22% of women over 40 do not have children. Some of this 22% may have wanted children but been unable to conceive, others might have been unlucky in love for too long and no longer of reproductive age when children became logistically possible, still others may have given birth and given their child up for adoption. The point being, only a small proportion of the women included in this 22% are what is called “child free by choice”. And so seeing myself in this minority of women who are child free by choice, it is natural to wonder how I came to be this way against literal odds. While I yearn to understand the provenance of my statistical uniqueness, I worry that searching for a cause might suggest to others a pathology, a brokenness, and this is the very myth I do not wish to propagate. Let’s call what comes next an exploration. A nod to the reality that human beings make sense in context and that all the events of our lives inevitably come to shape us in one way or another.
Children who grow up in abusive or chaotic environments often become great readers of people. This may be, incidentally, why so many of them also become writers. These children become skilled in reading the nuances of emotion and shifts in mood of those around them. At times their very survival may depend on it. And while emotional intelligence is an incredible asset, hypervigilance (i.e. too much awareness too much of the time) is disruptive to a child’s growing sense of self.
I learned early on to observe and catalogue my surroundings closely and to modify my own behaviour accordingly. I believe this is what makes me a good writer and a great therapist. But I also think this is what would make me a terrible mother. Or maybe I would be a wonderful mother, but I’m pretty sure I’d be miserable. Being so practiced in subverting my own needs, wants, and desires in the service of caring for others would seem to make me uniquely qualified to be a parent, but I think it also makes me uniquely qualified to lose myself as a parent.rf And I have fought so long and so hard to find and accept myself. Maybe women who choose to be mothers (and I use the word choose intentionally because I realize many women become mothers without any say in the matter) have a stronger sense of self, or less attachment to a sense of self entirely self-reliant, entirely free. Maybe they had less chaotic childhoods and thus their sense of self is less fragile, less closely guarded. Or maybe, for these mothers, the prospect of unconditional love and family is so compelling as to cancel out the loss of all that must be sacrificed. But none of these things is true of me. My sense of self feels at times as precious and as precarious as a pair of butterfly wings. Two gauzy lungs covered in metallic splotches, it hovers just above the boundary between what is real and what we only pray for.
So what do I plan to do with all this freedom, which is so hard won and comes at such a high cost? I want to write books. I want to write essays and short stories and novels that are vibrant and full of life like Junot Diaz, Mary Karr, Charles D’Ambrosio, Lorrie Moore, Jenny Zhange, Alice Munro. I want someone to pay me to write. I want to make enough money not to worry about vet bills–with five cats and three dogs this is a looming and ever present financial cloud. I want to make enough money not have to make decisions about removing rotting teeth or medicating psychiatric illnesses based on finances. I want to make enough money so my mother-in-law can stop working and so my mother can stop worrying about not working. I want to make so much money that I can give it away, fund my friend’s children’s university educations and dreams, take trips with my husband to Cuba, buy my husband a car (the car he wants, not other people’s beaters that are destined for the the junk heap if not our garage), replace the carpet in the living which is bathed in urine from when we first moved in and Rocky the cat had anxiety, buy a house, make a documentary film, rescue all the animals that need rescuing, have a library in my house replete with bookshelves made of real wood and not just Ikea bookcases with faux wood panelling and backs that fall out or slabs of wood separated by blocks of concrete. I want the security of knowing my husband and I can pay our phone bills. I want my husband and I to be able to pay off our student loans, my husband to finally be able to go to university–something he has never really had the chance to do given the fact that he grew up without the advantages of wealth and within a broken system that provides almost no support for education. I want, one day, to be in a position where money no longer has me by the throat. I want, I need, to breath a little more, a little easier. Even though I know that these things are things that very few people ever get to claim, they are still things I want desperately.
In the end, not having children has so much more to do with what I stand to lose than all the admittedly awe-inspiring things I stand to gain. In terms of what I stand to gain, the wonderfulness of children is obvious. I work with children on a daily basis and I delight constantly in the worlds into which they invite me. The kids I work with as a child psychotherapist make me laugh, their honesty refreshes me, their vulnerability humbles me. My house will always be one of those houses without children and maybe that will cause those inside the house to grow inflexible and intolerant, with outdated knowledge of pop culture, music, and slang. I don’t like this thought.
The selflessness, and the resulting depth of bonding, inherent to a relationship with an utterly dependent creature is not unfamiliar to me either. This is something I experience with my four dogs and five cats every day, and it is heavenly. And while I am unwilling, much to the consternation of many condescending parents with whom I’ve spoken, to concede that the love between a parent and a human child is somehow ‘more’ or ‘bigger’ or ‘more real’ than the love between a human and a pet, I will concede that they are surely different. And that the specific love between a parent and a child is something I will never experience. I will also never get to see what kind of child my husband and I would produce, and this truly causes me some pain. I am so truly curious about this. And the overflowing trove of baby names I have been collecting over so many years-Violet, Safi, Penelope, Opal, Willow, Leila, Meadow–they will grow coated with dust or be used for pets or characters in stories. And if I were to have a baby, these are all things I would gain–and they all seem wonderful–and yet, the cost for me personally is far far too great. At the end of the day, for me, the race isn’t even close.
A quick story.
