“There are hundreds of ways to be a mother, only one of which is to give birth.”
- Leza Lowitz
One afternoon a few summers ago, I was hiding from the heat in a dark, air-conditioned movie theater watching the Mamma Mia sequel. I was expecting light-hearted banter, innuendo, and toe-tapping dance numbers, but instead I found myself stifling sobs as the end credits rolled. The second film was sadder than the original story, tinged by death, and by love that almost was. But certainly no one would categorize the movie as a tear-jerker, or warn others about having tissues handy. It’s Mamma Mia for Christ’s sake.
And yet, it wasn’t Mamma Mia. ABBA tunes and colorful costumes aside, it was the story of a woman caught unexpectedly pregnant. It was the story of a woman who raised a child on her own and the deep bonds that formed as a result. It was a story about passing time, of childhood becoming womanhood, and womanhood becoming motherhood.
I left the theater with sunglasses on, thinking, what was that about, but also knowing exactly what that was about. Since then, it’s been bobbing just beneath the surface, and I haven’t wanted to look. I feel it every time I see a baby, every time a toddler waddles past me at the grocery store, every time I dream I’m pregnant, which, lately, is often. My question, to have a baby or not, has not been answered. Or it has been answered—my two abortions were the answer—but there is a part of me that might want to change the answer, that might want to take the last decade back and start again with different information. But it’s too late for second guesses. The test has been turned in and graded. I had my chance, and I chose not to take it.
The pregnancy dreams come randomly. In the most recent one, I thought I was having a miscarriage. I was at work, a different work than where I work now. Then, I was sitting on a doctor’s exam table, alone with my fictional boss. She gave me two pills and told me she was scheduling a D&C just in case the pills didn’t work. I was to take one pill then, and another in 12 hours. This felt familiar to me, so I asked my boss if these pills were different than the abortion pills. She didn’t answer. Her eyes were sad.
I didn’t realize until later that I wasn’t having a miscarriage; I was having a third abortion. I was somehow in my childhood bedroom, in my childhood bed, when this occurred to me. There were bright patches of blood on my sheets. My cat, from his perch at the window, turned his head and told me it would be over by Tuesday. It was Saturday. I rushed out of my bedroom in search of my boss. I needed to find out if it was too late to stop it. I didn’t want to have another abortion. I wanted to have this baby. I wanted to be a mother.
When I woke my uterus was screaming. Violent cramping. The feeling of fire. I had expected the pain to go the way of the dream, back into the darkness, but it didn’t. My insides continued to scorch and churn as I lay there, feeling the pain and thinking about the pain. I remembered something I had read recently, about the way pain is held in our bodies. It said that old pain—whether physical, mental, or emotional—wants release, and that sometimes we have to feel it again as it moves out of our bodies, the same way we felt it when it went in. I pictured my pain like vapors rising from my uterus, like something dark and slow exiting my body. There was nothing to do but stare into the darkness and wait. To lay there wondering if everything I had ever refused to feel was on its way back to me, as if I had been living in the eye of a hurricane, only half of the storm behind me.
My waking self will almost adamantly tell you that she doesn’t want to be a mother. She will tell you about aunthood, how she was born for it, how it is her greatest joy. She will tell you about overpopulation, climate change, the dying bees, school shootings, our dysfunctional government. She will talk about how she loves her freedom, her space, her solitude, and the fact that she is rarely accountable to anyone. She’ll tell you about travel, yoga, the book she’s trying to publish.
Even if I wanted it, it’s too late. I’m 41. I’m not dating anyone. There isn’t even anyone I want to date. I live in a one-bedroom condo and have enough money to support myself. I could never pay for college, and daycare, and sports clubs, and braces, and and and. Or I could, but then I would have to give up travel, afternoons spent wandering the bookstore, my dreams of a second home near the ocean. There is a reason there’s supposed to be two people. I don’t want to do it alone.
