Free to Be… You and Me (And Childfree)
Helen Ellis on Going From Avoiding Sex to Scheduling It
When I was 19, I sat my parents down and said, “I want to go on birth control and I want you to pay for it.”
Papa looked at Mama. Mama looked like she’d stepped on a rake. Papa nodded. Without a word, they stood and walked out of my childhood home.
Mama always said, “Helen Michelle, you can tell us anything. We may not like it. We may walk away from you and walk around the block a few times to cool off, but we will always come back. And we will always help you.”
Asking my parents to put me on the pill so I could have college sex with my never-went-to-college 24-year-old boyfriend is the only time I’ve made my parents walk around the block.
Up until then, I’d been a good girl.
Growing up in Alabama, good girls kept to themselves and stayed out of trouble. Pregnancy was trouble. The risk of pregnancy was just as much trouble. A “pregnancy risk” is Southern Lady Code for making out in your bathing suits. In high school, I didn’t know anyone on the pill. A Southern young lady’s birth control was an aspirin pinched between her knees. Mama’s departing words every time I left our Tuscaloosa house to go on a date or to a party were: Jump up and down and be sweet! And don’t let anybody touch your woo-woo! The letter A was for Abstinence. You never said the other A word, but if you did it was a whisper.
Alabama was not—and I don’t think is—an abortion-friendly state. Remember: Birmingham is where a man made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list by bombing a Southside abortion clinic, killing a security guard. The bomber’s brother was so upset by the manhunt that to protest, he cut off his own hand with a circular saw. And he videotaped it. And then he drove himself to a hospital. EMTs were sent to his house to collect the hand, and a surgeon reattached it. This is Southern Gothic country. Our zealots don’t play.
I come from a very real place where girls missed seventh-grade roll call because “She havin’ her baby!” High school girls really did have babies in my high school bathrooms. Ambulances never got there in time because full-term fetuses—fueled by Mountain Dew and Betty Crocker frosting straight out of the can—rocketed from 14- to 18-year-old vaginas like a Six Flags log ride.
The alternative to showing up to school hugely pregnant was to disappear altogether. Some girls moved away to “spend time with their aunt” and then returned to school months later, deflated and forlorn. If they’d had the babies and given them to relatives to raise, or given them up for adoption, or had it taken care of somewhere up north, I do not know. Rumors spread that the girls had really been in insane asylums, and those rumors were not disputed. Better to be crazy than a slut.
Once a slut, a girl was forever after a slut. And getting pregnant was always blamed on the slut.
We did have Sex Ed, but you had to get a signed permission slip to attend the class, which—to avoid mixing church and state—was taught outside the school building in a double-wide trailer. Mama had had “the talk” with me and bought me several books about feminine hygiene and “becoming a woman,” but I wrote this anonymous question for the teacher: “How do you pee with a tampon in?”
The answer was: “You hold the string.”
I had no idea what this meant because I was so sexually inactive, I thought pee and menstrual blood came out of the same hole. It was also rumored that a tampon could pop your hymen and ruin your wedding night because your husband would want to divorce you when he found out he hadn’t married a virgin.I was supposed to raise a knee? It took me a few tries, but I figured it out.
I wasn’t brave enough to use tampons until I was a high school junior. I was even less brave about walking over the train tracks to the Harco drugstore and buying them. I called Mama at her law office and asked her to “pick me up some supplies” on her way home. After a few minutes of back and forth, she figured out I didn’t mean No. 2 pencils. She came home with a blue box in a brown paper bag. The Tampax how-to diagram of the female anatomy looked like the illustration of sink pipes on a bottle of Liquid-Plumr. I was supposed to raise a knee? It took me a few tries, but I figured it out.
When I decided to have sex as a college sophomore, I made sure it would be on my terms: I had to be in love, be in a committed relationship, and have rendered my reproductive system as infertile as a carburetor. Plus, I required a clean bill of health. As a result of coming of age in the 80s, every man I’ve chosen to have sex with, including my husband, had to take an AIDS test and have his doctor fax me his negative results. And use a condom.
To get a prescription for the pill, Mama made an appointment for me to have my first gynecologist
appointment with her OB/GYN. But it was my grandmother, my father’s mother, who drove me to the doctor’s office.
Grandmother sat in the waiting room, wearing white gloves and holding her Kelly bag on top of her lap the same way she used to sit on a bench and wait for me to come out of the snake house at the Birmingham Zoo. The ultimate example of a Southern lady, Grandmother—prim and proper with a perm-and-set—stood by in support of all of my alternative choices.
When I came out of the exam room I was crying. The doctor had put his hands on me in an unprofessional way and lectured me about the sin of premarital sex. He’d said, “I’d never let my daughter go on the pill.”
Grandmother got the prescription from the doctor and took me to the pharmacy. Mama got a new gynecologist. I found out that sex was for good girls, but heartbreak was bad. I was devastated when my boyfriend left me a year later, but I kept taking the pill.
I stayed on the pill for no zits and big tits.
I married for love.
I went off the pill because I considered getting pregnant.
I was in my early thirties, and my husband and I had been married for years. There’d been a lot of reasons—nothing you haven’t heard before—for why we had been “waiting to try.” “Trying” is Southern Lady Code for telling everyone and your mother that you’re having intercourse to conceive. “Waiting” is actively not doing what other people are waiting for you to do.I don’t know any married woman who did not orchestrate her own pregnancy.
I heard: When are you going to have kids? How many kids are you going to have? You’re so good with kids. You should have kids; you’d make such a great mom.
