I Can Barely Take Care of Myself
I’m sitting on my couch in just a bra and sweatpants. For some reason I also have a cocktail ring on my right finger and a feather headband atop my head. I’m too embarrassed to wear the feather-band outside of the house—although I guess not too embarrassed to commit to print that I’m wearing it and knee-high pom-pom slippers late at night. When I’m on a writing procrastination binge I start playing dress-up, and I just got bored and quit halfway through, so now I’m procrastinating my game of dress-up by finishing writing the introduction to this book. This is just one example of what it is to be me. Besides the usual distractions from life—friends calling in tears because they’re heartbroken, flat tires, deaths in the family, leaks in the ceiling, work—I pretty much have the ability to do whatever I want, whenever I want because I don’t have children. That’s not the only reason why I don’t want children—it’s just one perk.
And yes, I don’t want children. As far as I know, I can have children. But I’m not great with kids and the thought of raising them scares me—it’s more terrifying to me than an empty house in the woods or a clown doll sitting in a chair. You’re just so screwed if you find yourself in any of these situations! There’s no way out!
Most people assume that “doing whatever I want” includes partying all night and enjoying my hangover without a toddler sitting
on my head. But I’m actually pretty mild. I got nervous one time after taking Benadryl three nights in a row to fall asleep. I fantasized about whether I would have to call my loved ones before checking in to Betty Ford or would someone from the rehab center go through my iPhone for me?
I remember asking my mom when I was little if I could go live at this place in Boston called “The Home for Little Wanderers.” I didn’t realize that it was a facility for orphans. It sounded to me more like a place for free spirits who knew that even if they loved where they were one moment, that could change tomorrow. One thing I know about myself is that everywhere I go is my new favorite place. And I’m not a cold, heartless vagabond either. If in my wandering I end up reading to children at a zoo in Madagascar—wonderful! I don’t hate kids. I just hate the idea of dragging a kid around with me as he or she is forced to adapt to my lifestyle. I also don’t want to have to carry animal crackers around in my purse.
I have a picture of my cat from childhood, Mittens, on my living room wall. He’s been dead for twenty-four years. When friends ask me why I don’t just get another tuxedo cat, I say, “I loved Mittens because my mother changed his cat litter. Not me.” I do have a small collection of stuffed-animal tuxedo cats given to me as gifts by people who, I assume, assumed that I needed something to care for. But those kitties are smashed down facefirst in a wicker basket in the bedroom. I’m afraid to look. I think they might be dead.
The way most people feel about loving being a parent is exactly how I feel about not being a parent. I love it. And I can’t imagine my life any other way. I’m one of those people in an ever-growing movement called childfree by choice. I think it’s a clinical and defensive name for what sounds like an otherwise fun group of people. I’ve never actually seen members of this movement all in one place. I guess we’re not as organized or fabulous or as into riding floats as gay people. We live in pockets of cities and suburbs all across America and the world and we may not have anything else in common with one another except that none of us right now has a toddler saying,
“Mommy, please put a shirt on. It’s inappropriate to sit around the house in a bra and why is there a peacock on your head?”
So while I sit here on my couch at home dressed like someone halfway to senility, I’m remembering the time that I was sitting on a couch in my psychologist’s office, wondering whether it was weird that I still had my sunglasses on my head during our session. I wondered whether I was too accessorized for sitting around figuring out my problems and analyzing my patterns. It feels like I should treat therapy like going through airport security (which I do a few times a month as a traveling stand-up comedian)—I should have nothing in my pockets, no shoes and no jewelry around my neck, nothing on my outside that can distract the person in front of me from seeing what I look like on the inside.
That day I said to my shrink, “I feel like an outsider in the world because I never want to have children. When people ask me if I want children and I say no—they always say things like ‘You’ll change your mind.’ I’m sick of it and I feel like I don’t fit in.” I don’t know what I expected my therapist to say—probably her usual: “Was there a time in childhood when you felt like an outsider? Is this pushing any old buttons? You know if it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” What I didn’t expect was that she’d say, “You don’t want kids? Why not? What’s up with that?” What’s up with that?
“Oh no,” I said. “Not you too! You’re going to tell me I’m weird for not wanting children?” She explained that it’s my reaction to those people that we need to work on—and that we don’t need to attach any jumper cables to my biological clock. She suggested that instead of answering, “I don’t want kids,” that I should simply say, “It’s not in my plans right now.” Oh boy. She had no idea what I was up against at every cocktail hour/wedding/shower/holiday party I’ve been to since I started to ovulate. I’m convinced that people who want kids and people who have kids have secret meetings where they come up with their talking points. There’s not one response to “I’m not having kids” that I haven’t heard and I’ve heard the same questions and comments approximately one bazillion times:
• If you don’t have kids, who is going to take care of you when you’re old? (Servants?)
