What's Wrong with Being Nobody's Mother?
Women without children deserve a good word.
- Nobody's Mother: Life Without Kids
- TouchWood Editions (2006)
[Editor's note: Nobody's Mother features a poem, a foreword by the CBC's Shelagh Rogers, and 20 essays -- including this one -- on what it's like to be a woman without children. Some authors clearly declare they made the right choice for themselves; others are less sure. All of the essays, edited by University of Victoria creative writing department associate professor Lynne Van Luven, make it evident how much social pressure is placed on women to make a choice that may not be their own.]
The first thing to notice about the condition is that the words used to describe it are negative and denote a lessening or loss. The most common is "childless," followed by the thin-lipped phrase "a woman without children." That bears a disconcerting resemblance to a woman without a man, a woman without an ounce of common sense, a woman without a penny to her name. For years, I've tried to come up with an alternative. "Child-free" just doesn't cut it. The phrase sounds too much like "smoke-free" and might lead to the misconception that I find children toxic or at least bad for your health. It's as if on my front door I've posted a photo of a child's head inside a red circle, a red diagonal slash superimposed across the face.
Fearing that I may be overstating the language issue, I look up childless in my handy Roget's. Surely I'm missing a synonym that I wouldn't mind wearing. In the index, there's only one number for childless, 166.4. The main heading under which the word falls is "unproductiveness." So far, not so good. I still hold out some hope, however, because Roget and his learned lexicographers list 43 synonyms. A quick glance shows they all have one thing in common: they're about as negative as you can get. "Barren, arid, gaunt, dry, dried-up, exhausted, drained, leached, sucked dry, wasted, fruitless, teemless..." the list goes on. One word that's new to me, "acarpous," sparks a moment of optimism until I check it out in Webster's -- it's from the Greek and means "bearing no fruit, sterile."
Now, I come from farming country, where words like these are not taken lightly. I have to remind myself that I'm not researching the Dirty Thirties or flipping through descriptions of the prairies during the last several years of drought. I'm checking out the word childless. Suddenly I see myself as a vast stretch of land that's never felt a rainfall; the sloughs are dry, and alkali draws a thick circle of chalk where the water should be. The few scrub bushes are leafless, brittle and stunted. There's a grey farmhouse in the distance like the one in Andrew Wyeth's famous painting, windows boarded up, the roof caved in. Beside a tilting shed sits an old tractor, half-buried in a dome of dust. The wind blows over the broken field, sucking any colour from the earth, any hope from the human heart. This is the landscape of my body. This is the woman without.
Is it any wonder most people look at me with awkwardness and pity when they ask me about children and discover I am childless? A word brings a whole history with it, an alphabet of attitudes, a cultural reading that translates its dictionary definition into what it really means. Several of the other synonyms in the thesaurus's childless section begin with "un," the prefix that turns something into its opposite and usually affixes "the lack of" to the root word's meaning. "Unfertile, unprolific, unplowed, uncultivated." It doesn't seem to be stretching it to add "unloving" and "unloved."
Language becomes the most interesting at its points of fracture, those moments of tension and failure when all we mean to say can't be said. If you ask me, I'll tell you I am a woman who has no children, but I am not without, I am not less. Should I list, instead, all that I have and then decide if there's something missing? The available vocabulary calls me unproductive, wasted and dry-wombed, and I can't find one fit, fearless word to throw a punch and knock these bullies off the corner. There's no pleasing substitute for "childless" working its way from silence to the tip of my tongue.
Living outside of what we usually mean by "a family of one's own" is a complex state that evokes every emotion, including sadness and relief, so mixed together that any attempt at description reduces me to a sigh. Maybe that's because when we speak of a woman without children we're speaking of The Other, one of those who lives on the edge of what our language and culture feel comfortable with. If mother is one of the most powerful words in our mother tongue, what is its antonym? How do I speak of what is not-mother in the scanty vocabulary we have? How can I describe the day I stepped through the door marked "Those Without Children," and no alarm went off?
Choice and circumstance
In some ways I chose not to have children; in other ways, I didn't make that choice as much as it made me. Throughout my young adulthood, unlike many of my friends, I didn't go soft-eyed and giddy at the idea of holding a sweet-smelling bundle swathed in pastel woollens. There may be several reasons for that, including ones I'm not consciously aware of, but except for a few years in my mid-30s, I didn't long for a baby. I didn't feel any need to extend my genes into the future; there were enough humans in the world without my red-faced resemblances squalling into the light. Children were not a way of ensuring happiness or endowing my days with meaning. That hard task was mine alone.
