Why I Never Had Babies

Why I Never Had Babies

I started babysitting when I was in the 7th grade. I sat with older children, though truthfully, there wasn’t much sitting involved. I mostly played games, broke up fights, doled out snacks, and devised various failing strategies to get them to bed on time. Once they conked out, I dozed through Johnny Carson’s show and woke when the Star-Spangled Banner trumpeted the arrival of the test pattern. I got paid 50 cents an hour.
By 9th grade, I was the regular sitter for the three kids next door, often on summer days when their mother simply had to get something done outside the house. The youngest was the oddly named Hugh-hill, whose upper lip frequently hosted a worm of green mucus that I managed by thrusting a wad of tissue at his older sister with an encouraging look.

When the nice young couple across the street adopted a newborn, I accepted a new client. Having grown up with a sister 8 years younger, I knew how to change diapers and warm a bottle. My mother was home if anything should go wrong. On the maiden voyage, the baby slept; I read some magazines. The cookies designated for my enjoyment were of a superior quality.

When invited back, I readily agreed. A drowsy infant, time to read . . . and $1 an hour! To my surprise, on reporting for duty that evening, I found a second child had been added to the mix. My nice couple was going to a party with friends, whose toddler I was also expected to watch. At 14, I was wise to the way of toddlers, but if the baby slept quietly, I figured I could manage. 

I couldn’t. The toddler was everywhere at once, and the evening infant was not the undemanding one I’d tended in the afternoon. He required a diaper change, for one.

Excited to be on the changing table, the little guy thrashed around and knocked over the open bottle of baby oil. It efficiently emptied itself, dripping from the table onto the floor.

Fearful of slipping, I held tightly to my tiny charge and made my way to dry ground, afraid the toddler would abandon his toys at any second and wander into the oil slick.

Desperate to clean up — and knowing my mother was out — I called my six-year-old sister over to help. I wasn’t worried about the freshly diapered and immobile infant, but the toddler needed a keeper. So, she kept him occupied while I cleaned up. Order restored, the four of us gathered in the living room near the piano.

The next part of the story is where I went terribly wrong. And, the consequences of my actions not only devastated me at the time, but they still come to mind when I’m put in charge of a small child, however briefly.

My little sister perched on the piano bench and tinkled the keys, drawing the toddler’s attention. I lifted him onto the bench next to her to allow him to pound out a little tune. He was not, however, steady enough to hold himself erect for long and, in a slow-motion nightmare, he tumbled from the bench, hitting his head on the floor. He looked startled, gasped, then wailed with pain and indignation.

I scooped him up and, using the address the nice couple had left on a pad, I told my sister to run to the nearby dinner party and summon the parents. She sped off; I wrapped an ice cube in a dishtowel and placed it on the goose egg that was developing. The toddler continued to howl.

I should pause here to say that I was an unusually mature and responsible child, the oldest of three, my mother’s helper. An A student, I was elected vice president of my 7th grade class, served as a bus monitor, and had earned both child-care and first-aid badges in Girl Scouts.

My resume in no way mitigated the reaction of the toddler’s mother. When she returned to find her injured child in my arms, and as I was trying to explain what had happened, she screamed, “What kind of babysitter are you?” again and again, until I tearfully gave up. My sister and I went home.

I crawled into bed, sobbing. When my mother returned, she sat on the bed to pat my back and coo comforting words. I keened and gulped my way through the story. I had made a mistake that could have cost the child his life — that’s what the upset mother’s angry words communicated to me — and I couldn’t stop the self-recriminations.


My mother crossed the street to talk to the infant’s mother, who reported the events as I had. The toddler’s mother, she acknowledged, had over-reacted. And, she admitted, it had been a mistake to add a second child without a forewarning. She even mentioned the effort I’d made to clean up the spilled baby oil.

The next day, my mother visited the toddler’s mother. Once assured that the boy was fine, I know my mom had some things to say about the pain her child felt. Later that day, the nice lady across the street came over to pay me; I refused to take the money.

I never accepted another babysitting job.

When I was in my late 20s and working in a Dallas newsroom, a younger colleague approached my desk to say she wanted to get pregnant because, she claimed, “My body is screaming BABY BABY BABY!”

Her resume didn’t prepare me for that: she was a highly competitive gourmet cook and runner with a degree from a good school, hired from a Chicago paper to edit a flashy new section in Dallas. She showed every sign of professional ambition.

As for me, I was happily working as a features writer, married to an older man with children from his first marriage. My body scolded me at night for wearing high heels to work and nudged me to eat dessert, but it hadn’t so much as whispered “baby” to me.

It never did.

“My body scolded me at night for wearing high heels to work . . .”

As friends and co-workers began to start their families, I dutifully showed up for baby showers and expressed interest in the oft-shared statistics — hours of labor, weight at birth, number of sleepless nights. New moms clustered in the hallway at work to compare notes about breast pumps and childcare.

Meanwhile, I had Wednesday nights to myself — that’s when my husband took his twins out to eat — and I adjusted to every-other-weekend sleepovers. I attended my first PTA meeting, sent letters to camp, baked birthday cakes. My stepchildren were already 10 when we came together: I had nothing to share with friends who were starting from scratch.

