Don’t Worry, You’ll Change Your Mind: Making Life Decisions Young
Adults really love to tell younger people about what will happen when said young people grow up. Usually it goes something like this: “I used to think that way too, but I’m older and wiser now, and I think differently. And because I know the future, I can tell you that you’ll change your mind too!” Especially when a young person comes to a conclusion about dating, marriage, or children, old people are really, absolutely, totally certain that the person is wrong. There’s a lot wrong with this tendency, but let’s focus today on one specific instance of this: young women who decide early that they don’t want to have children and are told “don’t worry, you’ll change your mind”.
In part this is well-meaning. It can be embarrassing and confusing to realize that you may have been wrong about something after having declared THIS IS MY OPINION FOR ALL TIME! Many adults want to pass on the knowledge that they’ve gained after going through confusion and identity crisis. They also want to reassure you that it’s ok to change your mind. I’ve had this experience with my mother, who had children late after not wanting them for a long time. I’m well aware that the reason she tells me that I could change my mind is not to undermine me but because she wants me to be aware that it’s ok to change my mind, but regardless of all the good intentions in the world, telling a young woman that she will want children is deeply frustrating.
There are two main elements to why I would suggest you never tell a young woman that she’s wrong to declare her resistance two childbearing. One is that it’s incredibly ageist and the other is that it’s incredibly sexist. Not only that, but it’s also a breakdown in empathy: it belies the tendency of some people to be incapable of imagining that someone else may want different things from what they want. It’s good to practice understanding a perspective other than your own without being threatened that it may be an implicit critique of what you’re doing.
An important part of why some people feel that they can do this is because the opinions of young people and of women are often devalued. It takes a good deal of self-importance to tell another person what big life decisions will bring meaning and value. The perspectives of young people and women (particularly young women) don’t get portrayed nearly often enough in media, and are portrayed as flightly and stupid when they are portrayed. Is it any wonder that others feel they have the right to contradict those experiences?
Let’s get into the nitty gritty of what exactly is ageist about telling a young person that they don’t know what they want. The implication when you tell a young person that they will change their mind is that you can’t know any of your core values at a young age because everyone changes as they grow. There is some truth to this: many of us do change as we age. However young people are capable of rational thought and often do develop core values that will stay with them throughout their lives. Even if their values do change, that doesn’t change the fact that their preferences and values in the here and now deserve respect.
Every person in the world has the potential to change and grow. If that by itself were reason enough not to take someone’s opinions seriously, to imply that someone’s opinions were wrong, or to try to undermine what someone sees as an important value, none of us would ever have a reason to validate or respect another person’s choices. Unfortunately, if we want to live in society with each other and not be cruel people, we have to learn to accept and respect the decisions of others, particularly if (like childbearing) they don’t affect us in any way, shape, or form. So every time you invalidate a young woman’s choice not to have children by telling her that yes she will, or she’s wrong and she really does want kids, or don’t express that opinion it might change, you’re once again telling young people that their opinions are held to a different set of standards than anyone else’s and that they should never say what they think or feel because they’re wrong.
But what about the sexism? Why is telling a young woman that she’ll change her mind about an opinion any worse than telling a young man that he doesn’t actually want the career he thinks he does? Well there’s a long history of telling women that they actually are not smart enough to know what they should be doing with their bodies, or even to know what they want to do with their bodies. See: abortion legislation around mandated waiting periods, forced ultrasounds, and defunding Planned Parenthood. We are told over and over that we lie about our bodies (e.g. legitimate rape) and that old white men have a better idea of what the appropriate choices are for our lives. Many of these problems are explicitly linked to the idea that women are flightly and emotional and cannot make their own decisions (things which are also part of the ageism inherent in the “you’ll change your mind” statement).
Oftentimes the reasons that people give for resisting young women’s opinions about children are explicitly sexist: they say things like “How will you find meaning without kids?” (as if women can’t have purpose without babies) or “Why are you rejecting your god given purpose?” (churches are really good at promoting the idea that women have to reproduce).
And of course women are already perceived as childlike or incapable of making their own decisions. Women are already painted as overly emotional (like kids) and incapable of controlling themselves (like kids). Any choices women make that prioritizes themselves over others (especially children) are derided as selfish and unethical, the end of motherhood and humanity and kindness and compassion and family! So when a young woman says that she doesn’t want children, she is viewed as the epitome of selfishness, immaturity, emotional indecency: she doesn’t love babies like she should!
Overall, telling a woman that she’ll change her mind about children implies that you know her values better than she does and that she can’t make her own decisions. It’s inappropriate and invasive. Unless your advice or opinion has been solicited, leave it alone.