From May 2016

Playing Mom

From the Editors: In this essay, recent college graduate SJ Enloe reflects on how a 19-year age difference between her and her little brother causes her to think carefully about motherhood.

“Mom, can I have some chocolate milk?”

I stare at Isaac, who looks puzzled for a moment then giggles.

“Sarah, can I have some chocolate milk?” I nod and grab the Ovaltine.

“I called you mom,” he snickers.

It’s not uncommon for my brother to call me mom. After a few years of trying, my mom discovered she was pregnant a month shy of her 40th birthday. I was 18-years-old and just finishing my first year of college. My sister and I had no idea our mom and step-dad had been trying to have a baby, so her pregnancy came as a complete shock.

We tagged along for her 18-week ultrasound so the whole family could be there to find out his gender. Soon after, one of my aunts suggested that I throw my mom’s baby shower. I spent that summer driving around buying favors, decorations, and the like, all the while telling my mom I was going out with friends or just buying new clothes. I organized family members and friends to help out and surprise my mom, and it all came together perfectly.

My brother was born on November 14, 2012, a little more than a month after my 19th birthday. I was there to witness his birth (as much as I tried to look away) and cut his umbilical cord. I like to think it was that moment that my brother and I became inseparable.
Before my brother was born, I spent most of my time in my room, barely seeing my family – despite living under the same roof. Now I’m almost always playing with toy cars or sitting with him watching whichever Peanuts DVD is his favorite that week.

Though I sometimes find myself forgetting I’m not his parent, I also frequently forget my age. Playing board games and going along with the latest game he’s made up are my favorite past-times. Sometimes, if the TV has been left on, I’ll sit alone watching Curious George or Sesame Street.

We often look at toddlers crying over silly little things and laugh, but taking a little time to play along with my brother helps to show me that my problems are just as silly and laughable.

In those moments when I feel like I’m his mother, I contemplate whether or not I actually want to be a mother. My fiancé and I talk about it fairly often, and we’re both on the fence. Until the last few months, he’s never really wanted kids. For much of my life, I operated under the assumption that I was supposed to be a mother. I knew it was my choice, but became afraid to explore that choice. It’s a huge decision to make and there’s so much that goes into it, and I’m afraid of making the wrong choice. My brother, however, forces me to have that discussion with myself.

In moments when my brother is bratty and acting up, I immediately push the thought of motherhood from my mind. On several occasions I’ve texted my mom, “your son’s being a terror, and I’m never having children.” Then there are moments when we’re cuddled on the couch, and he’s being sweet as can be, giving lots of hugs and kisses and being much better behaved than usual, and I think “this isn’t so bad.”

I have some time before I make any decision on the subject, but I’m glad I have some first-hand experience in mothering to help me make a more informed decision. Until then I’ll continue making chocolate milk and playing mom.

Enloe headshotS.J. Enloe is a recent graduate of Westfield State University, who enjoys writing and walking into walls;  she can’t avoid it, so she’s learned to live with it. You can read more from her on her website or at The So-Called Right Track.

 

Let’s Be Friends Part 2: Childfree Woman Loves Mom Friends and their Kids

A thing that made me sad: getting ditched by a friend I’d had for about five years because I’m childfree. It didn’t happen right away, and trust me, I understand that life post-kids is hectic. After the baby arrived, I’d visit with easily reheated meals, a little chocolate, and arms happy to hold the baby while my friend showered. As the weather warmed, I’d join in jaunts to push the baby in her stroller around town, take in the air.

But then something shifted. My friend put together her wish list for the friend she wanted to make. This new friend would have a baby the same age. She’d share the same interest, like the same kinds of food. And she’d want to have a second baby at around the same time my friend would. Before long, it was nearly impossible to make plans together. She found her gal pal soul mate. And it wasn’t me.

What hurt was not her need for new mom friends. Of course, it makes sense for a new mom to crave a kindred friend, someone to share ideas, worries, and lack-of-sleep complaints with. It’s important for women to develop friendships that will help them feel strong and capable in their unrehearsable new role. As the childfree friend, though, it felt awful to realize that what had once been valued in our relationship no longer was and that her focus had shifted entirely to her mom friends.

