Tagged childless

The Facts of Life: an Interview with Paula Knight

Editors’ note: Dr. Elizabeth Starr recently interviewed graphic memoirist Paula Knight about her new book. Read on to learn more!

Paula Knight’s graphic memoir The Facts of Life is a powerful example of women’s work in autobiographical comics.  Recounting her childhood in Northeast England, The Facts of Life explores how we form expectations about fertility that then shape our adult lives.  Knight’s work illustrates the experience of miscarriage and living with ME/CFS/Fibromyalgia and offers alternative ways of valuing women’s lives beyond motherhood.  We’re grateful that she took the time to talk with MotherShould?.

ES: You studied Graphic Design and Illustration in college and have been writing and drawing professionally for many years. Did applying those skills to a graphic memoir about fertility and womanhood seem like a natural step—how did that come about?

PK: It was perhaps an odd step to go from illustrating children’s books to writing a book about not having children. Of course, some of those skills were transferable – certainly in terms of being able to structure and craft a cohesive narrative with so much information to juggle. My growing interest in graphic novels just so happened to coincide with the time in my life when I was trying for children (and ensuing problems), and it soon became the medium I wanted to use to tell my story, especially when I realised that other women my age were creating autobiographical comics. I began to read many more graphic novels about tricky autobiographical subject matter, especially health-related, and this made me feel that there might be an audience for my work in this medium. I also entered Myriad Editions’ (my UK publisher) First Graphic Novel Competition in 2011, and an extract from my book reached the shortlist the following year. This gave me the confidence to get on with the job after many years of ‘starting’ my book!

from “The Facts of Life” by Paula Knight, 2017

ES: There is so much silence surrounding the experiences both of dealing with miscarriage and living with a chronic illness, and there seems to be a lot of blame assigned to bodies when they aren’t working perfectly.  Your comics, for example, draw our attention to the language of carelessness or failure that is often used to describe miscarriage.  Chronic illness can also bring on feelings of self-condemnation or doubt, especially when there’s a delay in getting a clear diagnosis.  Do you think we tend to treat miscarriage and chronic illness in similar ways?  What was difficult or liberating in trying to break these silences?

PK: Yes, there appears to be just as much stigma surrounding the illness ME/CFS as there is around miscarriage, although the roots of the stigma are different. ME is a highly misunderstood invisible illness and miscarriage suffers its shroud of silence – possibly connected to shame around women’s bodily functions, and our fear of blood and death. There are also similarities such as feeling desperate to know the cause, and wanting a cure, when medicine can’t tell you what’s wrong or provide treatment, for example. Then, in absence of a satisfactory answer, the next step is to blame oneself. That vacuum also serves as a gaping receptacle for ignorant unsolicited opinions of others, unfortunately – if there is any room left in there alongside all the self-blame: Everyone gets tired; You can always try again, etc. It’s safe to say that neither miscarriage nor ME/CFS are patients’ fault – they are health issues that medicine doesn’t (yet) know how to treat fully. I try to fill some of that vacuum with comics, which, with its unique interplay of words, pictures and panels, is a medium well-placed to tackle subject matter that has traditionally been unspoken. I felt tentative about sharing the work online at first, but ultimately it was very connecting, and it encouraged conversations I would never have had otherwise. It felt very gratifying to receive emails telling me that my work has expressed something on behalf of people who was unable to.

ES: The Facts of Life makes such a persuasive argument that we could all benefit from getting out from under the sway of pronatalism: what are the things that help you do that?

PK: I’m interested in wildlife and the natural world. Environmental issues and the idea of the Anthropocene (the point in time at which human existence on earth is said to have caused ecological damage beyond repair) go a long way to comfort me over the fact that I didn’t have children. Human population growth is the greatest threat to the wellbeing of our planet and to our very own existence on it. I have a growing interest in organisations such as Population Matters and Eradicating Ecocide. Having said that, I’m not anti-natal either – I think extreme policies either way are a threat to reproductive rights (extreme pronatal policy might involve limiting access to abortion and contraception, for example). Of course I still have times of grief over not having children, and no doubt my child would surely have been a brilliant scientist who discovered new ways to feed everyone without harming ecosystems…. I also planted some trees as a memorial to the child I didn’t have. It seemed like a positive thing to do – trees last longer than people and are far more beneficial to the environment. The ritual of doing this helped immensely in our grief, too, so win-win!

ES: Some of the most powerful visual scenes in this graphic memoir depict how the ability or the inability to have children shapes the way people talk to you at parties or at work.  These casual encounters can happen so quickly, but can be so traumatic.  What do you want to say about how to talk to people who don’t or can’t have children?

EK: Perhaps we could try to steer clear of the more direct and intrusive questions. I understand that for people with children these conversations can be very connecting, but you don’t need a degree in psychology to read between the lines. Perhaps try more open-ended ice-breakers, such as: How are you?; What have you been up to recently?; Did you see Game of Thrones this week?; Where do you come from?; or How do you know *person*? This gives more scope to steer a conversation away from talk about children and avoid the risk of opening up raw wounds for someone who is hoping to have a nice relaxing evening out. Never ask why someone didn’t have children, or offer unsolicited advice. I wouldn’t ask someone why they didn’t ever do X job; or why they don’t own a bigger house, or have a partner, for example. Why didn’t you ever succeed in becoming an astronaut – whatever went wrong there? Why don’t you try buying a space suit and jumping up and down on a trampoline instead? Having said that, there was a very clever lad at my school who wanted to be an astronomer, and I would really like to know if he made it. It’s natural to be curious, but you don’t have the right to know personal details about someone’s fertility problems – and that’s what you might find yourself inadvertently poking around in when you ask someone if they have children.

