As I write this, Mother’s Day is nearly upon us. It can be a painful day for some women who are my age or older, and, like me, childless. For me, the day doesn’t arouse any emotion other than regret that once again I’ve failed to get a card for my mom.
My husband and I have made the conscious decision not to have children. We always said to each other that we felt complete as a family, just the two of us. We also always said that if either of us felt strongly that we should have a child, we’d do it. And we said that if it happened by accident, that would be fine, great, we’d be good parents. We took measures, and told each other that if God really wanted us to have kids, He was powerful enough to thwart those measures.
Over twenty years later, there’s still no sign or feeling or longing, no scares or almosts or maybes, and at this point I think it’s safe to say it’s not going to happen.
And that is okay with me, truly. Yet, as I get older, I do see unanticipated side-effects of this decision, and those side-effects occasionally bring me some melancholy, some frustration, some sadness.
There are the practical ways that not being a mom makes a forty-year-old woman an outsider among her peers. Virtually all of my women friends are mothers or are planning to be mothers. The ones who are in my age range are mostly in the throes of mothering infants and toddlers; many are also managing careers. Dinners out, spontaneous coffee dates, afternoon matinees, or even uninterrupted phone calls are simply not reality.
As each new baby comes along, I drift further from this circle of friends. And not just because of the logistical realities. Those women change, as their lives rightly re-shift focus to family life. What matters to them, what they value, what they worry about, how they spend their money and their time and their energy, what they want to talk about—all of these things create larger and larger gaps between us, and I easily let go.
Become engaged with their children’s lives, Sara! If you’re a friend you will change along with the friendship! Work around their schedules! Their kids won’t be young forever and then you can pick up again with the coffee dates and movies!
I know. I know.
The interior shift for them, though, is deep.
What I keep hearing from people who are parents, especially mothers: You can’t really know or understand what love is until you’ve loved your child. That there are deep wells of this special love within you, only discoverable through motherhood.
Further, I’ve read over and over that you can’t really understand God’s love until or unless you are a parent. That parental love is the central metaphor for understanding how God sees us. Until you have children, you can’t grasp unconditional love, grace, a forgiveness that keeps no record of wrongs. Oh, you might think you can. But you have no idea.
Where does that leave people like me? Am I to believe that my experience of life and faith is somehow lesser than theirs? That I’ve got the “limited features” version of Christianity? That way of thinking makes me a little bit angry. (I imagine this is how single people feel when they hear similar things about marriage being the way to understand God’s love.)
I’m able to reject this thinking, mostly. Nonetheless, there are ways this deep shift in my mom-friends’ lives and hearts makes me feel irrevocably left behind, not in a self-pitying way, but in a reality-seeing way.
So, my closest friendships tend to be with men. We have this in common: we’ll never be mothers. They may be or become fathers, but it’s different somehow. They seem not to disappear into that role—maybe only because they have the luxury of a culture that supports their autonomy.
Of course there is more to those friendships than the fact we’re not mothers, but I do perceive myself as a fundamentally different kind of human being than women who are, or who want to be, mothers. And, the independence that childlessness gives me in some ways makes me more like a man, practically and emotionally. At least, that’s one way I’ve come to understand the increasing separation between me and so many of the women I know.
I hope I’m not being negative. I hope my mom-friends will forgive me for feeling these things.
What I’ve noticed most of all as my husband and I move into midlife, is that we lack the rhythms of days, weeks, months, seasons, and years that are organic to a life raising kids. We can go long stretches of time with no change forced upon us by the transitions that come fast and furious for the parents we know.
This makes me restless sometimes, bored, and a bit disheartened by years unfurling before us made up of more of the same. But this belief that nothing will change, that a life without children is static and boring, or that I’m not experiencing real love or real faith, is false, I know. The last ten years of my life have been full of more change, and love, than the thirty years preceding them, combined.
I trust, and I call all my childless friends to trust along with me, that the life and faith we experience can be as worthy, full, dynamic, and joyful as a life with children would be.
Different, yes, but not lesser.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.