As the oldest of 8 (and yes, I realize that’s not a lot compared to many fundamentalist families), I raised most of my siblings. Oh yes, my mom was around. It was just that she suffered from severe mental illness and would be gone for hours or days, either locked in her room with strict instructions to not disturb her or driving around without telling us where she was going. Given that her depression worsened after each kid, I spent a lot of time cooking, cleaning, teaching and raising them, especially the four younger ones. In fact, some of the younger ones called me mom for a period of time, which only led to emotional and physical abuse for me. While I might come across as bitter because of having to do all of this, I really wasn’t. At the time, I thought that it was normal and also good training for when I would have kids (at least a dozen or so) as soon as I left home.
Thanks to my dad, I ended up in college. Both my parents had college degrees, and ever since we were born my dad set aside money for us to attend college. They were quick to tell us that it wasn’t much, but that they would help us out to a reasonable amount. I decided that I didn’t want to go to college. Frankly, the thought of it overwhelmed me. I excelled in academics, but my mom’s favorite line was, “It’s going to be a lot harder when you are in college and have deadlines and don’t get points back for correcting tests!” (can we just add “when you don’t correct your own tests”?) Anyway, I was terrified of college, had anxiety attacks when I thought of going, and decided that I would just stay home and get ready for marriage–never mind that I knew exactly zero young men and even if I had I was nowhere near ready to be married. My dad was firm, though, that I needed to get a college degree so that I could have something to support myself and my family were something to happen to my (hypothetical) husband. When I was in college, though, I realized that I had options.
I quickly learned that being a stay at home mom with oodles of kids who used her degree only in case of emergency was not the only route to go. If I wanted to have a career, I could, and while being a mom and having a career were not mutually exclusive ideas, I was not obligated to have kids simply because I had the right…erm…equipment. Newsflash!
I swung to the opposite side of the spectrum very quickly. I decided that I didn’t want to have kids. I even looked into getting a hysterectomy (yes…I know…crazy. But true). I was terrified that if I had kids, I would pass on to them the same mental health issues that ran in my family. I was also scared that I would not be able to break the dysfunctional patterns I had been raised with. I was scared, basically, that any kid I had would be screwed from the get-go.
Lately, I have been nannying a lot. Several times for days in a row. While I know it’s nothing like having your own kids, it is a big responsibility, and it only reinforces my desire to not have my own kids. However, there is something that has shifted. I’m no longer afraid that I’ll screw up my potential future children. I have interacted with these often difficult kids for over a year now on a mostly daily basis and I haven’t lost my temper once. I’ve never hit them. I’ve never yelled at them (though I have spoken firmly and slightly exasperatedly). I’ve never used any of the cruel and unusual punishments I was brought up with, either. I’m not bragging–I’m not perfect, and I have had to work really hard on this sometimes. (I’m actually ashamed that I was afraid I would hit a kid. But I was, and thankfully it hasn’t happened.)
Today, I’m really glad that I know if I ever change my mind and want to have kids, I can. And I won’t automatically screw them up and forever damage their psyches, childhoods and adult lives. That’s a really freeing realization. Regardless, though, kids won’t be happening any time soon.