ES: Do you have any advice for women who “can’t draw” but might want to after reading your book?

PK: I don’t believe in ‘can’t draw’ – anyone can! You don’t have to be a trained artist to draw – you weren’t when you were a child, after all. You didn’t care if it looked right then, so why now? It’s still possible to communicate an idea or emotion using stick figures or very simple drawings. Don’t let draughtsmanship, and not being able to represent subject matter accurately, put you off. It’s good to carry a small sketchbook and pen/pencil around at all times and that way you can fit in some drawing whenever the opportunity arises – in a café, work canteen, or on the train etc. Drawing from observation in this way is great practice, and you’ll never forget an idea if you always have a sketchbook or notebook with you.

Learn more about Paula’s work at her website, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

 

 

 

Elizabeth Starr teaches writing and literary study at Westfield State University. Her academic work brings nineteenth-century narrative techniques into conversation with contemporary literature, specifically in terms of how we tell stories about illness. She is especially interested in writers who open up new ways of thinking about illness and health in their creative work.

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Depression or a Child?

Sheri McCord explores how long-term mental illness has impacted her decision-making around motherhood. 

It was the early 90s, Kurt Cobain was on MTV Unplugged, and I was a teenager. I was hospitalized for overdosing on medication for the first of two times in my life. I met someone while in the hospital who was living with postpartum depression. I watched her sob as her husband yelled at her in front of us, patients. He was an Alan Thicke look-alike, and she was diminutive, brunette, and fragile—a scared bird with hollow bones. Alan was questioning her, “Why did you do this to us? Why? Can’t you even give an answer? Why?” He stood there over her, holding both of their sons, one clearly the latest baby, and the other about two-years old. While she sat hunched at a table, he seemed to lord the now-crying babies over her while continuing to badger. She could not hold her littlest one, and I thought that she might have wanted to, but she just couldn’t. He could not understand, and her continuous crying infuriated him. It was the kind of quiet sobbing we do when we don’t want to attract attention.

Ten years later, when I considered having children, I remembered this woman, and I imagined myself in this same state.

Postpartum depression is only one of the reasons why I am afraid to have children.  

Depression is in my genes. Born in 1927 and brought up during the Great Depression, my dad had all the qualities of someone extremely depressed while also being paranoid and anxious and an alcoholic. He was explosively violent oftentimes to my mom and half-siblings and verbally abusive to us all. Children were to be seen and not heard, so in one of his lectures, he told a very stoic, steely eleven-year-old me that I “wouldn’t make nothing of myself” because I’d “have a baby in eighth grade and have to drop out.” This “pep talk” eventually drove me to do well in school. But he didn’t believe in “book learnin’” or psychology for that matter. Therapy was never brought up in our house, even when I began to throw books around my room in anger and sleep all day and night.  

I eventually did get therapy. I’ve been prescribed every drug on the planet for depression and anxiety as well as snapping a rubber band on my wrist when I had negative thoughts. Eventually, I realized the rubber band method was actually punishing myself.

My psychiatrists finally figured out my medicine, and I acknowledge the tremendous time and patience of trial-and-error for both patient and physician that takes place to find a suitable cocktail. After a few years, I plateau, and then I usually need to find something else. That trial-and-error period is frightening since I do not know how I will respond to the new drugs, or if I will be pulled into a deep depression with no getting out of bed. This uncertainty contributes to my reluctance to have a child.

My mom first saw a difference in me at eleven during menarche. The joy was sucked out of me, she said. I used to be such a happy child. From then on, I was a worrier. Suicidal thoughts have run through my mind since I was 17. They still occur today but they’re more like those annoying pop-up ads on the web; they stick around for a few seconds until I click “off” and then I’m back to whatever I was doing.  

Though I’m not suicidal, living with depression has kept me from attending class or work when I had no energy to get out of bed. I have been bed-bound for weeks at a time and unable to focus, read, or remember what I did day-to-day. A panic attack once sent me to the campus counseling center because I was so worried about the discussion in my Chaucer class. Most of the time, I am just trying to make it, much less form a complex thought about Middle Age poetry.  But I still managed to get through three degree programs and earn a Ph.D.

Some might look at me and wonder if I just didn’t choose school or a career over children, but I can tell you it is much more than that. Depression can be all-consuming. Depression is selfish, taking away time, motivation, and energy. Many of my relationships, and one marriage, have failed because of depression, anxiety, or a combo.

Sometimes the pressure to have a child is too much but how am I supposed to raise a baby when I feel like that baby is constantly me? I’m always monitoring my mood, and more specifically, my anxiety and level of energy. I was and still am raising myself. I know I am living with depression and anxiety and who knows what else, and I just can’t see bringing another human being into my world.

head-shot_mccord-1Sheri McCord writes creative nonfiction, studies seventeenth-century literature, and continues to research literature, medicine, and early modern perceptions of the body. She began her teaching career in 2001 and graduated with a Ph.D. in English in 2010. She has taught across the St. Louis, Missouri, area and currently is a writing consultant at Saint Louis University writing center.

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I Choose My Husband Again, and Again, Despite Our Childlessness

From the Editors: Writer Sylvie Beauvais explores the complexity of remaining with a beloved partner who does not share a desire to parent.

In June, I went sea kayaking in a bio-luminescent bay in Puerto Rico with my husband. We shared a two-seater kayak: he sat in the front of the boat and I sat in the back. There were other couples in other boats. As the sun set, we navigated the mangrove in the near total dark guided by the tiny amber lights at the sterns and bows, marking our group of boats. This seemed like the ultimate metaphor for marriage—navigating by faith, in the dark, with partial information, but with the support of a chosen companion.

