When I was in my late twenties, I attended six baby showers in the span of a few months. At each of them, I was the only single woman without kids. Over baby names and dirty-diaper games, I would inevitably field the question from the other women: “Do you want children?” My response was always something like, “Maybe? I’m not sure. One day?”
That was an easy thing to say in my twenties. Children were an idea looming in the back of my mind, but it was an abstract kind of thought. I had plenty of time to figure out if I wanted to be a mom. I suppose I assumed that I would have kids one day. I played by the rules when I was young; career, marriage, and children were the path set out for me by society.
As I entered my thirties, my close friends started to have babies. The notion of a ticking biological clock entered my head, and I became aware that my childbearing years were starting to dwindle. Yet it was just a niggle that would occasionally pop in here and there. My thoughts and attention were elsewhere: surviving and grieving a broken engagement, switching career paths, and competing at the highest level of my sport.
I would occasionally pay attention to that nagging voice in the back of my head, but my answer was still, always, I don’t know. It was odd for me. I figured that I’d wake up one day and suddenly know definitively whether or not I wanted children. I envied friends of mine who were strong in their convictions one way or another. For me, the indecisiveness continued.
Two major factors heavily influenced my uncertainty around having children: my life as a competitive endurance athlete, and my ongoing recovery from an eating disorder.
Female athletes often face a difficult decision around motherhood, as our prime athletic years generally also fall within our prime childbearing years. While there are many stories of elite athletes who successfully take a break from their sport to have a child, it’s a risky calculation that could potentially mean the end of a competitive career.
I entered the height of my athletic career in my early thirties, competing year-round in obstacle-course racing, ultrarunning, and other endurance events. Having a child was not on the top of my priority list. I assumed I’d find a partner and end up turning my attention to that chapter of my life in my mid-thirties. By then, I figured, I would be done with my most competitive years as an athlete and want to focus on something new.
During my early and mid-thirties, however, I was also in the throes of a twenty-year battle with anorexia nervosa, tiptoeing toward recovery but still very much in denial. I hadn’t had a period in over ten years, and there were so many incredibly loaded questions that came up for me when I thought about pregnancy and childbirth. Was I even fertile anymore? Would my body changing during pregnancy trigger my eating disorder? What if I passed the eating disorder on to my children?
Factoring in the eating disorder weighed heavily on my mind. My ex-fiancé once told me he would never have kids with me until I “got it under control.” While those words stung, I have to admit, I agreed: If I couldn’t even take care of myself and my own body, how could I be expected to take care of a child? The last thing I ever wanted to do was to model an unhealthy relationship with food for my child.
Like many other women, I decided to try and buy myself more time. In my mid-thirties, I started to explore the option of freezing my eggs. It took several months to even get an appointment with a fertility doctor, and then he laid out the procedure and the chances that it would even work for me: one round would maybe yield 15 to 20 eggs max, and the probability of successfully inseminating, implanting, and carrying one to term was around 5 percent. And one round would cost $20,000. Further complicating the whole process was the fact that I’d need to take at least a month off from running to avoid ovarian torsion, a condition in which the ovary twists around the ligaments that holds it, cutting off blood flow.
I tried to schedule the egg-freezing procedure for the off-season, but it proved difficult with the limited availability of appointments. Still, I forged ahead, calling specialty pharmacies, getting quotes on medication costs, and setting up ultrasounds. The day before I was supposed to start, I attended a mandatory class on how to self-inject the multiple fertility drugs needed to prime ovaries for egg extraction. There were about 15 women in the room, and I was the only one there without a partner by her side. I left the class in tears, feeling utterly alone. With races coming up in the next few months, I called the clinic and canceled the entire procedure. I wasn’t sure exactly why at the time, but I couldn’t go through with it.
Time ticked on. One relationship ended, another began. The longer my own indecision lasted, the more I realized that biology was going to end up making the decision for me.
It’s funny, most of the people in my life wouldn’t say I’m exactly the motherly type. Frankly, I’ve never really liked kids that much. I don’t coo at babies. I hated babysitting when I was a teen. I’ve never even changed a diaper. I just don’t relate well to children—I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable around them.
So a few months ago, when I found myself 37 years old and recently single again, I could not have anticipated or prepared myself for the sudden wave of grief that came over me when I finally confronted the fact that my time may have run out. That maybe I wouldn’t ever have biological children, and that I wouldn’t have a say in it anymore.
Why was I grieving something so hard that I was never even sure I wanted? How do you mourn a life path that you never took? So many questions raced through my head. If I was truly indifferent or undecided about having children all these years, why did I now suddenly feel a massive hole?
I sat with that and the feelings that came up with it. Honestly, I’m still sitting with them. I’m not so sure I’m grieving the loss of not having children, so much as the loss of it being my own choice. Perhaps grief is what happens when we transition from one life phase to another.
Because I know that if I really wanted children, there are ways to do that: I could try a sperm donor, or I could consider adoption, both of which are wonderful options. And I may choose one of them at some point in the future. Call me selfish or old-fashioned, but I always wanted to raise children with a partner. I wanted it to be our decision, together. I have zero interest in doing it another way. Perhaps that lack of interest signals to me that the grief isn’t so much about children per se but the pervasive “what if” that one day, 20 years down the road, I will regret not taking that life path. By then it will be too late.
Our society values women more when they are mothers than when they aren’t. I’ve always had great admiration for working mothers who “do it all.” We are taught from a young age that an acceptable purpose in life is to raise a family and leave a legacy in the form of our genetic material. While my parents have never pressured me to have kids, I am aware that my sister and I are the last two of the Boone line, and our lineage will die with us. (My sister is child-free by choice.)
Lying in bed at night, I’ve started to ask myself questions like, Who will take care of me when I’m 90 years old? Who will grieve when I die? Who will pass my stories through generations? Let me tell you, that does nothing to help you fall asleep.
I told myself that those weren’t the right reasons for having children. I also couldn’t articulate reasons why I would want to have kids, other than being afraid I would regret not having them. But who instills that regret in me? I realize that I’ve internalized the overwhelming message from society that this is the life path I should take—that raising children is how to lead a valuable life. But is that really what I want?
There are a few things I do know. I have a lot of love to give—I love hard, and I love fiercely. Once I learned to take care of myself, I learned that I really like taking care of others. While children may be one avenue for that, it’s not the only way. It’s just the way that our society has normalized. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that, like so many other things in my life, maybe the path that society has laid out is not the one for me. I’m sure that whichever path I take, and whether I decide to become a mother or not, there will be grief and loss. But there will also be joy and meaning, and that’s what I’ll hold on to.