The incident took place on a warm summer afternoon, just as I was slouching my way to the campus Library, more to escape the heat than accomplish anything academic.
At the bottom of the wide, stone-cut staircase that engulfed the visitor before they vanished into the strangely Retro-Gothic style building, I saw a slim woman with a baby stroller. She was staring at the entrance high above us with a poorly controlled look of unease and despair, clearly wondering how she was going to accomplish the task of getting her infant and its throne up to the building. Someone local will help her out, I decided, A foreigner with atrocious grammar would probably panic her even more.
Except, nobody did. Students and staff members walked past, their eyes fixed on cellphones and watches and I sighed, hoping that somewhere in a future after my lifetime, this small gesture might add some credit to my admittedly pathetic record.
“Excuse me,” I said in hesitant Japanese, “May I help you out?”
Her eyes lit up in so much relief that it physically pained me.
“Oh, yes, please, thank you so much!” She exclaimed and I surveyed the enormous tank. From within the depths of a blanket, a jelly-cheeked baby stared up at me, unimpressed by its new servant.
We grabbed opposite ends of the stroller and slowly started our procession up the library stairs, the woman nervously apologizing the entire time.
“……library doesn’t have an elevator that connects to the main entrance from outside, it’s all only inside the building and that’s why, I’m really really, sorry about this-“
“Oh, no, please, it’s completely fine,” I gasped as casually as I could, while making a mental note to hunt down the genius architect of this place.
The baby rocked from side to side with each step we took towards the library and watched us both puff and pant with the solemnity of an ancient God that had witnessed the rise of human civilization.
Neither I nor the mother was particularly athletic and upon finally reaching our destination, we set the stroller down and tried to remember how to breathe. It was exactly like the stairway scene from Howl’s Moving Castle and I resisted the urge to break out laughing. The baby had obviously enjoyed the ride and now deprived of attention, began to wail and hit the sides of its soft-lined palace in frustration. The pitch of his cry was enough to make me cringe, not to mention that the entitled creature hadn’t even expressed a single word of gratitude for our pains.
“Thanks…..very much,” the woman said and nearly collapsed while bowing.
I still wasn’t capable of words so I waved goodbye and headed towards the bookshelves while she wheeled her screaming spawn off in the other direction.
The supposedly unremarkable incident bothered me for a long time, passing in and out of my dreams and tugging at the corner of my memory whenever I was trying to relax, though I couldn’t really point out why. It wasn’t until I was in an academia induced haze at one in the morning before an important exam, that it finally hit me.
“I was in a metaphor!” I cried out to my ceiling, everything falling into place. My neighbor groaned and hit the wall from the other side.
Nobody quite knew what to do with my interpretation.
“The scene was a metaphor for life after childbirth and motherhood!” I frantically told some friends, “Your newborn child forces you to leave the workforce and is the literal obstacle between you and your dreams! It stops you from achieving dreams and robs your of your autonomy and independence! Don’t you see? It’s a patriarchal conspiracy to keep women at home!”
Some worried glances and comments about the summer heat were exchanged.
“All this fuss, just because the building didn’t have an elevator?” Someone ventured to ask.
“It’s a metaphor,” I hissed back, “Forget the elevator. Focus on the baby destroying your life.”
I confess, I’m being overly dramatic here and in reality I admire women who decide to stay at home after childbirth to support their family.
It's just that I don’t want it to happen to me.
As a privileged young woman from a forward-minded, middle-class family, being forced into an early marriage and motherhood is something I’m safe from, even as I hear stories of acquaintances, classmates, friends and even relatives who aren’t allowed the ‘luxury’ of choosing what happens to their own bodies.
Even so, the pressure to conform to a traditional heteronormative lifestyle is overwhelmingly huge no matter what cultural background you hail from. It manifests itself in those infuriating little encounters, when someone makes a reference to your becoming a mother or having children, and you ward them off with a clear and curt announcement that no, you don’t intend to have children, let’s not get any deeper into this non-existent world, please.
The quick, thoughtless 'you’ll change your mind' that followed always felt like a smack to the face for me, and all I could do was just stand there, shaking in fury as I was repeatedly told for over a decade that I was going to get married at the ‘right age’ and reproduce whether I liked it or not, by dozens of people in my life, ranging from stern schoolteachers to an enthusiastic family doctor.
At one point, there was someone literally planning out my life for me: “Oh, of course, you’ll have to take a few years off work to take care of the children, but after they’re in preschool you can return and catch up and maybe get your old position back-”
“I am not having children,” I said slowly, “Nobody is going to take my position.”
Another irritated mouth sound and hand wave from the speaker before they continued once more.
“Your husband will be there to support you, of course, but still, try having two or three children before age thirty and then-”
“If you don’t believe me,” I interjected and picked up a pair of scissors. That, at least, got their attention. “I will take this thing and sterilize myself with it right here and now to end this discussion.”
The subject was changed.
By age 20 or 21, well-meaning adults took me aside and warned that dating would be troublesome, if not impossible if I remained so stubborn about not having children. I started to get used to phrases like ‘learning to compromise’ and ‘lowering standards’ and ‘an imperfect marriage is better than being alone’…all of which I vehemently disagreed with. I started doing serious research into undergoing a sterilization procedure, purely because it would have liberated me from the endless interrogation and silent character judgments, therein bringing me greater joy than any hypothetical child.
Not to mention, the fact that I felt so strongly against having children that I was ready to undergo a permanent medical procedure to prevent it from ever happening should in itself disqualify me from motherhood. Though in reality, the only thing it should have ever required from me was a single, firm ‘no’.
The essence of my stance is that I believe babies deserve to be under the care of loving, committed parents who have happily pushed everything else aside to welcome a child into their lives. And yet, my carefully thought-out life decision has been mocked by countless adults who've responded to my personal choice with everything ranging from accusations of cowardice and vanity to hushed questions about whether 'something happened' when I was a child.
Even worse, I meet so many young women who view the 'have children' as an unavoidable part of their life plan as if it's a dental appointment, even if they feel at best ambivalent about it all. On the other hand, I've also spoken to mothers who admitted that to them, having a child was an non-negotiable as going to school or taking a bath everyday.
I don't want any of it. That's my entire argument.
Knowing that I’m no longer under the pressure to steadily date by age 21, marry by 25, have a child by 30 and fix my career by 35 means I can enjoy my twenties in leisure, and work on improving my very abrasive personality instead…an idea that I don’t think my poor acquaintances would oppose.
Believe it or not, when I’m not actively being threatened into having my own, I’m actually quite fond of children. People praise me for not talking down to their babies, for keeping an eye out for sharp objects and exposed sockets, for returning their dropped toys and replying to their kids' endless, nonsensical rambles. I can teach the same thing fifteen different ways without getting annoyed, and am one of the few people I know who can maintain a grip on civilized language when rudely woken up in the dark of the night to chase off imaginary monsters, make up a bestselling story or act as a bathroom escort.
“You’d be a wonderful mother,” I’ve been told so many times.
“No, I wouldn’t,” I always reply, “Because I don’t want to be one.”
Most adults on the other side of the generation gap frown at this reply and try to decode its underlying meaning (and inevitably fail), but of late, younger parents have started to agree with my logic and tactfully drop the subject.
Maybe ten years from this day, I’ll be a completely different individual with a snoring child on my arm, reading this article and laughing quietly at how passionately outraged my college self was.
And that’s perfectly fine as well.
All that matters then is that the decision belonged to me alone.
Cover Image Via Flickr