I miss our friendship, now a courteous acquaintanceship. I especially miss it because, despite my being childfree, I have several deep, wonderful friendships with women who chose to have kids. It can be challenging, both for the childfree woman and the new mom, to maintain a friendship across the baby fence, but, at least speaking from the childfree perspective, it is absolutely worth the extra effort it may take. (read the reverse perspective here) The added bonus of these relationships? Now I’m fortunate to have friendships with their kids, too.

I wouldn’t say the role I have is that of an auntie, though being an auntie is one of my favorite identities. Instead, I’ve developed intergenerational friendships, which are vital for wellbeing and strong community.

Sarah and I became friends after she joined a knitting group I attended. Her quick wit, savvy understanding of human nature, and deeply caring yet no-nonsense personality won me over. If I’d had a younger sister, Sarah’s the woman I would want to be that sister. Before long, our friendship developed to include her whole family. When I had a recent loss, her husband made beautiful, labor-intensive food to bring comfort. She’s one of my only friends with kids who has asked me to watch her kids when she’s needed someone to step in for an hour.

All too often, I think women with kids don’t ask their childfree friends to help out with childcare because, well, a variety of reasons….maybe they don’t want to impose, or maybe they assume being childfree means disliking children, or maybe they’re not sure their childfree friends will know what to do with the kids.

One of the reasons I value my friendship with Sarah is that she makes none of those assumptions. She asked, making it clear that my saying no wouldn’t be a problem. And because she asked, I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon playing games with her kids, getting to know them better, and letting them get to know me better.

Now my husband and I look forward to our annual New Year’s hike, which the kids join us on. We laugh at videos of the kids telling jokes, feel pride when we see her son play piano with true musicality and feeling, look forward to her daughter’s ballet performances. We’re not family, yet we get to participate in the kids’ lives as if we are. As they grow older, I hope we can continue to enjoy our friendship, continue to model how much friendship matters. This is important because strong social networks can lead to healthier, longer lives.

A few weeks ago I visited another friend who is a new mom. She and her son had been out of the area for a couple of months, and I had not seen him since he was a newborn. She handed him to me to hold, talked about work, answered my questions about his development-the thing with being childfree is I don’t really know when babies start meeting their marks-sitting, crawling, teeth, etc. She treated me like her friend, as she always has. And she welcomed me into this new part of her life as though there was no question I’d want to be there. And I do.

I know parents are more than parents. They are people with ideas, opinions, lives beyond their children, and I want to know those parts of them, too. While I enjoy time and activities with my friends and their kids, I also believe the time sans kids is vital. Friendships are complicated, beautiful relationships, and one of the things a childfree friend offers to a woman with kids is the reminder of who else she is, who else she has been, who else she will be.

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In the Waiting Room

From the editors: In this beautiful essay, Tara Parmiter, writer and writing instructor, explores the emotional landscape of infertility.

The official term she used was “missed abortion.” Five minutes earlier we had been sitting in the scanning room, the technician gliding her ultrasound wand through the sticky gel on my abdomen and broadcasting grainy black and white blurs on the computer monitor. It was the day of our nuchal transparency test, about 10 weeks into the pregnancy, and we nervously but giddily waited to learn about that mysterious fold on the back of baby’s neck and whether it warned of any chromosomal abnormalities. I knew our chances for such problems were increasing—I was already 34, after all, just a year shy of the dreaded 35 mark—but it hadn’t occurred to me to think the test could reveal anything worse. Suddenly, we were learning a whole other story about pregnancy, about miscarriages that occur in silence, about clinical procedures to empty out the remains of our hopes.

Since by profession I am a writing teacher, that afternoon I started a pregnancy journal and for the next five years I recorded our disappointments, longings, confusions, and failed attempts to recreate what had happened so simply that first time. “Everywhere I look I see women with bulging abdomens, birds nesting, trees blossoming, fathers snuggling a baby against their chests, and I felt so wonderfully connected to it all, “ I wrote that afternoon. “I had a second heart beating inside of me, and now it’s stopped.”

