Revisiting: Unpopular authenticity: so…you don’t have kids?

*I'm working hard on my new book and finding myself with little time for new blog posts. I decided to bring back some older posts, that you might have missed... Hope you enjoy! -------------------

I was shamed by a nine-year-old the other day.

She stood there, hands on hips, glaring up at me. She'd just asked me if I had kids. I told her that I did not.

"Why?"

"I never felt that was the right choice for me."

She told me that my life was boring and sad.

It was actually pretty cute.

What took the sting out of her statement was the fact that grownups have been shaming me over this for quite some time. Sometimes they attempt to lessen the blow by saying something along the lines of - "you do what is right for you, but you should know that becoming a mother makes your soul expand and you become capable of love bigger than you've never imagined and it's the most valuable thing you could ever do with your life."

I always wonder how they know how big my love is.

People who decide not to be parents hear this a lot. (And actually, there are increasing numbers of us Childfree folks.) I've been questioned and cajoled and told that I'll change my mind. There seems to be this assumption that I've not quite thought this through, but the questions posed are always ones that I've asked myself a hundred times. I've never met a Childfree person who has come to the decision haphazardly.

Sometimes when people decide to say what they really think, they call me selfish and say I'm not really a woman. I'm still confused about why anyone cares if my husband and I have kids or not, but it sure seems like a bunch of them do.

I like kids. Even the ones who stand with hands on hips and call me boring and sad.

But in my 37 years of life, and 10 years of marriage, I've never once felt the ticking-clock twinge of wanting my own children. (And believe me, I've held babies and smelled their powdery heads, trying desperately to kickstart it, because I felt like I was defective.) But there isn't anything wrong with me. It's just not my thing. I'm also not interested in having a boat. I like boats. I'm sure it's super fun to have a boat. I'm happy for other people who enjoy their boats. I just don't feel the need to have my own.

And yes, I am aware that children are not boats - they are even better than boats and having a child brings much to one's life. I know it changes everything and brings buckets of joy and does all sorts of other things that I will never understand. I believe all of that. I've seen it in action.

But raising children is an incredibly important job and it just doesn’t make sense to hand it to someone like me who doesn’t want it. If I were half as interested in having a child as I am in volunteering at an animal shelter, I would do it. It’s like choosing a President who is fonder of ceramics than politics. Who is that good for?

If you choose to grow and learn and leave your legacy by having a kid – I think that's awesome. And while you do that, I'll work on improving the world that kid will eventually inherit. That just seems like good tag team long-term planning. It's easy to imagine that childfree folks spend their entire lives thinking only of themselves, sleeping in late and getting drunk at brunch. But I promise that I'm doing my part to contribute to the world, just in a different way than parents. (I'll skip the part where I list all the important, non-selfish things I do - it'll make me sound boastful and more than a little defensive.)

But the real reason I'm writing about this is because it's indicative of an issue I keep seeing everywhere, something that causes a lot of suffering. I know moms who work outside the home and moms who don't. Both have been bashed and abused for that decision. I know homeschoolers and Montessori lovers and public school parents - all of whom feel they have to defend their decisions. And the judgment doesn't stop with parenting issues. I know painters and sales people and jazz singers and almost all of them feel like they need to justify what they do with their lives because someone is always waiting in the wings to tell them they are doing the wrong thing.

There are so many critics out there and we tend to internalize the disapproval and feel like we are constantly failing. Why does it matter that my husband and I don't have kids? It doesn't. It's not really that interesting, but people keep asking about it so I'm happy to discuss it.

Why does it matter what personal decisions any of us make for ourselves? I wonder what the world would be like if we assumed that everyone was doing their best. What if people made different decisions and we didn't see that as a threat to the validity of our own choices? What if we kept our eyes on our own papers - our own lives and families - and stopped bashing our neighbor for not buying organic? Things would be incredibly dull if we were all the same. What if we celebrated the fact that life is not homogenous and realized that everyone is doing what they needed to do to wade through this challenging world?

Because when it comes down to it, if you're spending your time criticizing someone else's personal choices, it just makes you seem insecure about your own life.

As for me, I like being able to act as the designated driver for the Girl’s Nights when my mommy friends can let loose. It seems that my “alternative lifestyle” has its perks for all, but most importantly, I get to live my life authentically -- even if it's hard to explain that to a deeply offended nine-year-old.

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So...you don't have kids?