I am, of course, my mother's daughter. She's proud of her two children and she takes the time to say so, but, good daughter that I tried to be when I lived at home, I could not erase her parents' cruelty; I could not protect her from my father's selfishness and drinking; I couldn't move her from the ratty little rented house where I grew up or pay her higher wages for the cleaning jobs she took on to make ends meet. I couldn't raise her self-esteem. And today, I can't make her less lonely as she spends another holiday by herself with a turkey and all the bounty that goes with it on a prairie table over a thousand kilometres away from where I now live on the west coast.
From the time I hit high school, I was a wound-up fury heading out the door, in love with words, with the plays we put on in the school gym, with the passion I was learning about in the back seat of a car. And though I did my best not to act like a "brain" in school, I was determined to get educated enough to break away from my small town and lead a self-sufficient female life free of my parents' poverty and my mother's dependence on my father, who was mean with money and with love. At university and during my first teaching job, my arms didn't ache from the absence of a baby. They ached from a pile of books and the weight of all the other things I tried to carry to make up for the cultural dearth of my childhood -- Rilke's advice to a younger poet, Germaine Greer, good shoes, Bertolt Brecht, Cabernet Sauvignon, avocados and tall jars of olives, Bob Dylan, Yeats and Akhmatova, curries and rare roast beef, Ibsen and Bergman, freesia in the house in a milk-glass vase. My life without children did not feel empty. Nor does it now.
Questioning the question
Admitting this sometimes makes me feel like a stranger among others of my gender. Recently at a dinner with six women, I was asked, as I often am, if I wished that I'd had children. From experience, I know the expected answer is "yes," or at least, "sometimes," but I responded with a question, "Do you wish you hadn't?" The woman I addressed said no. But she went on to say that a positive answer would have meant that she'd be wishing her present children out of existence. Would her response have been different if I'd worded the question another way? "Let's say your children are alive, but living happily and healthily with another family who loves them. Do you ever wish that you didn't have children?" This question is not asked as often as the one addressed to me. Everything in our culture assumes the lack is in my life, not in hers, the more common female path of children and grandchildren, the universal raison d'être for one's time on Earth.
Some women who, like me, have spent their working lives as teachers might have responded differently to my dinner companion's query. In similar situations, I've heard them say their students are their children; they don't need any others. Though I've been fond of many of my students and though they keep me connected with generations other than my own, they're not there to fulfil my maternal needs. I do my best to be a good teacher and mentor, but with one or two exceptions, they already have mothers, thank you very much. In our time together, which is relatively brief, it's my job to challenge them and care for them in a more detached way.
Others claim animals as their children. Again, that equation doesn't work for me. I feel squeamish when someone calls me the mother of my cats. I wouldn't mind even a small amount of their grace, quickness of eye and felicity of ear, but I don't have these feline qualities in my genes. The two cats who share my life are distinct creatures of another species. I adore them, perhaps too much, but they are not ersatz babies in the house. Nor are books, though they've been called a writer's children, especially if that writer is a woman without a family of her own. The metaphor is a thin rationalization for a condition that seems to need an apology or explanation. Surely there is no substitute for a daughter or a son. Either you have a child or you don't.
When the body said 'baby'
For a few years when I was in my mid-30s, a voice inside my body demanded "baby, baby, baby," but I was with a man who'd had five kids already and who'd had a vasectomy. Here's where choice becomes complex. I'd come nowhere near to wanting a child during the 10 years of my first marriage to a man who was good father material. I was busy getting an education, learning the art of poetry and inspiring my students, I'd hoped, with a love of literature. Now, when my body was driving me toward motherhood, I was with the wrong man. Was Patrick's refusal to have more children one of the unconscious reasons I'd chosen him? I could long for a child like a "normal" woman, weepily bemoan my fate and then blame him down the road if I thought my childlessness was a mistake. I wouldn't have to accept responsibility for my loss.
I felt no regrets at first. Our relationship was so intense and fraught with battles that I thought we wouldn't last more than a year, and my new life would begin. The choice would be mine all over again. I could have a child or not. That was 28 years ago. Patrick and I are still together, and I wouldn't give up one day of my life with him, even the difficult ones, for anything else the world might offer. Sometimes, however, I imagine the child who might have been; sometimes I see her in the shadows that are close to sleep. In the garden, with others of her kind, she is a flickering deep within the bamboo; she is moonlight pouring from the throats of lilies. Would she have made my life different? Yes. Better? I don't know, but my days are bountiful and rich even though I live without what children bring.
