I was 24 before I first realized you could be a woman, live your life and not have kids. Or even not be married when you are “old.” (And by “old” I mean in your 40s because that’s what I thought was “old” was back then, this-author-writes-as-she-rapidly-approaches-age-40).
It was at my second job out of college I worked with a woman who was 42, child-free, single and living alone. And I remember it being almost a revelation to me that “Wow, she didn’t have kids. Like, she’s past that point in her life now that’s even an option.”
Now a few caveats: yes some women have kids past the age of 42, but I didn’t think about it that way so to me it was like she had already crossed the Rubicon of menopause even though I don’t think my coworker actually had. I also don’t know if she didn’t want kids, or couldn’t have kids or anything about why she didn’t have them when I met her.
I remember in a weird way viewing her as slightly alien because she was the first adult woman that I could recall who was “40” and didn’t have a husband and kids. It felt like “Oh I want to avoid that fate.” In fact I may have even told friends “I don’t want to be in her situation when I get to that age.”
It really seems strange to me that I was as old as 24 before I met a single, child-free woman. My parents had been long-time friends with a married couple who didn’t have children – a couple I regarded with some suspicion based on the fact that once on an outing when I was 10 the woman told my mom she hadn’t realized my parents were going to bring me along in a way to suggest she didn’t enjoy my company. This single incident — which as an adult who is nervous around kids I completely understand – gave me a childish sense of rejection. I think in a lot of my books and cartoon TV shows a villain was someone who didn’t like children, and so I decided this woman must be a villain for not finding me awesome and amazing. I realized in a way my thoughts about this childless couple (the villains who don’t like kids) subconsciously, or maybe even consciously, had coated my thoughts about people who didn’t have kids. (Which was something I had to remind myself to overtly fight against when I had dinner with the couple recently…”oh right, I don’t dislike them!”)
What was more startling to me, wasn’t just the thought of a woman never having kids, was also the concept of being “single” at 42 and how I automatically viewed it as a failure of some kind. Of course my mother was friends with some women who were divorced. I’m sure not all of my high school teachers or college professors were married. But they weren’t people I viewed as peers in the way I viewed my coworker. She was a fully-formed 3-dimensional person to me. She wasn’t an abstract construction (“my mother’s friend”) or a distantly-known fact about someone I didn’t know very well.
While I now know many child-free, single adult women, my friends who are close to my age are all paired off, and many have started having kids. None of my closest female friends who are older than 35 are both single and child-free.
This 42-year-old coworker I met when I was 24 was really the first time I understood the idea that not everyone was married and not everyone would have kids. But it was not the time that I realized that this state of being a child-free, single adult women does not necessary mean one has a life of unhappiness. I think I still struggle to realize this fact.