I was shamed by a nine-year-old the other day. She stood there, hands on hips, glaring up at me. She'd just asked me if I had kids. I told her that I did not.

"Why?"

"I never felt that was the right choice for me."

She told me that my life was boring and sad.

It was actually pretty cute.

What took the sting out of her statement was the fact that grownups have been shaming me over this for quite some time. Sometimes they attempt to lessen the blow by saying something along the lines of - "you do what is right for you, but you should know that becoming a mother makes your soul expand and you become capable of love bigger than you've never imagined and it's the most valuable thing you could ever do with your life."

I always wonder how they know how big my love is.

People who decide not to be parents hear this a lot. (And actually, there are increasing numbers of us Childfree folks.) I've been questioned and cajoled and told that I'll change my mind. There seems to be this assumption that I've not quite thought this through, but the questions posed are always ones that I've asked myself a hundred times. I've never met a Childfree person who has come to the decision haphazardly.

Sometimes when people decide to say what they really think, they call me selfish and say I'm not really a woman. I'm still confused about why anyone cares if my husband and I have kids or not, but it sure seems like a bunch of them do.

I like kids. Even the ones who stand with hands on hips and call me boring and sad.

But in my 37 years of life, and 10 years of marriage, I've never once felt the ticking-clock twinge of wanting my own children. (And believe me, I've held babies and smelled their powdery heads, trying desperately to kickstart it, because I felt like I was defective.) But there isn't anything wrong with me. It's just not my thing. I'm also not interested in having a boat. I like boats. I'm sure it's super fun to have a boat. I'm happy for other people who enjoy their boats. I just don't feel the need to have my own.

And yes, I am aware that children are not boats - they are even better than boats and having a child brings much to one's life. I know it changes everything and brings buckets of joy and does all sorts of other things that I will never understand. I believe all of that. I've seen it in action.

But raising children is an incredibly important job and it just doesn’t make sense to hand it to someone like me who doesn’t want it. If I were half as interested in having a child as I am in volunteering at an animal shelter, I would do it. It’s like choosing a President who is fonder of ceramics than politics. Who is that good for?

If you choose to grow and learn and leave your legacy by having a kid – I think that's awesome. And while you do that, I'll work on improving the world that kid will eventually inherit. That just seems like good tag team long-term planning. It's easy to imagine that childfree folks spend their entire lives thinking only of themselves, sleeping in late and getting drunk at brunch. But I promise that I'm doing my part to contribute to the world, just in a different way than parents. (I'll skip the part where I list all the important, non-selfish things I do - it'll make me sound boastful and more than a little defensive.)

But the real reason I'm writing about this is because it's indicative of an issue I keep seeing everywhere, something that causes a lot of suffering. I know moms who work outside the home and moms who don't. Both have been bashed and abused for that decision. I know homeschoolers and Montessori lovers and public school parents - all of whom feel they have to defend their decisions. And the judgement doesn't stop with parenting issues. I know painters and sales people and jazz singers and almost all of them feel like they need to justify what they do with their lives, because someone is always waiting in the wings to tell them they are doing the wrong thing.

There are so many critics out there and we tend to internalize the disapproval and feel like we are constantly failing. Why does it matter that my husband and I don't have kids? It doesn't. It's not really that interesting, but people keep asking about it so I'm happy to discuss it.

Why does it matter what personal decisions any of us make for ourselves? I wonder what the world would be like if we assumed that everyone was doing their best. What if people made different decisions and we didn't see that as a threat to the validity of our own choices? What if we kept our eyes on our own papers - our own lives and families - and stopped bashing our neighbor for not buying organic? Things would be incredibly dull if we were all the same. What if we celebrated the fact that life is not homogenous and realized that  everyone is doing what they needed to do to wade through this challenging world?

Because when it comes down to it, if you're spending your time criticizing someone else's personal choices, it just makes you seem insecure about your own life.

As for me, I like being able to act as designated driver for the Girl’s Nights when my mommy friends can let loose. It seems that my “alternative lifestyle” has its perks for all, but most importantly, I get to live my life authentically -- even if it's hard to explain that to a deeply offended nine-year-old.

————–

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Emma Watson, feminism and thoughts from my college advisor

I saw Emma Watson's speech to the UN about feminism. I had shivers the whole time. She got me thinking about digging up this post I wrote a while ago, but was too timid to publish, because for some unfathomable reason, "feminism" has recently become a hot-button issue. And then I saw that she was getting rape threats and death threats, and shamefully, my first thought was "how terrifying - well, I can't write about feminism now."

