I’ve known plenty of women who always knew they wanted children. I’ve known more than a few who, for reasons having to do with upbringing, genetics, economics, and so forth, have always known they didn’t and actively chose not to have them. I fit in neither of those categories. I’ve been surrounded by children for much of my adult life, gratefully so — and yet for me, the idea of motherhood has always been a nebulous thing, hovering somewhere in the distance, out of my direct line of sight. It was something I knew I was supposed to want, but never went after with the fierceness of some of my friends, or the fierceness I apply to other goals.
This fall I turned 40 and found myself at the nexus of a particularly modern phenomenon: In the last year, many of my friends have either married for the first time, divorced for the first time, or had their first child. Having kids is not something a woman can back-burner forever, and as I’ve watched friends take the leap, the reality that I would not be able to leave to fate the matter of children much longer persistently crept to the forefront of my mind. It was less a pressing need to have a child than a deep, nagging fear that I wouldn’t be okay without one.
Then, last month I went to help my sister take care of her three children. Four days before I arrived, she’d given birth to my nephew, and he was now home with my niece, 3½, and my other nephew, 5. The two weeks I spent there have since become a blur: overwhelming, glorious, exhausting. The part that remains crystal clear in my mind, however, are the evenings I would spend alone with the newborn. Every night while my sister put the kids to bed, or took some much-needed time to rest herself, I would take my nephew. We’d sit in the darkened, now-quiet living room, he’d hold my fingers, we’d gaze into each other’s eyes, and I would sing to him until he fell peacefully asleep. Is there another deeper, more meaningful word for magical? It was that. There we would stay, silently together, and even after I was confident he was soundly asleep and knew I could safely open my computer without waking him, I would force myself to continue to stare at him. Really look. And wait.
Here, then, was the showdown I had been both looking for and avoiding: Here we go, this is it, no distractions now! If my biological clock, the unforgiving overlord of every woman’s life (or so we are conditioned to think, basically from birth), is going explode into 1 million pieces and rip my heart to shreds, now’s the time. I would stare at him more. Harder. Waiting to be washed away in waves of regret over bad relationship decisions, bad life decisions, bad whatever decisions that had brought me to this age childless. I would wait for the full-blown panic attack that would inevitably follow the realization that if I wanted this to be mine, I would have to figure something out right now, and even then, it would be a total unlikely crapshoot. I waited and waited and waited, all the while making myself look the beast — the perfect, new, sweet, gorgeous, six-pound beast — in the face.
But nothing happened.
The explosion, the regret, the panic never arrived.
Instead, I found myself considering carefully the life I’d created for myself — one I had always been conditioned to understand I should want to escape or be rescued from — and started weighing it against the possibility of creating a new life, a baby. I realized that so many of those things I valued in my current life would cease to be if I opted for motherhood. Perhaps for the first time I began thinking of my life as something intentional, rather than a for-the-time-being existence. And it dawned on me that I didn’t want to escape from it. Quite the contrary, I loved it.
Night after night I reached the same conclusion. By the end of those two weeks, I knew, knew, I’d be okay without children. I knew I did not want this motherhood thing, an idea I had, without much thought, signed off on early on as being something I should want. If fate knocked me up, I’d be okay. But if it didn’t, that was pretty great also. Maybe greater. Though I tend to steer clear of the “having it all” belief system that plagues nearly everything written for women, it was a relief to discover I did not actually want it all. It was a relief to think I could go forth and date without the judging elephant in the room silently wondering: Is he father material? Is he worried I’m wondering if he’s father material? Is he hoping to be father material? Every single person I’ve dated in the last five years has raised the subject of children first, usually on the first date. Without fail I would shrug and say I didn’t not want them. That shrug has now become a confident understanding that I’ll be okay without them. Whatever part of me, small though it was, that viewed men as a solution to a problem I was supposed to be suffering from is gone for good.
So now what? As my friend Stacy London said, “Breaking up with motherhood is more complicated than simply not wanting children. It is breaking up with our perceived use-value. It is looking at what we as single, childless women, unfettered by traditional roles, want to offer the world.” Life, particularly life for women, is marked with widely acknowledged signposts, beginning with puberty, then marriage, then children — or, failing that, devoting our lives to charity or career, two things women are often required to give in exchange for not producing a child. We may balk at the restrictions and create our own detours, but the established guidebook is there, as is the reward system for checking off the boxes. Look no further than the recent New York Times piece that informed its readers that for many women, it’s “the wedding day that heralds true success.” Even though single women now make up 23 percent of the electorate, as Rebecca Traister noted last month, there are very few socially recognizable, condoned paths through the particular woods called your 40s as a single and/or childless woman that (a) don’t immediately define you as such, and (b) aren’t dark and twisty and lined with aforementioned “Style” section stories aimed at making you feel guilty, ashamed, judged, a failure, or freakish.
I feel none of those things. Zero. Neither do so many of the women I know and admire who are walking a similar path to me, which is likely why all the stories telling me I am terrible for veering off the path have long ceased to instill great panic in me. True, we are slowly seeing signs of this changing demographic in the cultural landscape — Olivia Pope, Mindy Lahiri, even, to some extent, Katniss Everdeen (and when those fail, there’s always Auntie Mame and her glorious duplex on Beekman) — but I’m hungry to see something a bit more far-seeing and celebratory. Something that reflects my own conclusion that what I have is fucking terrific and hard and joyous and satisfying, and that basically, I’ve won the lottery. I’m starting to suspect I will be part of the generation creating these new models, an idea that’s both terrifying and exhilarating.
I am fortunate to have a life that is full of children: the ones I’m related to, the ones who are my godchildren, the ones whose parents’ wills I am written into as unofficial guardian. I adore them, they adore me, and we will be a part of each other’s lives permanently. But my life is also my own, and I am very, very free to do as I chose. That is a big deal, and something I value beyond measure. Sometimes I imagine traveling back in time to any point prior to 1972 and telling women how much freedom I have: I get to have children in my life, and I also get to have a life without them. Which I suppose in many ways means I’m living life as men have been allowed to live it, time out of mind. Perhaps I do have it all.