Neither of us had ever been in a sea kayak. In the dark. In a bay. Surrounded by other uncertain boaters. All of us in couple formation. As sometimes happens in group settings, it was remarkably easy to make snap judgments about the other couples navigating the waters and their way of paddling together.

I could see couples with power struggles—one partner dominating. There were couples that couldn’t coordinate their paddling, their boats getting stuck in the low hanging mangrove trees. There was one boat where the man ignored his resigned wife’s cries and the directions of our guides, speeding ahead, somewhat out of control, constantly ramming other boats. Some boats moved slowly, but worked well together.

What my husband couldn’t see was that our paddling strokes were even and perfectly synced, that we were moving in harmony better than any other couple sharing a boat in our group. We both have broad shoulders, and now I realized our arms were the same length, so our paddles reached the water at the same time. We were moving quickly and efficiently, harmoniously, and he didn’t know. Another metaphor for marriage: each partner has different information about why the couple works or doesn’t work.

Ours is a childless marriage. My husband set this boundary to our relationship. What follows are my struggles. My husband is a private man which I will do my best to honor here.

At four a.m. in Washington DC, our first sleepless night in a friend’s guest room, I turn to my husband and want to ask him a question I have never previously envisioned through all our conversations about children.

“Honey, I have a hard question to ask you and you don’t have to answer right now.”

“I’m not in the best mood.” We have spent several uncomfortable hours tossing and turning in a strange bed.

I know my timing’s not great, “Okay, I won’t ask.”

My husband is patient with me, he breathes in and then exhales. He says, “You can ask.”

“If you knew I wanted children, why did you stay?”

I’m turned towards him in bed and he is looking up at the ceiling. His face is in shadow. My arm is draped over his chest. He says nothing for a few breaths, thinking. I consider what I know about us. I answer for him, “I think the short answer is that we love each other.”

He turns towards me and says “Yes, and I guess I felt it was your decision to make, whether to stay or go.”

In the moment I feel the sadness he must have felt, not knowing what I would choose. But this exchange also reminds me how inconceivable the choice to go has always seemed–how once my heart opened to this beautiful partner, it felt impossible to go. I lay in the bed a little sad, but also feeling the wholeness of my love: how large and generous the experience of loving him makes me feel.

After a moment of silence, he turns to me, looks at me and says, “That’s a nice hat.” I’m wearing my sleep mask on my forehead.

I answer, “It’s the required fashion accessory for sleepless nights.”

He says, “It’s true, I have noticed the actors wearing it in all the ads for sleepless nights.”

We laugh together and the sadness fades, and all I can feel is his chest hair tickling my forearm as he breathes and his warm leg along mine. In the moment what I feel is the certainty that I am in love, and it suffices; it feels vast. After I write about this exchange, I share the text with him and we cry together, holding each other tenderly.

We have had many conversations over many years. When I met him he was ambivalent and I was neutral to positive on children; I was a little unsure. My desire for children always hinged on finding a partner who was enthusiastic about the idea. Forcing someone ambivalent to have children is to me ethically repugnant and deeply unfair to both partner and imaginary child.

In our years together, I kept hoping his ambivalence would resolve and the vastness of our love would answer his questions and make him curious. No one moment felt like the decisive moment where the conversation about children ended. I stayed a little blindly hopeful and he was steadfast. During all that time in conversation, our love grew. As our love grew, we also got older. Thirty-eight when we met, I am now 44, closer to 45, and from a fertility standpoint the question is essentially moot. I never wanted the path of medical intervention for procreation. In the heat of our discussions after I had moved in, when I was 40 or 41, I tried to imagine leaving, finding a new partner, falling in love and trying to get pregnant. I thought that this path would be a time consuming gamble: by the time New Partner might be ready to commit to parenting, my fertility would be unsure. And then, as today, letting go of this love was inconceivable. Love is partly timing.

When I found myself praying to Aphrodite for a partner seven years ago when I was 37, I did not know that I would receive exactly what I asked for: the love of my life. Our childlessness is the most difficult choice I have ever made. I am deeply in love and also frequently (but bearably) in pain wishing our relationship could encompass parenting. It is a delicate, excruciating tension. I embrace the joy and fulfillment of being partnered with someone I deeply respect, truly enjoy, and with whom I share ecstasy, intellectual stimulation, and travel. We continue our conversation. The person who causes me the most existential tension (my loving husband who doesn’t want kids) is the person who comforts me through my tears and helps me laugh. Despite its sorrows, the mantle of our love sometimes feels magical, both protective and reparative.

The choice to stay, to love, to share my life with this person is made anew with varying frequency. I make the choice again and again, knowingly, in regret and in celebration. My husband’s definition of parenting is narrower than mine. I would parent by any means possible, fostering included. I do not require a biological offspring where he would. This gives me more options and I have considered them. Yet, I do not leave and go find a divorcee with children so I can step-mom.

The choices I embrace are to be my spouse’s partner, and to spend time with all the young mothers in my circle. Living with children in my life, but not my children, sometimes renews my grief but also gives me the joy of children’s company. I previously spent some time as a child therapist, so for a childless woman I am unusually comfortable around kids, and enjoy their humor, curiosity, and tenderness. Parents often notice, and frequently remark upon, my ease with children. Each comment tugs at the old familiar twinge in my heart. Then I go about the business of enjoying the moment and being present with the children. This weekend I was introduced to Ever After High characters by an enthusiastic six year old. She wanted me to help her find the evil queen’s lost shoe. At the end of each day with children, I go home with my husband. I enjoy the quiet. I might shed some tears. But I get a sound night sleep.

I’m not sure how all of this will play out in the end, the subtle wear and tear on my marriage. But I also feel writing this essay has helped me heal my heart, say what needed to be said, look clear eyed at the past, how I made the choices that brought me to this moment.