In "Living Day by Day," a poem I wrote in my late 30s, I tried to find words for my situation, one that is not less or empty though sometimes there's an ache in it, as if I almost hear a song my mother taught me, but the words are gone and only a faint, fractured melody remains.
I have no children and he has five,
three of them grown up, two with their mother.
It didn't matter when I was thirty and we met.
There'll be no children, he said, the first night
we slept together and I didn't care,
thought we wouldn't last anyway,
he and I struggling to be the first
to pack, the first one out the door.
Once I made it to the car before him,
locked him out. He jumped on the hood,
then kicked the headlights in.
Our friends said we'd kill each other
before the year was through.
Now it's ten years later.
Neither of us wants to leave.
We are at home with one another,
we are each other's home,
the voice in the doorway,
calling Come in, come in,
it's growing dark.
Still, I'm often asked if I have children.
Sometimes I answer yes.
Sometimes we have so much
we make another person.
I can feel her in the night
slip between us, tell my dreams
how she spent her day. Good night,
she says, good night, little mother,
and leaves before I waken.
Across the lawns she dances
in her white, white dress,
her dream hair flying.
A mother's blessing
A year or so after Patrick and I moved in together, I visited my mom in Swift Current, and we went for our usual morning walk. There was something important I had to tell her and I felt frightened. She has always struck me as the quintessential mother. All through my childhood, she'd had to work to keep us in groceries, but she wasn't what you'd call a career woman. Her jobs were difficult, low-paid and often demeaning. And her fierce love for her two children led me to think, in the self-centred way of offspring, that we were the centre of her life. As she and I climbed the steps to the overpass above the railway tracks, she told me that Patrick was good for me. She was glad I'd left my marriage and we'd found each other, although our running off together and the minor scandal it had created had upset her for a while.
"Mom," I said, the wind from the west making us lean slightly to the side, "I don't know if you realize this," I paused for a moment to catch my breath, "but if I stay with Patrick, I won't have children."
I waited for her to pull me to a stop, I waited for her wrath and disappointment to spin me around like the wind and drop me on the tracks below. I waited for her to tell me to leave him.
"Lorna," she said, "not every woman has to have children, you know."
I was stunned into silence, and we kept on walking side by side. She mentioned my cousin who'd had two kids and wasn't happy with motherhood. She said that God might have other plans for me. She told me she loved her children, but we were gone. Her life went on without us; we weren't what gave her days grace or value. What a gift she gave me almost 30 years ago, my mother saying as we crossed the overpass in the city where she gave birth to me, "Not every woman has to have children, you know."
The slippery egg
When I was a child visiting my maternal grandparents' farm on Sundays, I'd always volunteer to clean the chicken after it had been plucked and the pinfeathers singed over the fire that sparked and hissed from the open burner of the wood stove. I loved reaching inside the hen and pulling out the warm, slippery package of intestines, gizzard, heart, liver and sometimes, if I was lucky, a small necklace of eggs glowing in the light of the kitchen, each one blue-white, the colour of moonstones. I find it odd that human eggs are so much smaller; most of us have never seen them. Are they as beautiful, I wonder, magnified and held up to the light?
This spring I turned 58, far past child-bearing age. The uterus is the only organ in the human body that diminishes with time. Mine must be parchment-thin, a phantom part of me, the once-full pear-shaped purse emptied of its bright pearls. Whatever choice I had about giving birth is gone. Scientists say nature abhors a vacuum and something always moves in to fill the vacated space. Perhaps in me there's a new awareness of the fragility of life now that the possibility of reproduction is over. Perhaps there's a sharper sense of the thinness of time's membrane that separates me and those I love from whatever, if anything, lies beyond.
And where there's loss, is there more room to feel blessed for what exists? How lucky I am to have an 88-year-old mother to whom I talk on the phone every Sunday. How lucky I am to have poetry as a close companion and to have lived almost three decades with a man whose bones I want my bones to lie with in the earth. Do I regret not having children? First, let me say again that my life has not been a lessening, an acarpous stretch of wasteland like the one I see in my parents' old photos of the dust bowl. My life has been a gathering, not a giving up. Then, I'll answer yes; I'll answer no.