The tremendous power of life choice representation
My Harriet was my father's sister, Joyce. She lived at 138th and Madison in Harlem, NYC. My earliest memory of her apartment was looking out the window as a kid and seeing the Harlem River at night. She married once, and when they divorced she never married again but she had a gentleman friend for many years. After he died, there was no one else. But Joyce wasn't lonely. She had her squad, Vivian, Muriel, and Jenny (who we also claimed as Aunt). Many times we'd visit and they'd have their apartment doors open so we could just go in and out. She had a very good job as a secretary at what was then Bristol-Meyers, and she traveled. She sewed the most lovely clothes for herself; she's the person to call if you had a pattern or fabric problem. When I was around 15 or 16, I spent a week with her at her apartment. I knew then that I didn't need a big house, I just needed an apartment, good friends, and an awesome city or town to live in. I could live on my own and choose my companion. She was the first person I ever came out to and years later met my girlfriend who later became my person. There's so much more but I'll end with this: of all the things I kept of hers after she died, the letter addressed to the thieves who once messed up her apartment is the one that makes me every time I look at it. It's framed and is accompanied by a dollar bill for their trouble.
I crave this kind of content - thanks for giving a climate weary married young millennial permission to be the master of her own damn life. I have plenty of older female mom friends, many of whom have relayed to me that their lives were basically destroyed by motherhood. More through patriarchal and societal conditions than the kids themselves, of course. I told an older mom friend earlier today, in fact, that the latest “time is running out” climate news may have been the nail in the coffin for my parental aspirations, but I need to remember that self preservation and independence and choice are equally good reasons to abstain.
I'm Harriet for my niece, who incidentally is my favorite person in the world. She's 12 and we've been traveling together, watching musicals and cooking up feasts and generally acting like a pair of crazy old spinsters since she was very wee. She always declares that she wants to be just like me, including not having children and never getting married, but I tell her she's too young to know. But I'm glad she thinks my life is as fabulous as I do.
What a great piece! It speaks to me most as the mother of two children in their 30s, reminding me to be conscious of not "actually imprinting that fear (of being alone) on your own kids right now! You might (want) grandkids so badly that you don’t want them to even consider those other choices. But there’s something far, far worse than not having grandkids, and that’s watching the shame, sadness, and despair that foments when a certain way of being feels compulsory or unavoidable."
What I most of all want to share is that I was so surprised and happy to stumble across the mention of Dorothy Molter in this piece. I spent two weeks in Dorothy Molter's "winter cabin" in 1973 when I was 17. My dad and older brothers had been going up to Dorothy's to fish for years. When my dad's fishing buddy wanted to take his daughter to Dorothy's like he had his older sons, they invited me along on their trip. We portaged in by canoe from Ely across five lakes. Dorothy would move out of her winter cabin and into a tent for the summer so she could rent out her cabin. While I did drink some of Dorothy's famous root beer, I most remember her homemade bread and homemade ice cream. She was not lonely at all that I could see. Her sister was living with her that summer, and she had a separate tent for her two rather-slapstick teenage nephews, who also helped her run the place in the summer. She had a friendship with a wild deer she named Rhonda who would sometimes come into camp when Dorothy called her. The ranger would stop in by float plane occasionally to chat. She would leave her cabins once a year by snow mobile when the lakes were frozen over to buy provisions for the year in Ely. She cut ice in 3-foot thick blocks from the lake in the winter and kept them in peat in her ice house all through summer. We had a true "ice box" outside our cabin for our refrigerator. - I admired and was inspired by Dorothy. Even in the 1970s, I don't believe it ever crossed my mind that she lived the way she did by anything other than choice.
Growing up, I had ZERO models for how to be a childless woman. All of my aunts and family friends had children, and I always assumed I would too. If I'd had a Harriet in my life, I wonder if I would've withstood the blow of infertility better. I'm still childless, but perhaps wouldn't have wasted so much time in despair. I got there eventually, but a model of a happy, healthy, and fulfilled life that didn't center around children of my own (or a high-powered, big-shot career) would've been such a gift during a dark time.
Thank you so much for this. No children, un-partnered through my thirties and now partnered but living separately (another thing people find hard to understand, although many admit it sounds pretty good once they think about it). I definitely spent a lot of years feeling sad and small, and one revelation was when my best friend's daughter, a tween at the time, told her she wanted to be like me because my life seemed pretty awesome. So, I am a Harriet!
This was lovely. I think of my second grade teacher Ms. Bryant. She was the first adult woman I met who used Ms (I’m an elder millennial so this is late 80s/early 90s). My cousin Cheryl married an older man who had a son from a prior relationship. She doesn’t have kids and is happy to be Aunt CiCi to her sisters’ children.