The new moms in my circle likely thought I was a big drag. I’m sure I complained about my part-time parenting — about meals and laundry and being stuck at home on Saturday nights. I know I whined about late-night pick-ups at the roller rink and all the backseat squabbling.

Some of it was good, of course. Accepting a limp bouquet of flowers gathered on a walk or having a small hand slip into mine eased the pain of having to scrape bubblegum off the bed sheets. I still remember the first time one of my stepchildren thought to wish me a happy Mother’s Day.

I was only 26 when I took on those 10-year-olds. In some ways, that helped. Because I was still defining myself, I had fewer notions of how things should be. I was accustomed to change: in the previous four years, I had graduated from college, moved to two new cities, married (and divorced) my college sweetheart, and become a journalist.

With all that going on, having babies had yet to make a blip on my radar. Instead, my focus was on learning to be a better journalist and making friends, both of which were happening in that Dallas newsroom. And though I wasn’t looking, that’s also where I met the love of my life. As it happens, he already had two perfectly good children. On the day we married, I became both a newlywed and a stepmother.

Almost 40 years later, I’m astounded to realize how little thought I gave that choice. When I said, “I do,” I joined a club whose most famous members were the tormentors of Cinderella and Snow White. We were “wicked” or “evil,” and nobody loved us. Even I laughed when a co-worker regularly complained about her “step-monster.”

I had been a stepchild, so I guess I thought I knew a thing or two. There was the real parent, and there was the not-real parent. You had to do what the real parent said, and if the other one told you to do something, you checked with the real parent.

And so, I became a not-real parent. As such, I spent the next four decades picking my way through the thorniest of relationships — with my stepchildren, their real mother, their spouses, their children and . . . yes, their stepchildren. It’s been the biggest adventure of my life.


 My aunt Helen, whose shoes and purse always matched, kept multiple $20 bills in her wallet at all times. She had her hair regularly colored and styled, and she went to church (my mother said) to have an excuse to dress up. She kept a cake of Maybelline mascara on her pink vanity, and I loved watching her load the tiny brush and sweep it onto her pale eyelashes.

Aunt Helen worked, but her house was unfailingly clean and orderly. She read Perry Mason paperbacks and stocked her downstairs fridge with icy bottles of Tab. She exercised with Jack LaLanne on TV and bought one of those jiggling machines with a wide belt she strapped around her bottom. Having been a pretty woman, she kept at it until the end of her life.

My mother’s big sister had three husbands, but for reasons unknown to me, she never had children. I remember some grown stepchildren who came to holiday meals. And, she had my brother and sister and me, on whom she lavished love and attention.

Because I never heard her lament her lack of offspring, I assumed Aunt Helen was happy with her lot. And, in that unconscious way that children emulate beloved family members, I embraced not only my aunt’s tendencies toward financial solvency, self-care and tidiness, but also her child-free status.

My timing was good. Born in the middle of the baby boom, I had encouragement and opportunities denied women of earlier generations. I knew I wanted an education and a career. Although I first settled on being a flight attendant (when I was 11), my love of reading and writing won out. My parents were encouraging: They bought me books and magazine subscriptions and, when I was 12, my very own typewriter. 

In high school, I discovered the women’s liberation movement.

The day I left for college, I had with me the first issue of Ms. magazine, published in spring 1972. I read and re-read the satirical article called “I Want a Wife,” targeted to working women who came home to household chores and childcare expected of traditional wives and mothers. As someone just leaving the nest, it seemed a terrible injustice: The editors of Ms. would have called that my “click” moment.

There were many more. In the women’s history classes I took in college, I learned how recently women had gained the right to sit on juries and to own property in their own names. My eyes opened to the inequalities that persisted. I discovered that I couldn’t apply for a credit card without a male co-signer, not until after someone fought for and won that right for me during my junior year. I got a Mobil gas card right away.

More pertinent to my life choices were the changes that occurred during my first two years in college. In 1972, the law prohibiting unmarried women from possessing contraceptive devices was overturned: my campus health clinic began to dispense the birth control pill. A year later, Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal.

As a woman then in my late teens and early twenties, having control of my reproductive life meant an accidental, or unwanted, pregnancy was unlikely. If I had a baby, it would be deliberate. It would be my choice.

It never was. I know people are curious about childless women, more so in my youth, I suspect, than these days. I’m sure some suspect fertility issues; others assume we dislike children. Once, I was accused of being selfish for not producing a small person or two.

Most adults are too polite to ask for an explanation. But when I was a high-school teacher, at least once a year a teenager in my class would ask if I had children. I always replied, “I have stepchildren.” That was, of course, an evasive answer. I was afraid to say no outright, because the follow-up would have been, “Why not?”

It was not a question I could easily answer. I’ve made an attempt here, partly because my adult stepdaughter once asked me point blank, and although I really wanted to answer, I didn’t have the paragraphs lined up.  Because I’m a writer, I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.

