My Complicated Journey to a Child-Free Middle Age

When I was 12 years old and my little cousin Morgan was two, we took a walk on my uncle’s farm. There was an electrified cattle fence — a wire, really — that wound around the property, some distance from the house. My cousin toddled up to it, but I didn’t worry because it was normally turned off when family came over. Only this time… it wasn’t. My cousin touched the wire with one hand, stood in shock for a moment, and then started to howl. I hurried over to her. She took a stumbling step toward me and as I scooped her up, she wrapped all four limbs around me and held on tight. A sort of jolt went through me, a jolt that I recognized as that mysterious thing older women talked about: a maternal instinct. I rushed to the house with that baby in my arms, our hearts beating close together, and my mind empty of everything but protection. She stopped crying by the time we reached the house, and she was fine after a few kisses from her mother.

I thought about that experience recently when a coworker asked me why I didn’t have kids. I explained to him that while I had a maternal instinct, I did not have a maternal desire. This coworker, a father of three, tilted his head and looked genuinely perplexed.

I was never like the girls who always knew they’d be mothers. My relatives (seven aunts!) had started asking me when I’d have children by the time I was old enough to menstruate. It was always “when,” by the way. Never “if.” My answer was always a firm… “meh?”

I grew up going to church and was a teenage counselor at a summer camp a couple of years in a row. I’d make up silly stories for my seven- and eight-year-old campers. I remember once a little girl leaned against my knee, sighed, and said, “You’d make a good mom.” At the time, I thought it was the nicest compliment I’d ever received. By college, though, I’d placed myself firmly in the Never Kids camp. My fellow ’90s-era Riot Girrrl feminists and I would get annoyed when kid talk interrupted our discussions of art, music, and other Deep Things.

That didn’t stop my Midwestern relatives from asking. For a long time, I’d answer that I was waiting for the right partner. But when I did partner up, I realized that not only had that maternal desire NOT materialized, but that the man I’d shacked up with wouldn’t make a very good father. While he could be charming and generous, he could also be self-centered and lazy. I was content to love him and continue to have the kind of adventures we’d always had together. We were in agreement about a child-free life. So, we confidently told our 20-something friends that we weren’t having children, even as couple after couple began having baby showers. Our marriage ran into trouble within three years, and when it did, I learned something about myself and about a man’s ideations about fatherhood. You see, when my husband cheated and subsequently admitted his affair, he followed his admission up with: “I think I’ll only feel whole again if we have a child.”

Reader, I laughed at him.

I realized right away that these sudden ideas about fatherhood were either the result of his girlfriend’s whispers or a grasping for a sense of self that would help him justify his actions. I mean, this was a man who once thought that potty training ended at six months! A man who refused to clean the cat’s litter box! That first terrible break-up was my first inkling that a man’s fantasies about fatherhood were vastly different from my own considerations about carrying, giving birth to, and raising a messy little human. His idea of it — before the reality of childcare set in — was clearly a dream into which he was projecting himself. We divorced.

Over the next few years, I got my graduate degree and changed careers from an unfulfilling cubicle job to a teaching job. I also drank, flirted, and dated like a 23-year-old without a thought of motherhood, even though I was nearing 30 and my friends were busy diapering infants and chasing toddlers. I loved my friends’ children! I felt privileged to sit in a hospital room with a close friend, to hold her newborn — that tender creature with soft tufts of hair and infinite potential. To this day, every time I experience it, it is holy. But I was focused on other things.

It doesn’t take long for a new teacher to realize that an educator is also called upon to be a counselor. Soon, I was listening to a kid talk about the problems he was having with his boyfriend. I was patiently giving a short-skirted, heavily made-up young woman space to rant angrily before calmly redirecting her. I learned that to be a teacher is to create an alternative family. We forgive mistakes with every new class period. We lead and comfort and encourage and scold — just like parents. We allow creativity while reinforcing manners. We facilitate practice and mistakes, outbursts and growth. As I’ve continued my teaching career I’ve realized that I’m doing a job that, perhaps, my students’ mothers cannot always do. I had a weird jolt of recognition once when a shy young man said, “I wish you were my mom.” I went home that night like I often did — exhausted, but with tears in my eyes and a new bruise on my heart.

My next big lesson about motherhood came along when I nearly became a step-mother. My boyfriend — then fiancé — had two young daughters with whom I bonded quickly. Here was an option I hadn’t considered! I could be a mother figure to two school-age girls who were so creative, so unique, so wonderful! I l fell in love with a darling eight-year-old who dressed up in a princess dress to meet me, with a punky 13-year-old who giggled with me on the couch like we had a secret. My partner and I did everything the “correct” way: I got to know my future step-daughters slowly. They only stayed with him for 2-1/2 months during the summer, after all. And we didn’t move in together until a few weeks before the planned wedding. Clearly, we weren’t thinking things through.

When my fiancé-almost-husband expressed giddy anticipation at the thought of having a third child — with me! — I believed in his excitement. I had a family of my own! Almost. So maybe it was time. For once, I threw caution to the wind. We got tipsy and I encouraged him to — you know — without a condom while I was between birth control. At age 32 I thought I’d give this “not being careful” thing a try. It had worked out for my friends, right? We were in love, right? Was I thoughtlessly following a path my aunts and mother and decades of patriarchy wanted for me? Maybe — I don’t know.

