"You must have babies so the Muslims don’t take over!”
In the long-term parking lot, I meet a middle-aged woman wearing sunglasses, sneakers and yoga pants. Her hair is casually swept into a ponytail. She’s flying to Phoenix for business. I’m off to Seattle for fun. She can’t remember the last time she’s gone on vacation. I go somewhere every year.
Something about our conversation makes her ask, “Do you have any little ones at home?”
“No, that’s why I can travel like this,” I say. “Just pick up and go anywhere.”
“Do it now,” she says, “because when you have kids…”
Her voice trails off. I smile politely. She said, “When.”
I didn’t tell her that there wouldn’t be a “when” for me. I’m childfree by choice. I didn’t tell her that I’m divorced, after four years, and dating again.
Before my divorce was final, my well-meaning mother started saying things like, “Oh, I’d really like to see you find a nice guy.” To which I replied, “I’ve got nothing but time. I don't have any biological clocks ticking!” But then she said, “If having kids has taught me anything, it’s never say never.”
I'm probably not the daughter she expected.
In the small farm town where I grew up, it was acceptable, if not encouraged, to get married at 22 to the son of a farmer with a Dutch surname. (That was better than “living in sin.”) And it was acceptable to buy that house in the suburbs. Doing these things bestowed comfort and approval in the form of verbal praise, plus gifts.
But panic set in with each measuring cup and Tupperware container I received. What sent me over the edge was the shiny red, 22-pound KitchenAid Artisan Stand Mixer. It dictated I would be spending my weekends baking brownies like my mom did, not biking through rice paddies in Bali, shopping the souks in Marrakesh or eating tapas in Seville.
Being showered with kitchenwares brought back childhood memories of being told to dry the dishes while my older brother played computer games, less than 10 feet away. I’d protest, “Why can’t he help you? It’s just ‘cause he’s a boy!”
I not only rejected the gendered household division of labor, I didn’t have much interest in playing with dolls or Barbies. Instead, I took cat photos with my little yellow Kodak camera. I cut and pasted pictures out of magazines and wrote my own stories. I went on outdoor adventures with my three imaginary friends.
These quirks were cute when I was a little girl. Then I grew up.
In my late teens, when I first declared I was never having kids, a family member told me, “You must have babies so the Muslims don’t take over!” Now in my late-20s, the most popular response has been: “You’ll change your mind.”
This sweeping declaration doesn’t take into account my underactive thyroid that occasionally hits me with debilitating fatigue or my susceptibility to anxiety and depression when diet, sleep and exercise are compromised. (But hey, kids won’t affect that.) It doesn’t account for the sense of purpose derived from my precarious journalism career or the desire to travel in order to better understand the world and my place in it.
When I was younger and far more insecure, my college boyfriend convinced me that few men would want to be with an ambitious, free-spirited woman like me. In rural Iowa, I was too different. He promised the kind of life I wanted. Every three to five years, we’d move for my job. That was the agreement. That and no kids. I thought, “This must be as good as it gets.”
I married him.
But after a couple years, my stepping stone became his anchor. He had settled into a comfortable, well-paying technical career. And I was checking JournalismJobs.com every day. My incessant searching finally made him crack. “I don’t want to live like a nomad,” he said. That and his affinity for alcohol made me leave. I took the 22-pound mixer with me.
Then, a strange thing happened. For the first time, I had people telling me, “Good thing you don’t have kids!”
I could look at my starter marriage as a failure or a mistake. But I don’t.
By getting divorced and essentially doing the thing I was not supposed to do, I freed myself from crushing expectations. I learned that the only real mistake would be believing I’m unworthy of love. Or joy. Even it looks a little different.
Now, I get to try again.
I downloaded Bumble, Tinder and Coffee Meets Bagel. I hadn’t been on a first date in more than seven years. Back then, these kinds of dating apps didn’t exist. Now I stood in line at the grocery store and swiped through med students, airmen, farmers, truck drivers, pro-athletes and engineers. Never in my life have I seen more photos of men holding up dead pheasants, fish and deer. And then there were the ones with kids – usually their nieces and nephews. Even that says, “I’m looking for the mother of my children.” And that’s not me.
I finally found a match on Tinder, but after 15 messages back and forth about weather and work, he brought up handcuffs and spanking. No thanks.
I had better luck on Coffee Meets Bagel and matched with Marcos the 31-year-old music-loving chef. Latino. Five-foot-10. Religion: Other.
When I asked Marcos what made him want to be a chef, he said, “Usually, men aren’t in the kitchen if you’re raised in a Mexican family, but since it was me and my two brothers, my mom taught us how to cook.”
His enlightened response won me over. Our first date lasted six-hours, filled with coffee, crepes and great conversation. It ended with a goodnight kiss in the misting rain. We kept seeing each other, and after a couple months, I decided to tell my mom about the nice guy I’d found, which begged the question, “What’s his name?”
“Does he have a last name?”
“Oh,” she said, “I thought maybe he was Italian.”
But she pronounces it, “Eye-talian.”
When Marcos had his big, black beard, he could have passed as Pakistani or Indian. (In fact, people have come up to him speaking Hindi.) But he’s most definitely from Mexico—one of the Dreamers, tossed over a border fence by his teenage mother when he was 2 years old.
They left Acapulco. The coastal city in southern Mexico is part of a region densely populated with descendants of African slaves. Or people who, today, identify as Blaxicans—black Mexicans. A heritage he is proud of yet removed from.
A few weeks ago, we were walking through a flea market. In between the nostalgia-inducing model airplanes and My Little Ponies, he pointed to an illustrated reprinting of “The Man Without a Country” and said, “That’s me.”
Instantly, I knew that feeling of being out of place when you want to belong. But can’t.
When I told my mother more about the talkative, well-groomed, fashion-savvy man I’d found—the one who can pick out my clothes and cook for me—she said, “Just make sure he's not too different.” Which I took to mean, “Make sure he's not gay.”
From our first date, I knew Marcos was different.
Over brunch, he answered a call from his mom. He was boyishly embarrassed at first but still told her, “I love you,” before he hung up. He apologized for the interruption and went on to tell me about his job at an upscale, modern American restaurant—how he works from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. five days a week and teaches free music lessons in the Latino community on one of his days off. He shared his dream of opening his own restaurant, one in Australia, then Germany. He admired my confidence and wit, my independence and ambition.
Going against the advice on the Internet, I told Marcos that I’m divorced and I don’t want kids.
He stared at me with his deep brown eyes, reminiscent of two perfect little cups of coffee that I could drink in all day. His face softened into a smile and he said, “Me, too.”
Ally Karsyn is the arts producer and weekday afternoon announcer at Siouxland Public Media. She is also the founder, producer and host of Ode.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.
The next event is 7 p.m. Friday, August 4 at Be Yoga Studio in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Little Did I Know.” Tickets are available at kwit.org. For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling.
This story was produced as part of an Images & Voices of Hope Restorative Narrative Fellowship, which supports media practitioners who want to tell stories of resilience in communities around the U.S. and abroad. ivoh is a nonprofit committed to strengthening the media's role as an agent of change and world benefit.