I have fantasized about being barren since I was really young. I had an instinctive knowledge, back then, that my body was not one from which children could be born. For years it lingered inside me, hopeful as I entered and passed through most of middle school without getting a period. It made me feel special, even blessed. I could not explain the exact mechanisms by which I might have been spared fecundity — accidents of womb shape or egg development or androgen insensitivity — but I knew such possibilities existed and I sensed one was true for me.
This self-knowledge was fake, disproved on the day I slipped into the girl’s bathroom by the science classrooms and found a spread of dark, black-brown sludge caked on my underwear. I scraped off most of it with my fingernails and filled the crotch of my panties with wads of toilet paper, a task I didn’t know I would repeat hundreds of times in the future, ill-prepared as I often am for the reality of what my body can do. When I got home, I rinsed off my underwear in a hot spray from the sink, changed clothes, and stuffed the offending wad in the bottom of our family’s communal hamper. I didn’t speak a word of what had happened for quite some time. I hoped that through tidy denial I could make it disappear.
As a budding tween, I was horrified by the prospect of menstruation. The closer it loomed the more I was repelled by it. In fifth grade, I and the other girls gathered in a room to watch a stagey video called “Then One Year”, in which a frizzy-haired young woman embarrassed herself by bumping into her crush in the hallway at school, causing dozens of brightly wrapped maxi pads to come showering out of a brown paper bag she was carrying. As she scrambled to collect the green puffy squares, each of us absorbed the implicit message: this thing will come and fly out of you, and it will be shameful and make you silly with worry. I don’t know what the boys, gathered in the other room, watched, what their damaging messages were. I know nocturnal emissions were involved. I was not clear on if my body was capable of that too.
I remember that, at that time in my education, periods were depicted in stationary drawings. The shedding was drawn as a pinkish jelly that just slid out. I had heard about blood being involved, but most descriptions seemed to downplay it. I asked my mom if you could even see it, and if it was a lot, and she tried to be reassuring. But since the answers to both questions were both affirmative, I was not reassured.
I already feared and dreaded pregnancy by then. The dread had been inside me for some time, as a matter of fact. As a very young child, maybe five years old, I had asked my mom if there were already a bunch of babies inside of me, ready to ripen and come out when I reached adulthood. She said no, of course not. But she did not explain why this wasn’t the case, where babies actually came from. It was a half decade later, in the fifth grade classroom, that I learned the truth.
So this was how pregnancy always struck me, from the first moments I was aware of it: inevitable, uncontrollable, a doomed fate my body would unleash. And why wouldn’t I feel that way? Whenever I told the adults around me that I didn’t want children, they would make pitying, condescending noises and tell me that would change. Not that I was free to change. But that it would just happen. A dreaded bodily fate unleashed by time. Not unlike my childhood vision of dormant babies already curled inside me against my will.
I would protest and crow about the selfishness of wanting biological kids. I would play up the social importance of adoption. The adults around me would sigh. Shake their heads. It was an insult to their reproductive choices for me to rant like that, I guess. They met my rudeness with equal disrespect for my choices. I was six, seven, eight, but dammit, I knew what I wanted. I never changed. I only learned to waver in how vocal I was about this position, and then to censor it entirely.
By middle school, fertility and pregnancy had shifted from some abstract issue I was principally against, to a concrete reality that twisted my insides with fear. My mom at last wanted to discuss it, really discuss it, in terms of pads and cycles, stains and spare underwear stashed in my backpack. I could not stomach it. Every time she started the conversation, I fled out of the room. I would physically hide behind furniture, moaning for her to stop. I pushed the possibility entirely from my mind as soon as she shut up.
I do not recall actual menstruation being as traumatic. Perhaps that means it was too traumatic to even recall. My recollections are spotty, and episodic: me hiding stains with sweatshirts tied around my waist; me wiping up spills and leaks with wads of toilet paper wetted in the school toilet; me, curled up in the hallway of my home, immobilized by cramps while my dad looked on and reflected that women really do get the short end of the stick. Menstrual blood, it turned out, was dark and sometimes painful to emit. My body was, in fact, capable of the whole pregnancy thing. Breasts budded. Waist-hip ratios asserted themselves. Hair seeped out of skin that was once soft and unscented.
Puberty’s traumas are well documented. Most people respond to the shifting of emotions, hormones, and bodily silhouettes with some depression and angst. I know I’m not special. Even the boys and girls who firmly see themselves as future “men” and “women” can loathe the turbulence of that transition. I didn’t want any variety of it. I tried to picture my blossomed, womanly beautiful self and found it uncanny. Not ugly or undesirable — just not me.
The strategy of response remained what it always had been: principled denial. The body was a betrayal, the duties it apparently came with were an injustice. I waged a cold war against it, and hardened myself. This was my high school experience.
I was troubled by my widening hips, so much vaster than that of the androgynous, boyish figures I idolized. I ate less so I could narrow, not realizing my skeleton was the object in the way. I went braless to ignore my expanding breasts. I yearned for spiky hipbones and a flat stomach with a happy trail. I ate less. Way less. Tried not to eat at all. When I did eat, I tried to negate it with meticulous late night exercise, tracking my calories and chugging ice water as I danced or biked in the dark. I stayed on the computer all night long, to tear my mind away from my body. If I went to bed, I’d be left alone with my entire self, which would invariably make me cry. So I stayed up, and did not sleep.
I did not want sex. I did not want marriage. I did not want kids. I came out as asexual at my school, and nobody really understood it. A few teachers assumed I was gay and closeted, which I guess wasn’t that far off, in the end. But at the time, asexual was an honest appraisal of my relationship with the high school landscape. I was a person apart, neither male nor female, and attracted to no one I saw on a regular basis. The existing relationship models I was aware of held no allure; the known identities did not serve me. I wanted to opt out of the whole reality of bodies, sex, gender, and desire, and live instead as a dark, smart cloud.