I keep rowing in the dark watching my husband’s graceful movements–so grateful for his presence. Sometimes, the grief is small, light as a feather, and sometimes it is a tornado. The tornadoes have been fewer lately. Writing helps. Feather or tornado, I love my husband and continue to be nourished by the wonder of this primary relationship.

Sylvie Beabeauvaisuvais lives in Philadelphia. She is a writer and psychotherapist who writes fiction, personal essays and reflections on social work.  She received her Master of Liberal Arts and her Master of Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania. She blogs about life, travel, and writing at www.sylviewrites.com, and likes to post to instagram.

 

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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My Brood is a Bike Team

From the editors: Writer Bridget Crenshaw Mabunga chronicles her transition from childless to childfree and shares how she funnels her nurturing energy into an at-risk youth bike team.

The doctor says if we conceive naturally, “You’d better name the baby Jesus, cause it’ll be a miracle.” We laugh, an authentic response to a good joke. I don’t feel the bruised ribs until later.

No IVF: I don’t want to shoot myself in the ass, nor do I want to see myself hopped up on hormones. Even for the chance to feel it flip inside my belly. No Donor: I cannot find anyone good enough in the pages and pages of bios though there’re plenty with straight black hair, sepia skin, smarts like his. I can’t find one because the only one I want is sitting next to me. He holds my hand as I search and feels more disposable with each click. No Adoption: I peruse sites and blogs languishing over all I’ve got to learn, all I’ve got to earn in order to make one of these unwanted babies mine. Forty thousand and a high risk of drug addiction in utero. I put the computer to sleep.

All my friends get pregnant. My sister first, in fact she announces just after I’ve learned I can’t. Her belly bubbles up expanding every month until I can no longer enter the room. I neglect calls, texts, visits. But I host the shower at my house, fill it with baby blues and ribbon. Family gathers and swoons as she thanks everyone for welcoming her into the world of motherhood. I sink behind my camera.

Each month I wonder, will we get a baby Jesus? If we do, I’m not naming it Jesus. I am not religious, don’t look to a book or a prayer, just wonder if I’ll ponder this same question until my body no longer releases, until after all the petals drop. Boobs swell so heavy, so sore I know this time might be it. My period’s late, so I look for swollen nipples, glowing cheeks, stomach gurgles. This happens so many times I think I might become hysterically pregnant like Percival Everett’s protagonist’s mother, only she actually gave birth.

My mom and his mom envelop me with words: it’s best; you’d never write; your relationship will change, maybe get ruined; you’ll never have time for him. My sister, bouncing on yoga ball, eye bags practically resting on shoulders, sweet crying baby boy thrashing in arms: You’ll be the one to help all of us struggling moms; we’ll appreciate it so much; besides, there’s your writing. And my husband: I’m fine with it; I don’t even want kids, too much responsibility; we can travel, take off whenever we want; besides, we have Maverick. Not one person pressures me to procreate in whatever fashion necessary; in fact, they all seem to think it’s better I don’t. Which makes me worry.

Bellies swell and swaddled babies land in my arms almost weekly, it seems. Friends try IVF, miscarry, try again, succeed. I re-consider, refuse again. Friends get pregnant naturally and miscarry; part of me feels vindicated. They want it more than I, so they try until they succeed. But seeing the struggle keeps them in my corner until they enter the land I never will, the club outside which I’ll always sit waiting until they’re ready to play again.

It takes four years to settle into a regular thought: I’m glad we don’t have kids. This is not an angry thought. It’s an honest one. Too many nights I’m home alone. Who would save me from the tantrums? Too many evenings I settle into the computer, create worlds. Who would put the kid to bed? Sometimes I can barely remember to feed Maverick.

Then, my ten year-old nephew passes away, and my family spends a week in a house together, calling friends, planning the funeral, sleeping on air mattresses, huddling in one room so none has to be alone. After the funeral, Bob and I return to a too-empty home. I see Thomas in my dream; he stands next to my bed, reaches out. I try to go back to work but have to walk out of class during a lesson, tears spilling over. My students give me an air plant and a card. I try not to cry again. When the quiet becomes too much, my husband volunteers us to help with the floundering Sacramento Police Department bike team, which serves teenage racers cold cereal for lunch while the wealthier kids, flanked by parents and well-paid coaches, walk by in matching jerseys eating multilayered sandwiches.

I become the mother of nine all at once. Nine teenagers, all boys but one: the princess my husband had always hoped for. I love the girl like I love the boys; though none seem particularly fond of me. Yet I’m more than fond of them because I know their struggles, recognize their emptiness as familiar. At-risk they call them; help support, mentor, keep active, keep out of gangs, expose to new possibilities. I write these words over and over as I seek money, hope they grant my kids bikes, helmets, socks. The other kids ride $10,000 Specialized; ours ride Frankenstein bikes that break down causing DNF’s and tears.

Sometimes I feel crushed by the gaps: money, poverty, drugs, gangs, holes in shoes. Some days I want to quit because I can never do enough. But then another race looms on the horizon and I rally. I assign duties, quiz them on the big three, tape Goos to handle bars, give pep talks and push-ups. But mostly, I make lunch. I chop and slice and lay out massive quantities of fruit and turkey burgers. I promise turkey tastes just like beef, hide the cookies until they’ve raced and push oranges over extra cheese. They do not seem to care. They barely look me in the eye, ignore me until I stand in front of them.

But when they fall, I’m there. And they do fall; they crash, flip over bikes, slam helmeted-heads into trees, collect rocks in knees, slice arms and fingers. On the way to the hospital, I have to call their mothers.