I also didn’t realize how important this aspect of VP Harris’ life was until I read her book. She met and married Doug in her 40s and is very proud and happy to be a step-mom. It’s so damn nice to see a successful, happy woman without children who married later in life. #goals
I didn't have a Harriet but I wish I did. My conservative Islamic community was all cis-het married with children. My mom was the only single mom and she held a lot of resentment and bitterness towards my absent dad, his family, and our community. I have a very deep fear of single motherhood (or partnered motherhood with an uninvolved partner) for that reason. My husband has given me no indication that he wouldn't try his absolute best but I do find his perception of parenthood (grew up with married working parents, mostly on the same team) is so different from mine and so unscathed by the brutal reality of how abandoned you can be as a mother. I know I have to do my own healing to some extent (my mother raged a lot and often made us feel unwanted) but I also know she didn't imagine all the suffering she went through. The next few years are probably the best positioned we will be to have these kids we really want and yet I feel like I have to go in eyes shut because if I really pay attention I couldn't possibly do it. It's heartbreaking.
I just happened to have my email open, procrastinating, when you sent this out- which thrilled me as you provided me with a great reason to take more time prior to diving into boring work. The essay today made me see something that I did not even realize we were doing with our two children. It was never intentional. It is just our life. We were not going to have children. We had made this decision early on in our relationship. Then one day, I was showering, he was shaving, and it just hit me, I said do you want to have a baby, I do- he said sure. I was 38 he was 44. So we had a baby, loved it and at 42/48 we had another. Because we were so much older than the norm we had a very established group of no kid friends. But we have also worked very non-traditional jobs in several places so we have collected a huge variety of people as our chosen family. Our kids grew up with every kind of person from every walk of life. And I mean millionaires to penny-less, Christians, Jews, Atheists, drug addicts in recovery (even one who sadly relapsed and passed away)people who have no kids, no life partners, who travel with a circus, work on wall street etc. At times, we have worried that they were exposed to too much, that we were too open. They are now 18 and 15. And you made me think. Just now it hit me, without even meaning to, we have shown them there are several ways to travel through this world- and if you are not hurting anyone else then the path is yours to explore. Thank you for putting my insecurities regarding overexposure to rest.
There's a very particular representation of this person in southern literature -- the eccentric spinster neighbor in the small town. Think Miss Maudie, Scout's neighbor in To Kill A Mockingbird. Miss Maudie makes cake and works in her yard and does what she wants. Ouiser Boudreaux from Steel Magnolias is another version of this character.
Frankly, I have been waiting my entire life to become this character. One of the only things I don't like about living out West is that trying to bake a real good pound cake at altitude is next to impossible. If/when I eventually return to the South, there will be no stopping me.
(Though the only time I've ever made successful caramel icing was out here, because the only time I've ever had patience to stand over the stove with a wooden spoon for an hour was after an edible.)
A note from a male perspective:
1) My wife and I have been married since 1993 and have no kids. I write; she paints, takes pictures, sculpts, and designs album covers. We run a website and a record label together. When people ask (which is rare), I say we have no mortgage, no kids, no external factors at all keeping us together — we're married because we like each other.
2) I was raised by my mom and her five sisters, some of whom were married, some of whom were not, some of whom had kids, some of whom did not, but all had their shit together (at least from my vantage point; I have subsequently learned from Mom that that was maybe not 100% the case) and some of whom were really cool. One aunt told me about going to see the Allman Brothers Band at the Fillmore East; another loaned me her copy of Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when I was 13. And my uncles were mostly good guys, too, but growing up, the message I received, quite unmistakably, was that women were absolutely equal to men and could do whatever they wanted with their lives and it was nobody else's business.
I love this piece. Not just because of the topic, which is near and dear to me, but just the tenderness of your description, your weaving of issues beyond the self but that are so personal with their impact. But to answer your question, I did have these types of women in my life, but the one who has, and still has, the most impact on me is Anne. She was first a neighbour that we met when we moved when I was starting middle school. She ended up being our dog sitter by chance. Then as I got older, I would stop by, we'd crack open some beers, talk politics (she worked for the provincial and federal government), talk about life, choices, all the things that you really need to know about as a young woman but no one really wants to share with you. For so long, she was the ideal: she had come of age in the 50s, entered the workforce in the 60s when most women were either still at home or were limited in their aspirations, and she was in government! She'd tell me about needing her dad to sign stuff for her because she wasn't allowed to as a woman, fighting the sexism in the workforce, how having your own money is so important, about not compromising yourself push comes to shove. But then one day, after I had been calling her my drinking buddy for almost a decade, valuing her like few others, she said something that made me pause. I had said that I hoped I could have a life like hers, and she told me that she hopes I do not need to make the choices and the compromises she had to. This pillar, she has cracks in her, but in some ways, that conversation made me value her even more. I think we end up essentializing these types of women: childfree/less, working, having more disposable income, content and confident, but every choice is a compromise. It's saying no to something. And she hopes I don't have to make these choices, but I will.
