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On Missing Out on Motherhood

Photo by Picsea on Unsplash

I’ve been feeling my clock ticking lately. Ticking probably isn’t the right word. Gasping its last gasps is likely more accurate. Lately isn’t the right word either. It’s been at least a good year since I’ve been wondering, wait, am I sure I don’t want to have kids?

Some of this is biological—my body is doing its best to alert me to the passage of time, as if I’m not aware. As if the streak of white hair just above my forehead doesn’t remind me every morning, or my slowed metabolism doesn’t make itself loudly known every time I decide to skip a workout.

Some of it is my budding mid-life crisis as well, and the sudden realization that in a couple of months I will no longer be just 40, but taking my first step to being in my forties, which feels like a whole other thing entirely. Last year on my birthday I had only stepped onto the plank. This year I begin walking.

So it seems a little ridiculous and a lot late to be asking this question now. And it is. It’s late, but it’s not too late. All of my parts are still working just fine thankyouverymuch, so getting pregnant isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility. I know someone who got pregnant last year at the age of 45. One of my aunts had my cousin when she was 40. Shit, Janet Jackson had a baby at age 50. Add in factors like adoption and technology and it feels like I will never be free of this question.

I recently finished reading Motherhood, a novel by Sheila Heti, which I think she pulled directly from my head. The book explores the question of motherhood via every possible angle. Heti’s narrator, like me, never really wanted to be a mother, at least not in the same way as other women do. She writes that, “Even as a young girl, it was something I had not wanted to do. I wanted to have boyfriends, and make art, and have interesting conversations and friends…I wanted to be free…”

This reminded me of a passage I came across a couple of years ago from The Collector, by John Fowles. I read and highlighted the book in my senior year of high school. As you can see in this photo, it seems I knew the answer then. A smiley face even!

But it’s really hard to hear your own voice in the cacophony that is our culture—to know what the right choice is for you when movies, music, books, friends, and family are loudly telling you there is only one right choice (and it’s the opposite of the one you think you know). Our ticking clocks don’t help either. They just add to the noise.

That’s how my confusion started. For most of the last six or seven years I have been solidly in the I don’t want to have kids camp, but a couple of years ago my body started doing strange things around babies. The best way I can describe it is to say that it felt like longing pushing outward from the center of my chest. Put a baby in front of me and suddenly I’m feeling things I haven’t felt before. I want to hold the baby—even if it is a stranger’s baby. I want to smell the baby. I want to coo and smile and get it to smile back.

But as much as I love babies, and kids in general, I still have no desire to be around them 24/7. I don’t want to raise one or spend all of my money on one. I don’t want to spend my evenings helping with homework or driving them to soccer practice. This was crystallized for me not long ago when I was driving a colleague home because his car was in the shop. He told me his plans for the evening—after a long and busy day at work he would be chauffeuring his kids around to their various commitments, with an eta at home around 9:00 p.m. No thank you.

Then there was last Saturday—the Saturday before Halloween. I went to my usual coffee shop to meet my usual writing buddies at our usual time, only to be bombarded by kids in costumes parading up and down the street just outside our very open window. The neighborhood businesses were hosting a trick-or-treat event, which was loud, chaotic, and distracting.

I didn’t get much writing done. But what I did realize was how happy I was to be on the side of the window that I was on. I hadn’t spent weeks shopping for the perfect costume for my kid, or worse, for me as well. I hadn’t spent that morning getting my kid ready to go, or walking up and down the street surrounded by dozens of other parents and kids. And I wouldn’t have to deal with a sugar meltdown that afternoon. I was entirely free, which, I’m realizing, is the one thing I have consistently desired in my life—freedom. There’s a reason I’m not married. There’s a reason I don’t have kids.

Near the end of her book, Heti writes, “It’s fair to say I’m missing out on something—but also that I might prefer to miss out.” Yes.

I might change it to say that I’m missing out on the parts I want to miss out on. There are ways to experience the joys of children without giving birth to them. People underestimate the joy of being an aunt, for instance.

I’m beginning to understand that the question of whether I want to be a mother may never be answered with 100% conviction either way. I may continue to waffle long after my child-bearing years have passed. It’s possible that I will wake up in five or ten years and regret not having a kid. I can’t ever know. As Heti writes, the only way to answer whether one wants to have kids is by having them. That’s a risky gamble, one I wouldn’t want to inflict on any child.

For now, I think the answer lies in knowing which side of the window I want to be on. For now, that’s enough.

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