The following guest post was submitted by a reader who is struggling with balancing social and familial expectations as she tries to pursue a career and delays having children. She submitted this post seeking reader feedback from others who may have experienced this situation. She has requested to remain anonymous to maintain family peace, which is at a fragile state at the moment.
I adore children. I have a very sweet goddaughter who will be a year old next month, and I love her dearly. I also have an older goddaughter about to enter those dreaded teen years, and it's exciting to watch her navigate this portion of her life. My husband's best friend, whom we both consider a sister, just had a bouncing baby boy and I'm looking forward to hearing him call me "Aunty." And there are two beautifully pregnant women in the family currently—both cousins, one with her first child, the other with her second. So I am surrounded by babies. That said, I personally do not have any children of my own. This has largely been the result of careful planning on the part of myself and my husband. We have our own time line, but for many of our relatives the delay represents a huge social breach, and they are starting to bear down somewhat harshly.
I am a 28-year-old West Indian woman who married her childhood sweetheart, voluntarily, at the age of 18. He is Bengali. As a West Indian marrying into a Bengali family, you would think the transition would be easy to manage—we are from similar backgrounds after all. But it's been surprisingly difficult. I'm not sure how much of it is a cultural difference though and how much is a generational difference. It seems to be a fair mix though there are a fair number of young women who seem to be going the traditional route (i.e., getting married, having teh babiez, staying home, etc.) Now, you may also think to yourself, well, if you were childhood sweethearts, don't you know what you were getting into? Well, no. When I say childhood sweethearts, I mean real childhood sweethearts. He had a crush on me in the sixth grade! He brought me apple juice. We went to different high schools and reconnected in college, when we decided we wanted to get married. And we eloped, partly because we didn't want a a huge fuss made, and partly because we knew neither set of parents would agree to letting a pair of 18-year-olds get married.
Flash forward ten years later to a recent baby shower, where the aunts were clucking as per normal when they spotted me. "When are you having babies?" I was asked. "Why don't you want children?" "Don't you like children?" "Your mother-in-law wants a grandbaby!" I managed to deflect all of this with good cheer as I normally do (e.g., "[The MIL] has [the family dog] to spoil!") and for the most part my responses were met with jovial laughter. I'm a pro at this discussion, I thought. And I should be—I'm used to it.
And then one of them dropped a bomb on me: "What? Can't you have children? You're going to need a test tube baby!" she taunted. This declaration/announcement was made at the top of her lungs in front of a room of family and strangers, and I admit it stopped me in my tracks. It stopped most of the room too as a moment of somewhat uneasy silence unfolded. I wasn't sure how to respond. I know I was embarrassed and angry all at once. For the record, I have nothing against IVF. I think that if it can help a couple have a baby when they're having trouble conceiving, then they should go for it. Kate Clancy, who went through this process was actually featured on CNN a few weeks ago. Her story is amazing. However, from this aunt's tone, you could tell that you would be less of a woman if you needed a "test tube" baby. But that's not the point. What I was reacting to was the assumption that there was something wrong with me because I hadn't produced a brood of children yet at the ancient age of 28.
This is just the latest jab in the mounting pressure from all sides that feel I should have borne a child by now. My waistline is closely scrutinized, and the slightest bump is reason to be questioned. And since I'm not pregnant, I have no reason to carry any extra weight, so any extra bulges are evidence that I am just fat, and just don't care. It's become exhausting. This shouldn't bother me, and it hasn't for a long time, but what is starting to bother me is the derision that accompanies their statements. "We know you're focused on your studies," they say as a lead in to the conversation. Studies?? What studies? I've been out of school for two years. I've been working—trying to establish a career. Do any of you actually know me? Actually know what I do?
I'm a successful blogger and published writer. I have an advanced degree. I've won numerous awards for academic accomplishments, been in countless science competitions, and I'm a successful professional. I help build leading websites and web tools. But none of that matters. Children to this group are a sort of cultural currency. I've been measured in public based on the bag I carry and the clothes I wear, and I am measured in private by the family by my apparent (lack of) fertility. And until I produce a child, I know I won't measure up to their expectations—hell, even when I produce the child I won't measure up. Partly because I am an outsider to their cultural background (and what will I know about raising children properly?) and partly because I plan to continue working instead of staying home and raising him or her, which is also somewhat unacceptable. (The hubby was once told that marrying a smart woman is fine, but it means the house will never be clean, that there will never be food on the table, and the children will run wild.) I feel these are personal decisions. Am I crazy?
The constant questioning adds another layer of annoyance. Will it detract from the joy when we do announce we're expecting? Will there be a sense that we got pregnant because we were told to do so? Instead of "That's wonderful!" will we get "It's about time!"? Will they take credit for the fact that we've conceived? Again, I'm trying to see this from their perspective. This is a culture where women traditionally maintain the hearth of the home by remaining in it. I realize that I am somewhat of a puzzle to them and this may be their way of fitting me into their norms and expectations. But in trying to fit me in—if that's what they're doing—they've managed to minimize everything else that I've done. And I just don't think that's cool, man.
The hubby does not buy into the traditional view. He's proud of me and my accomplishments and he deflects the baby question as often as I do. He does not think this should bother me, because at this point we both know that the family will not rest until we "prove" ourselves with a child. But I am exhausted from fielding comments and questions about my fertility. It's not anyone's business, but since it seems to be everyone's business, I'm doing an impromptu cultural/gender study: ladies are you experiencing the same thing? Is this a cultural issue? Or a gender issue? Have you been through the same? How did you survive and when did it stop?