Two days later we were in a very different waiting room, the waiting room of an abortion clinic where the doctors were going to perform a “D&C,” or dilation and curettage, to remove the contents of my uterus. Wrapped up in my own grief, I didn’t give much thought to the other patients in the room or what had brought them there; I supposed we were all sitting on those uncomfortable seats because we had to be. My husband witnessed one woman, though, who must have been in our situation and a bit more fragile. After slogging through all the paperwork, probably landing on the form that painfully asked you to sign that you agreed to have an abortion, she accosted the ladies at the front desk. “Do I have to be here?” she cried, loudly enough for all her fellow patients to hear. “My baby died, I’m not killing it.” I’m glad I wasn’t there at that point, for I’m not sure I could have held it together. I too wanted to ask, “Do I have to be here,” not just in the clinic, but in this situation. I didn’t want to be experiencing this pain, and as the years passed and we seemed forever stalled in the waiting room, I kept returning to that question: Why do we have to be here?

My husband and I had consciously chosen to wait to have children. Though we had met in college—we even lived on the same floor freshman year—we had waited five years before dating and then ten more before marrying. Waiting was an essential part of our romance, a story line I loved to retell when others asked how we got together. When we finally did try to conceive, we lucked out so quickly that I assumed all we had to wait for was that happy due date nine months down the road. The missed AB shook us of our complacency, however. In the months and then years to follow, I finally had to acknowledge that clichéd ticking clock: what if we had waited too long? What if my body could no longer produce a viable life? What about those frightening health risks that multiplied for both baby and mother at a staggering rate once you passed that 35th year? I found myself thinking wistfully of all the periods I had grumbled about in my lifetime, wondering if my ovaries had already squandered the best I had to offer. After all these years of waiting, could there be any Faberges left in those baskets?

I cannot say whether this experience is necessarily different for younger women—even if you have years to try, the desire for something now is undeniably powerful—but I can say that because of my age I was intensely aware of the passage of time. Each month started a new cycle of hope and possibility, ending with the depressing red proof that we needed to try again. As an academic, I thought research might help me cope with my anxiety, so I started scouring the Internet and library shelves for insights on how to help us conceive. I turned to nutrition and altered my eating habits, grabbing more leafy greens, choosing the organic strawberries to avoid pesticides and increase my intake of iron—I even considered swallowing those slimy-looking oysters for their amazing doses of zinc. I turned to science and learned how to listen to my body, charting cervical fluid to maximize our peek conception days, peering at saliva under a tiny microscope to judge by the ferning patterns when I would be ovulating, starting each morning with a thermometer under my tongue to count the twelve days of elevated temperature in my luteal phase (the time between ovulation and the start of menstruation). When I grew tired of playing science fair, I read through on-line forums written by other women trying to conceive (or TTC, as they put it), and as I learned to decipher their comments about their DHs (dear husbands), the abhorrent AF (Aunt Flow), and their “angel babies” (miscarriages, like mine), I found myself wishing them “sticky thoughts” (i.e., hoping that a fertilized egg would implant). But none of this research got us any closer to success—instead of sticky thoughts we were just stuck.

The other downside of my obsessive researching was that it made me hyper-vigilant, prompting me to analyze each little creak in the settling house of my body and to wonder, “Could that be a sign that I’m pregnant?” It is amazing how many pregnancy symptoms the imagination can conjure in the two week wait between ovulation and menstruation, particularly considering that few women actually sense any definitive symptoms at such an early stage. Rationally I knew I couldn’t know anything until I menstruated or not in roughly two weeks, but that didn’t keep me from spending the intervening days reading pregnancy web sites to review, yet again, those indeterminate early signs.

