This post contains general thoughts about contraception and sterilisation as well as my own personal reasons for choosing the latter. If that seems like massive over-share to you, I quite understand if you don’t wish to read it. I’d say, though, that I think it’s important to be open to hearing a variety of perspectives on these issues, which are by their nature intensely personal, and which most of us have to confront at some point in our lives. I know a lot of women who are ambivalent at best about motherhood, and who I assume feel the same discomfort I do at living in a society that remains hostile to that ambivalence. I also sense a persistent taboo around open discussion of contraception, especially its shortcomings, which I doubt is helping anybody. I know that my own discomfort around these topics is borne of and perpetuated by our persistent inability to discuss them honestly and without fear. So here goes.
“Why don’t you want children?” There’s a sense in which the question seems nonsensical, like a request to prove a negative. You might as well ask me why I don’t want to move to Siberia, why I don’t want to run an ultramarathon, why I don’t want to become an accountant. I simply have no desire for these things, and in fact they all sound actively unpleasant to me, although I realise that many people enjoy all of them (although probably not concurrently).
Nobody has ever asked me to justify my failure to pursue the latter three options, although unlike the first, they don’t actually require active avoidance. Not having children requires constant, vigilant attention. Remembering to buy condoms, fumbling around with them every time you have sex, finding pharmacies that are open and will sell you the morning after pill when they break. Remembering to buy pills before the current pack runs out, remembering to carry them with you and take them at the same time every day, working out what to do when you miss one. Some women are fortunate enough to be able to pay a few dollars for implanon every few years and forget about it, but not everybody. How much do the rest of us spend on contraception over the two or three interminable decades that we have to use it? Thousands upon thousands of dollars, surely.
And for some of us all of this trouble is for the sake of preserving something we actually have no use for – our fertility. Imagine if you had to undertake an irritating task on a daily or weekly basis from the time you started high school just to preserve the possibility of one day becoming an accountant. Imagine you had to keep doing it through your twenties and thirties even though you had become a perfectly happy physiotherapist and had no special affinity for or interest in numbers. Imagine if, when you decided you wished to stop undertaking this task and finally close that door forever, you would be expected to justify this decision to dozens of accountants, many of whom were mortified and insisted that you would one day join their ranks. Imagine that some of these people could actually obstruct you, and force you to continue undertaking the task each day until you hit retirement age, “just in case”. This situation is completely absurd, isn’t it?
The neurologist who advised me on the emergent issue that all types of hormonal contraception seem to cause me frequent, severe and untreatable migraines has written to my GP saying that I “would prefer hormonal contraception to barrier methods if it were tolerable”. This is untrue. I would prefer to be able to have sex without getting pregnant. It’s that simple. I would be happy with any reversible form of contraceptive that were cheap and highly reliable, required minimal effort on my part, and had no negative side-effects on my mood, my health or my sex life. As far as I can tell, in my own case, after thirteen years of experimentation with various methods, no such thing exists.
Do other women grapple with the decision to become mothers in the same way that I’ve grappled with the decision to get sterilised? They are both major decisions. They are both effectively irreversible. And yet it seems unthinkable that I should say to a friend who tells me she is trying to become pregnant, “Are you sure? What if you change your mind?” It would be something far beyond mere rudeness for me to ask what she would do if she were overwhelmed by regret in a few years time, or if she and her partner broke up. We know what she would do. She would live with the consequences of her decision as best she could, because that would be the only option available to her. Such is the nature of irreversible decisions in reversible circumstances.
I expect that I will sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have children, as I suppose I may one day wonder what it would have been like to be an accountant. But when I think of pregnancy, labour, the sleep deprivation of the early years, the tantrums, the endless hours trying to cultivate an interest in piano lessons or school sports, the screaming arguments with teenagers who inexplicably despise you this year, the constant non-negotiable requirement to sacrifice my own desires again and again for someone else, my blood really does run cold. People who enjoy parenting will find this characterisation unfair, but then, many accountants are probably disappointed that not everybody shares their passion for numbers. Most of us in the quantitative professions do, at least, accept that many people would rather shovel shit than work with Excel spreadsheets all day, no matter how much we enjoy it.
Sterilisation and parenthood may be the only decisions in life that you really can’t take back. There is a middle path that involves putting the decision off until it’s made for you by biology, but that path is strewn with inconvenience and risk and expense, and it is not for me. I may regret this decision one day. I imagine I will regret a great many things about my life by the time I’m through. But unlike regretted parenthood, the consequences of which fall on at least three people, any regrets I have will be entirely my own.