No, You Don’t Always Love Kids Once They’re Yours

Photographed by Winnie Au.
Something happens when you get married. It isn’t just a change between you and your partner, or even a change within yourself, but a total transformation in how others see you. People start treating you like an adult when, the day before your wedding, even if you’ve lived in domestic bliss for years, you were still a child to them. Very Serious Topics start coming up with greater frequency. “Are you thinking of settling down in the area?” “Any plans to buy a house?” My personal favorite: “So, who wears the pants?”
This one’s often meant as a joke, of course, but I still have a serious answer: “Well, we’re both usually wearing pants.” I mean it literally, and yet it’s still funny — or at least, more fun than hearing a fiery tirade about my egalitarian relationship with my husband and the feminist politics that we have shared from the beginning of our relationship.
Advertisement
But one remark dwarfs all the others in both frequency and impact. Very often, when a stranger or acquaintance finds out that I’m married, they ask the question that I most dread: “So, when are you two going to have kids?” A question bound up in assumptions.
Never, I think. But, as with the pants question, I usually tone it down for the sake of amiable conversation.
People my age are increasingly putting off or deciding against having children. For some, that's motivated by economic precariousness and uncertainty about the future. Others might cite how difficult it is to raise a child in this day and age, with threats all around — both real and imagined. Maybe it’s global climate change, and the fear that your kids will be left living in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. There's a tired and incorrect stereotype that feminists simply hate children and don’t want families. I, as a feminist who does not want a family, can reconcile this in my own mind. But generally speaking, my decision to not have children is not political. It is deeply personal.
To be brutally honest, I don’t like kids. I don’t hate them, I just feel uncomfortable around them. I don’t know how to talk to them. They kind of annoy me. Parents love to tell you, “Oh, it’s different when they’re yours!” When they’re yours, you’ll love them, they say. All of that frustration and awkwardness will disappear, and you will suddenly cherish your child through the magic of DNA transmission, hormones, sharing blood. And I’m sure that is true for some people. But there is a dark reality that rarely gets spoken aloud. For some people, it’s not different when they’re yours.
Advertisement
There are parents who do not love their children, and I know this truth the same way I know that in Florida in the summer, it rains every day at 3 p.m. sharp and stops abruptly at 3:30. I have lived it.

And no matter how loving and kind, supportive and attentive a parent is, I believe — no, I know — that children can sense when they are resented. When they are not wanted.

