When I was a little girl, my mother told me that someday I would grow up, get married, and have two children, just like she did. Although I imagined marrying dreamy Dr. Kildare rather than a dentist (like my father), and having a daughter with straight blonde hair instead of my own dark brown frizz, I had no reason to doubt her.
But when I was 15 years old I found myself sitting by my mother’s side in a dimly lit hospital room one January afternoon, the institutional green curtains drawn to keep out the sunny Miami day. She was mostly incoherent, raving from the morphine that dripped into her skinny, bruised arm from the nearby IV bag. She talked half the time to me, half to the imaginary creatures under her bed. At some moments it was hard to be sure what was being directed to me or to them, but there was no doubt about one sentence, one of the last she spoke.
“Someday,” she said, her hollow, jaundiced eyes brimming with tears and accusation, “You’ll have a daughter just like you and then you’ll understand.” Though I could not, at that age, begin to understand what it would be like to be her, I could infer her message. These were the bitter words of a dying woman to an adolescent daughter who had failed to give her mother the attention and love she had craved throughout her long illness; the words of a woman who felt she had sacrificed so much and gotten so little in return.
I wonder how many mothers have used those same words throughout the ages, though perhaps in less dramatic circumstances? I’d heard plenty of mothers say them to my friends when they left their beds unmade or did a sloppy job of washing the dishes. Surely mothers before them had scolded daughters who had made a mess of plucking the chickens or let the washboard rust. I can even picture angry cavewomen, in the days before spoken language existed, scrawling drawings in the dirt with bones or gesticulating wildly as their sullen cave daughters stood by, waiting impatiently until the show was over so they could go make necklaces of teeth or watch the cave boys tip mastodons. And yet, my mother’s words seemed somehow more pointed, more like a deathbed curse than the exasperated utterance of just another vexed mother.
After she died, I was left alone with my father, who had neither the energy nor the inclination to put up with my rebellious behavior. It was 1975 and I had made it a point to indulge in every type of drug available, to stay out all night, and bring home barefoot boys with long, stringy hair about whom my father, to my great embarrassment, would inquire whether they were housebroken.
One night, during a typical dinner where neither of us spoke, my father watching the news on the small black and white television in the kitchen, me reading something by Camus or Sartre and picking at the brown rice loaf I made at least twice a week, I broke the silence to ask him if he was glad he’d had children (my older brother, who no longer lived with us, had been the poster child for rebellion). It was perhaps ill timed to pose this question when it was clear that my so-called health food was less appealing to him than the grub he’d been served in the Navy, but he told me that if he had it all to do over again, he would have chosen to remain childless.
Although my reaction was to feel like the only unwanted daughter in the world, apparently there were tens of thousands just like me. That same year, Ann Landers posed the same question to her readers and, out of 50,000 replies, found that seventy percent of them concurred with my father; the amount of work and sacrifice far outweighed the returns. The survey was unscientific, never parsed into the kinds of statistics that would reveal the ages of the children whom the parents would have returned to their sender. I imagine that many of the seventy percent must have had teenagers. I wonder if the respondents were, like my father, the hapless “greatest generation” parents of the hippies. After all, what father could have been prepared to send his honor student son off to college, only to have an unrecognizable person sporting an enormous Afro, torn jeans, and a psychedelic-patterned shirt festooned with strands of love beads and peace signs show up at the front door for Spring Break? What mother could be expected to feel gratitude that the daughter on whom she had lavished ballet lessons would cast aside her pink satin toe shoes to run off to rock festivals where she could dance barefoot in the mud?
Ironically, shortly after I left home, my father married a woman with children younger than me and was saddled, for more years than he’d spent raising me, with the responsibility of two more children he would have chosen not to have. Meanwhile, my valiant stepmother took it upon herself to mother me, attempting to guide me through college dropouts, abortions and STDs, domestic violence, and an absurdly early marriage at age 19 to a boy who, after we’d known each other for two weeks, announced, “I wanna marry your ass.” In exchange, she got mostly nothing for her efforts beyond sleepless nights and emergency phone calls, and only when I had reached the age of 40, the same age she was when she married my father, did I begin to have the kind of sympathy for her that she so richly deserved.
It was no coincidence that I began to understand my stepmother better at that age, for it was then that I realized I had to decide whether or not to have children of my own. For once, I knew this was something that had to be based on careful thought. Unlike my whimsical decisions to marry, having children was permanent, irrevocable — if, that is, the children managed to survive their childhood and teen years in spite of themselves (it was probably just dumb luck that I’d lived to adulthood). I had begun to lose count of the number of times I’d been asked by friends, acquaintances, even near-strangers when I would start having children. Interestingly, I noted, neither my father nor my stepmother had ever raised the question. Not once.
