I Was Judged For Not Having A Child. When I Had One At 44, I Was Shocked By The Response.

“Do Democrats have babies?”

I stared at the woman clutching a stack of brochures. Dusty beams of sunlight streamed into the pavilion, glinting on her scratched barrettes as she scrunched her brow and waited. The faint smell of hay and manure wafted by the booth where I stood, considering how to respond. Finally, I replied, “Well, I think we all have the same equipment.”

I knew that wasn’t what she was asking, but that’s the answer I thought she deserved.

I was staffing a county fair booth for the Democrats of Southern Utah, and our group was a glaring outlier among a sea of red, rural and religious organizations. I expected to be approached by people who disapproved of us, but I did not anticipate such an unusual question by a woman shuffling from booth to booth, promoting her home-based business.

Two brochures were all she was willing to share. As she walked away, I glanced at one and saw that her business turned mothers’ ultrasounds into DVDs with accompanying music. Now I was the one with the scrunched brow. If I were pregnant (which I wouldn’t be for another 10 years), what music would I choose? The theme song from “2001: A Space Odyssey?” “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys?” Ozzie Osbourne’s “Crazy Train?”

I suppose my levity gave credence to the woman’s assumption that Democrats do not have babies. Still, her behavior rankled me. She knew quite well that Democrats were able to have babies. She just didn’t think Democrats wanted to have babies.

I wondered if the woman really thought I was going to give her brochures some space on our table. Instead, I tucked them into my purse and breathed. It wasn’t the first time I — or a group with which I identified — had been stereotyped. In my mid-30s and childless, I had read that women like me were selfish, lonely, misguided, missing out or just plain odd. And as a Democrat (in Utah, nonetheless), rumor had it that the party was anti-children because it was pro-choice.

Dealing with these stereotypes became a fulcrum of my identity over the next decade as I tried to prove to everyone around me that I was not these things. This is how stereotyping damages the soul: It forces people to expend energy defensively instead of using that energy to just be themselves.

I didn’t feel allowed to not know whether I wanted a child someday. It was either/or, with character assumptions attached to each. Because I was unsure at the time, I was pigeonholed.

One of several hikes the author took while living in Utah. "Hiking helped to clear my head after experiences like the one at the county fair," she writes.
One of several hikes the author took while living in Utah. “Hiking helped to clear my head after experiences like the one at the county fair,” she writes.

Courtesy of Carrie Steckl

A lot can happen in 10 years. After moving from Utah to Illinois, meeting my husband, and undergoing grueling fertility treatments, I gave birth to my daughter at the age of 44. Because I was labeled an “advanced maternal age” patient, I had not one, but multiple ultrasounds across my pregnancy. Sometimes, when the technician smeared cold jelly across my abdomen, I thought of the woman at the Utah county fair and smiled. I could have given her a lot of business.

I also could have introduced her to the women in my tennis class a few years later, after a job transfer took our family to Texas. The three of us were mothers, but my two classmates were in their 20s when they had children. Their eyebrows shot up when I mentioned I was 44 when my daughter was born. They stopped talking, so I did too and kept practicing my serve.

A few weeks later, I arrived at the courts and took in the cool, fall air — not to be taken for granted in Texas. I relished the zone I found myself in during these active yet peaceful mornings. But as we rotated through a forehand drill, my smooth zone was serrated when one classmate announced it was her 40th birthday.

We congratulated her, and I readied myself to return to our drill. But instead of the sound of bouncing tennis balls, I heard the woman say, “I can’t believe I’m 40 — that’s so old! At least I had my children young. Who in their right mind would have children later? I want to be healthy when they grow up, not old and sick.”

I lowered my racket and stared. The woman’s hair fell in tight ringlets around her shoulders. She twisted one around a finger and looked at our other classmate. She would not look at me.

The other woman nodded. “If you have them early, then you can enjoy them.”

