A few months past my thirty-fifth birthday, on a warm day in August, I took a Friday afternoon off from work and had my tubes tied.
As abrupt as that may sound, the decision was, in fact, anything but sudden. I suppose I had been moving gradually toward it all of my adult life. The ironic thing was that I had always assumed I would someday have children. My first husband and I even decided that four would be a good number. We discussed whether they should be planned close together or far apart and we made up funny names for sets of twins. But the years went by and a “good” time to start a family just never came along.
Neither set of parents pressured us to have children. The only person who was really in favor of the idea was my doctor. (“When are you going to get pregnant? You young girls sure have an easier time of it.”) I felt a little envious when my high school and college chums started having children, but the combined problems of work, graduate school, and money made us keep postponing the decision. These same problems ultimately took their toll on the marriage, which ended, as do many first marriages these days, in divorce.
By the time I married again, in my early thirties, my life had changed substantially. Instead of a low-paying job I now had a well-paying career, the feminist movement had given respectability to women who choose not to have children, and I found myself in a role I had never expected: stepmother to my husband Tim’s three youngsters. Although they didn’t live with us all the time, they were a boisterous handful during their extended visits. Tim said that, frankly, they were all the children he could handle.
I had things that many women only dream of: a wonderful marriage, work that I really liked, nice kids who didn’t take up all my time, a comfortable house that just suited our needs and pocketbook. To me, it seemed absurd to tamper with such a perfect combination.
Besides, I was 35, and realistically or not, that age had always seemed the cutoff for childbearing. It was the age of increasing birth defects and difficult labor for first-time mothers. It was also the age at which women on the pill (as I was) could expect an ever-greater risk of heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots. And then there was the problematic relation of cancer to the hormone estrogen, the primary component of birth control pills. “There is no proof,” my gynecologist said emphatically, “that birth control pills cause cancer.” And he was right. There was no proof. But there were disturbing studies suggesting a possible link between uterine cancer and estrogen therapy in menopausal women, and that, combined with everything else, was enough to give me second thoughts about staying on the pill.
No one thing really made up my mind. I just knew that I didn’t want a baby and I didn’t want to take the pill. I hardly realized how much I had been silently dwelling on the subject until I saw how much I startled poor Tim when I announced one evening, without prelude, “I’m going off the pill and I think one or the other of us should get sterilized.”
We had talked before—in the abstract—about switching to another birth control method, but the alternative contraceptives seemed at worst unhealthy and unreliable, at best messy and unreliable. After each of those discussions I had resigned myself to the pill again; now that the easy alternative seemed less desirable, we found ourselves face to face with the toughest question yet: Who?
And that is the crux of the issue—no one wants to be sterilized. No one wakes up one morning and says to himself, “Say, I think I’ll get a vasectomy today.” Sterilization of either sex is not without risk, and that is why for six weeks Tim and I made an effort to weigh the pros and cons. We went to my doctor’s office and saw a film on tubal laparoscopy (the most common method of female sterilization—actual tying is seldom done anymore, even though the expression persists). I talked to some friends who had had the operation. We read what was published in news magazines. It seemed to us that tubal laparoscopy carried greater physical dangers, from complications during and after surgery, but vasectomy had the risk of psychologically caused impotence and related personal problems. In addition, less is known about the long-term physical complications of vasectomy.
We didn’t exactly overeducate ourselves, though, maybe because we subconsciously felt that if we knew too much, both of us might back out. We didn’t do much talking, either, other than a few cryptic sentences, usually around midnight. “Well, what do you think about it, honey?” “I don’t know, sweetheart, what do you think?” Each of us, of course, was waiting for the other to volunteer, or perhaps for a sign that the other was never going to volunteer. That signal became clear to me the day I realized Tim had said to me three times, “My only objection to vasectomy is…”—and all three reasons had been different.
My own concerns, though real, were obviously not as troubling. I knew the operation was low risk, that it wouldn’t affect my sex life or femininity, and that side effects were usually minimal. The only thing that continued to bother me was the question of regret. Would I later be sorry I had never had a child of my own? Society is very definite in its insistence that motherhood is a blessing (no one expects you to explain why you want a baby, but everyone turns into an armchair psychologist as soon as you mention that you don’t want one). Besides, I firmly believe that every human being has a strong inner drive to reproduce, and this desire isn’t easily bought off by such things as rationality and common sense.
Even though it seemed that my health and happiness would