The Weight of Being Childless Late in Life
Life events cause this author to reflect on her decision about motherhood
I was never ready to have a child, but I always loitered along the razor’s edge of wanting one. I cast away all my healthy reproductive years to the agony of indecision. I spent heaps of money on shrink appointments, and talked about it ad nauseam with my husband and any poor soul who would listen. My mother got the brunt of it until one day she finally said, “Look: If you have to think about it this much, don’t do it. Not everybody’s meant to have kids.” My own mother.
I didn’t so much take her advice as fall into it. I let each year pass figuring that by the following year, I’d make the decision. By the time I hit my mid-forties I began to feel like that blond woman on the T-shirt, her eyebrows in a fright toward the talk bubble that read, “I forgot to have kids!”
Writing Personally About Being Childless
Several years ago I published an essay about something not often talked or written about as it relates to childlessness — the undecided women. Readers praised my courage to get right to the deep and weighty fear I felt all those years as I tried so desperately, and failed, to get comfortable enough to have a child. My fear drove my indecision, and indecision prevailed.
My own discontented childhood erased any belief that a child can be anything but anxious and on high alert at all times. Why on earth would I replicate that? My father was mercurial and unpredictable and my mother should be on the Pope’s short list for sainthood. She was the best, he was not. He died having not spoken to me for years and she died thanking my siblings and me for being wonderful kids, even though not one of us made her a grandmother. (She never groused about it until one year when my sister sent her a Mother’s Day card from the dog.)
And then there is my husband, who felt strongly that we should not have kids unless we felt ready in a visceral kind of way. He helped me believe that our life together would be full, our perpetual empty nest notwithstanding. With my two siblings also childless, there are no nieces or nephews. We are it, the end of the line. When all our parents had died, my closest childhood friend said, “It’s like now you guys are up to bat, but there’s nobody in the bullpen.” Nobody indeed.
A New Sense of Purpose
A few years ago, my career came to a screeching halt. After a lifetime in public health, I was the first among my senior colleagues to be swept out the door when new leadership took control of the agency. The abruptness of my departure left me feeling aimless and lost. I shuffled around the house as if I’d find a sense of purpose in one of the drawers I’d just cleaned out or organized.
At about the same time, our goddaughter (the daughter of that childhood friend from the bullpen) had her second baby. I had time and they needed child care, so I helped to care for their newborn son. I showed up the first day with a satchel of reading material and a thermos of hot coffee.
The coffee went cold and I never once cracked open the paper. In the time it would have taken me to scan a headline, I had fallen hopelessly in love with this baby boy. I sang to him and swaddled him and fed him and held him. I inhaled him as if I squeezed hard enough, I could imprint the whole of him into my heart forever. I watched him sleep and bathed him and dressed him, and I nearly blinded the poor little fella with the repeated flash of my camera. I felt short stabs of pain when I had to leave him and surges of longing upon returning him to his own parents or grandparents. It’s not that I didn’t want to hand him over to his rightful people; I just wanted him in my orbit, too.
Second Thoughts on Being Childless
Over the next four years, I continued to help care for him. I had become something between a nanny and a grandmother, yet neither would ever truly define my role. If anything, I felt as if I were having a love affair that bore into my heart more deeply than any kind of love or devotion I’d ever known.
At 61, I had finally experienced the unique human bond so often talked about by adults who care for babies from birth. I marveled at how easy it was to love him and I was dumbfounded that he loved me back — just for being me!
I started pestering my husband with a variation of the same question I’d asked him years ago, except now I asked, “Do you regret not having kids?” No, he said. I asked my siblings, who also said no.
I could not account for my restlessness. I thought I had already made peace with this part of me, yet loving this baby was triggering an unnerving disequilibrium. I loved being a "nanny" to this baby and all else in my life was stable. Why was I feeling so unmoored?
I wound up back in my shrink’s office. I tugged at the familiar thread in her cushy green settee, shaking my head in disbelief. “Is this regret, coming to haunt me after all these years?” It didn’t feel like regret, I told her. I regret not finishing my Ph.D. I regret not planting tomatoes last summer. I regret not spending more time with my Aunt Audra before Alzheimer’s shattered her life. No, this was not regret, but damn if I could name it.
Reckoning with Grief
Years before my mother died, she gave me a bookmark of an adorable black Lab pup splashing in a puddle. She wrote, “Thinking of you and two things you love, dogs and books.” It was just a bookmark, but to me it was priceless — until one day it disappeared. I tore through drawers and nightstands trying to find it. I pulled books out of bookcases and shook them violently, begging the bookmark to flutter to the floor. I even called upon St. Anthony, patron saint of lost causes. Nothing.
One Mother’s Day, our goddaughter and her family surprised me with a visit. The "baby" by then was about 2 1/2, bursting with toddler energy. We all sat on the living room floor and let him play his favorite game of taking books off the shelves, stacking them on the floor and pretending to read them.
Out of the quiet we heard him exclaim, “Bevie! Look!” He bounded over to me, his face all sunshiny and his giant blue eyes glimmering with pride. “For you, Bevie!” In his silky-soft little hand was the lost bookmark.
Most transformative changes in my life tend to come at the other end of a singular happening. It could be something I hear or read, or some art form that triggers in me an entirely new way to see and feel the world. Or it could be an event that’s over in the blink of an eye, like the baby's discovery of the lost bookmark. The few times this has happened, it’s as if I watch myself walk out of a fog. I emerge inhabiting a new skin whose contours and textures feel better, more fitting.
Grief, loss and regret, I learned, are all but indistinguishable. I see now that it was grief that was haunting me, not regret. Once I got that I needed to grieve the loss of never having kids, I recognized that this tumultuous time in my life was about acceptance and moving forward.
It was time to release myself from that wasteland of self-destructive thinking and feeling. It was time to heal, time to move forward. As with any loss, seen or unseen, time softens the pain and gives way to tremendous clarity. I now understood what my mother meant, 40 years ago: Not everyone’s meant to have kids.
I am drawn now to writings about women with whom I share similar experiences. Women without kids, women with families of one or just a few people, families with no kids. I am able to locate myself in these works and for that, I am eternally grateful. In my office, I keep a quote by D. H. Lawrence. “That she bear children is not a woman’s significance. But that she bear herself, that is her supreme and risky fate.”