I had thought about it many times, of course, but had never been in the position in my prime childbearing years to seriously consider it. My first two husbands, neither of whom even remotely resembled Dr. Kildare, had both been poor candidates for fatherhood. Aside from the fact that I had married both for the wrong reasons (i.e., not love), the first, Mr. Marry-Your-Ass, was incapable of holding a job, and the second, though steadily employed, seemed more interested in strengthening his power as a wizard in Dungeons and Dragons than in supporting a family.
By the time I met my current husband, I was 32 and entrenched in a career that barely allowed time for sex, never mind children. In an industry where the minimum workweek is 50 hours, the few women I knew who’d been brave enough to have children seemed, for the most part, as if they were on the constant brink of nervous collapse. They were typically older single mothers who had never had time to sustain a relationship and had decided to have children on their own before it was “too late,” or those whose husbands couldn’t support the family solely on their income. I remember asking one of them, a woman who had a position similar to mine at another company and who had recently given birth to her second child, how she was coping. Grateful that anyone even cared to inquire, she burst into tears, telling me that she felt that she was only half as good at her job as she used to be, half the mother she’d hoped to be, and less than half the wife she’d like to be. Another woman I knew had managed to have her job reduced to “part-time” — only 40 hours a week, still too much for her to feel that she could keep up with her life, let alone enjoy the experience of motherhood.
So when I hit 40 and the tick of my biological clock had become as loud as Big Ben, I had to ask myself why I should have children. At that point my husband and I needed the dual income and my job — the only job I knew how to do, the only job that would have paid me enough to cover the added expense of a child (much of which would be spent on daycare)– was too exhausting for me to imagine that I could be capable of handling both responsibilities and have anything leftover for my husband or myself. Moreover, I hated the idea of having a child only to hand him or her off to someone else each day, a stranger who would potentially be there for my child’s first steps and first words; someone who would spend far more waking hours with it than I would and who would pass on their values, which I might or might not share.
Certainly there are millions of people who make these sorts of compromises because the desire to have children trumps the drawbacks, as some of my acquaintances who have chosen this path have pointed out. That’s when I realized I had to confront the bigger issue: Perhaps I just wasn’t cut out for motherhood.
Although my own childhood was traditional by the standards of those days, with a father who worked and a stay-at-home mother, I look back on it as a time of loneliness and frustration. My mother, whose long illness began when I was three years old, hated dirt, germs, noise, and, it seemed, fun. It was ostensibly her life’s mission to maintain strict order over everything in our household, including me. I resented her for her excessive protectiveness and her compulsion to make me her ideal daughter, a sort of living doll who would say the perfect thing when she pulled the string, the kind of daughter she’d dreamed of having, for whom she’d endured drug therapy to maintain her pregnancy, and, later, chemotherapy in an effort to live long enough to see grow up.
I wasn’t wired to be that daughter. I was curious and independent and the more she tried to exert her will over me, the more I fought her. Many experts on child development say that children are born with their own personalities and to try to turn them into something they’re not is a losing proposition. It was true of me. As I grew up, the distance between my mother and me became as vast as the nearby ocean. We both lost.
Because she died so young, I would have thought her influence on me would have been minimal, that I would have escaped the phenomenon known as “turning into our my mothers.” But no. I have already begun to see the inevitable transformation taking place. There is an old photograph of us on my father’s boat. It must have been a hot day, evidenced by my tee-shirt and shorts, but my mother looked as if she was prepared for a trip through a wind tunnel rather than a pleasant cruise on Biscayne Bay. She wore long pants, a blouse that was buttoned up to the top, a cardigan over that, and the craziest hat I’d ever seen: A tight pink affair with big loops of ribbon that made it look as if she had forgotten to take the curlers out of her hair before leaving the house that morning. Completing the ensemble was a huge pair of sunglasses, giving her the appearance of a dowdy Martian. For years I laughed over the picture, vowing that I would never look like that. But recently, as I was getting ready to take a walk on a mild California day, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Long pants, fleece jacket zipped all the way up to my chin, gloves, a scarf, wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. A modern take on her outfit, yes, but eerily too close for comfort.
Unlike dogs, whose breeding lines are developed to impart both desirable physical and behavioral traits to the offspring, human children come with no such guarantees. Would I be lucky, like my brother, who has two spectacular daughters? Or would I, as my mother prognosticated, have one like me? Or worse? And did I dare inflict the life I railed against on someone else, facing the possibility that my child would resent me as much as I resented my mother?
These questions are generally regarded as cop-outs by my breeding acquaintances. Neither fear of my children hating me, nor fear of what I might spawn would be enough if I really wanted to have them. And besides, they’d say, nobody’s kids love their parents when they’re adolescents, but we all get over it by the time we’re adults. I wasn’t sold.
