubbling in that final, permanent choice on the “Are You a Good Woman?” test, there are a few helpful prods that others will administer:
You shouldn’t wait to have children! You never know how long it will take. (Note how deftly this timing-focused prod evades the issue of whether children are even wanted.)
He would make such a good father. (Note that the questioner will never ask the man in question if he is interested in being a father. That’s not what this is about.)
You should have children. It’s selfish not to. I already have [number]. What’s the big deal? (Misery loves company.)
And finally, the checkmate in the chess match women play against each other and themselves: What if you don’t, and then regret it?
This is the goad that got under my skin. I would poke myself with it—are you sure? Are you really sure?—at intervals, trying to awaken maternal instincts that remained stubbornly dormant. Wondering if, like a punitive O. Henry story, I would suddenly discover a ravenous yearning for babies at the exact moment my body lost the ability to conceive them. In the meanwhile, I continued gamely testing myself for parental abilities: working as a camp counselor. Teaching. Gingerly holding babies on my knee. Crucially, however, I never felt an urge to parent—either by conception or adoption, regardless of my parent friends’ breezy assurances that “when it comes to your own kids, you’ll feel differently.” The light switch stayed resolutely off.
Cut back to me, still sitting on the toilet in Platteville, Wisconsin, my legs steadily going numb, every neuron in my head alight. I felt like I’d found a doorway to Narnia in my closet; like an exam, I was dreading had been canceled. When Moran wrote that motherhood offered “nothing you couldn’t get from, say, reading the 100 greatest books in human history; learning a foreign language well enough to argue in it; climbing hills; loving recklessly; sitting quietly, alone, in the dawn; drinking whiskey with revolutionaries; learning to do close-hand magic; swimming in a river in winter […]” I got excited. I started thinking about all the books I could read, the books I could write. I imagined a room full of the embroidery supplies I love, stacked in a colorful array. I thought about visiting all the countries on my bucket list: Vietnam, Iceland, New Zealand, Scotland.
I wanted to do all of those things, and I wanted to do them now.
First, though, I’d have to get up off the can.
Cut to two years later.
I’ve packed up my life and my apartment and moved to Boston, a city containing jobs and opportunities and, crucially, the man I’ve been low-key in love with for my entire adult life. In a happy, if statistically improbable, coincidence, he’s fallen in love with me, too. We snag a tiny apartment in the city and are deliriously happy together. I write every day. I’ve started saving for travel. I even have a respectable embroidery collection. Thrilled that my gambit has paid off, I make one final attempt… at being a Good Woman. I sit my man down for a talk.
“Listen. I’m pretty sure that, if it were just me alone, I’d never have a kid. But for you, with you, I would happily have a child if you wanted one. Do you want kids?”
He looks at me like I am out of my mind. “Babe. No.”
“Are you sure? Are you really sure?” I ask. (I am getting good at asking this.) “You can think about it!”
He doesn’t have to think about it. In fact, he’s thinking about getting a vasectomy. “So we can stop spending all our money on birth control.”
Well then. I marvel at how easily he’s made this decision, how untroubled he is by the possibility of regret—when pressed, he shrugs. “If we regret it, we’ll adopt. I always thought I’d make a better uncle than a dad, anyway.” His unfazed attitude, I realize, is what making the baby decision looks like when you’re unencumbered by a lifetime of other people’s expectations. This is how not big a deal the decision can be—when you’re a man.
Back in the world of women, things aren’t so easy.
While the vasectomy has taken care of my immediate birth control needs, I’m still stuck dealing with howling menstrual cramps every month, plus a family inheritance: poorly located uterine fibroids, which make cervical dilation impossible. My uterus is like a lobster pot—easy for sperm to get in, impossible for anything larger than a sperm to get in or out. If (God forbid) I am raped, or my man’s vasectomy turns out to be imperfect, I will be looking at a reduced array of options for abortion (maybe none, depending on the political winds), and a guaranteed C-section at the end of the hypothetical pregnancy I don’t want. I grouse about all this to my OB/GYN, who makes supportive noises until I say the magic words: “Fertility isn’t something I care about maintaining.”
Suddenly, she looks up from her computer screen.
“Wait. If you really don’t want kids, and you’re sure, there are more options.”
And that’s when I decided I was done being asked that question.
Cut to me, being cut open. Laparoscopic hysterectomy means a few things: a cluster of postage-stamp-sized incisions across your abdominal muscles. The removal of your uterus through some tiny tubes. (Assuming your ovaries aren’t giving you trouble, you get to keep those—the days of automatic ovarian removal, with attendant lifelong hormone replacement, are long gone.) The sudden realization of how much you use your abdominal muscles for everything. And no periods, cramps, or need for birth control, ever again.
I’m writing this with a hot pad across my lap. Ten days out from my hysterectomy, I’m still a little sore. Snow shoveling is right out. But my mind is at peace. I’ve finally realized that the sharp stick I used to poke myself with—“Are you sure? Are you really sure?” was just a way to distract myself from the fact that I already knew what I wanted. I just had to gain the courage to name my desire.
So: maybe you’re stuck in a cage. Maybe you already secretly know what you want, too. Know this:
You are enough.
You don’t have to make another person to earn your spot on this big beautiful earth.
You are enough.
You can do the thing yourself—write the novel, make the movie, start the peace process, build the supercomputer. You don’t have to raise someone else and hope they accomplish it instead. The terrifying, wonderful news is that they won’t. That’s your desire, to fulfill or not. And guess what?
You are enough.