It worked for a long time. I got thin enough that concerns were voiced quietly around me, but always in the periphery of my awareness. My friends, all queer in some way, respected my identity at least to my face. I filled my days with activism and extra curriculars, my nights with exercising and dithering on the internet. My period slowed and then became an irregular blip, missing for a month or two at a time, then coming back when my resolve to starve weakened. I had very little capacity for empathy or soft feelings. I wanted to be impenetrable, body and soul.
My self-knowledge at the time was fake, but it was not a lie. The war with my body was misdirected, but reflected an honest and crucial need to protect myself from the social and biological path I felt fated for. And it worked for a while. It did not kill me. I got hungry enough for human contact and for food that I was pulled back from the edge.
So I gained weight back, and buried my identity, and went off to college. Dating straight men in college and graduate school proved to be way more of a self-betrayal than the starvation was. I was policed and undercut by them for every deviation from blithe, easy femininity. I was supposed to be adorable and sexy but without trying or talking too much about it. I was great at being “one of the guys” and not fussing about makeup; I was horrible at being mild. They wanted to protect me, to take up more space on the bus. It made me squirrelly and angry, even when I couldn’t explain why.
Even though we were young and far from committed, these men showed great umbrage to my disinterest in reproduction. It was offensive to them, inexplicably but very intensely. They would fight me and cow me about it endlessly. Don’t you want a little baby? Don’t you want to make a kid that is half me? It’s kind of a big turn off that you don’t want to have kids. It’s very unfeminine of you. When you say you don’t ever want to get pregnant, I feel kind of disgusted with you.
Again I felt trapped. Again it seemed to be a destiny I could not escape. It made me want to claw at reality, to disappear the whole world. To force one of them to be pregnant. Their lack of empathy revolted me. I would ask each of them to imagine being pregnant. To consider the stretching of their skin, the bloating of their feet, the tearing of their pereniums as they shat and bled in the hospital, legs spread. Would you want me to make you do that? My voice always quavered as I said it, as if I were already being forced. Would you want that? How could anybody want that to happen to them?
But these men could not take my perspective. They all said that it was “different” because I was a girl. It was not different. Anyone with a soul should be able to imagine themselves with a womb that is full against their consent. These men could not get past that first step. I was fundamentally different from them. Cursed in a way they refused to picture for themselves. I was not a person in the way that they were. I was not free to have someone else reproduce my DNA.
I am ashamed that this was never a breakup-level conflict. I kept dating each of these men, wishing still that I was barren. Then I would be freed of the choice. I would be free from having children, even if these men would not let me be.
I have been on hormonal birth control since I was 18. At first the concept of filling my body with more “female” hormones terrified me. I dreaded the expansion of my curves and softness; I hated that my body would be dominated by outside forces. I still don’t love it. I hate the swells in emotion that come before placebo week; I resent the tenderness in my nipples, how it reminds me of my prominent, matronly breasts. Nonetheless, I worship at the altar of my Estarylla blister pack every day at 7:00pm on the dot, thankful for the freedom it grants.
I still cannot imagine being pregnant but know my body is capable of it. I accept that I have a body that most people refuse to see as neutral. But I do not accept those people themselves. I have not seriously contemplated sterilization. I think I have come to appreciate choosing to say “no” every day, when my birth control alarm goes off. To be capable but to always refuse seems more freeing now.
I knew I would love my current partner as soon as I met him, but the almost six-year span of getting to know him has been a continual process of uncovering more and varied green flags. A few months into dating, we laid in bed and he described his sister “pooping out a baby”. She was younger than him, and ill-prepared. I laughed at his turn of phrase and his disdain for the miracle of birth.
There was some trepidation about his comment being borne of misogyny, of course. His disgust with pregnancy could have belied a deep-seated hatred of my anatomy. But this worry was quelled immediately when he turned to me and said, “Can you imagine? Being 19 and carrying this expanding fetus thing in your body and then it exploding out of an orifice?”
So he had imagined it. And found it horrific. I found that romantic. I felt instantly freed from a shackle that every other person I’d loved had sealed around my neck. In future conversations with him, I was able to relate my own numerous disgusts with the process, and ambivalence about having children more generally. He always listened and mirrored my affect. Sure, he didn’t know about mucous plugs or shitting during birth until I told him, but upon learning he was appropriately put off and empathetic. He readily put himself in the stirrups of someone giving birth. And could see why i’d never want to occupy such a position.
Today, I picked up my most recent three-month supply of hormonal birth control. I’ll take it with food promptly at 7pm. These days, I eat plenty and do not war with my body. I realize I’m not a woman, and that this is okay. I know I’m not asexual, but that I am different from the many people, gay, bisexual, and straight, who yearn for conventional family life. I know that I can use my body to connect with other people and to feel good, and that this does not make my body any less neutral. I am loved, respected, and empathized with by a man who loves the actual me, the strange genderless cloud and the body alike, and who will never pressure me to do with my body anything that makes me feel wrong or that makes my stomach leap. I love myself enough now that I couldn’t be pressured regardless.
It’s unlikely that I am actually barren. But unless I decide to try and get pregnant, I might never know one way or another. I’ll never have to test that hypothesis. I’m not threatened anymore, though, but the prospect that my desires could change. I listen to a lot of parenting podcasts. I reflect about how I would raise children and where I might fail them, astoundingly often for someone who claims to not want kids. Now that I no longer feel doomed to live out some womanly duty I never wanted, parenting has been robbed of most of its dread, and I’m free to make a choice that is clear-eyed and devoid of twisting, shameful denial. I don’t know what I’ll decide, in the end. I’m sure as hell I won’t birth anyone, though.