Yet, every other Sunday throughout the season, I am their mother. I know who’s been to prom; I know who wants to sit next to whom in the van; I know who likes grapes; I know who really wants to finish the race and who’s being too easy on himself—and I call him out.

I also protect them. When she crashed and it came through on the radio, I ran half way around the eight mile course to find her. I didn’t find her, but something told me to turn my head at the exact moment she came racing down the hill through the finish. I saw that green blur and knew she’d recovered, faced her fear.

I cheered him on as he shot down the hill—before the rock. He tumbled over and slammed down, got back up and raced away. I ran to the other side of the course to capture his arrival. Instead, he stumbled off his bike, face sheet-white. I called for a medic, followed him to the tent, patted his leg and pretended not to notice the tears.

Now, I occasionally wonder if by some bizarre chance, I might get a baby Jesus. Mostly, though, I’m thankful I don’t; if I did, I’d no longer have time for the team. Who would notice the slight intonation of an argument about to begin? When they call each other names, who would challenge them to appreciate difference, to work as a team, to be better than they were last week?

Working with these kids has allowed me to nurture in a way I never imagined possible, filling a gap in me and a gap in them. I’ve discovered parenting is more than birthing and raising a child, and that’s gratifying. So to those who continue to ask when, not if, we’ll have kids, I say: Let that miracle baby grace someone else’s nest, for mine is chock full of teenagers.

 

 

BridgetMabungaBridget Mabunga earned an MA in Creative Writing from Sacramento State, where she won a Bazanella award for graduate creative nonfiction, and her work has appeared in Under the Gum Tree and Kartika Review and is included in the 2012-2013 Kartika Review anthology. She’s been a featured reader at True Story, Sacramento and Assistant Editor for Narrative Magazine for over four years. She’s currently a Writing Specialist at UC Davis and recently finished her first novel manuscript.  

Photo credit: Madeloni Photography

 

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Choosing Under Pressure

From the editors: Shoshannah Flach explores the circumstances of the “terrible and tough choice” she made to end a pregnancy, a choice she does not regret.

I stared at the plastic wand in my hand. It confirmed what I’d suspected for the last week since my reliable period hadn’t arrived and my body had been vaguely “off.”

“fuckfuckFUCK!” I screamed a string of involuntary expletives. Why don’t they show scenes like THIS in those pregnancy test commercials? Surely they are just as common as the couples sharing a moment of joy.

After a few rounds of deep breathing I faced my next hurdle. I had to call my boyfriend and break the news to him.

After a decade of disappointing dating, I was ecstatic to have a boyfriend. When we became a couple I made it clear that I didn’t think that having kids was for me. He acknowledged that he was unlikely to ever be financially stable enough for a family.

A year into the relationship, a romantic getaway weekend led to sloppy contraceptive practices. I absolutely did not want the responsibility of a child now. I’d moved into my own apartment a few months before, right after moving my mother into a care facility where others would be responsible for her advancing Alzheimer’s disease. I needed some freedom. When I told my boyfriend that I thought it was best for me to have an abortion, he was upset, but I didn’t realize how upset.

At my boyfriend’s house—my stomach clenched, expecting an uncomfortable conversation. He handed me a bag with my personal items and a lengthy “Dear Jane” letter explaining why he couldn’t be with a woman who would have an abortion. I was stunned. I implored him to reconsider. He was adamant. Presented with his ultimatum I said I’d consider other options to try and preserve my connection with him.

Was it in my nature to not want kids?

I once asked my dad if he felt like he was missing out on grandchildren. He assured me he didn’t mind, but his follow-up comments surprised me.

“I never thought you’d have children anyway. You never played with dolls. Other girls your age did, but you didn’t like them.”

That rang true. As a child, I was a tomboy with interests in nature and science. My main playmate was a boy with snakes and iguanas as pets. Our games involved Star Wars action figures, Dungeons and Dragons figurines, and (despite my peacenik mom’s strenuous objections) realistic toy firearms.

I became sexually active early in my teen years but fortunately I was as diligent about birth control as I was about maintaining my 4.0 GPA. College was a dating dead zone until I met my first Serious Boyfriend in my third year. He was from a “normal” middle class family with four older siblings—all married with kids. We stayed together for most of my 20s and when friends started to get hitched and have kids I panicked at the idea of following this path and we split up.

My 30s were a time of exploration and acceptance, both in relationships and (mostly) out of them. As I developed my own pursuits and interests, I made friends with a wide variety of women, many of them childless by choice. Some had partners, some did not. Even the women with children were following varied paths. It was easier for me to accept that having kids wasn’t important to me as I saw how important it was for my friends who did want them. Dating was even more frustrating for them as they raced against the reproductive clock.

At 39, faced with this unintended pregnancy, I paced the floor, agonizing over the decision during phone calls with patient and supportive friends. I knew that giving up a child for adoption had emotionally wrecked my mother and others I’d talked with.  Nor did I want to have a baby with a man with dubious capacity for responsibility. I could potentially end up relying on my own extended family for help raising the child—a pattern I did not want to replicate.

Or was it nurture that led me to not want kids?
Despite my maternal grandmother’s oft-stated belief that single mothers were the bane of society, three of her four daughters ended up having kids without establishing family units of their own and stayed at home to raise their kids as single moms.  My mom chose not to marry my father and I was collectively raised by my aunts and grandparents. We eventually moved out, but always lived close by. Two of my aunts raised children in the house at various times, and later on, my older cousin escaped an abusive marriage and relied on the family for supporting her children. While there were wonderful things about being raised by my extended family, the situation had a lot of dysfunctional elements.

When I was 8, my mother got pregnant by a different person than my father and chose to give this baby up for adoption. She was able to maintain limited contact with the child and adoptive family but this decision haunted her forever.