What I hated was being on the far side of the moon; in those early years of space exploration, the astronaut’s wives had had to wait forty-five heart-rending minutes to hear whether their husbands would return triumphant to earth or shoot off into space. I knew I shouldn’t compare my uncertainty to theirs (if it doesn’t work this month, we would always say, at least we can try again!) but being out of communication range with my uterus for two whole weeks was almost too much to bear. My body couldn’t divulge its secrets yet, and so I would have to wait, wait for a chemical message to leak its way out and eventually whisper its news to the smiling face on the pee stick. If only conception could be like one of those carnival games, I wrote in my journal, something that flashes neon and immediately blares a congratulatory siren to announce that you’ve won—bull’s eye! You flipped the frog onto the lily pad, you whacked the mole, you toppled the cans, you smacked that yellow haired clown in the kisser, you scored big! Winner! Winner! Winner! But instead, you have to sit in the silence of the waiting room, trying to get your mind off your body, and preparing yourself for good or ill. My research had told me there’s a 20-25% chance of getting pregnant each month you try, and suddenly I found those odds remarkably slim.

This sobering realization did not take long to impress itself on us. In the months after the missed AB, we kept trying to conceive, but I seemed burdened by the feeling that I needed to make up for lost time. I think I had placed too much emphasis on a single square on the calendar: I was determined to be pregnant again by my original due date, for if not, what was the point of having lost the first pregnancy? I had some sort of idea about the balance of the universe, the fairness of things: well of course I needed to be pregnant by the due date, otherwise there wouldn’t have been any reason for the first pregnancy to have ended. But there was no point to the missed AB, I reminded myself; it happened, without malicious intent, without the desire to punish us or hurt us or make room for someone else.

We even learned that the missed AB was caused by a chromosomal abnormality called Turner syndrome, in which a misalignment in early cell division leaves the baby with only one set of chromosomes instead of the usual two, one each from mom and dad. Turner syndrome is not related to maternal age and does not suggest any problem with the parents’ ability to conceive again; it just happens, and most of the time, as with us, these babies spontaneously abort. All this information was mildly encouraging—the loss was still hard to bear, but at least I understood the science behind it and that science suggested we still had hope of conceiving a healthy child.

I found myself thinking of the mother goose in E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web: when asked why she had seven chicks but eight eggs, the goose simply replies that the last one hadn’t hatched. “I guess it was a dud,” she says and lets Templeton the rat take it off to add to his horde of random treasures. It may sound a bit callous to shrug off that unhatched egg as a dud, but at the same time there’s an honest recognition of life in that statement. I wouldn’t call our first time around a dud, but I did realize that I had to accept the loss and move on with life. I had placed too much significance on getting pregnant by my due date, as if that would negate the pain. My deadline, though understandable emotionally, was arbitrary, and I hoped that once it was passed, I could relax and trust nature to do its work.

But no, soon years had gone by and with conception still evading us, I began to marvel that anyone ever makes it through to birth. The alchemy of our existence is mind-boggling. Just think of all the complications that can happen in that rapid nine-month growth spurt, not to mention the odds of starting the journey in the first place—transmuting lead into gold seems a much more likely prospect. I couldn’t help thinking of all the warnings we had been told as teenage girls that it only takes one time… Twenty years later, I wished pregnancy would be that inevitable!

I finally had to confront another unsympathetic medical term: infertility. Just writing that ugly word brings up images of barren, blighted landscapes in my mind when I had hopes, instead, of being a lush and green earth mama. The medical profession doesn’t mince with words: if you’ve tried to conceive for a year without success, you are infertile. That doesn’t mean you’re incapable of conceiving, but it sure sounds like that to a frustrated layperson. At first I couldn’t bring myself to accept such a damning diagnosis; in one of my lower moments, I spent an afternoon in the stacks of the public library reading a book on infertility—I couldn’t bear to check the book out, or even take it to a chair to read in a more comfortable spot, for that would require admitting that I needed such a book. So instead I leaned against the cold metal shelves, turning through the pages and silently crying. What if all our waiting was for naught?  Each year of trying our chances of conceiving were probably plummeting, and perhaps some day all the obsessive scrawlings in my pregnancy journal would amount to nothing more than a record of frustrations and lost hopes.

