Growing Up Poor Convinced Me to Never Have Children
My wife and I have been married now nine years, going on ten. We do not have kids. Though the temptation has occasionally crossed our path, it’s never been something we really toyed with beyond a sort of bemused wistful daydreaming. What would it be like? Some of my friends have great children, little boys and girls that are simply a joy to be around, and occasionally they’ve made us consider that it would be cool to have such a presence in our own lives. But then, after the dopamine fades, we would think about things like kids crying in supermarkets and the reality check of our own pasts, the things we still wanted to do with our time, and the desire would dissolve.
Both my wife and I grew up poor. I can’t speak much on how this impacts her thinking, but I know it had a huge impact on my perception of the risk and added expense of bringing a child into the world too soon. We are both from Kentucky. Rural Kentucky. Right now I’m reading the book Hillbilly Elegy, and I’m astounded at how much I connect with that text. While I didn’t grow up in Appalachia, I recognize so much of my own experience in what Vance describes about his childhood in Kentucky.
For much of my young life, I watched my mother struggle to not only survive, but to do so while raising children on mostly her own merits. She had me when she was just sixteen years old, dropping out of high school to marry my biological father and start a life that would abruptly set her on the path of adulthood before she was actually an adult. Their marriage ended before I turned three, and life would get exponentially harder.
The next thirteen or so years of my existence would be basically me bearing witness to what the decision of giving birth to me cost my mother. While there is of course much to appreciate about my past, so many great memories and cherished experiences, and things that I know my mom considers priceless, the importance of family and so on, the life she chose was by no means easy. For thirteen years I watched the repercussions of stepping into the bigger world of the unknown while under-prepared for the challenge, and it left its mark on my psyche.
While growing up, living a life and absorbing the world around you, you don’t really understand a lot of what is going on at the time. It’s only in retrospect that you come to appreciate everything that was happening in the moment. Looking back, I can’t imagine the pressure my mother must have been under, trying to raise me, and then my sister, on her own. I watched her bounce from relationship to relationship, from failed marriage to failed marriage, trying desperately to find anyone who could be reliable enough to help her, and failing. This cycle of failed matrimony, including a marriage to a mentally deranged abuser, also left its marks on my impressions of trust and human love.
We never starved. We never went without the essentials. But my mom was constantly fighting to make sure that was the case. I remember her working multiple jobs, sometimes taking me with her to the restaurant she waited tables at because she couldn’t afford a babysitter. I remember seeming to constantly be on the move, going from one place to the next for God knows what reason, living with various friends and family, because we didn’t have the funds to get a place of our own. I remember her pride at finally having a stable enough life to be able to study and get her GED.
Though our poverty never felt especially extreme to me, there’s no denying that it must have been harder for the adults than for the children they were raising. I remember the hand-me-down clothing we wore. Buying shoes that were purposefully two sizes too big, just so we could wear them longer. Being made fun of at school, because I didn’t bring my own lunch, and got the free lunch program the school provided for needy kids. Being sent to the store to buy cigarettes for my mom, and a gallon of milk with the Food Stamp book. Coming home some nights to find that the power had been shut off due to not paying the bill. Heating water on the stove to be able to take a hot bath. Many nights of beans and corn bread for dinner. Renting places that needed to be fumigated for roaches. Living in a trailer out in the Kentucky woods. My mother’s disappointed face any time I asked for a toy that she couldn’t afford, or the shame of my grandmother buying me a pair of Nike shoes, when she told her not to, that she could provide for her own kids.
And yet, I was not unhappy. This life felt normal as apple pie. Normal as the American Dream. It was just a life.
Finally, at the age of sixteen, my mother found a man who could help her provide for her family, now with three children. It was strange to suddenly be moved into a fancy brick house, each of us with our own bedroom, and our own color television in that room. The house even had a pool. Our lives changed seemingly over night. But the end results of the past sixteen years of my life remained the same. I was terrified of making the same life choices of my mother. I vowed to not be trapped by getting married too soon, of having children before I was ready. I vowed to not repeat the mistakes I witnessed growing up, even if everything eventually worked out.
There was what I perceived to be a close call in my first real relationship in high school. When I lost my virginity, I was eighteen years old. We had only had sex a few times, fumbling through these experiences as clumsily as kids, and although we were smart enough to practice safe sex, condoms are obviously not foolproof. I remember very vividly like the third time we had sex that in my desperation to put on the condom I initially tried to put it on backwards, and not having another, I simply turned it around and used it anyway.
This later came to haunt us, as I remembered in sex ed class sometime afterward that the teacher had said women could get pregnant from pre-semen. I told my girlfriend about this, and then we lived in perpetual fear that she might be pregnant (stupidly I admit) until finally she had her period. Our relationship ended quickly after that, because how could we recover from such a scare? We were kids. We were stupid. I was stupid. But I wasn’t willing to risk having a child at the age of eighteen and being forced into a marriage and adulthood before I had even graduated high school.
It seems that many of my relationships later on also had a similar scenario occur somewhere along the timeline. I assume it’s fairly common. People have pregnancy scares all the time. Periods are often late in arriving for a myriad of reasons. Yet, for me, these scenarios played out under the weight of an inexplicable and all-too-real doomsday kind of existential dread. Any time the threat of pregnancy loomed in a relationship, I was obsessed with all the ways this would impact the future of our lives. I wasn’t ready for it. Would I ever be ready for it? I couldn’t imagine the pressure. The weight of the past called to me. My own absent father called to me. Don’t let it happen. Don’t let this ruin your potential.
Maybe it’s selfish to think this way about the impact of pregnancy and children on the lives of those who undertake the responsibility. Maybe it’s even borderline narcissistic. I don’t know. But I know that responsibility is just something I have never felt ready to tackle. And my partner in life feels much the same. We are happy in our lives, with just us and our three pets, which we call our fur babies.
I don’t know if we will ever try to have children at this point. Probably not. That time window is closing at an ever quickening pace. And that’s fine. I’ve seen my sister have her own children now. I’ve seen my brother have a son. I’ve seen my best friends build beautiful families, their Christmas cards decorating my refrigerator every year. I’m glad they’ve found their own unique versions of happiness and unity in this world. I’m glad they’ve got people they can depend on when times get tough.
I hope that they can look at the life I’ve made with my wife and feel the same about what we have. My mother and sister have stopped asking when we’re having kids. So, maybe, in some way, they finally understand, that we are happy too.