It’s this last line, I think, that is the factor in my indecision. Or perhaps it’s not indecision, my decision being—barring some kind of unexpected divine intervention—mostly made. I am not exploring sperm donors or adoption options. My life is not in any way pointed toward the direction of motherhood or the prospect of it. If anything, my life is pointed backwards, in the direction of choices made. I have a constant companion—that version of myself who always thought she would be a mother. Or maybe it’s the version of myself who almost was a mother, who had the opportunity to be one, who looked the opportunity in the eye and said, “No.”
But did I really say no? Or did I say no because my partner at the time said no? I often wonder how things might have been different if the circumstances had been different. If I wasn’t in it alone. What if, the first time I found out I was pregnant, my boyfriend had answered the phone instead of repeatedly letting it go to voicemail? What if his reaction hadn’t been one of avoidance, but one of delight? Or, what if he had been, at the very least, not unhappy? What if, the second time I found out I was pregnant, I had listened to my best friend, who had said something like, if it’s happening again, maybe it’s for a reason. Would I be sitting here with a 10- or 11-year-old by my side? Probably not. I’d probably be at a soccer game, or buying presents for a birthday party, or telling him or her to clean their room. I wouldn’t be in a coffee shop, after a quiet Saturday morning, writing with friends. I would be an entirely different person, with entirely different friends, a different job, a different life. Maybe I would be like the women at the next table over—mothers involved in planning some kind of event or doing something related to their children and their schools, with Saturdays before them that look very different than mine. Maybe I would be somewhere, looking over at someone else, wondering who I could have been had I never had a child.
I know that if I were to get pregnant today, I would have the baby, that I would step into motherhood without any serious doubts. I’m not sure what to do with that information, or what it means. Does it mean that I actually do want to be a mother? That I just wasn’t ready before? Or does it mean that, just like my desire to be both partnered and alone, I have come up against the friction of the binary. Once again, I don’t exist in the black or the white, but gravitate toward the gray, where nothing is definitive.
I used to think that the definitive was age. That at some point my ovaries would dry up and my uterus would become inhospitable, at which point I would be free from thinking about it.
But even if I can’t get pregnant, I can always adopt—that oft repeated phrase from my 30s. Then, it was offered as comfort, reassurance that the clock never runs out. But what if I want the damn clock to run out already? What if I can’t take any more tick, tick, ticking—as if I’m forever trapped in the opening credits for 60 Minutes. I wonder what it might be like to stop second guessing myself. What I would accomplish if I didn’t regularly wonder if I am at some point going to change my mind. Or if my curiosity about what it’s like to be a mother will someday get the best of me, and I’ll find myself researching adoption options. If I didn’t have a constant, low-grade fear that I chose wrong.
In the months after my first abortion, I told my then-boyfriend that I thought I would have been a good mother. We were driving somewhere—running errands on a Saturday maybe. It was summer, the windows were down, the radio loud. I told him I had been thinking how things would have been different if I had gone through with the pregnancy. I wondered what kind of person I would have become, what the mother version of me would be like. He turned the radio down and said, “It’s not about you. It’s about the kid.” He said it like evidence, as if my wondering proved my unfitness for motherhood, and therefore confirmed I had done the right thing.
But when I had the abortions, I didn’t only give up having babies. I gave up a different version of myself. I gave up a different life. I wonder sometimes who the mother version of me would have been, what other lives she may have had.
I see her sometimes. I get glimpses of her when I’m with my niece and nephew—at the movies, at a restaurant—and I am mistaken for their mother. Or it is assumed I am their mother. It’s a fair assumption, with our matching blonde hair, with all of the laughter, with all of the love pouring forth from my center. When this happens, I get to see what it looks like, feels like, to be seen through a different lens. It feels subversive, as if I’ve managed to gain access to the club without the secret password, or as if I’ve slipped in through the back door undetected. I am in a world in which I don’t belong, and no one has found me out yet. I am on the verge of learning all of its secrets.
The mother version of myself passes quickly at times like these, out of the corner of my eye. She used to linger a bit more, but she doesn’t have time to visit anymore. She used to wait in the shadows in case I wanted to come meet her. Now she’s mostly a recluse. I imagine her at home in her slippers and bathrobe, smoking cigarettes and cursing at the television. She is purposeless. She is trapped. She has nothing to do with her days but wait for them to pass.