Given my intense longing, it surprises me how long we waited to visit fertility specialists. Perhaps our optimism kept us pushing off that trip, hoping that this last try would be the one; we both believed that what would be would be, and we told ourselves that if we never managed to conceive, we would find another way to have children in our lives. I liked to joke about a baby dropping from the sky, our own little Kryptonian we could raise as our own and whose secret powers we would hide from the world; a tiny part of me held out hope that perhaps that’s how this quest would truly end! But perhaps we were also frightened off by that bleak word “infertile,” unwilling to claim that name for ourselves.

We waited a year after I got a referral from my OB-GYN, treating that little slip of paper like an emergency button, a last resort, something we would only press when all our other hopes were dashed. When we finally did seek help, we were relieved to find out that nothing was actually “wrong” physically, so the doctors set out instead to speed our chances of fertilization. At first they gave me Clomid, an ingestible medication that stimulates the growth of multiple eggs instead of the usual one per month; when that didn’t work, they upped the dosage, and when that still didn’t work we moved on to Follistim, a more aggressive injectable medication. Every month we’d go through a new cycle of blood tests, fertility drugs, ultrasound, IUI (intrauterine insemination), and then a two-week wait before we started again. It finally felt like we were gaining some traction, but it still took a year of these medical interventions before the wait was over: for the first time since the missed AB, I was pregnant.

Of course, that’s when I remembered that in life the wait is never really over; we just move from waiting for one thing to waiting for the next. In the first few months of pregnancy my anxiety did not subside; if anything, the waiting between doctor’s appointments became even more intense. Perhaps I was still so shaken by the missed AB that I could not wrap my head around the idea that a baby could thrive inside of me. All my earlier research had consoled me with the assurance that many fetuses spontaneously abort in the first trimester; before the days of home pregnancy tests, many women wouldn’t even know for certain if they had been pregnant or if their cycle was just off. Though this information had been mildly comforting the first time around, I did not want that kind of consolatory comfort now. Every time we went to the doctor in the first few weeks I had a nagging fear that the baby would be gone; the first one had slipped silently away, what was to stop this second one from doing the same?

I was in a new kind of waiting zone, wanting to leap up and down with joy but still unwilling to let myself get my hopes up too high. I must have been one of the only crazy pregnant women longing for unpleasant symptoms rather than the subtle “maybe I am, maybe I’m not” discomforts I was experiencing. Why couldn’t I just do something dramatic, I wondered, like throw up in the middle of class? That would be pretty solid evidence that the baby was still there, and would certainly give my students an interesting story to write about.

But though my symptoms were relatively mild, this pregnancy stuck, and soon we had passed the day of the infamous nuchal transparency test, the one that had sent us spiraling all those years ago, and then the day of the full body scan, where we could see a little well-formed skeleton and a blithely beating heart. With each new scan the baby grew bigger, and with each new week its movements became more pronounced, more reliable, more like the blaring carnival games I had mused about years before as we struggled to conceive. Those nine months were still a long wait, but the nagging doubts gradually gave way to more hopeful anticipations. Our daughter even kept us waiting in the end, arriving a week after her due date, but by that point I was more than willing to overlook the slight delay.

Looking back over my journals I vividly remember the strain of our continual wait; as a woman steadily getting closer to 40 and thinking that her chances of conceiving were slipping away, my voice in those journals sways back and forth between optimism and dejection, between a Pollyanna-ish determination that all would work out well to an angry resentment that everyone on the planet seemed to be popping out babies except us.

