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According to Blackstone, the childfree and the childless both emphasized creating meaning.
For Isabel Caliva, the woman who unearthed the Rumpus column, that desire for meaning came in an unexpected way.
She first met her husband, Frank, at their college’s freshman orientation, when she was locked out of her dorm room one night. They stayed up all night talking, then dated for all four years. Post-college life took them to different cities, and they broke up. Years later, in 2010, Caliva called him out of the blue, saying “I’d love to try again.”
“I’ve been waiting for this call,” he responded. They got engaged the following year.
She had always been open with Frank about her kid-indecision, and he patiently waited as she mulled. One perfect spring day in 2014, Caliva was driving home from work near Washington, D.C., where she lives. She rolled down her windows, turned on the radio, and gazed out at the clear sky. A wave of contentment and joy washed over her.
But the elation was cut with boredom. “This is so awesome, but it’s also fleeting,” she remembers thinking. “Tomorrow I might have a hard day at work. I am always going to be chasing happiness, it’s always ephemeral.”
Some readers recalled a similar feeling of encroaching ennui: “I had a small inkling that if I did not have children, I might be self-absorbed my whole life,” wrote a woman named Virginia. “Too much self-reflection is boring after years of it, I suspected.”
Caliva likens it to the same feeling that inspires people to run marathons—a desire to know, once and for all, “that you’ve done something really big and really great.”
“I need to do something that’s bigger than me and outside myself,” she decided. “I need to take care of somebody else, and be completely selfless.”
She drove home and told Frank about her epiphany. Their son, Jack, will be two years old this year.
For childless women, though, meaning comes about in other ways. You would think that women who didn’t want children would have been bred out of the gene pool by now, since natural selection favors people who enjoy sex and, often as a result of that enjoyment, create progeny. But as Lonnie Aarssen and Stephanie Altman, two researchers at Queen’s University in Ontario, have written, modern life provides other ways for women to leave their mark, without necessarily having children.
Humans are anxious about their own deaths. To manage that anxiety, they seek to leave a legacy—often in the form of children, Aarssen explained to me recently,
“Our distant ancestors would have said, ‘I have these little people here, and I can influence the way they think,’” Aarssen said. “I can make a mini-me copy of myself, and convince them to have the same kinds of personality and drives.”
But there are other types of legacies—such as art, science, or religion—and historically, the money and influence necessary to create them belonged solely to men. Men also controlled women’s reproduction, thanks to a lack of good birth control. Thus, for millennia, women often had only one choice for making a lasting impact: reproduction. What’s more, most had to reproduce, even if they didn’t want to.