I’m not supposed to feel this way. The narrative is one that says I made my bed and now I must lie in it. If someone has an abortion—or two—she clearly doesn’t want a child. So, I don’t get to wax nostalgic about what might have been or straddle two different worlds. I was the decider in each scenario. It wasn’t left up to fate or to my body.
But it’s more nuanced than that. Especially in a society in which motherhood is praised, where baby bumps are glorified, where, despite her undeniable success, we are still sad about the state of Jennifer Aniston’s empty uterus. In a world where we treat motherhood as the peak achievement of womanhood, how can anyone who chooses a different path avoid feeling like they are missing out on something? Like they’ve failed in some way? The keys to fulfillment, the culture tells us, are right over there, clutched in the fist of an infant.
In Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed responds to a forty-one-year-old man who is trying to decide if he wants children by asking him to make a list and to write down what he imagines life to be like at eighty-two—with a son or daughter and without. She asks him to list under each column what might be given up, what might be given in its place, and then to sit with those lists and see how they feel. “Which makes you want to close your eyes and jump, and which makes you want to turn and run?”
Setting aside for now the leisurely pace men making this decision get to have, if I mentally entertain this exercise I don’t actually get anywhere. Of course I want a family when I’m eighty-two. Who wants to be alone in old age? But having children is no guarantee they will stick around for you or take care of you. No one knows who their children will turn out to be, what their struggles will be, whether they will want the same kind of relationship with you as you want with them. And to define family by DNA is narrow-sighted. Family is what it is for me now—who I choose to spend time with, talk with, give my energy to. Blood ties don’t enter into it.
I want many things when I’m eighty-two. I want to still be traveling, reading, writing. I want to be engaged intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. I would love to still be practicing yoga. I want to be surrounded by loved ones, and animals, and children. The things that make me want to turn and run are losing my mental faculties, being trapped in an assisted living home, not being able to move my body freely, losing my health—things which aren’t entirely in my control.
But even if I want a son or daughter when I’m eighty-two, I don’t want one now. For every time I see the mother version of me pass by on her way to somewhere else, there is another time when I feel acutely rooted in the land of the child-free. The other day I was at Costco on my lunch break, and as I was walking out of the store with my cart full of supplies, I passed a mother guiding three small children into the store. Two of them were holding each other’s hands, the other was holding their mother’s hand. She was telling them something I can’t remember now, and even though I don’t love my job, or the corporate world, or working for the man, in that moment I was 100% percent grateful to be headed back to the office instead of toward another in a long series of summer afternoons spent entertaining children.
I know myself. I know that to be a mother, I need to be fundamentally different in some way. I know that I get tired of things easily. Take my cat: I love him, but part of me looks forward to the day I’m free of him. It feels really shitty to type that. But it’s true. I know I will be devastated when it happens. But I also know it will pass. Children are permanent and I don’t do well with permanence. Future me might want something else. My body longs for the experience of motherhood, for the bond and connection. But my mind knows better.
“I have always feared that I would regret having had [a child], more than regret not having,” writes Sheila Heti in Motherhood, “for it has not escaped my notice that my happy imaginings of being a mother are always about having mothered—of smiling and waving at the front door as the children move on.”
Eighty-two-year-old me might be standing at the front door right now, gray hair in a bun, back slightly hunched, waving goodbye to the child who has just been for a visit, who has come to help her move furniture, who will surely return in a week or two to share a meal or a cup of coffee. But 41-year-old me doesn’t want to do the work of mothering.
It’s easy to feel like something is off when your entire childhood, adolescence, and youth were spent winding your way down a certain path. Marriage. A career. Babies. The end. But there is more than one ending. Or, there is no ending—just a long life full of choices and an infinite number of paths. But for me, and millions of other women, from the day I picked up my first doll until now, there has been a destiny toward which I was supposed to be headed. Some of us read the signs wrong, or decided to turn left when we were supposed to go right. Some of us had car trouble. Some of us went barreling down the highway at 100 MPH, never once seeing an exit we wanted to take. And when the GPS said we had arrived at our destination, we got out of the car to find scores of married people and children standing there looking at us like we were aliens.
