I have never wanted to have children. I’ve always known this. And now that I’m 50 years old and the possibility is behind me, I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever about not having had children. Because of all the bullshit that women who are childless by choice have to take, I need to say this: I love kids. Kids are awesome. I’m a great auntie, if I may say so myself. (I need to say this, too: It’s also okay if you’re a woman who doesn’t want kids because you don’t like kids. That sounds like a really great reason not to have kids, in fact.) I simply never felt any compulsion or desire to be a mother. There’s nothing “wrong” with me — I just wanted a different sort of life.
Over the course of my life when this matter has occasionally come up, I’ve never had any fear or shame in declaring my utter lack of interest in having babies. So I’ve heard all the infuriating comebacks, the things people say that they imagine are convincing, from “You’ll change your mind” (usually accompanied by a smug nod of conviction) to “That’s just selfish” (usually accompanied by an appalled shake of the head). The former infantilizes women and pretends that we are incapable of knowing ourselves, and the latter makes no sense at all: How can you be selfish toward people who don’t even exist? And isn’t it selfish to have kids because — as plenty of people say — they want someone who will love them unconditionally (although that isn’t automatic) or because they want someone to take care of them in old age (ditto)?
Documentarian Maxine Trump — no relation to the current occupant of the White House — is somewhat more ambivalent than I am about her baby options as her documentary To Kid or Not to Kid opens… though the fact that she decided to make a movie about the flak that women who say they don’t want kids take is perhaps an indication of the way in which she was leaning. Indeed, as this profoundly intimate film shows, merely to suggest that motherhood might not be automatically at the top of a woman’s list of life goals is plenty daring, more than enough of a challenge to the status quo that the whole world considers it open season on such brazen hussies.
Trump brings a charming befuddlement to what is almost a diary of how she ultimately makes up her mind, as if she can’t quite believe all the cultural garbage she has to wade through in order to make what should be a very personal decision, and nobody else’s business at all. The filmmaker, a Brit living in New York, follows one young woman in Wales on her years-long quest to get her tubes tied — she absolutely, 100 percent knows she doesn’t want kids — and the hoops she has to jump through in order to make this happen. (By contrast, it’s super easy for a man to get a vasectomy. As we see here. *grrrr*) Trump explores the nonsense in how women are told that we can “have it all,” and how, when we discover that that’s really not possible the way our culture is structured today, the one thing we’re not supposed to give up is the kid part. (We’re expected to cut back on or give up our work.) She doesn’t shy from the one big taboo I was afraid she might avoid: women who regret having children, which the pressure to keep quiet about is so strong that many women, especially those unsure about having kids, may not realize is a real thing. Childless women are always told we’ll be sorry we never had kids… but who ever tells women they might be sorry they did?
There is an odd yet refreshing cheerfulness to To Kid or Not to Kid, a sense of burdens lifted and truths coming out. This is such an important movie for letting women know that what seems like the inevitability of the trajectory of our lives simply… isn’t. And that we can be happy and fulfilled and satisfied with so much more. Or in the case of having kids, less.
if men got pregnant…
Then there are the flip sides of the deeply emotional fertility journeys: couples — and singles — who struggle to conceive even via IVF; adoption odysseys; a whole panoply of human stories about people desperate to help perpetuate our species for whom this seemingly simple and straightforward goal is more difficult or fraught with trauma and pathos than it should be. Too often, such stories that do not easily slot into the traditional cis-hetero man+woman+baby carriage scenario have been ignored onscreen. So the one that Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth tells is so vital, so necessary, and so very welcome for all the stereotypes it shatters along all sorts of vectors.
Freddy McConnell is a trans man living in London, with deep family connections in a seaside town a train ride away… a great place to raise a kid, he says. With his partner, CJ — also a trans gay man — Freddy decides that he wants to have a baby, because he’s always wanted to be a father. Documentarian Jeanie Finlay highlights the sweet irony of Freddy and CJ, two trans men with ovaries, needing to turn to sperm donation for conception, and how many of the issues confronting Freddy with his pregnancy are ones that don’t, on the surface, sound all that unusual to anyone who’s been pregnant (or so I’ve heard): “I feel like a fucking alien,” Freddy laments at one point in the pregnancy; he feels “a total loss of myself.”
Freddy’s pregnancy hormonal roller coaster is different from the usual, of course: he had to come off testosterone so that his periods could start again, so he could get pregnant. But his body changing in ways that he doesn’t particularly want or like are a challenge that cis women who’ve had babies will recognize. And Freddy’s reminiscing about his childhood, perhaps an inevitable part of having a baby, has its own unique road bumps — he has to confront the fact that he had a girl’s name and was treated as a girl — but again: not that unusual. Which is lovely, and underscores the fact that however atypical our lives may be, we have more in common than not.
Which isn’t to say that Freddy’s adventure doesn’t have plenty to teach all of us. Freddy is adamant that his pregnancy does not mean he is a woman: “I feel like a man who is doing something really odd.” Women often grumble that if men could undergo certain female rites and rituals, their appreciation of and empathy for what women go through would expand. That’s exactly what is happening here. Only trans people get to live both sides of the highly gendered treatment people receive in our culture, and can testify to the authenticity of that in ways that cis people can only imagine. That is a treasure that we need to embrace, and to use to help us dismantle unfair sexism and unreasonable gendered expectations.
If it sounds weird to your ears to attach “he” and “his” to “pregnancy,” then Seahorse is for you as much as it is for trans people to see their experiences validated as human and normal. There are scenes here of Freddy’s exasperation with medical forms and other printed information that constantly refer to “women” (he crosses them out and writes in “people”), and of conversation at his baby shower that, even though it’s happening among friends and family who are totally onboard with his transness and his pregnancy, keep talking about pregnancy with regards to “women.”
Freddy’s sighs of exhaustion with all of this are perfectly understandable, but so is the unfamiliarity most of us have with what he is going through. The world is still catching up to the lived realities of trans people, and to gendered ideas that, while they might once have been fair, now need to become more inclusive. This wonderful film is an important step along the journey we are all on to re-evaluate our narrow assumptions, expand our rigid thinking, and be more welcoming and accommodating of the full spectrum of humanity.