And that is exactly why I'm posting this.

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The things we leave behind

The smell of humidity and rot was strong in the air. But it was a pleasant smelling rot - the gentle softening and giving way of enormous trees to a million tiny insects and bacteria. Butterflies sliced zigzags through the air and landed on sun-warmed rocks to splay out their saffron wings. Branches strewn out on the path suddenly lifted their serpentine heads and lazily slithered into the brush. What my Dad wanted for his 60th birthday was to go hiking with me. I'm not sure, as a daughter, what feels better than that. So, Dad and I went hiking. We crossed an icy river, our feet tingling from the cold and slipping on moss-covered rocks. We waved away the little flies that buzzed persistently behind our sunglasses.

The old stone chimney was hiding just off the path, amongst over-grown vines and fallen trees. It was all that remained of a cabin. When the Shenandoah National Park was formed in the 1930s, most of the residents left the area - but the man who lived here decided to spend his final days in his cabin. After he died, the cabin was destroyed. Only the chimney remains.

CameraAwesomePhoto

It got me thinking about the things we leave behind. I've always been pretty aware of my own mortality and physical limits. Maybe because one of my early acting jobs involved being shot and killed in a restaurant when I was 6. Maybe because I broke my back when I was 11. Maybe because my dearest friend died of lupus when we were 19.

I've never felt invincible.

The wonderful and terrible thing about movies is that they last a really, really long time. I find that disconcerting for many reasons. One reason is that there is footage out there of me singing - which is a total atrocity. But also, in many ways, it feels like what remains of me is a lie. It's frame after frame of me wearing things I didn't pick and saying words I didn't choose. It's me pretending to be someone I'm not.

Maybe that's one of the reasons I write - so that I leave something lasting. Something that is truly me, not simply the shell of me, acting like someone else. I think it's natural to want to create something meaningful that endures beyond yourself. Andrew Carnegie called it the desire to "do real and permanent good."

Personally, I've never felt the desire to have children and pass on my DNA, so I need to find another way to leave my mark on the world. It doesn't need to be perfect or spectacular. I don't think I'm going to cure Alzheimer's or rid the world of bigotry. It doesn't have to be bigger or better or more impressive than what other people have done.

It just has to be a true reflection of me. It has to be my best effort. My passion. The thing that my heart feels is right, the thing that refuses to be defeated by my relentless worries and insecurities. It's what happens when I finally get out of my own way and do the work I was meant to do.

That's what our mountain man in the Shenandoah National Park did. He found a way to live and die in his little place in the woods. That was his legacy. His passion. And what remains is that chimney he built. Strong, solid, proud.

The forest will come and claim the chimney at some point, just as eventually everything changes into something else. Nothing remains static forever. Even the movies and words will fade and become obsolete. That's just the nature of impermanence.

But for at least a little while longer, it will all mean something. It will mean passion and persistence and it will reflect the inherent beauty of creating the life you truly want to live.

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The Tiger Mother: race, success and lessons on the wrong thing

The Tiger Mother is at it again. She's getting folks all riled up by saying that the parenting style of some groups (such as Chinese, Indians and Mormons) primes their kids for success more than others.  Personally, I can't offer any opinion on parenting, since we've not chosen to go the kid route. My only parenting advice is that liver treats work well for convincing Grace to not attack the neighbor dog. People are getting all flustered about the racial implications of what she's saying - but I keep coming back to one thing:

What the hell does "success" mean?

Tiger mom says it's clear - income, occupational status and test scores. That kind of makes sense. It's a nice, clean, empirical way of measuring something.

  • Higher income = more success
  • Higher status = more success
  • Higher test scores = more success

That seems to be a widely accepted definition in our society. But I'm not sure I like it. By those measurable accounts, I was much more successful when I was 15 than I am at 35. Twenty years ago, I had:

  • Higher income - I got paid more.
  • Higher status - I was more "famous" (whatever that creepy word means).
  • Higher test scores - I rarely went to school, but the movie marketing people told me that I "tested well" with screening audiences, which resulted in more work.

But what about...oh, I don't know...happiness? Where does that rank? What about passion? Purpose? Authenticity? How do you measure that stuff and roll it up into success? In our culture it's pretty simple: you don't. You toss them to the side because you can't buy yourself a boat with purpose.