My disinterest in having children could have also stemmed from being my mother’s emotional caregiver. She struggled with depression and other mental health issues, exacerbated by unhealthy romantic relationships. From a young age, I was her emotional support system.

In her late 60s, my mother was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s dementia. My care-giving role became more tangible and pronounced. She had lived with my aunts at my grandparent’s home for the last several years and family conflicts became even more frequent as her disease progressed. I was regularly called in as peacekeeper and her physical care needs increased too. A couple of years after her diagnosis, I was fortunate enough get her into an excellent care facility. For the first time in my life I felt free of worrying about some facet of my mother’s well-being.

A wise friend said, “If you have this baby—either keeping it as a couple or adopting it out—you have to want that for YOU or the baby. It can’t be to somehow save the relationship.” So I made the terrible and tough choice to end the pregnancy and at the same time end a loving relationship that meant so much to me.

The one-two gut punch of loss and grief crushed me, but with hindsight I can see how this dramatic ending might have been necessary to shove me out of a comfortable but potentially unhealthy relationship. I have never regretted my decision. I am grateful every day that I have my own apartment in a city where housing is expensive and the freedom and flexibility to stay involved with my many interests and friends.

I’m sad and frustrated that a healthy partner relationship has been hard to find but I’m grateful that the biological clock component isn’t a factor of that longing. I’m making the most of my choice—embracing new experiences, nurturing existing friendships, and being open to building new relationships too.

kiss-kats-profilecrop1

Shoshannah Flach is a San Francisco native who has written film and music reviews, published her own zine, Cat Butt, and more recently, Crosswalk Confidential, stories from the streets of her city. After fifteen years in the marketing department of an environmental nonprofit, she is now poised for new adventures that may or may not include some of her diverse interests in martial arts, air guitar, and playing rock songs on the ukulele.

 

 

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“Natural” vs. “Unnatural” Women: Motherhood as Woman’s Duty

From the editors: Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal explores cultural expectations of motherhood she faced and resisted with the support of her mother (pictured with the author). 

I do not have children of my own, and, in fact, prefer the company of the young of other mammals, such as puppies and kittens. That may not sound unusual out here in the U.S, but it was seen as extremely odd when I was a young woman growing up in India, as most countries from the developing world tend to be extremely supportive of women as mothers, and dismissive of those women who are “barren,” and either unable, or unwilling, to produce offspring.

It is a far cry from the sane attitude of some other animal species such as elephants, where the role played by “aunt” elephants are as critical for the wellbeing of the herd as those of the mothers.

The good side of traditional societies is that no eyebrows are raised if a woman decides to discreetly feed her infant in a public place, and women there are adept at doing so. Here on the contrary, it is astonishing to see the brouhaha over this very natural act of a mother. Society appears to have forgotten that the function of the mammary glands are not to titillate the male species, but to feed the infants of the species.

But the bad side of traditional societies is that women are expected to yearn to become mothers from the time they are little girls. They are gifted little dolls for this very purpose, which they proceed to treat as their own infants. This is of course, a worldwide phenomenon and not just specific to my culture. However, what is specific to my original culture is the obsession that families have with parenthood. The pressure placed upon young couples by the husband’s parents is astonishing. From outwardly innocuous remarks like the jocular “Any good news? “ (accompanied by a knowing smile) to the more obvious and semi reproachful query, “When shall we hear the patter of little feet?”

In fact, young couples are pressured to feel that it is their duty to provide children / grandchildren for the aging parents and grandparents. This attitude leads to immense psychological pressure upon couples who are unable to perform their duty and produce offspring upon request. And of course it is expected in most communities, regardless of religion, class or caste, that the first born be a boy.

No doubt all these attitudes led to a reaction on my part as a rebellious young woman not to have children of my own, or rather, biological offspring. Any man I chose to spend time with would therefore be regaled with this decision. Small wonder then that most took to the hills. After all, who would want a wife who was not just an “uppity woman,” but “an unnatural” one, to boot?!

I recall the very hurtful comments made by a close male friend back in the days when my biological clock was supposed to be ticking: “You are an unnatural woman!”

I managed to cover up my feelings of hurt with a sharp quip, “And you, being a man, know what it feels like to be a woman?!”

But deep inside, I was hurt, very hurt. At weak moments I even asked myself, was it somehow strange of me as a woman not to feel this apparent universal urge to produce offspring? Did it even, in some way, make me a bad woman? When I came upon Simone de Beauvoir’s ruminations on the societal construction of womanhood I began to feel much better about my decision. But how many women of my generation back then had access to such literature in the first place? Most have access only to the sexist dictats of Manusmriti, the infamous Codes of Manu, the Lawgiver of ancient India, which were enforced by society in general, through the entire extended family, teachers, astrologers, the works!

In my case a casual visit to the family astrologer ended in disaster when the man concerned pronounced judgment upon my decision to stay single with a sneering accusation,”how selfish of you! You do not care for the suffering of your aging parents!”

My polite response that the parents concerned were not suffering but in fact were quite content to let me make my own decisions was met with horror. What kind of woman would behave this selfish? And how dare I wait so long and refuse all these offers of (arranged) marriage that had come my way? A sure sign of great arrogance! As to the lax attitude of my parents, no doubt this poor upbringing had contributed to my willful behavior.

As the years went by and I focused on my career and took up what appeared to be a permanent abode on the proverbial shelf, my mother stopped collecting items for my “Hope Chest,” (Or trunk, if you will, where jewelry, crockery and sundry other items would be collected by mothers for their daughter’s marital homes). The aforementioned “Hope Chest” became the family joke as “The Hopeless Chest!” Any conversation about my getting married or having a child was long dropped, to my great relief.