Now that we’re out of the waiting room, it would seem like I could just close that book and move on—our daughter is a gift who keeps surprising us with joy every day and we’re so delighted we kept trying through all the disappointments. But that is all the more reason to share the story, because these stories are the often unspoken histories behind the children we bring into the world. My mother told me at one point that we don’t usually hear about the long struggle couples go through to have a baby; those stories can be full of pain and longing, uncertainty and embarrassment, jealousy and despair, and if we’re lucky enough to conceive and bring a healthy child to term, we focus on that shining narrative, not the murky days before. But just as our long years of waiting are an essential part of my husband’s and my romance, the long years of waiting are also an essential part of my daughter’s story, one that I plan to tell her and that I want to share with others who may be struggling through their own waits. Perhaps we need more often to break the silence of the waiting room, turning to face those couples sitting by us and remembering that while we were all brought here by our private woes, our stories might bring each other solace while we puzzle out why we have to be here and why we choose to stay.

parmiter_taraTara Parmiter received her B.A. in English from Cornell University and her Ph.D. from New York University, where she teaches in the Expository Writing Program. Her research interests include literature and the environment, urban nature writing, children’s literature, and popular culture. She has published on topics ranging from the imagined landscapes of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables novels to the green gothic landscapes of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga to journey narratives in the Muppet movies.

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Selfish, Careerist, Regretful? Not the Childfree Women I Know

In this season’s House of Cards there’s a memorable scene between first lady and VP candidate, Claire Underwood and the presidential opponent’s wife, Hannah. The two  women are sitting across from one another drinking coffee in the White House residence and although they are on opposing sides, they are finding common ground around gun control and making the role of the first lady meaningful. Hannah manages to soften the normally rigid Claire by telling her she is a role model and that if she wins she’ll make an excellent vice president.

This moment of female bonding is interrupted when Hannah’s son jumps up and loudly asks for a drink. When Claire says that Hannah’s son is cute, Hannah unthinkingly ask Claire if she regrets not having kids. Claire’s stony face makes Hannah immediately apologize for asking a question that she admits is “too personal.” Claire pauses and responds pointedly in between sips of coffee: “do you regret having them?” And the scene ends.

This scene was so striking for a couple reasons:

First, it brings into sharp focus the assumptions our culture has about women who do not have children: they regret it.

It was actually on an episode of Oprah that I first confronted the powerful narrative of “woman pursues a career and regrets her decision not to have kids when it’s too late.” I was so frightened by this possibility that I remember the moment like you remember where you were when someone important died. I was in my late twenties, lying on my faded couch, hungover, in my Brooklyn apartment watching Oprah. I didn’t typically watch Oprah, but it was the comfort food my hangover brain craved. On Oprah’s stage sat a group of sad women in their forties; whether they were or not, I remember them dressed in suits. These women, in pursuit of their careers, missed the baby train, and they were gathered on stage to share their stories of regret. While I don’t remember their individual stories, the emotional weight of their collective regret stuck with me, and ten years later it motivated me to jump off the fence and get pregnant.

While this narrative helped nudge me in the direction that was right for me, for women who do not have kids it can be painful to have people  assume you live in regret. (See Ambivalent and Grieving and My Mother’s Day Wish.)

Second, the moment between Hannah and Claire depicts the divide between women who have children and women who do not. Perplexed by a woman’s choice to remain childfree in a pronatalist world, many mothers don’t really know how to talk to childfree women and as a result we judge, we say things that are unintentionally disparaging, and we ask questions we shouldn’t ask.

My husband and I both cheered at Claire’s response to Hannah, which  was dubbed a “feminist moment” by Bustle Magazine.

But while her response rang feminist, at another level this show is just reinforcing the confining narratives that exist for childfree women. Claire fits into the stereotype of the cold childless woman whose DNA is sequenced for ambition rather than motherhood. Just as there’s the virgin/whore binary, there’s the mother/ice queen.  As if to emphasize how anti-maternal she is, Claire’s character has had not one, not two, but three abortions. Claire is ruthless in her ambition–while she does not commit, she does condone the murder of people who stand in the way of her and her husband’s ascent to the White House.

So established is the stereotype of the selfish childfree woman that Meghan Daum titles her edited collection of essays of thirteen childfree women writers, Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed to mock the negative stereotype of women who chose careers (in this case creative careers) instead of motherhood. This book shows us that the decision not to have children tends to be responsible rather than selfish. After all, what good does it do a child to have a half-hearted mother? While Daum’s collection turns the selfish stereotype on its head, as a collection of essays by successful women writers, it reinforces a parallel narrative that has emerged: the super successful childfree woman.