• Men have to spread their seed. It’s in their DNA. (He can spread his seed all he wants. I have a magic pill that prevents it from growing.)
• But it’s the most natural thing you can do as a woman. (So is getting my period every month.)
• That’s selfish. You can’t be immature forever. (And spending your days watching Dora the Explorer with a kid is mature?)
• You have to replace yourself on earth. What will you leave behind? (There are a few plastic bags that I never recycled . . .)
Random people who want me to have children are the same type of people who won’t let up on me because I haven’t watched The Wire and I never plan to. I just never got into The Wire. Is The Wire brilliant and life altering and does it make you feel less alone at night? Yes! That doesn’t mean I have to like the show. I have no opinion on The Wire. It is just not a part of my life. I’m not trying to be cool or different. A Non–Wire Lover is not my identity. I just don’t even think about The Wire. And yet people continue, “It’s available on Netflix!” “I understand that it’s easy to get.” “You’ll love it.” “I won’t. I might. I don’t care.” “How can you not watch it? Well, what kind of shows do you watch?” What will happen to these people if I never see The Wire? Are they at home feeling a phantom pain in their abdomens and thinking, If Jen would only watch The Wire, this bad feeling would go away. And in the same way my Netflix queue remains Wire-free, people seem really agitated that my womb remains baby-free.
I took my therapist’s advice and started getting cagey with my answer. But once I started saying, “It’s not in my plans right now,” it was taken as, “Yes, I plan to have kids someday.” And then just to avoid arguments, I went through a phase of lying. “Yes. I want to have kids someday. I want to have kids right now. Anybody have a turkey baster? Let’s kick this party up a notch. I’m ovulating!” But I’m not going to lie anymore.
I’ve always been a little different. I was called a “freak” in high school because I wanted to be on a stage instead of on a lacrosse field. I went to a job interview at an office straight out of college wearing black tights, green nail polish, and clear jelly shoes. I got the job but my new boss took me aside to explain the office dress code. She asked me, “What were you trying to prove with that outfit? Why do you want to look weird?” I had honestly thought that this was a good outfit to wear. I wouldn’t even know how to try to be weird. It seems like too much effort. Just like trying to be normal—whatever that looks like—often seems more trouble than it’s worth. I mean, who really wants to wash her car in the driveway every Sunday (or even have a driveway)?
My favorite TV show when I was six was The Lawrence Welk Show. I wanted to grow up and live in a world of bubbles and polka music someday. I went to the most popular girl in school’s slumber party in the sixth grade dressed as Groucho Marx. (It didn’t go well—you’ll read all about it.)
It may not be filled with bubbles and polka (actually thank God for that, my aesthetic and musical tastes have changed), but I’ve found a community of weirdos in the comedy world. I moved by myself to New York City and Los Angeles. All of my family and my childhood friends live on the East Coast. I decided to wander the country in search of a career as a stand-up comedian. Fifteen years later and two comedy albums in, I’m doing just that for a living, in addition to writing and appearing on Chelsea Lately and playing the part of myself in the Chelsea Lately spin-off After Lately. My days consist of writing comedy and the occasional phone call to my sister to explain that the e-mail she just received from me saying “I’m pregnant, please call Mom” was really from Chelsea Handler, after she’d had her way with my computer.
My twelfth-grade teacher Mr. Bergen would be proud of me. He wrote me a card when I graduated from high school that said in big black letters, GET OUT OF THIS TOWN. GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN, and a lovely note on the inside that encouraged me to follow
my dreams because he could tell that I wouldn’t be happy trying to conform on any level. Now, I don’t think having a child makes you a conformist and I don’t think that not having a child makes you a nonconformist—but I do think that following your heart no matter what other people have to say takes a real sense of self. My friend Shannon, who has two children, says that the judgment never ends. She had children—she did the supposed “normal” thing—and still people chastise her for not having six kids or for the fact that she doesn’t abide by the latest parenting trends. “What? You breast-feed before sunrise? Oh no. You’ll end up with a vampire.”
The bottom line is that the choices we make often make sense to us but can confuse others. Somebody is always going to be disappointed with your life choice, and my rule of thumb is that as long as I’m not the one who is disappointed, I can live with that. If you’ve ever been thought of as selfish and immature or told “you’ll change your mind” about anything, I hope this book can be your card from Mr. Bergen. “Get out while you can”—get out of that mentality that there is a “right” way to live. (Well, technically there is, I believe it’s called the Golden Rule, and you can find it either in the Bible or on a coffee mug, I forget.)
I know some people think that not wanting kids means I’m cold, but I’m not totally without baby urges. I felt something when I saw my friend Grace’s baby all swaddled in a blanket on the couch. She looked like a yawning peanut. She was just a content little lump, drooling and going in and out of sleep. And I got that feeling deep down inside that almost brought tears to my eyes. I got an urge and I thought, Oh my God. I want to . . . be a baby.