My boyfriend sent me your tweet this week and it felt like a little love note. thank you for this beautiful essay! we're still not sure whether we want kids or not but i so appreciated the way your essay both argues for the need for more models and also says we need to make it easier to be a parent or to have different family structures! so often this conversation feels super binary so i appreciate the multiple perspectives!
I am 43 and have been married for 19 years. We are childfree—very much by choice. I had 2 Harriets as a child: The first was a great aunt (Lee) who married late in life after being among the first flight attendants, for which she had to earn her RN degree. She had a step-daughter through that later marriage but was very much *not* a mom. The second was one of my mom’s best friends who probably would have tried to have kids but needed a life-saving hysterectomy in her early 30s. Both women were devoted aunts, which I try to emulate with my own nieces and nephews—though I will admit to only really liking kids once they hit middle school or later. (This is partly why I don’t have any of my own: that’s a *really* long time to live with someone you don’t like.) The spouse and I travel and adventure a lot. We get a fair amount of side-eye from relatives for our “carefree” lifestyle, but we have also made plenty of active choices to end up like this: lower-paying academic faculty positions that allow us time and space, no kids, etc. And I have gotten more than my share of earfuls from total strangers about my decision to not have kids: “Oh, I get it; you’re selfish!” and “43 and no pregnancies?!?” (Both of those were male strangers, but women can be just as stupid about this topic with strangers.)
I have so enjoyed the general uptick in conversations about womanhood vis-a-via motherhood, and this post hit so many important notes and points for me. So thank you for writing it, for inspiring many of us to step up our visibility as potential Harriets, and for allowing this conversation to continue.
One thing I’m curious about (even as I wince a bit at the suggestion) is how childfree by choice MEN fit into this equation. It feels like so much of the discourse centers on women. Again: I can feel myself cringing as I’m typing this. I’m aware that this point could re-center men as we work to break down the Patriarchy! But if we are truly looking for communal responses to make all of choices in a more informed way and to make their outcomes, whatever they may be, easier, then it feels like we need to know more about what drives a wider circle of childfree people. I asked my spouse if he had any male Harriets in his life, and he said no—that the “cool, young couples” in his adolescents all “faded into boring married couples with kids.” So our decision not to have kids was driven in part on his side by not wanting to fade that way.
He also wondered if men don’t talk about (or get asked about) this topic because they have so rarely been defined by their status as fathers. But I wonder if that’s actually true—a bit of armchair sociology (not my academic field, though I’ve done a fair amount of social and applied science research writing and teaching!) makes me wonder if much of the lower class “absent father” story is due to an inability to financially support a growing family. The men leave rather than face their inability to provide in a traditional sense. In other words: the burdens for men may be different but are still present.
Okay. Enough rambling for an evening. But thanks, again, for getting my mind going again on this topic. It’s never far from my brain…but it’s always in need of refining and reinvestigating.
This piece resonated so much with me. I didn't have a Harriet, per se, but I was always ambivalent about having children and put it off long enough in my 20s to finally realize it wasn't a requirement. My parents were supportive, too, particularly my dad who told me you shouldn't have children for any reason other than you want them—we were talking about him not having grandkids. I have had people, including total strangers, tell me I'm being selfish for not wanting kids. Once, my mom and I met my second cousin for a meal. She had had three kids and had nursed her ailing husband as he approached his death. She was a caregiver through and through and was absolutely stunned I didn't want kids. "Whose going to take care of you when you get old?" she asked. What an appalling reason to have children, but I also know plenty of estranged parents and children. "Aren't you afraid to die alone?" I mean, the conversation was relentless. She was quite aggressive about it. A year or so later, she died, unexpectedly and alone in her house and I thought back to our conversation. There are no guarantees about what the ends of our lives will look like, whether we have kids, are married, widowed, never married, etc. Our time is limited, and I want to enjoy it and craft my own community with friends and family and to support them however I can in all stages of the lives we have together.
My Harriet is a lifelong friend. She was an unwanted child who suffered every kind of abuse imaginable from her family. As an adult she vowed not to have kids, in part because she was afraid that she would fall into old patterns and pass along the abuse she grew up with. Know what she’s doing now? She is a family attorney who advocates for abused women and children.
For the record, I am a stay-at-home mom (by choice), but my friend is still my hero.