This is the story, too, in Hillary Frank’s recent interview of Terry Gross from NPR’s Fresh Air about her decision not to have children on the wonderful podcast the The Longest Shortest Time. Gross explains that she did not have any models for leading a successful career AND having a family, so she decided to pursue a career. She feels that her decision not to have children and pursue her career was a feminist act. I agree. Gross was a maverick.

That said, there was an underlying  if unintentional message in this interview and in Daum’s collection: if you are a woman choosing not to have children then you better be EXTREMELY successful, otherwise, how do you justify your decision? How do you justify your life?

So what roles are available for childfree women?

There’s the spinster and/or cat lady. One of my unmarried childfree friends who LOVES cats actually googled “how many cats can you have before you become a cat lady?” When the answer came back as “three,” she decided not to adopt a third cat.

There’s the successful woman–selfish or not– and she typically dislikes children. Then, there’s the woman who has achieved success but regrets not being a mom.

The stories we tell are powerful. These stories shape us for better or worse  (I had a child and my friend didn’t adopt a third cat), and they shape how we interact with one another. It is always the case that when a group is marginalized or othered, the roles available to individuals in those groups are limited. Acknowledging these limits and checking our assumptions when we interact with people from marginalized groups is a step in the right direction. What else do we need? We need more stories of typical childfree women who are just living their lives.

Sure there are wildly successful childfree career women, and some of them, like Terry Gross, might not want to snuggle babies. Sure there are old, childless women who have houses full of cats. Sure there are women who are consumed with regret for not having kids. But I don’t know these women.

The childfree women I know live rich and meaningful lives. There’s my friend Shoshannah, a metalhead with a black belt in karate, who regularly visits her mother who has had Alzheimer’s for nearly ten years. There’s my friend Melissa, a teacher who adopts and fosters dogs and regularly visits a youth detention center to offer pet therapy. There’s my friend Kerri, STEM teacher of the year and tireless Zumba instructor. There’s my friend Stephanie, writer, editor, bartender, PhD, and trailblazer. There’s my friend Jocelyn, a vegetarian, an animal lover, and  an artful wedding and family photographer whose calming presence enables her to capture genuine moments of connection. There’s my friend and co-editor for MotherShould?, a teacher, writer, knitter, sewer, crafter, perpetual student, and convener of porch nights for a community of friends.

The lives and stories of childfree women I know don’t adhere to the stereotypes yet the narratives persist. Likely, as more and more women make the choice not to have kids, childfree women will be able to just be. And that’s a good thing.

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My Mother’s Day Wish: Being Childfree Accepted as a Cultural Norm

It was Mother’s Day, 2003. On the Sundays when I was at home, I attended the Episcopalian church where I was trying to rebuild my faith and connect to a spiritual community as I had as a kid. I was newly separated, working as an adjunct professor at a prison college program in the evenings after my full-time grant-writing job was finished.

Ushers walked through the sanctuary with flat florist boxes filled with carnations, as the priest, Mother Claire, invited all of the mothers to accept one. I sat in my usual aisle seat, distracting myself with the Book of Common Prayer during this part. When an usher stopped, I shook my head to indicate I was not a mom.

Instead of the moment passing unnoticed, Mother Claire strode over, took a carnation, and thrust it at me.

“But you do mother,” she said. “You are a teacher. You mother your students. You deserve this.”

I was too embarrassed by the attention she drew to me to refuse. The priest had counseled me when my marriage started to dissolve, and she knew that I had been poised to shift my thinking and try to have kids. Her insistence felt like salt in the wound of my failures made more upsetting because I have never believed teaching to be a form of mothering. I took the flower, put it down next to me. Later I shredded the petals, threw them on the ground.

There are so many ways for humans to hurt each other, so many ways for women to undermine each other. This moment seems petty to me when I’m in full buck-up-I’m-a-stoic-New-Englander mode. Other times, though, it enrages me. Once in awhile, it saddens me.

