October 5, 2017 was the best day of my life. Better than the day I graduated with my MFA. Better than the day I went skydiving. Better than the day I got my dream job and danced on top of my coffee table. It was the day I finally realized a goal I’ve had since I was old enough to conceive of it. My goal was to never, ever, have children.
This was my first surgery, my first general anesthetic, and my first hospital visit wherein I wasn’t escorting someone else. Tubal ligation is the final frontier for many women. For me, it was the only step to take.
I could give reasons for not wanting to become pregnant and have children; that’s what a lot of women do. Before the first meeting with my doctor, I even wrote out a list of these reasons that wound up being 4.5 pages long, in case she took some convincing. But she didn’t. For her, an adult, sober, sane woman not wanting kids was enough.
While every item on my list is a complete justification by itself, not one of them really represents the strength of my refusal to procreate. And I think that’s because, for some women, it’s a feeling, not a reason. Just as some people feel strongly that they’re occupying the wrong body, some women feel that becoming pregnant would also just be wrong.
If I had to pin it down in a word, the best I could do is dread. Not the dread of sitting in my bathroom waiting for two minutes to be up, looking at a plastic stick covered in my urine and silently praying, “Not now, not now.” It’s beyond the dread of a possible accident.
For me, any pregnancy, from teenage fumbling to “just married” passion would have been an accident. Being pregnant is my worst nightmare. Literally. I have it a few times a year, and it’s horrifically vivid. It never starts anywhere; I’m just suddenly several months pregnant.
Often in this nightmare I am forced to walk around naked, with family as well as strangers commenting on my swollen belly and touching it or my breasts without asking. Sometimes I am forced to sleep outside, as if I am tainted or contagious. I am always on display, as if this thing I’ve gone and done (there’s never a man involved, somehow) takes away my right to privacy, among other things.
Upon waking in a panic, I have to tell myself that I’m not pregnant, that nothing is happening in my body that I’m not aware of, and build myself back up to normal again. No man’s desire, no medical statistic, no logic can ever come close to eclipsing this feeling.
We spell out our reasons as though we need them. We don’t. At least, we shouldn’t. I don’t want to get pregnant because then I’d be pregnant, and I don’t want to be. And that ought to be enough.
The problem is, intentions and reality are never particularly close to each other. One can be as careful as possible and still get pregnant. The longer you walk the earth as a fertile woman wanting sex, wanting intimacy, wanting to be desired, wanting to be loved, the more likely you are to get pregnant. Birth control can fail. It’s more of a “when” than an “if.”
One “if” that’s certainly true: If I’d ever gotten pregnant, I would have done whatever it took to terminate that pregnancy. So my options were: get my tubes tied, or eventually have to have an abortion.
Of those two options (which a lot of women don’t really have), I was able to choose the less menacing. No one who has confided in me that they have had an abortion has ever said anything positive about it, save for the obvious: the relief of no longer being pregnant. It’s always the last resort, and we all strive not to build each stage of our lives on the foundations of last resorts resorted to.
I was grateful to make that better choice. Yet, due to a perception of potential criticism, I found myself in the weeks leading up to the procedure being vague about why I was going to the hospital and taking off work.
Tubal ligation is a decision that immediately makes people think about the choice they would make, and as soon as it becomes personal to them, and my decision happens to be the opposite of what theirs would be, I think they feel defensive, if only subconsciously.
Maybe they’d feel that I’m denigrating their desire to be parents by opting out of the ability to conceive. And if they happened to be unable to conceive, I didn’t want to make them feel I was taking my fecundity for granted. For the sake of not wishing to make anyone feel attacked, even indirectly, I chose to not disclose what kind of surgery I was having to anyone but my immediate family.
The way we speak, or don’t speak, about not wanting to start families is still shrouded in shame. I’m not dissing would-be mothers or moms and their children. I’m not failing the species. I’m not bucking a biological imperative. It’s wrong to apply those abstract opinions to the very concrete me, and it’s wrong for me to internalize the disapproval of others. I’m not ruining anything. I’m creating the life I want to live. And I want to be out and proud.
My “sterilization”—as it’s still called medically—is as important to me as it is to some women to conceive a child and start a family. My friends, family, and coworkers should be celebrating the impossibility of pregnancy with me in the same way I happily celebrate their pregnancies and childbirths with them.
To this day, I’m still glowing. This is my victory lap. This is the breaking of biological chains. This is the defeat of my evolutionary programming. This is my freeze-frame high five. I want to send everyone annual cards announcing the birth of my bouncing baby “Nope.” I should have a never-baby shower. People should bring gifts.
No longer are my ovaries liabilities. No longer do they factor into my sexual activity, which is only for pleasure and good health. No longer are sexual encounters sound-tracked with a background hum of anxiety. And I haven’t had that awful nightmare since my tubes were “tied.” My ovaries aren’t bombs inside me waiting to go off anymore. I’m free.
Birth control, temporary or permanent, is freedom. For many women, it’s a freedom that, although constitutionally guaranteed, is not actually theirs. I’m relieved that my body didn’t become a battleground. I’m grateful I didn’t have to create a “GoFundMe” campaign for control of my own life. But many women and their bodies don’t have the luxury of not being part of a religious and political debate to determine their fate and the fate of their own bodies. Part of this is due to poverty, lack of development in many communities, and healthcare being tied to full-time employment in this country.
Part of it is cultural. But culture is just a series of words and actions taken by a great many individuals and viewed as a whole. Culture we can change right now. It starts with how we talk about women’s bodies, and how well we listen.
Legislators should listen to their female constituents, regardless of the size of their campaign contributions, about our rights not being properly and fairly enforced on their watch.
Parents should listen to their daughters instead of hinting how much they’d “love to have grandkids when the time comes.”
Acquaintances should listen to their friends instead of condescendingly tut-tutting, “You’ll change your mind someday.”
And more doctors, especially male OB-GYNs, should listen to women when they say they want permanent procedures, rather than creating personal rules about who they think is “qualified” to have them. Women’s body autonomy, women’s personal choices about their bodies and therefore the trajectory of their lives, should not be an abstract concept but an absolute reality.
There are over 3.7 billion women and girls in this world, and we need to be respected as the owners of our own lives. No one questions the authority of a mother making decisions on behalf of her child. Why should any woman get pushback when trying to make reproductive decisions on her own behalf?
The ability to not have children matters to me. If what I’ve said resonates with another woman, it matters twice as much. If a third cares it matters three times as much. And so on.
Our cultural climate is both incredibly encouraging and epically disheartening at the moment. We disagree on who gets what freedoms and how those freedoms should be used. But the thing about freedom is, it isn’t for any one person to decide who gets it. Most of us know that; maybe we just need to be reminded of the “better angels of our nature.” I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.
Risa Pappas is a filmmaker, writer, editor, audiobook narrator, and public speaker. She has most recently been published in Pennsylvania Bards Southeast Poetry Review and Black Fox Literary Magazine and is an editor at Tolsun Books. Risa received her MFA in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She currently resides near Philadelphia.