Here’s what I’ve learned writing this piece: caring for other people’s children had something to do with my failure to develop baby fever. My role models suggest a rejection of my mother’s preference to stay home and raise children. And, as a young woman, I awoke to my culture’s historic devaluation of women and therefore, of motherhood. These explorations have allowed me, at 66, to consider more fully the choice I made decades ago.

Now, if anyone asks me why I didn’t have children, I’ll say: I simply allowed time to pass — busy, happy years — without considering pregnancy; I felt no urgency to reproduce. It didn’t occur to me that anything was missing from my life, at least not anything that would be solved by having a baby. How very fortunate I’ve been, to have had such a life.



Hearing stories recently from so many young black men and women picked at emotional scabs from invisible wounds accrued over the years. We — meaning black Americans — are remarkably adept at rising above slights and insults, deliberate and unintended. Over 400 years resilience has been built into our DNA.

We’ve become adept at seeing bigotry for what is, navigating it, and moving on.

Like the time my brother was taken to an expensive dinner by three New York Times hotshots who were interested in him as a staff photographer. Fred enjoyed the hospitality, ate with all the right utensils, said all the right things, and parted amicably from the power trio.

Fred, who was already a photo editor with Associated Press, had driven up to The Big Apple from D.C. for the interview. He was waiting for the valet to bring his car around when a smartly dressed male Caucasian pulled up to the valet station in a BMW, tossed Fred the keys and asked that his sassy car be parked carefully, noting the probability of a generous tip.

Fred assured the man that he would tend to it right away and put the keys — there were several — in his pocket. Fred’s car came around, and he and the keys were soon off on his return to the nation’s capital. We laughed bittersweet laughter. Fred too had been nattily attired, right down to Italian loafers with tassels.

Didn’t matter.

Among too many personal experiences in my time at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one incident stands out in particular.

As an accommodation to White Flight in the late 1950s, rapacious developers built houses 90 miles a minute in South St. Louis County where blacks were historically excluded.

What they didn’t tell all-too-willing buyers was the fact that the houses were built in a 100-year flood plain. Unfortunately no one checked to see where new residents were in that crucial century.

Turns out it was the bad part.

When the rains came they were merciless. Skinny rivulets became mighty streams; lazy streams roared to life; the Mississippi’s banks overflowed. Cars were swept away. People drowned.

One of them was the son and only child of a couple who had bought one of those houses. The boy had wandered down to the stream he knew so well to see what it was doing. What it did was snatch him up in an unanticipated torrent and deposit him in a treetop a half-mile down. When the flood subsided firefighters found his body tucked among the branches. I was dispatched to write the story.

“Cars were swept away.



Nothing like a double shot of vodka with orange juice, toast, and scrambled eggs to calm pre-interview jitters. The parents were understandably distraught. I sat in the kitchen with the mother as she peeled carrots, then potatoes. When the father came home he joined us.

He talked about how his son loved that spot by the stream. At last the father buried his face in his hands and sobbed. “If I’d known something like this would happen I’d have stayed with the niggers,” he said. His wife continued peeling potatoes. 

I closed my notebook, declined the invitation to stay for dinner, expressed condolences and thanked them for their time. Once in the car, I burst out laughing. I figured right about the time I got to the highway, the wife was turning to her husband and asking “What did you just say to that reporter?”

Chastising a father who is mourning the death of his only child, a son, would have been out of place; he’d already been through enough. My job was to get a story. I did. But when the laughter subsided, the wound remained.

So don’t ever, ever ask a black person whether he or she is angry, unless you really want the answer. The Ivy League, Seven Sisters; the PhD, the DDS, the MFA — none of it matters to still too many out in the real world.

I’ve heard passengers say that if they’d known the flight captain was black they’d have taken a different flight.

I once met a black female navigator on another flight who said she’s always the last off because some passengers assume she’s somehow less competent.

Unless we capture the moment now, the time for honest conversation about race might not come again peaceably. And it’s only meaningful if we’re honest with ourselves. No big convocations need be called. Make a lunch date with someone of color — not necessarily to talk race relations, but to have a conversation with another human being who is not like you.


Don’t tell me you were raised by a black housekeeper who was just like a member of the family unless you never called her by her first name; unless the kids played together; unless you shared Thanksgiving; went to Six Flags together. Unless you can have a conversation about race without apology, brace yourself. It’s a learning curve for all of us.

I share these tales not to guilt anyone, but to ask for awareness that our congeniality often masks a lifetime of sleights that are unique to us. The Irish and Africans are the only ones whose ancestors came to America involuntarily. Know American history. All of it. I often refer to White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. Learn about Irish slaves brought to America by Brits.

We grow up knowing about great white scientists, authors, statesmen and composers, but how many know of Grant Still, Crispus Attucks, Ethel Payne, Percy Julian, Mamie Phipps Clark, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor?

We’ve come a long way from being denied education to being, as some like to say, over-educated — whatever that’s supposed to mean. Meanwhile, we’re at a tipping point.

Jesse Jackson used to say that we might have come over on different ships, but that we’re in same boat now.

So do we sink or swim?