18 months ago I nanny-ed for a family on the North Shore. They had two very adorable children–a 5-year-old boy and a 9-month-old girl. Knowing everything I do about developmental psychology and the critical nature of the first years of life, I took my job very seriously. One day, I took the little girl for a walk in the stroller. I pushed her from the top of Pemberton Heights all the way down to Capilano Mall. When it came time to head in the direction of home to pick up the child’s older brother from school, I google mapped a short cut. It was spitting cold rain and I was short on time. Much to my surprise, google maps does not take stairs into account. There is no way of specifying routes for strollers or wheelchairs–I’m serious on this point, maybe there should be? But in any case, I ended up at the foot of a large staircase with an awkward monster of a stroller carrying a sleeping child.
Now normally, this is not the type of situation that would qualify as a crisis-in fact, this is the kind of dilemma that parents face on a daily basis–but I was an employee, and the little boy would be waiting outside his school for a pick up at 3pm sharp. I had never been late to pick him up, and in hindsight, being late would not have been the end of the world. But it is in my nature to imagine every possible worst case scenario, to catastrophize and imagine this innocent little child, under my care, being hit by a car when crossing the street, wandering off and being nabbed by a pedophile lurking in the woods, or being kidnapped in a windowless white van and initiated into a child-sex ring in someone’s dungeon like-basement, accessible to the outside world only through a steel hatch in the backyard. The best case, and in hindsight most likely, scenario, would be that the child would call his mother in distress and I would get in trouble, or perhaps be fired. A long and complex childhood history with authority caused the latter possibility to strike fear in my heart. I did not want to get in trouble.
I set out to climb the stairs carrying the stroller (probably 50 lbs plus) in my arms. By the time I had climbed a hundred steps, I was only 1/4 of the way to the top, exhausted, and five minutes away from being late. I rested for a moment on a small landing, one hand on the stroller, eyes gazing downwards at the flight of stairs I had just climbed. I silently did the math, calculating how long it would take me to walk back down (could I carry a stroller DOWN a hundred stairs?) and take the long way back to school. At this point, on the landing, it was 2:53. If I lurched back down the stairs and jogged all the way to school, I would probably be at least 20 minutes late. In addition, heaving a 50 lb contraption down a flight of concrete steps that emptied into a riverbed full of aggressive looking rocks seemed highly inadvisable. Shiny with sweat and slightly lightheaded, I decided that my only option was to persist in my climb. As I began to climb, and like a lighthouse in a storm, one of the mothers from the little boy’s school came bouncing up the stairs. She had the healthy Scandinavian glow of a jogger on a fall day, whereas I looked as though I had been running from a crazed killer with a chainsaw. She paused her fitbit and stopped to greet us. I leaned back casually (always so cool) against the guardrail, parka swung over my arms, sweatshirt rolled up to above the elbows, tiny beads of sweat scintillating on my upper lip like a human colander. “Wow, you’re brave” she said, genuinely impressed. “Like, wow”. Maintaining my cool as a cucumber-ness, I explained about the google map, the hundred steps, the time crunch. I was clinging to this mom like a wet rat on a quickly melting bar of soap, but desperate not to show my fear or admit my incompetence. She gazed up at a tiny pin prick of light glimmering through the bracken, impossibly far away. I imagine she performed her own mental calculations around what helping me might mean for her own child, waiting, suspended out there in the world of the pedophile-infested woods. “What grade is your little one in?” the mom asked, reaching behind her head to secure her ponytail. Without a word about helping, without a shaming look that made the inconvenience obvious, she grabbed the back end of the stroller and started climbing upwards.
Catching my breath at the top of the climb, I bent down for a moment to check on the sleeping babe. I stood up to thank mom, but when I did, I could see her already speed walking into the suburban horizon. She turned back and flashed a thumbs up sign. “You’ll be on time” she mouthed, pointing at her watch and smiling. And like that she was gone. It felt abrupt. I had imagined a post traumatic debrief, a hug, an exchange of numbers. Surely, she would want, and I would need to offer, something to show my gratitude. If only an empty promise at future communication or a mutually insincere wish to “get to know one another”??
It became clear to me in that moment, that this is one of the things that will be lost and it is a loss I will truly feel. A sisterhood of mothers. The loss of membership to this club. It’s something I have witnessed before without really belonging. Mothers handing children over to one another wordlessly without instruction or explanation. Mothers together, happy to nab a snippet of conversation amidst tiny fist, shrieks, giggles, and mysterious smells that need attending to. This implicit understanding of another human being is powerful, and it is a rare thing in life. How often can we truly understand the experience of another? I realize that not all women experience motherhood in the same way. Being a mother is an intersectional experience made up of our experiences with our mother, the degree to which we experience privilege in this world, the quality of the relationships in our life, the degree to which we are supported, our economic circumstances, our own mental health, the temperament of any given child, and our own personal neurochemical cocktail sloshing around in our head-to name a few. But I hazard that there is still something transcendent about being a mother and this transcendence creates a bond.
As a writer and a psychotherapist, I move through the world connecting with others, struggling to understand their perspective, searching for keys to unlock their worlds. And perhaps this is what stings the most; missing out on this human connectivity, missing out of the possibility of understanding this particular facet of the human condition. How can a person really understand the world without visiting China or Africa or the farthest flung places where civilization began and where life beyond the dream (see Ta-Nehisi Coates) really exists? I feel the same way about motherhood. Motherhood is like Africa, except it is a one way ticket. With no refunds or exchanges. No exceptions for mechanical problems. Or extreme weather.