The cool, fall air now felt steamy and oppressive. I recalled something an old supervisor once told me: “Carrie, you have the uncanny ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they feel like they actually ought to.” This seemed like the perfect time to capitalize on this skill. I glanced at the instructor and saw her viselike grip on the tennis ball I should have been fed before this nonsense began. She said nothing, but the horror etched on her face said more than enough.

I also said nothing, wondering whether my supervisor would have been proud or disappointed in my restraint. I was 47 (which was extremely old, according to these classmates) and by now, I knew that reacting would be pointless. They were judging me: Having a child later in life is ridiculous. Judgments are rarely malleable, and they are close cousins to stereotypes. Here, the implied stereotype was that women who have children at a later age could have chosen to have them sooner, but deliberately did not.

But that didn’t really fit for me. Sure, I was uncertain in my mid-30s, but I also hadn’t met my husband yet. Was I supposed to conceive in my 20s with a random human, just to stick to a timeline? And once my husband and I did start trying, we endured multiple fertility procedures before discovering my uterus had a septum running down its middle, making conception impossible without surgery and rendering all previous procedures doomed from the start.

It’s not always as easy as it seems to those who have children effortlessly. Not everyone can choose to have children whenever they want like they can choose to buy a cappuccino on the way to tennis class.

Of course, the woman in Utah would have surmised that my tardiness in childbearing was due to my being a Democrat. She and my tennis classmates would have made interesting friends, their stereotypes and judgments intertwining in a double helix mirroring the DNA of a sizable swath of the country’s consciousness.

I never went back to that tennis class. But my encounters there and at the county fair prepared me not only for future stereotypes and judgments, but also for blame.

The climate crisis ― which I wholeheartedly grasp and worry about daily ― has been blamed on multiple culprits, and parents are no exception. On a recent blazing hot Texas afternoon, I read a friend’s Facebook post about the CO2 emissions associated with having a child, and how the single best thing an individual can do to help slow climate change is to choose to be childless.

When the woman at the county fair stereotyped Democrats, I was amused. When my tennis classmates judged me for being an older mother, I was livid. But when I was blamed for irresponsibly harming our planet by having a child, I was crushed. And admittedly, a little shaken. Was I a hypocrite for caring about climate change yet bringing another human being into the world?

When the author's daughter was 6, she created Nature Girl while completing a summer worksheet for "Dog Man and Friends."
When the author’s daughter was 6, she created Nature Girl while completing a summer worksheet for “Dog Man and Friends.”

Courtesy of Carrie Steckl

Thoughts swirling, I remembered the day my daughter told me she invented a new superhero: Nature Girl, whose mission is to help animals and the earth. Nature Girl rides a bicycle, and allergies are her only weakness. My daughter had drawn a colorful picture of Nature Girl, clearly a subtle self-portrait. I wondered what was worse for the planet — having a child who will impact CO2 emissions simply by existing, or not having a child who would have grown up loving and honoring the earth and wanting to save it?

We are far too hard on each other, and ourselves. If I have gained anything from the woman at the county fair, the tennis classmates, or the friend on Facebook, it’s an increased acceptance of others’ journeys in having — or not having — children. I promise to never assume that I know why you have or don’t have children (or to think there’s anything wrong with either). I’ll never question why you had a baby when you were younger, or older, or not at all, or became a parent in another way. And I won’t blame you for a global crisis if you have a child; it’s much more complicated than that. I’ll accept you for your choices and your timeline without stereotypes, judgments or blame.

And I accept my own. Yes, Democrats do have babies — even 44-year-old Democrats who care about the planet. Just ask Nature Girl. She’ll tell you all about it while she’s saving the world.

Carrie Steckl is a freelance/creative writer with experience as a nonprofit professional, college instructor, mental health clinician, and Alzheimer’s advocate. In 2020, she won Best Feature Script at the Lake Travis Film Festival for her screenplay, “The Twisted Apple Sweetness Patrol.” She’s a 6′0″ Cubs fan with a 6′9″ husband, an ever curious daughter, and a loyal rescue dog.

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