As a child, I was a daddy’s girl. He could do no wrong. When the police came to our house in the middle of the night to arrest him for domestic battery, it was surely not his fault. When he got drunk and slept until 1 p.m., leaving me alone and hungry all morning, he was just tired. I understood. It wasn’t until I was about 11 that he finally started to fall from grace in my eyes.
My parents had been divorced for nearly a decade by this point, and for a year my father lived three hours away from me. It was painful for me, because visits were relatively infrequent — once every two or three weeks. I pleaded with him to find work closer to me, but he always had an excuse. Nonetheless, as the daddy’s girl, I understood. This was grown-up stuff. It was just impossible.
Then he met a woman and, within a few months, they got married and he moved in with her, about 20 minutes from where I lived with my mother. She was a lovely woman, and I got along with her and her two children very well. But I was resentful. Had I not been worth moving for? Why was this relative stranger more of a reason to pack up his life and move than I was? And why, now that he lived so close, did he not see me more often? Where were the Wednesday night dinners or Sunday afternoon park visits that I had dreamed of? And like that, the spark was lit. My naïveté was cracking.
Advertisement
The crack deepened one hot and muggy Florida Saturday when he just plain forgot me. I was 12, and I will never forget that I had chosen his visit over a birthday party that would include a limo ride to the movies. (A limo ride!) He was supposed to pick me up in the morning, and being the responsible 12-year-old that I was I woke early, packed up the little pink suitcase I always brought with me to his house, and, in my excitement, locked up the house to stand by the road a bit early. He would certainly be glad that I was all ready to go — very grown-up. I waited. And waited. By now the sun was higher in the sky, it was getting hotter. I was thirsty. I don’t know exactly how long I waited outside, but it seemed like an eternity at the time. I called him: No answer. Night fell. I had cried most of the day. I waited for his call. It didn’t come.
That night I called again, and he answered, groggy and slurring. He had crashed his car the night before and spent all day working on it. He was sorry. He didn’t mean to. Did I forgive him? I didn’t answer.
Months later, we had a fight. It was Father’s Day, and when I forgot to help carry some groceries inside he called me the laziest little girl in the world. I absolutely snapped. I told him he could not speak to me that way. I had never screamed at him before, but I was now. I was nearing 13 and still harboring anger about the time he forgot me, and remembering other times and events that now struck me as neglect, or at least indifference. He, in turn, said I was behaving like a child, that I was ungrateful, and some other very nasty things. Things that made me feel unloved, unwanted, burdensome. Despite my rage, I also felt that I had fallen short of being a good daughter. I ended my weekend visit by calling my mother to come pick me up. He didn’t even walk with me to the front of the apartment complex. He stood in the doorway and shouted at me to “Get your ass back here right now!” as I walked away in the blistering Florida heat, pink suitcase in tow.
For weeks, I asked my mother if he had called for me. I just knew that eventually he would pick up the phone to apologize, to admit that he had been wrong. But the call never came. It broke my mother’s and stepfather's hearts. I cried myself to sleep at night. I considered calling him, but resolved that I was not at fault. I was not to blame. I would not concede. I inherited my strong will (read: stubbornness) from both sides of my parentage, and it has almost always served me well.
We did not speak for another 12 years, when I reconnected with him through Facebook. It was mostly out of curiosity. What was he like now? Had he changed? Was he happy? Did he ever miss me? But I found out quickly that he had not changed much. He blamed me for our estrangement. He blamed his 12-year-old daughter for taking his insults personally, for not being the first to try to rectify the split. But I have always secretly held a fear in my heart — that it wasn’t his stubbornness or his temper or even his alcoholism that caused him to abandon me. It was that he felt like a burden had been lifted. Maybe he was just glad to see me go.

But being worthy of love and knowing how to do it is still not enough of a reason to have a child of my own.

Then, two years later, he messaged me out of the blue to chastise me for unfriending him on Facebook. (What strange times we are living in.) I replied that I unfriended him because it was painful to be reminded of him. It turned into a heated argument, yet another litigation over who was to blame and who should have called whom. He called me crazy, “just like your grandmother!” who, incidentally, suffered from bipolar disorder, as I do. He called me an immature child, and many all-caps fuck-yous were exchanged. There was no doubt then, as I deleted the message thread so hate-filled it made me sick, that he did not love me; that quite possibly, he never had. And suddenly I was 12 again. Crying. Looking for a father that did not exist.
In fact, I had been looking in the wrong place. My stepfather has loved me more fully than I could have hoped. Blood and DNA do not ensure loving bonds between child and parent. Parenting is a connection based on unconditional love, respect, and care. This is what my true father has shown me, and I am eternally grateful to him. He is a daily reminder that I am worthy of a father’s love. Thanks to the love from both him and my mother, and now my husband, I know how to love.
But being worthy of love and knowing how to do it is still not enough of a reason to have a child of my own. I know without a doubt that I would never abuse a child. I would never abandon one, as I was abandoned. I do not have that kind of selfishness and hatefulness and depravity in me. But I know very well that I might resent them. And no matter how loving and kind, supportive and attentive a parent is, I believe — no, I know — that children can sense when they are resented. When they are not wanted.
I have often heard people claim that not having children is selfish — that it’s a shirking of responsibility, based on petty desires to be comfortable and travel and sleep late on weekends. But mine is a choice between two possible outcomes: That I may have children and regret it, or that I may not have children and regret it. The latter would certainly be sad, a decision that I could never take back. But the first impacts another human being for the rest of their life, and the second impacts only me. If making the second choice is selfish, then I must be using a different definition of the term.
I think for most people, asking a person about their plans to have children seems like a pretty innocuous question. And when they push the subject — tell you that you’ll change your mind, that it’s different when they’re yours, that having children will give your life meaning — I wonder if they can imagine all of the different reasons someone might have when they make the very difficult decision to forgo being a parent. I wonder if they have any sense of how hurtful it is to hear that, “It’s different when they’re yours.” Because sometimes, it isn’t.