My mother even reassured me once, when I was in my late 30s with a pithy comment: “Marriage is not the be-all and end-all of life, my dear!”

It is only now, looking back on it, that I realize what an unusual woman she was of her generation, or even of generations to come, to possess such an unorthodox attitude towards life. For women in traditional South Asian society are usually led to believe that it is their bounden duty to get married and then produce children, preferably male.

I did eventually fall in love with a man who I went on to marry, once I had finished graduate school in the U.S. But we chose not to have children, partly because both of us travelled a lot, and rearing children under those circumstances would prove difficult, and partly because we were not eager to become parents. I am fortunate to have been born into a liberal and supportive family where a woman’s life is not equated to motherhood, but it is not the norm in my society even today.

However, I will add this caveat: I have discovered that society’s expectation of women is not that different even in the “modern, progressive West,” and not just in the developing world. Let us not forget that it is not just in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR that women were forced into motherhood, to produce good Aryan babies for God and the nation. That was the case in the U.S too, where, forget abortion, even contraception was banned right into the second half of the 20th century. The position of many world religions too has been that woman’s duty is to become a mother, and produce as many offspring as possible at that.

We do live in a brave new world where women are not forced into motherhood, overtly, that is. But what about the covert message of the mainstream media? Indeed, as numerous television serials and Hollywood films continue to show, women who are content with their careers and other pastimes rather than yearning for motherhood are portrayed as unnatural (yes, that word again!) Yet, somehow the most unnatural woman is redeemed eventually when she goes ahead and births a child. Although there is little support for either the mother or the child once she has gone ahead and had it, with working mothers reporting huge levels of stress trying to juggle work and home without much access to childcare in most jobs. But that is a different story.

Women who have abortions are still represented in a negative light in Hollywood films in this day and age. Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown may have incurred Dan Quayle’s wrath in the 1990s, for being a single mother. But she was a mother nevertheless, not a woman who had resolved to remain childless, and, moreover, a content childless woman at that. Even films that masquerade as progressive such as the Indie film Juno (2007) have a dark side when they enforce the hegemonic view that woman’s natural calling is to be a mother. And God forbid that a popular television series show a woman reject the role of motherhood and get an abortion.

We may seem to have come a long way since the dark days of The Feminine Mystique (1963), when Betty Friedan wrote of the oppressive standards that women were expected to uphold within American society. Women in this part of the world today can do anything, take up any profession, be whatever they want to be. And yet, as our television serials never cease to remind us, the one thing we deeply yearn for, regardless of all our outward posturing, is to be mothers. Small wonder, then, that women who have postpartum depression or parental ambivalence even years later feel abandoned by society, as they are made to feel they are not “normal.” Because, isn’t it “normal” to feel complete as a woman only when one has become a mother?

Perhaps East and West are not so different after all…

Shoba Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal x received her Ph.D. in Media Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Spring 2003. She moved to the East coast to take up a position as the Coordinator of the then Women’s Studies Program at Westfield State University and is currently in charge of the Women and Gender Studies Minor in the Department of Ethnic & Gender Studies, where she teaches courses that focus on gender issues and religious extremism in South Asia. She has worked with colleagues across campus and helped develop an Asian Studies Minor at the university. Dr Rajgopal traveled widely across Asia and Europe in her previous avatar as a broadcast journalist and reported for the Indian networks and for CNN International from various international locations.

Three Poems

 

From the Editors: Poet Leah Nielsen explores the tension between being childfree and childless.

 

 


Pantoum on the Children We Never Had

Maybe it was the hand of some god,
or maybe the stars could not
get it together, maybe in deciding
to postpone the decision we made a decision

or maybe the stars could not–
who knows if my body could.
We postponed the decision, made a decision.
Maybe we never wanted to anyway.

Who knows if my body could
have handled it. Maybe it couldn’t.
Maybe we never wanted to anyway.
Maybe I never. Maybe we could

have handled it. Maybe not.
Maybe there was a point at which.
Maybe I never, maybe we could.
The door was just shut–

maybe there was a point at which
we decided separately–unspoken–no.
We just shut the door.
I don’t know anymore. I don’t think

we decided separately, unspoken. No,
maybe at some point someone said maybe someday.
I don’t know anymore. I don’t think
it helps to think on it.

Maybe at some point someone said someday
when we get it together. Maybe in deciding
it helps to think on it.
Maybe it was the hand of a god.


 

The Poem I’ve Been Writing for 10 Years Finally Speaks Up

What if I was just wrong from the get go.
What if you go two more decades without
getting me right. What if that fat fuck
of a proctologist was right. What if that spot
on your liver was a thing to think of as a thing,
not a freckle as the second opinion said.
What if it’s not very nice to call people
fat fucks. What if your birth control pills
were causing the liver spot. What if it’s a matter
of meter or just a word choice here
or there when you’ve been toying
all these years with scene and voice.
What if you had it right two drafts ago. No,
I agree. It was too peopled, too plump
with intent, no room for words to work,
no happy accidents, no happiness. Yes,
you have a point in that I am about a doctor
questioning what he should not have questioned
in a manner he should not have employed.
How much happiness can happen. So what
if he said, Maybe you haven’t thought about this.
Maybe you really do want kids. So what if he questioned
what your husband might want, questioned
if you’d bothered to have a conversation
about him, checked your chart and mentioned
the phrase geriatric pregnancy. So what of the Bible
on his desk, the cross on his wall. What were you
to do beyond tears. Write a poem about some woman
being stupid enough to wed that Weeble.
Some woman wanting a Sak’s card and a Benz so badly
she’d have five kids. Some woman who fucked him
at least five times. Who is she. You couldn’t
write that poem. You shouldn’t write it now.
You were wrapped tight in manners and billboards
about damnation.