But I was scared of pregnancy. A friend of mine got gestational diabetes. A friend of a friend developed some sort of temporary paralysis. Another friend got a dark line over her lip that looked like Steve Harvey’s moustache. Not to mention puking and walking around with a human being treading your uterus like a gerbil ball.
I was also scared of giving birth. I am the kind of woman who gets frustrated when crushed ice gets stuck in my straw. A friend of mine broke her tailbone pushing. A friend’s friend separated her pelvis. There’s something called “the ring of fire” that ain’t a Johnny Cash song. And, once the baby’s out, your vagina looks like—as one friend’s husband so eloquently described it—“A raw steak torn in half.”
But most of all, I was scared of cesareans. The cesarean rate on the Upper East Side is like one in three. It’s easier to get your stomach sliced in half than get a prescription for Sudafed. And the baby’s not pulled out like Baby Jessica from that well. Your doctor takes out your uterus and whatever else is attached, cuts out the baby, and then stuffs all your stuff back into your torso like she’s on the run in a made-for-Lifetime movie and is packing an escape bag.
But some women love cesareans.
A friend said, “I carried twins for nine months, I wasn’t going to push.”
Me, I wasn’t going to push my husband.
And by my mid-thirties, the way I understood how things worked in a marriage was that it was the wife’s job to push to get pregnant.
I don’t know any married woman who did not orchestrate her own pregnancy. Whether she went off birth control or was never on it to begin with, she had unprotected sex and she got pregnant. That’s how you get pregnant. The only household accidents I believe in are Crock-Pot fires and tub slip-and-falls. I know women who poked pinholes in condom wrappers. I know women who got their husbands drunk, but not drunk enough to not get it up. Some women took their temperature to track ovulation. Some women bought apps for that. Sex was scheduled. Sex was abstained from and then scheduled.
I didn’t do any of this. And by 38, I’d never been pregnant.
I heard: You won’t know what real love is until you have kids. Why get married if you’re not going to have kids? Married women who don’t have kids are selfish. Women who don’t want to have their husband’s babies don’t really love their husbands. You don’t WANT kids? Why don’t you want kids? You don’t LIKE kids? You think your cats are your kids?
My answer to all of this was: “If it happens, it happens.”
My husband agreed.
My gynecologist said, “I can get you pregnant in your forties, but it’s going to take a lot of work.”
I did not want my gynecologist to get me pregnant. Or be pregnant in my forties. Or work at it.Because it turns out, “If it happens, it happens” is Southern Lady Code for we don’t want kids.
Friends of mine were working on it and it looked like hard work. They got shots to increase their fertility. They got shots to maintain their pregnancy. They got IVF. They miscarried. They got IVF again. They froze their eggs. They hired surrogates. Their surrogates miscarried. Babies were born prematurely. Multiple babies were born. Some babies had “issues,” which is Southern Lady Code for anything from a lazy eye to no eardrums. Postpartum was crippling. Marriages suffered.
I didn’t want my marriage to suffer. We had it pretty great, my husband and I. No debt, little stress, we had our health, we loved each other. We worked well as a pair. And me, I didn’t want to suffer either.
I am a woman who grew up during the seventies feminist movement. Marlo Thomas and friends gave me life anthems with the album Free to Be . . . You and Me. Rosey Grier told me it’s all right to cry. Diana Ross told me when I grow up, I don’t have to change at all. And Marlo assured me that “Mommies are people, people with children.” But why did there have to be a song reminding folks who you are after you become a parent? That song had stuck with me. If I had children, would I cease to be me?
All my life, I’d thought of having kids with the seriousness that I’d thought of taking a ceramics class. When I finally took one and came home with three beautifully glazed but warped bowls, my husband said: “You’re not going to turn into a lady who makes pots, are you?”
I was not. I kept the bowls and display them proudly—one holds fruit, one batteries, one loose change—but I had no interest in making anything else.
I called Mama and asked her if she’d be disappointed if I didn’t have kids.
Mama said: “Helen Michelle, I didn’t have children to have grandchildren.”
And with that, I gave myself permission to let the idea of having kids go.
My husband and I had had fun playing with the idea. We’d picked out names: Kid and Mary Alice. Kid for a boy or a girl. Mary Alice for my husband’s mother and grandmother. We’d thought about adoption and scrolled foster care sites, where kids’ pictures are posted along with one-paragraph descriptions. You can sort them by age, sex, and race. You can refine your search by what issues you think you can handle. We’d felt a connection to a pair of siblings—a hyperactive six-year-old and a non-talkative four-year-old—named Star and Devlon. But we didn’t reach out for them. And when I knew I was ovulating, we didn’t have sex. And my husband never pushed me. Because it turns out, “If it happens, it happens” is Southern Lady Code for we don’t want kids.
Not having children is one of the nicest surprises of our lives.
We do what we want, when we want. We do for each other. We do well for ourselves. We enjoy life’s little pleasures. For my husband this means playing softball for six hours every Saturday and Sunday like he has since he was 21. For me, it means sitting uninterrupted on my toilet every morning and working the New York Times crossword puzzle until I fill in every square or my legs go numb.
See, I always knew I wanted to fall in love and be married, I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to have kids. Or maybe I was sure. Maybe I knew that we didn’t need to start a family because the two of us are a family. And maybe I knew that I didn’t need children, because I already have it all.
From Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis. Copyright © 2019 by Helen Ellis. To be published by Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random LLC.
Previous ArticleChloe Aridjis on 19th-Century Books and Teen Goth Poetry
Next ArticleThe Best Short Stories from the
Heart of the Country