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Bearden: Staying childless right decision for many women

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Published:   |   Updated: December 21, 2013 at 09:34 PM

Yes, I’ve been asked that question from time to time. I’ve always found it a little rude, the presumption that all women are expected to have children, and if you don’t, surely something must be wrong with you. Womanhood equals motherhood, right?

It wasn’t anything I planned. I simply never had that maternal urge. It struck just once, for about five minutes in my early 40s. “Oh, I forgot to have children!” I said, undoubtedly after a couple of glasses of wine. “Is there still time?”

But that moment passed quickly. I surveyed my household, which at the time didn’t include a permanent man. I had a dog and two cats, a fabulous career, a wide network of friends and a loving and close extended family. This was enough for me.

I didn’t feel a big gaping hole in my life, nor did I feel any less a woman because I had never given birth. In fact, the whole pregnancy-and-birth thing scared the heck out of me. And knowing that having a child is a lifelong commitment — it does not end when the child hits 21, as evidenced by all of my peers whose adult children are still living at home or need financial help — seemed equally frightening.

Perhaps my parents were unwittingly responsible for my lack of progeny. For a long time, there were three daughters, separated by seven years in all. Then when I was 16, my mother got pregnant — an “oops” baby, they called it back then. We looked so much alike that I could pass her off as my daughter. I did just that, on many occasions.

My little sis wasn’t even in kindergarten when I left for college. When Little Sister Weekend arrived, my roommates were sneaking their visiting younger offspring into bars. I was heading to Chuck E. Cheese with my little mini-me. Instead of going to the football game, we went to a park to play on the monkey bars.

Thirty years ago, I might have felt like an oddity. Not so much anymore. In the ‘70s, only 1 in 10 women was child-free; these days, it’s 1 in 5. A recent Time magazine article noted that the birth rate is now the lowest in recorded American history. And from 2007 to 2011, it declined by 9 percent. I never considered that my decision to bypass motherhood would actually end up being semi-trendy, but there you have it. Increasingly, more women are opting out of motherhood, either by choice or by default.

That doesn’t make us selfish monsters. I love kids. Other people’s kids. I love, love, love being an aunt.

My baby sister has grown up and is now the mother of two girls and one boy, ages 12, 9 and 6. The eldest was given my name for her middle name, giving us a special bond. “We’re both the oldest, Casey Michelle,” I tell her. “That comes with a tremendous responsibility.” Then I break out in a made-up song and do a little jig, acting a little daft and unpredictable. Because as a non mother, I don’t have to act that mature.

One day, I’ll be the old crazy aunt in Florida, with black hairs sprouting on her wrinkled chin and dependent upon Depends. But for now, I’m pretty cool. I write for a newspaper and appear on television. I own two horses, a dog and two cats, and I have a fun boyfriend who’s been part of the family their whole lives. I’ve got a funky, eclectic house with a fairyland backyard. I tell them: You can come live with me when you grow up. From their vantage point now, that looks like a fun deal.

There are few rules with Aunt Shell. You can stay up as late as you want, eat as much sugar as you can consume and you can expect to be showered with presents when I come to visit. This is our prerogative as aunts. We go see the latest Disney movies, share big tubs of buttered popcorn and sneak in baggies full of candy. We bake cookies and crank up the karaoke machine (which I bought, natch). And at night, we all head to the guest room in the basement and sleep together in the king-sized bed, telling ghost stories or making shadow puppets on the wall until we drift off to sleep.

They aren’t always perfect. They are kids, after all. Every stage has its pitfalls (particularly the dreaded tweens, when hormonal insanity rules). While parents need to exercise patience and persistence, childless aunts are allowed to react in any way we see fit, because, gosh, we don’t know any better. If the behavior gets too out of control, I typically pull the death card.

“I’m getting old and this may be the last time you’ll see me!” I wail, holding my hand to my forehead and feigning a weakened state. It seems to do the trick every time.

Being a fabulous aunt comes naturally to me, because I have such incredible role models. All of my aunts on both sides have spoiled me crazy and made me feel special. They still do. Because no matter how much I age, they remember holding me as an infant, attending those big events in my young life and watching me grow into adulthood. We have a history. And that’s what I’m building with my nieces and nephew now.

I don’t feel I made a selfish decision in not having children. In my case, selfish would have been trying to balance career and motherhood. Both would have suffered. But financially, most women don’t have a choice but to work. The cost of raising a kid? According to the USDA, a child born in 2011 will run an average of $234,900 until age 18 — and $390,000 if the household earns over $100,000.

I admit I worry sometimes about the future. As in: Who will take care of me when I can no longer take care of myself? I know how much my sisters and I chipped in during the later years of our parents’ lives. But having a child does not guarantee a caregiver. Assisted living facilities are filled with parents who have been warehoused and forgotten. Further, most of my friends don’t want to depend on their adult children. The easy answer is to live independently and enjoy life to the fullest, and die quickly when you no longer can. If only we had control over that.

I think being a parent is the hardest job in the world. It can be heartbreaking and frustrating. It also can fill you with an inexplicable love, take you on a adventure and give you the most fulfilling experience of a lifetime. But it’s not for everyone. Don’t waste your looks of pity. Aunt Shell is perfectly happy with her role in life.

mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

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