Essays > Mother's Day 2008: A Non-mother Weighs In


            Sunday is always a quiet day in the neighborhood, and I like sitting up in my second floor perch watching whatever transpires on the street. Mary Helen’s incorrigible little dogs, escaped through the fence, gambol like happy delinquents in somebody else’s tulips. Two lean cyclists whiz down the block. Jehovah’s Witnesses in their respectful dresses steadfastly deliver Watchtowers to firmly closed doors. 
            But Mother’s Day is a little different, a day of cars sliding into driveways and parking on the street, beribboned boxes and bouquets of flowers materializing in the arms of mothers’ kids as they hastily sign cards and scramble to hit the front porch, and the dining room, before lunch is served.
            This is, let’s face it, the holiday of guilt and ambivalence.  Mothers can never be adequately repaid or thanked enough for their sacrifices, and the very act of acknowledging their power over us makes most of us squirm. 
            I watch these arrivals with a mix of loneliness and relief.  On Mother’s Day I will not be visited by any kids or disappointed by any of them either; I am not a mother.  My whole reproductive cycle of 44 years -- officially over just a few months ago, with the clinical definition of “menopause” satisfied -- came and went with nary an offspring, my eggs sluffed off in roughly 500 periods, All in all, good riddance.
            Yet there was a span of years, my biological clock clanging like the bells of St. Mary’s, when I imagined every detail of the nursery I would have and the books I would read to my child. A miscarriage twenty years ago that stands as the despairing end of “trying” still counts as one of the sorrows of my life. 
            So on Mother’s Day, I often reflect on what has been lost and what has been gained by the tradeoffs of such a fate, and I sometimes wonder how other childless women are faring on this day meant to honor anybody but us. 
            I think childless women sometimes make other women uneasy. Some mothers are jealous of our relative ease, financially, physically, and emotionally. We are a cultural anomaly:  free women who get to decide, even in our middle years, what to do with ourselves.
            I do get long stretches of time to myself, and I’m not saving for anybody’s college education. I don’t wait up nights for Junior to show up by curfew, and I don’t have to decide when Muffy gets the car keys or how much skin she shows on her way to the prom.  I don’t have to cart anybody to ballet lessons or attend kiddie plays.  I don’t have to break up fights, clean up baby poop, rush a kid to the ER or decide whether or what kind of religious instructions to offer.  I never had to explain the birds and the bees.  No one has ever said to me, “Mother, please” and fled in embarrassment.
            So I guess I’ve had it easy.  With kids, I probably would not be able commute to California with my present husband several times a year; in fact, with kids I might not have reconnected with him at all.  Having children in the stew might have swayed my risk-taking inclinations.
            There are other advantages. I’m leaving a smaller carbon footprint.  Less trash:  I’ve never tossed out a disposable diaper, a #1 plastic baby powder shaker or a kiddie juice box.  Less emotional baggage:  I doubt that I’ve sent any of the kids of my acquaintance into therapy.  My influence over the newbies has been, it seems to me, modest, benign and, for the most part ignored.
            Further, childless women are well aware that bodies do not always do what we want; the fact that my body betrayed me by refusing to procreate when I wanted a baby was, for me, an early hard lesson that many others don’t learn until knees begin to give and veins clog up with plaque.  I haven’t fully trusted my body since I was 38.  I heartily respect its power and try to care for it accordingly.
            Some parents act as if a childless woman can’t be part of their club. One of my friends once casually said, “If you’ve never had kids, you’ve never grown up.”  The blunt dismissiveness of that remark still infuriates me:  doesn’t he know how it feels to wake up in the middle of the night convinced that one will die alone?  Confronting that we are alone in the universe is an existential task on which childless women have a big head start.
            And we face making our life matter.  It’s obvious that mothers change the world.  Childless women?  It takes inventive energy to make meaning of our existence.  Our choices are not always conventional, but certainly passionately real to us. 
            Yet there are still those moments:  when a student describes the first time her baby “quickened” in her womb;  when I see a mother raptly watching her son investigate a flower; when a good friend celebrates her first grandchild.  It would have been nice, I say to myself.  It could have been nice. 
            But since there’s nobody else here tonight, I’ll crack that bottle of Spanish red and stare out at the street for as long as I like.  Carpe diem, that’s my tradeoff.