Now, there is no path to follow. I have to pull out a machete and ply a trail of my own. I have to do this while also defending my choices and proving to the onlookers that I’m fine—that I don’t regret anything. Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. I feel like I am betraying something by even looking in the direction of that question. I feel pressure to either be sad and devastated by my choices or thrilled to no end by my freedom. There isn’t any space to mourn the life I turned away from.
I think this is as much about entering mid-life as it is about motherhood. The stakes just got real. I no longer have eons of times stretching out before me. I am no longer floating down the lazy river of life. The current has picked up. The stream has narrowed. There are rocks and boulders everywhere. I can’t see it yet, but I know the drop-off is up ahead somewhere. I no longer have the luxury of using words like “someday,” or “maybe later.” Later is now.
One of the many reasons my last relationship ended was because my partner knew for sure that he didn’t want any more children. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew I wanted the option. I wanted there to at least be possibility, an open door.
How do we mourn when doors close? Some would tell me that someone, somewhere is opening a window instead. But we all know a window is not door. You can’t just walk through it; you aren’t guaranteed to find ground on the other side. I am mixing my metaphors, I know. But rivers, doors—it’s all the same. Every year, month, day, our choices become fewer. We leave versions and parts of ourselves behind. And I haven’t yet learned how to say goodbye, to let go of the pieces of myself that no longer exist. I am like a patient with phantom limb syndrome. Even though she’s gone, I can still feel the part of myself that almost was, that never will be.
I know there are plenty of women who don’t have children and never give it a second thought, or if they do they feel a weightlessness, a freedom. And there are women who don’t have children and desperately long for them every day. But there are those of us in the middle too, for whom it’s not either/or. It’s mostly true that I don’t want to have children. But it’s also mostly true that some part of me does want to have children, that biologically speaking, there is something that wants to move through me, something that wants to find form in the world.
I often feel a pull coming from the center of my chest whenever I see or hear a baby. I am tuned into the frequency of infant sounds wherever I go. I can be sitting and working at a coffee shop or standing in line at the grocery store and suddenly feel as if my body has been taken over. I physically want to go to the baby, hold it, coo at it, love it. Little children too. I am drawn to them to an extent that I sometimes have to consciously keep my arms by my side. I have to relegate myself to sending a smile in the child’s direction, or maybe initiating an impromptu game of peek-a-boo. This physical yearning is what makes me question, what makes me wonder if my body knows something I don’t.
But what if the physical yearning is just that—a physical yearning. What if, like other bodily cravings—to run, to have sex, to dance—it is a yearning that needs to find form in the world. If I need to run, I run. If I need to have sex, I have sex—or I masturbate. If I need to dance, I dance. What do we do with expressions that can’t find form?
Sometimes I think that when I got pregnant, the mothering instinct was also born within me. And that unlike the physical symptoms that disappear when one is no longer pregnant—the growing belly, food cravings, morning sickness—this element does not dissipate. This element never leaves.
If I sit with the feeling I have around babies and children, if I turn it over and study it from every angle, I realize that I have it at other times as well. I feel it when I’m in the presence of animals. I felt it when my mother was in the hospital for hip surgery a few years ago. I felt it whenever my ex was sick and couldn’t get out of bed. I feel it when there is a thunderstorm and my cat hides under the bed. I feel it when a flock of geese are trying to cross a busy street. The need to care for something. To help where I can. To soothe. To comfort. To help something grow and thrive.
Maybe this is the thing I must learn to allow. The thing I must not turn my back on. If there is a mother version of me, maybe she just wants to be seen. Maybe she is tired of hiding in the shadows and behind closed doors. Maybe the reason she keeps following me around is because she was never meant to walk behind me. She was meant to walk beside me—baby or no baby.