"I was choosing to be childless. Now, I may not have a choice"
How do you make a major life choice when your body is betraying you?
When there’s something strange in the neighbourhood, who are you going to call? My gynaecologist, because I’m talking about my uterus that felt like it was about to spasm itself straight into the finale of Dance India Dance. It’s been about four months since I had fibroids of various sizes – and one shady-looking cyst – snipped out of my body. Not to mention the surprise endometriosis and the resultant slanted, off-centre scars that will forever bother the Virgo in me.
Almost a year ago, irregular periods and intense pain took me to a gynaecologist’s clinic (I’d avoided it for as long as I could). Feeling my ‘bulky uterus’, she sent me for an ultrasound to discover the multiple pets I had been paalo-ing in my belly, as my mother describes it. The prescribed treatment? Induced menopause with the hope that the drastic oestrogen drop would make them shrink and die off; if not, get the uterine fibroids removed through a myomectomy. “Then you should have a child, and we can take the whole thing out,” said the second doctor I had visited with an amusingly straight face.
I am what the coloniser’s language once called a thornback. A sheng-nu or leftover woman in China, vieilles filles in France and alte jungfer in Germany, meaning old maid. I’ve aged out of the spinster category — 30, unmarried and choosing to be childless. My partner and I have been together for about seven years now, and sadly for my family, we don’t have marriage or children on the cards. So you could say I’m a part of the child-free movement.
I was loud and proud about not wanting to have kids. Watching me spoil my pets with treats and toys they mostly don’t play with because they prefer socks, unused cigarette filters, and random pieces of string, a relative once said, “You might as well have a human child to splurge on.” Choosing to be childless, I would scoff and respond that I’m already a mother to three. It was more than I can handle. The maximum I am capable of with human babies is being the fun aunt who takes them out for ice cream and then returns them to the parents.
In the past, my explanations for choosing to be childless have varied from a bad gene pool with everything from thyroid and heart disease to various cancers, diabetes and mental illness, to not wanting the responsibility of another human. As a Tweak writer, I’ve also had the opportunity to interview multiple OBGYNs and women across the country and learn the not-so-wonderful ways that pregnancy and childbirth change your body. Moreover, I don’t particularly like children. I don’t find the screeching at the airport adorable, nor the sticky fingers that stain everything around you. Vomiting during pregnancy, babies vomiting due to bad tummies – there’s too much vomit involved, and I’m not okay with that.
But as Hasan Minhaj said in his Netflix special The King’s Jester, “Life gets very real when ‘don’t want’ becomes ‘can’t have’.” While setting up a gynaecological exam over the phone to see if the fibroids were already coming back – I’d had three periods in 45 days – the past ten years flashed before my eyes, possibly tipping over from ‘don’t want but can have’ into ‘it’s now or never’. From choosing to be childless, or voluntary childlessness, as some people call it, I found myself wading through the waters of possibly getting a hysterectomy and never being able to birth a baby.
A timer had been set from that very first gynaecologist appointment. “Have a child, then we can do a hysterectomy because given the sheer number of fibroids, it’s very likely new ones will grow after removal too.” I laughed it off and got that second opinion. The third doctor bought me 2-3 years with a myomectomy as I pushed this decision to the back of my mind. But it might not have worked.
Bent over on the toilet in pain at 1 AM for 45 minutes, calling out to my sister to get me a painkiller so I could stand up and make my way to the bed; it dawned on me that it might be time to have those serious conversations – with myself and my partner.
My options were limited. One, get married, have a child, and get a hysterectomy that’ll put me in menopause before age 35. I’d already seen what it did to my mother, who had the same medical issues but at an older age. Two, get another myomectomy if need be (with no guarantee), pray that insurance passes the claim, and buy more time so I can still live in denial. Or three, get the hysterectomy and live my best child-free life.
None of the above is what I’d prefer. I don’t want to have to decide if I want to be a mother with a sword hovering above my
neck uterus. I don’t want to have the ‘future talk’ with my partner when we’re both happy where we are in our relationship and careers. I say career because we all know the difficult reality of getting back to work after having a baby (actually, even during pregnancy).
I was so sure about my decision of choosing to be childless. But when you’re staring down the barrel of the gun, it’s hard to ignore the evolutionary instinct to reproduce. On the one hand, a sense of loss is growing inside me. I’ve mothered multiple furry children and loved every minute of it. Am I to miss out on the profound, life-changing and fulfilling experience that motherhood can be? Watching a little one grow from taking their first steps to their first day at school, then the first paycheque. Perhaps, what I fear most, is regret.
Maybe I should have married and had a child at 22 like a family member recommended, saying I need to “follow the natural cycle of the body”. How different my life would be had I been the more traditional, good Muslim daughter my second mom (we all have one) so desperately wanted me to be.
I feel like I’m being robbed of something so fundamental to the human experience — moreover, robbed of my choice. I’ll admit that I haven’t always treated my body like a temple, filling it with wafers, pani puri and vanilla milkshakes after hours in bed when there was plenty of home-cooked food in the fridge.
When I turned 30 last year, I kicked myself in the butt and started strength training, eating better while also allowing myself to indulge, cutting out my many vices and focusing on good health. It’s hard not to feel angry over being betrayed by your body’s lack of cooperation.
The moment to make the hard choices is right around the corner. I still haven’t talked with my partner, letting his work trips and our clashing daily schedules very conveniently push it back. How can I ask him to decide on marriage or children when I still don’t know where I stand on the same thing? He’s voiced his uncertainty about marriage, and children will put this timer on him, too, which won’t help. What if our discussion ends our journey together? I don’t think I would survive in the dating game of today after coming out of a long-term relationship (it feels like you’ve landed on an alien planet)
No matter how many painkillers I take, it won’t numb the heaviness I feel in my gut. I could continue having myomectomies until my body can’t take it anymore or the insurance company finally kicks me off. But whether it’s now or in the next few years, I will have to face reality. Will it be with a child or child-free? I imagine both possible futures. They’re hazy, vague outlines of the person I could be. I can see my parents giggling with a mini-me on their lap. But that future child doesn’t necessarily need to share my DNA. There’s always adoption – of both humans and animals.