Try beginning this way:

Nothing was wrong. Nothing but a freckle on your liver.
Nothing came out but nothing when the clinic assistant
asked what was wrong as you paid your bill through tears.
Nothing happened but your words failed you
and there’s nothing you hate more.


 

So the yard storing old toys

from the kids who used to
live there– a naked Barbie
with a butch haircut, a few
chewed army men the dog
dragged in. Was that all.
What about the tree fort
zip line into the camellias.
About the tire swing swung
over an old oak limb. What
about the neighbor’s grandson,
the only one who swung there.
The two lion statues guarding
the drive that that kid broncoed
when he was tired of the swing.
About the porch swing so right
for watching azaleas light the street
on fire. About the two dogs. One
we chose. The other chose us.
Who chose the herniated disk.
Who chose chronic and Percocet
and clean baseboards and pressed
shower curtains. Did someone
choose words. What words were
there. Did we choose a commuter
career. What was a gift. What
did we make into one. What was
a curse. How do we mold it now.

 

LeahNielsenHeadShotLeah Nielsen earned her M.F.A. from the University of Alabama. Her first collection of poems, No Magic, was published by Word Press. Her chapbook, Side Effects May Include, which examines the state of permanent patienthood, was published in 2014 by The Chapbook. Among other places, her poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Indiana Review, and Rattle. She lives and teaches in Westfield, MA.

 

The featured image is “Reclining” by Karen E.D. Peterson, who received her BFA in Studio Fine Arts and Art History from Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Richmond, VA.  You can find more on her work at kedpeterson.com.

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Let’s Be Friends! Maintaining Relationships Between Women Who Mother and Women Who Don’t

Recently, a friend of mine, who has no children, mentioned that she was reading a book in the middle of the day. When I pictured her reading by a fire curled up on the couch drinking tea in her peaceful home, I was engulfed with envy: I want to read a book in the middle of the day in a quiet house! As this image solidified in my mind, my impulse was to say: “you don’t know how lucky you are!” but I managed to catch the words and swallow them. This friend could not have children and this would have been a cruel thing to say to her, but I realize now that it’s not really a nice thing to say to any woman because either way it is tinged with an underlying resentment, not an emotion I want to aim at my pals.

Since my friends started having kids, I began noticing how easy it is for tensions to surface between moms and the childfree/childless. Moms might think the root of the problem is that childfree women don’t know what we’re up against, but there’s more to it. In a recent “Dear Sugar” podcast, Steve Almond, father of three, admitted to, on occasion, resenting his childfree friends. Resentment is a strong and ugly emotion, but thinking back on some of my interactions with my childfree friends, I realize, reluctantly, that Almond is right on. If you miss your freedom at all, and what parent doesn’t, then your friends’ tales of independence or peace can make you feel taunted, even though they are just living their lives.

On the other side of the same coin, after I had kids, I noticed how easy it is to connect with women who are moms. Even with  drastically different beliefs and interests, mothers always have something to talk about: their kids’ potty training, sleep habits, eating preferences, first days of school, etc. Because, as we know, there’s no manual for having kids, and because most of us don’t live with our extended family, we often need to rely on friends and Google to figure out how to tackle the challenging moments of parenting. Friends and Google are the village.

Not only can moms rely on each other for problem solving, mom friends just get the struggle of motherhood. It doesn’t require explanation. This is comforting especially when you don’t have the energy to explain what it feels like when your child is waking up every two hours and not napping.

Pregnancy and motherhood do create a bond between women, but the opposite also tends to be true: a chasm forms between moms and not-moms. As a woman who had her kid late, I’ve been on both sides of that chasm. When I was childfree, I am sure I provoked resentment among my friends with young kids; I likely complained about a bad meal at a restaurant or being tired (and hungover) after a late night dancing. Now, I have an idea of what they might have been thinking in those moments: “quit your complaining, at least you can go out without spending a bazillion dollars on a babysitter and you can sleep through the night or take a nap–a nap!”

If my mom friends resented my freedom, I resented their lack of freedom and how our relationships changed when kids arrived on the scene. My mom friends couldn’t listen the way they used to or sustain a meaningful conversation. Kids affect individual relationships but there’s also the cultural weight of motherhood, which can make women who are not moms feel like they are not part of the club.

The term “the mommy wars” originally described the clash between working moms and stay-at-home moms, but now that there are more women choosing not to have kids, a new war is brewing. But a war between moms and the childfree/childless will not benefit anyone, so how do we stave it off?

Here’s my plan: I will resist the temptation to surround myself with people just like me; I will make a conscious effort to keep old and make new friends who are not moms. Part of making this effort means that I’ll need to notice and tamp down negative feelings that surface when a childfree friend talks about exercising, eating a delicious meal at a restaurant, seeing a movie in the theatre. I’ve traded in my freedom for a while; it was a choice I made, and I’ve gotten a lot in return. Truth is, I’m probably going to feel a little sad when I start to get my freedom back and my son needs me less.

I will also work on being a good friend to my friends without kids. To this end, I’ve fallen into a pattern of calling my friends with kids when my kid is around, but I try to call my friends without kids when my son is asleep or when I’m in the car alone so that I can give them my attention.  I want to be able to genuinely listen to the stories from their lives and I want to share mine. This is how friendships are maintained.

My friend and co-editor of this site, Beverly, does not have children, but we have made it our project to listen to and be candid with each other. Here’s a tiny example: typically, I would reserve the messy details of potty training my son for my mom friends, but I decided to tell Beverly, and she listened and instead of offering me a list of things I should(ve) tried, like most mothers do, she offered me something I actually needed more: a “wow, that must be really hard.”