There are other reasons too, I would point out. Having a child later in life increases the risks of birth defects. One of my cousins was severely disabled and after hearing the heartbreaking stories about her I knew I’d be a poor candidate to care for a child with special needs. Difficulty conceiving could mean having to resort to in vitro or adoption. I remember going to a dinner party one night with some colleagues. All of the women there, four besides me, were in their mid- to late-forties and had waited to have children. All had had problems conceiving and had adopted. One mother, watching her blonde-haired, blue-eyed son play off to the side by himself, quietly said to me, “At first we couldn’t believe how lucky we were to get him. But then we realized he had ‘issues.’ ” My own stepbrother, now 35, is not unlike her son, and my father and stepmother still support him as he grapples with the effects of mental illness. This is not to suggest that adopted children are a special risk; it’s just further evidence that one must be prepared for anything when having children, biological or not, for better or for worse.
People often assume that because I don’t have children I must not like them, that I must be among the militant “child-free” who believe that children should be treated like cigarette smoking — allowed in certain zones only. On the contrary, I feel about children exactly the way I feel about adults. When they are lovely souls with kind hearts, I delight in their company. When they are inconsiderate and rude, I steer clear. I don’t agree with people who say that children have no place in fancy restaurants; I say it depends on the child. I’d rather be seated next to a well-mannered young person than a boorish adult.
But even with my pro-child attitude, I’m an anomaly in my surroundings. At age 45, when it is apparent that my inaction has itself become a form of action, I find myself having to defend my choice. In privileged Marin County, where I now live, having children is de rigueur. Everywhere I go I meet women who are unable to grasp my voluntary childlessness. “If you don’t have children,” they ask, their eyes wide, voices filled with incredulity, “what do you do?” On the surface it seems an innocent question. But I see it as a land mine of innuendo, the implication running deep beneath the surface, waiting until I trigger it to blow me apart. If you don’t have children, they might as well say, how can you call yourself a woman?
The short answer is that for a long time I didn’t. I drifted away from friends who had children because our lives no longer meshed. I had nothing to contribute when they regaled me with the intimate details of their babies’ births, how many centimeters their cervices dilated and how many stitches they had after the episiotomy. I sat with a little smile frozen on my face as they talked about the bliss of nursing and of quietly rocking in a rocking chair, doing nothing more than smelling their babies’ hair and gazing out the window. And I bristled when they told me that I would never understand their all-encompassing feelings for their children because, they would say pointedly, motherhood changes everything. Not only did I suddenly feel like a stranger in the houses of my friends, with whom I had once discussed things like music and politics and work, I realized that I had become more than that. I was a stranger in the house of womanhood.
I take some small comfort from statistics. Even if I’m one of the (seemingly) few in Marin County, nationwide I’m hardly the only woman of my age who has remained childless. According to the most recent census, the number of childless women ages 15-44 has increased by 10% since 1990. And the number of women at the end of their childbearing years (ages 40-44) who have remained childless has also increased 10% since 1976. In a time when medical science has extended women’s ability to bear children later in life, surely this increase must be due to choice. Still, of the millions of women these statistics represent, I have few friends my age who have made that choice. And the friendships I have with much younger childless women I view as if, like a carton of milk, they have an expiration date stamped on them. it is only a matter of time until most of them become mothers and we become estranged.
Back in the sixties, when my mother forecast my future based on the reality she knew, the women’s movement was changing that reality. Women were increasingly free to pursue higher education and careers, postponing marriage and children. It was liberating, it was empowering. It was also dangerous. The underlying message was that women could have it all. We could have careers and husbands and children, and because we were strong, giving and powerful we could balance it. But as our economy weakened and the two-career family became the norm rather than the exception, having it all often meant having too much.
I know several women who have managed to have successful careers, solid marriages, and lovely children, and I admire them deeply. Often they seem exhausted, stretched thin, although they would never complain. And I know others who will freely admit to feeling overwhelmed, but their desire to have children was too strong to consider the alternative.
Occasionally I question my choice to remain childless. Sometimes I meet great kids who obviously love their parents and whose parents watch them with the proud look of the winners of the breeding lottery. Sometimes when one of my nieces asks me to braid her soft hair or slips her hand into mine as we walk, I feel a little pang of regret. I suspect that if I were to ask my father now if he’s happy he had kids, he would give me a different answer than he did so many years ago. He loves me as an adult. He’s proud of me. When we see each other he always gets a little misty eyed as we say our goodbyes. Still, when I recently told him that my dog would be the only grandchild he’d ever have from me, he said, “That’s fine. I can’t disagree with your choice.”
More often, late at night, my mother’s dying words come back to me. I will never have a daughter like me, I think. I will never lie awake not knowing if she’s safe, if she hates me, if she can’t wait to get away from me. I will never have to sacrifice my dreams for someone who may never appreciate me, may never even like me. And then I turn over and listen to my dog’s steady breathing next to me, and slip into a sleep of contentment.