I have so much more joy and passion now than I did when I was an actor, but those intangibles don't seem to carry as much weight in some circles.

I recently made a list of the things that equal a successful life for myself. It mostly had to do with my family and friends, contributing to the greater good and taking care of my mind, body and spirit. None of them had to do with being on the cover of People Magazine.

But it took me a while to develop this way of thinking. When I left my acting career, I was scared of what people would think. Would I get thrown in a pile of useless "has beens"? Was I, at 22, washed up and destined to never do anything as good ever again?

I went through a phase where I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I even visited a law school to sit in on classes and went to their campus store and looked longingly at the sweatshirts. At least if I was a lawyer, I'd have a fancy degree I could wave around. Something that proved to other people that I was still worth something.

It finally dawned on me that I didn't want to be a lawyer (no offense to the lawyers out there...especially my dad). I was just trying to feel like I had a justified place in the world and people would think that I was still successful. But what I really wanted was to be a writer. That less prestigious, less financially rewarding occupation was what made my heart flutter.

Ambition is wonderful. But I was being ambitious about the wrong things.  What I really wanted was a life that really fed my soul - not just my bank account and other people's opinions of me.

Being successful now means that my life has meaning. Being "known" never made me feel successful. Doing interviews didn't do that. Getting invited to fancy parties didn't do that.

What does make me feel successful is volunteering to clean litter boxes and write thank you notes at the animal shelter. Or getting an email from someone who was touched by something I wrote on this blog - which I offer for free and get paid absolutely nothing. Or making my husband laugh.

So, what if we thought about success differently? What if we thought about:

  • passion instead of income?
  • authenticity instead of status?
  • happiness instead of test scores?

I'm not sure that the Tiger mom would understand, but you couldn't pay me a million dollars to go back to being "successful." I'll take my poorly-paying, lower-status profession that makes me deliriously happy. And besides, I don't think lawyers are allowed to wear sweatpants to work.

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35

I will be turning 35 years old next month and I kind of feel like a failure. You see, I really thought I'd have a pet monkey by now.

Other than that, I feel pretty good about 35.

Since I started contributing to a retirement fund when I was 4 years old, I don't tend to put much stock in traditional timelines. Not much in my life has gone the normal way. I never wanted the things the other girls wanted. I would stare blankly when they said they wanted to have a million babies with some boy, and I would just think - some real estate would be nice. You know, somewhere for my pet monkey to play. 

I didn't even think I'd ever get married. But at some point, I told my boyfriend I'd like to have a little party in Italy where we got dressed up and all our favorite people were there and we stood in front of them and promised to love each other forever and then it was legally binding.

He took that as "wedding" and I went along because I love him and got a pretty ring out of the deal.

Many of my friends live very by-the-book lives and I wonder what that would be like. Sometimes I have a twinge of jealousy because it looks so comforting and socially acceptable.

For example, my job title is "writer" which makes me enormously happy, but it also carries the same seriousness as a small child who decides to call herself "unicorn." There are very few credentials required. Identifying yourself as anything artistic tends to be followed by a head-tilt and requests to prove and justify yourself.

Many of my friends have jobs like Program Administrator of Something Awesome or the Director of All Things Important. My business cards come from VistaPrint, where a friend recently ordered some that looked equally official...for her toddler to give out at play-dates.

It can be hard when everyone else seems to be doing things on some culturally pre-approved time frame. When the engagement party is followed by the wedding and then the baby shower. When the graduation is followed by the job and then by the promotion to the corner office. But some of us do things in a different order. Backwards or sideways or not at all. And that is okay, too. I don't think that anyone on their deathbed has ever said, "I'm just so glad I did everything in a timely fashion."

There are few things I can say with total certainty after my almost-35 years of existence, but this is one of them: as long as you're still breathing, you have the power to change your mind, reinvent yourself and follow that bliss. It's never too late.

A complaint about being "too old" for something deserves to be followed by a smack upside the head. I've had several friends die.

At age 19.

At 21.

At 32.

At ages that should be about beginnings, not endings. The idea of bitching about getting older - a luxury that my friends never had - seems obscenely ungrateful. So, I'll skip the jokes about celebrating my 29th birthday "again" because I'm proud of my age. I don't want to live my life by the numbers.

So, come on, 35, let's see what you've got. (I really hope it's a pet monkey.)

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