I’ve never been clutched by the all-consuming need to have children; during the times I have wanted them, the prospect was like considering a long-term adventure, one that I felt more confident about with my new husband as my partner in parenting. Ultimately, my husband and I decided not to have children. Even though we consciously came to this decision together, I grieved for months. Once the possibility of motherhood was foreclosed, Mother’s Day went from being neutral to being charged, as it had been that day in church. The year we decided to not become parents, I could not even bear to go to the grocery store for fear of being stung by an innocent cashier wishing me what I would never have. Every time I have to respond to someone that I do not, in fact, have kids–whether I am grieving the decision or not–I am reminded that I am not the norm.

I delight in fixing a festive brunch for my mother and mother-in-law to celebrate them on Mother’s Day. Most years, I can keep my focus on the women most responsible for the life I have now. Most years, I can smile when a cashier says “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Even during those times, though, I chafe at the cultural norm that means a woman of a certain age is assumed to be a mother. A common reaction to my being childfree is pity. Mother Claire’s insistence that I take a flower upset me not only because it felt like betrayal of my trust; her pity was as unwanted as the flower. When a friend who had been trying to conceive shared the good news that she was pregnant, I could see her concern as she told me. She wanted to be kind, to be sensitive, but those well-meant feelings translated into pity, which was far worse than my feeling a moment of remorse that I would never have such news to share. Her pity made my sincere good wishes ring hollow.

I’m an anomaly, though the tide is shifting. By choosing not to have kids, I have chosen, unwittingly, to leave myself open to unsought opinions, bromides, observations, and advice offered, usually, by women who have had kids. Little thought is given to whether I might have wanted kids and couldn’t or if I might have lost a pregnancy or if I weighed the trajectories, considered what I know about myself, and made a decision that allows me to be the human, the woman I want to be.

Let’s start with Mother Claire’s comment that as a teacher, I am a mother. I suppose, seen through the triple goddesses as a lens, a teacher can nurture, and as a childfree woman who seeks knowledge as we–some of us who have been called selfish for pursuing our educations–teachers do, I should accept that title. But I work with young people a few hours a week, sixteen weeks a semester. I’m not guiding their lives. I’m not imbuing them with my core values. I’m teaching revision strategies and passion for communication at best. I would never claim to understand the bond of a mother to her child based on the relationships I have with even the dearest of my students.

When I asked a group of childfree women to tell me what kinds of comments they had heard, one of the common ones, and one I have been told myself, was this: you’ll never know love until you look in your newborn’s eyes. Take your own variation on it.

It’s hard to respond to a statement like that when you aren’t a mom. Maybe I won’t know what love is, or I won’t understand real love, or I won’t ever feel deep love. Since I won’t be a mom, I can’t argue. I can, though, consider what I believe love is, and I can determine if I have felt such a thing for another and from another.

When I was a girl, I once asked my mom how you know you love someone. My mom is not a person who waxes eloquent on such things–I come by my stoic-New-Englander persona honestly. But that day, as we sat at the kitchen table, she patted the two hand towels in front of her. See, every day my mom washed my dad’s hair in the kitchen sink and then washed her own. The towels would wrap their heads until they dried their hair.

“Every day, I put out the towels, and I put the nicer one on top for daddy to use,” my mom said. “And every day, when my hands are wet and I grab a towel for him, he’s moved the shabbier one to the top so I’ll have the nicer one. That’s how you know you love someone.”

That daily moment between my parents echoes what the founder of Mother’s Day in the United States wanted to celebrate. Ann Jarvis’s intent was to honor the sacrifices a mother makes for her child. Ultimately, it is this willingness to help another person be their best, to give them our own best, that makes me believe I do know what love is, even without a child.

I am not opposed to Mother’s Day. The shift I long for is not simple. It isn’t that I want people to avoid the sentiment of celebrating mothers as a way to avoid hurting women who aren’t mothers. True, I, and many of my childfree friends, have often been made to feel uncomfortable, like something apart, something not normal because of our choices. Rather, I long for a shift where the decision to not have children is considered as valid as the decision to have children.

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