Women often ask me how many children I have. "None," I say. "I have cats." This is the truth; I have four cats, one dog, and no children, and yet my professional life is very much tied up with issues relating to pregnancy, childbirth, child development, women's health during the reproductive years, and the social/caregiving responsibilities of families. People are often surprised that I have no children: "None? Really?" they say, and I reassure them of my certainty on the issue. The conversational awkwardness soon blows over, but I am left with the insecurity of the original question and its underlying accusation: You have never had children. You have nothing to offer to women who want children.
I've struggled with insecurity about my childless state for most of my adult life. First, it must be understood that I am childless by choice. In early adulthood, I considered having children but later abandoned the idea--with relief--when I realized my motivation for doing so was to appease social expectations rather than any profound desire to be a mother. I think parenting well is a great accomplishment and the task itself should not be attempted by anyone lacking a real commitment. I used to give this explanation when, in my mid-twenties, everyone assumed I would eventually want children: "Oh, you'll change your mind," they said.
Well, I didn't. Now that I am forty, I have outgrown the time frame for changing my mind and, I suppose, I should be suffering regrets. At least, that is what is implied in the "None? Really?" people say when I tell them I have no children. Yet I have no regrets, only a nagging sense that I must somehow justify my commitment to serving pregnant women and their children in some way that my colleagues--all parents themselves--do not.
In one role or another, I have been attending births for ten years and I've learned that a woman with no children can offer a lot to a woman expecting a child.
- Flexibility: there is a certain fluidity in my schedule and time commitments which enables me to be present earlier, longer, and outside the constraints of the printed call schedule.
- Experience: in the ten years of attending births, I have been present at thousands of labors, witnessed both medicated and unmedicated births, seen and performed both uncomplicated and highly technical births, and observed a host of different childbirth philosophies at work.
- Lack of Agenda: among doctors at least, once you become a parent, you tend to get imprinted with the parenting/pregnancy style you adopt yourself. Patients who come to you with an alternative perspective can be put off by your own choices, no matter how open-minded you are. My colleagues have discussed this issue many times. I seem to stand outside the circles marked "Pregnancy Type X" and "Pregnancy Type Y" simply for never having been pregnant.
- An Empathic Outsider's Perspective: this is related to #3 but deserves its own discussion. As you can probably tell from the content of this blog, I'm interested in all perspectives on birth and have a deep curiosity about the psychological arc of pregnancy, labor, and delivery. Not that parents can't have a similar perspective, but I have noticed a greater engagement at this level on my part than on my colleagues, perhaps because I have more time to write and wonder about birth.
Once I shared my insecurity about being, as I called it, a "childless spinster" in a world of pregnant and parenting women, and how this might limit what I could offer as a birth attendant, with Kathleen, who is an experienced home birth midwife and childbirth educator. She merely laughed at me. "You don't just come to a birth as a parent or a person without children," she told me. "You come as yourself, and that person has a lot to offer."
I think I'm finally coming around to Kathleen's way of thinking. After all, if the content of a doctor's personal life were a main criteria for having faith in her ability to be of service, it might be disconcerting to find, say, a Harley-Davidson parked in your cardiologist's garage, or an empty bottle of Drano and a plumbing snake in your gastroenterologist's garbage can. Far better, I suspect, to look at what she brings to your birth, whether or not her shirt is stained with baby spit-up or cat hair.