Luckily, I did not become pregnant. A mere two months later he had second thoughts about our marriage. He became erratic, and accused me of trying to trap him. He decided he couldn’t live with anyone but himself. He wasn’t as keen on marriage, or second fatherhood, as he had pretended. Maybe his past haunted him. Maybe we were both following some script. Or maybe his cruelty was my liberation. Anyway, my almost-but-never-husband left without an explanation and told our friends that I was the type of woman who skipped her birth control on purpose and was deeply in debt, too. I felt ashamed. That was the year I felt the full extent of the Great Recession.

It was 2010 and my house was so far “underwater” that my only reasonable option as a newly-single woman was to walk away. I pawned my engagement ring to pay homeowner association fees. I had paid off my undergraduate debt but couldn’t bear to start on my graduate school bills. I continued teaching while I consolidated credit card debt. My friends with children were going through their own struggles as their financial foundations fell out from under them, but I couldn’t acknowledge their pain. I was mourning the loss of what I thought would be my family. I realized I was myself at my worst, and I fell into the deepest depression of my life. I was in my mid-30s.

Thank heavens for all of this. Because it forced me to confront my own inherited ideas about motherhood. It forced me to put new foundations under my feet and find myself.

I was confronted with the realization that, as a thoughtless or naïve young woman, any public judgment on having or not having a child was placed on me. And it was unforgiving. Never mind that it was the early 21st century. I was either a cold, child-hating divorcee or I was trying to trap a man! As a single young woman holding on to the status of Lower Middle Class with both hands, I knew it wasn’t practical to have a child on my own. I had discovered that, for the young men in my experience, pregnancy was merely a way to validate how they felt about themselves or their relationship. I learned that my male partners’ feelings or judgments about my uterus had nothing at all to do with the actual experience of motherhood. Because, for me, it was necessarily different.

Pregnancy was at once fraught with expectation — and terrifying. And I still didn’t feel that baby fever — that urge to be a mother — that my family and friends felt. As I paid bill after bill with no salary raise in sight, I wondered how young-ish Gen Xers like myself could afford motherhood anyway.

Since then, I have taken a more forgiving look at my past, and at my partners. I understand myself a little better. I can now count on my fingers the reasons I don’t have children. Let’s see: There’s the money reason. The demanding job reason. The history-of-depression reason. And, I’ll be honest, the selfish reason. And maybe the best reason of all: the auntie reason.

My little sister had a child when I was 35: my first niece. Can I tell you how much I love her? She’s Elton John’s tiny dancer with a pirate smile. She’s a little CEO with an honest heart. And I get to be in her life! My niece’s mother will never teach her child to wave saucily and sing, “Bye, Felicia!” But I will. An auntie can play pretend when Mommy is too tired. An auntie can bring over a tent which becomes a princess tent which becomes a secret playhouse. An auntie can shower a child with love and teach her manners at the same time, because an auntie is both a buddy and a capable adult. To be an auntie is to create a safe space where a child can have fun and learn. An auntie isn’t a mother — is a sort-of friend — is an imaginary mother — is a brand new grown-up who cares.

I’m almost 40. Thankfully, I’m getting to the age where relatives, friends, and even strangers stop asking “when” I’ll have a child. To be honest, I wear my decision not to have children like a heavy coat — one I’ll be happy to discard once I’m finally beyond childbearing age. Nowadays, when asked, I say I never met the right partner. Or that my career and money and timing were never right for me. Often, I say that I prefer being a teacher and auntie to being a mother — and that’s the truth.

What I don’t say is this:

I love leaving a noisy classroom of teenagers, knowing that when I go home I can sit in silence, have a glass of wine, and watch a movie with subtitles. Or talk about politics with my new sweetheart.

Now, I’m not immune to wistful regret. Sometimes, I’ll see a stocky little boy with mouse-brown hair, intense blue-gray eyes, and a proud little chin and I’ll think, my kid would look like that. I notice, but ignore, the automatic dismissal in another woman’s eyes when she learns I’m not a fellow parent. Although I feel the sting of not being recognized as quite grown up enough, I know that she doesn’t know my history. It’s OK. Hell, I’ll probably teach her kids.

My partner now, at nearly middle age, understands. I can’t tell you how liberating that is. He has nieces and nephews, too. Sometimes we talk about fostering older kids who need a home. Sometimes we talk about buying an RV and being RV people — us, a couple of faithful dogs, the road. Sometimes we simply read books together, or decide to take a drive together. We don’t have much money, but it doesn’t matter, does it?

I’m an auntie. I’m a teacher. I’m a woman with a past. I don’t have to have children to be a whole, mature adult. I’ve lived life, and I’ll continue to with a perspective and unique gifts that busy mothers don’t always have time to cultivate. Don’t worry. We crazy aunties have those gifts. We conscientious teachers have those gifts. And we’ll share them with your kids. After all we love them, too.

6 comments

  1. Reply

    This is poignant and powerful. For the moment I can think of only trite things to say, such as “That all sounds like it was very tough,” which I’m sure it was, beyond words.

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      1. I don’t know how it was with you, but I think the late twenties were pretty high-stakes times for Gen-Xers, because it seemed to be the last chance to have the kind of lives our parents had.

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  2. Reply

    You are so much more than that short list! You are inspiring! I relate 100% to your story and at 42.9, am living the same experience. Your writing is poetic and brought me solace. Thank you!

    Like

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