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This Is What No One Tells You About Being Child-Free In Your 40s

Years ago, at a crowded happy hour after work, my friend pointed out a man with his kid on his shoulders. “Why would you bring a baby to a bar?” my friend marveled.

“Yeah,” I said. “Why would you have a baby?”

This got the laugh I wanted it to. My single friends were in their late twenties, and kids were what seemed like they were impossibly far in the future. I was in my early 30s but pretty recently divorced and beginning to think I didn’t want children — certainly not then, but also maybe not ever.

Still, the ticking of my biological clock eventually got loud enough to hear over the salsa music I danced to several times a week. Between the ages of 41 and 43, I sort of tried to get pregnant with my boyfriend, Inti. Beyond choosing a suitable father and plucking out my IUD, I didn’t do much. No OB-GYN visits other than my annual exam. No thermometer, no ovulation-monitoring app. For a while I tracked my cycle informally, raised an eyebrow at Inti once a month, and stuck my legs in the air after sex. But a year went by, and my period was so regular I never even had to open the pregnancy test package.

Sounds sad, doesn’t it? It is — but only sort of. If it were deeply sad, if I were the kind of woman who felt truly incomplete without a child, I would have handled it differently.

It’s hard because I did want kids, so I’m envious, but it’s also hard because my friends’ departure into parenthood feels like betrayal. Yes, betrayal.

My friends who wanted kids (and didn’t come by them the usual way) did the things you do when that happens and you have money. These friends, married and single and mostly younger than I am, took hormones, had fibroids removed, did IVF. They interviewed potential egg and/or sperm donors, chose a donor. They looked into adoption, adopted. In the last few years, one way or another, they all had children.

And so, they tell me, could I. But I’m not trying to anymore and I don’t want to take the heroic measures they took, and I can’t quite articulate why except to conclude I must not want kids enough.

I find no role model or path to help me navigate this. I didn’t do everything I could to be a mother, but I still grieve motherhood. I dread the baby shower, anticipate the sorrow I’ll feel on that first new-baby visit. It’s hard because I did want kids, so I’m envious, but it’s also hard because my friends’ departure into parenthood feels like betrayal. Yes, betrayal.

All those child-free years we had together feel forsaken. That freedom to hit the salsa club on a weeknight, those casual text invitations to same-day happy hours. All that time I was valuing that lifestyle, cherishing it and my friends in it, what was it to them, that they can so decisively change it? I know, I know; we’re in that stage of life. Now they’re moving on. No one promised me to stay child-free forever.

Fair enough. But somehow I thought all along we would keep comparing notes from the opposite sides of our different life choices.

When your friends move into parenthood and you don’t, there’s no map for the terrain you move into instead. They stop coming to your cocktail parties (“Couldn’t find a sitter, sorry”). They invite you to their gatherings, which aren’t fun for you, overrun as they are by kids you might like and find adorable and entertaining in the short-term but whom you don’t love, not the way you love your friends themselves. The gatherings contain no stretches of time long enough for meaningful conversation.

As parents, you understand this new reality. You roll your eyes, but you get it: This is life now. But when your kids take you away from me, I resent it. I just do. I know they’re brilliant and beautiful, but they’re children. I like you — not these demanding small people.

If we do enthuse about an activity we know our parent friends can no longer participate in, we are achingly aware of their side-eye, their evaluation of us as delusional for attempting to find meaning in these nonfamilial pursuits.

It’s socially acceptable for parents to complain about parenthood. They are allowed to lament their lost freedom. They are allowed to say how wrecked they are, how busy, how sleep-deprived. They can bemoan the chaotic state of their households and blame it on their kids. And then — as if to assuage any guilt — they are allowed to say they wouldn’t trade it for anything, to say how happy and sparkly their messes are, how precious.

On the child-free side, it’s socially less acceptable to gloat about our European vacations, our restful evenings at home, our tidy living rooms with breakable items on low coffee tables. If we do enthuse about an activity we know our parent friends can no longer participate in, we are achingly aware of their side-eye, their evaluation of us as delusional for attempting to find meaning in these nonfamilial pursuits. Sure, they might outwardly envy our freedom — what mom wouldn’t love a break from her kids to spend a week on a beach? But how can such hedonism possibly measure up to the miracle that is motherhood? The precious, joy-producing person who is her son?

It’s obviously no contest — particularly because every parent once didn’t have kids, and no childfree-by-(mostly)-choice person ever did — that’s the trump card every parent carries: He can compare it, he has tried both options, and we all know that no matter how bitterly a parent will complain, he would never, ever, EVER trade in his child for anything.

So, see? Parents win.

Except I still don’t want kids badly enough to take heroic measures. I don’t care how worth it you say it is and I don’t care how cute and smart and squishy your baby is. From here, parenthood still looks mostly like a drag. It’s hard to pretend that I don’t find it alien and baffling. My life is vastly different — and it’s different because I (mostly) want it that way. I actively enjoy not having kids. A lot. I’m living the freewheeling, adventuresome life responsible parents must wait 18 years to return to.

And I’m deeply engaged in the pursuit of my passions: chasing my freelance writer dream, building a writing-coaching business, spending all the time it takes to make my memoir meaningful. Passing uninterrupted evenings at home, reading on the sofa with the lighting just so, the tea steeping on the coaster, the boyfriend busy at the computer.

So what’s a middle-aged, childless woman to do when her best friends become mothers and fathers? And what’s a new parent to do about his childless friend? The one who still throws out last-minute happy hour invitations, the one who wants one-on-one time only, the one who doesn’t offer to babysit?

We’re all grownups: We can stay friends through major life changes, we can roll with life’s punches. I’m getting used to my smaller role in my parent friends’ lives. I’m spending more time with my childfree or part-time (divorced) parent friends.

It’s been about three years since I basically gave up on motherhood, and although Inti and I are not actively preventing conception, I no longer slump when my period comes each month to remind me, yet again, of my not-pregnant status. At 46, I know my odds. Once in a while, maybe at a nephew’s first birthday party or after an evening of cuddling and giggling with my best friend’s baby, grief and hollowness clasp on and threaten to never let me go. I’m so afraid one day I’ll regret my choice.

I regret it now. I don’t regret it. It’s complicated.

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