Nulliparous: of, relating to, or being a female that has not borne offspring. New Latin nullipara, one who has never borne an offspring, from Latin nullus not any + -para -Latin, from parere to give birth to.
One night in April 2001, at the age of 25, I went to bed with clear skin and woke up the next morning surprised to see a face full of acne staring back at me from the mirror. Once I checked the calendar to be sure I hadn’t somehow unknowingly ridden a time machine back ten years to the glory days of grunge (Grunge, if you’re reading this, I’m still totally bitter about you knocking my preferred type of pop music from the airwaves!) I puzzled over what this could mean. First I bought new makeup. Then I changed my moisturizer. Next I bought some benzoyl peroxide cream and promptly bleached all my purple washcloths a blotchy orange. After a month or so, none of this having helped, I started making doctor’s appointments.
After a few wrong turns, including a dermatologist who dismissed out of hand that my acne could be hormonally motivated (my very first experience with a useless doctor!) eventually an endocrinologist deduced that I’d developed polycystic ovary syndrome, and that I was carrying around about three times the normal amount of testosterone for a woman. Thus the acne and my newfound ability to clean-and-jerk filing cabinets.
I didn’t have all the signs of PCOS, but I had enough. And it made some things about my personal health history suddenly make sense. Now there was an explanation for the fact that my uterus had always been as much of a procrastinator as I was! She had always had an “I’ll have a period…when I get around to it” sort of attitude. Frankly, that suited me fine – having fewer of them, at longer intervals than any of my girlfriends did, had never seemed like a disadvantage to me. Now my gynecologist was telling me that if I wanted to have kids, I had better get started sooner rather than later. Even though the tests showed I was ovulating, it was possible, she said, that I might have trouble conceiving. But let’s step back from 2001 for a moment.
When I was a kid, I was not really into baby dolls, besides an occasional interest in the ones you could put water in one end and get out the other and the obligatory participation in the Cabbage Patch Kid craze required of all middle-class children in the 80s. Baby dolls were boring. Barbie was much more my speed – she had an awesome wardrobe and a range of cool jobs, and Barbie was whom I wanted to be like.
As a child, when I looked forward to when I would be grown up, I thought that I’d have a great career and maybe I’d get married. But the idea of kids – it just seemed totally foreign to me. While I did plan to have pets as an adult – always an animal lover, I wanted as many cats as possible – looking into the future, I couldn’t imagine myself having kids. Once I got to the age where there there was some risk of it, I still couldn’t imagine it and I was pretty well terrified of it happening. Well, probably most of us were a bit petrified of it at the age at which it would not have been the done thing in our social circle – but my petrification persisted.
I also never thought I would be particularly well-disposed to parenting. When I observed others engaged in it, it didn’t seem like something I’d enjoy, and I thought that personality-wise, I was too selfish and not patient enough to be a good parent. I felt like I knew myself pretty well, and I thought that the likelihood of changing my mind (as people always say to women who declare they don’t want kids) was low. But maybe there was a slim chance I would change my mind. Maybe, likewise, I’d be more patient and less selfish with some years under my belt. However, at the moment my gyno encouraged me to get started soon, it wasn’t really a good time.
I know; there’s no perfect time, but that moment was particularly inopportune for the two of us. I wouldn’t say we’d absolutely ruled children out at that point, but it definitely hadn’t been on our near-term to-do list at the moment my gyno made that pronouncement. I was back at college full time and working part-time. Chimp was working in a three-year job as a visiting professor, and we didn’t know where we’d be after that. But soon could still mean a few years from now, and I thought that we’d have a chance to revisit the issue when Chimp got a tenure-track job.
I graduated in 2003, and Chimp landed a tenure-track job in California that same spring. We moved to Fresno in August. (If you ever need to move to Fresno, I would not suggest August as the optimum time to do so, as it’s sort of like moving to the surface of the sun. Actually, the sun might be easier, because you won’t have to drive a U-Haul over the Rocky Mountains to get there. Thanks again, Chimp!) I started my first post-college job at the end of October, and at the start of December, I got the fateful flu shot that kicked everything off.
The idea of kids never had a chance after that. ME/CFS had made the decision for me.
I know there are women who have had children while having ME/CFS. I cannot imagine how they do it. I was so tired even at my best in those mildest first couple years – being pregnant on top of that seemed like an insurmountable obstacle as well as a terrible idea to risk-averse me. What if I had a baby and it made me worse? What if having the baby went okay and then I got much worse years later? How would we ever manage?
In the meantime, I watched from the sidelines as more of my peers’ babies started to be born. At first there were a trickle of births, then a stream, and eventually a flood. I’ve been totally surprised by how many people decided to have children, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been – I’m more the outlier than they are.
Because I never got to have them, I feel fortunate, honestly, that I never really wanted children, and doubly fortunate that Chimp, while probably more interested in the idea than I, didn’t have a such a tie to it that it could become a relationship-ender when I proved unable to carry them.
Maybe if my health hadn’t turned, we might have made a different decision. I’ll admit, when I look at that picture of Baby Chimp, above, I feel a pull to it that I don’t when I see pictures of my friends’ children. I’m sure that’s because we’ve been together for fifteen years, and somehow, my unconscious has gotten programmed to react positively to an infant that looks like my mate. I’ll admit, it would have been fun to see what Chimp and my genes would have looked like combined, and interesting to know the personalities that might have emerged. But neither of those seem like a sufficient reason to reproduce.
I’m sure we could have been happy with children, but these days, when I think about the idea of us having them, it’s hard to evaluate whether it’s having a child that’s appealing, or if it’s that in imagining that scenario, I imagine myself well, and that being well is what’s so appealing. It’s tough to tease those factors out for me. But putting together the possibility of being exactly as sick as I am right now and having a child in our lives as well doesn’t feel good – it feels incredibly stressful. I guess there’s your answer.
In the end, it’s not that difficult to accept that I’ll never be a mother, because the drive was obviously not strong in me. For those who dearly want children and can’t have them, I gather it’s heartbreaking. However, I am sorry – much more for our parents than for myself – that we didn’t give them the joy of grandchildren. After all, people who have kids would probably like to have grandchildren, too. But none of them have pressured us or complained about it, and for that I’m grateful.
I remember a flight I took on a business trip when I was already sick but still well enough to be working. Just by happenstance, I’d been seated next to an older gentleman who was also in the food business. We got to talking about our respective lines of work. At some point he asked, “So, do you have kids?”
“No. No interest.”
“But you and your husband are obviously smart people. People like you should have kids! And everybody has kids eventually.”
“The kind of people who should have kids are people who want to have kids,” I said.
And when it comes down to it, that was never really me.