As Mother’s Day approaches, I can’t help but be keenly aware of the fact that I do not have children. I stand in our local card store and search for just the right card for my own mother. So many of them include phrases like, Because of you, I’m now a better mother to my own children or Now that I’m a parent, I know how much you sacrificed for me. I feel tears stinging my eyes and I take a deep breath, because I am painfully familiar with this sensation. I wonder when—and if—this feeling will pass. Will I still feel it at 45, or at 50? Will I always feel it? I am 42 years old and I am running out of time.
Like many people, my life is not quite how I imagined it would be. I have always wanted to be a mother. As a teenager, I babysat for three young children in my neighborhood. They were like family to me, and I spent long summer days at their house. Sometimes I pretended that they were my children and that my husband—whomever I happened to have a crush on that day—was going to walk through the door any moment in a suit and tie. I loved their baby powder smell, soft chubby skin and tiny fingers that would curl tightly around my own.
I won’t lie—there were days when I had spent hours with all three kids, was flat-out exhausted, and swore to myself that I was never having sex. Ever. As much as I may have romanticized motherhood at times, I’m still convinced that babysitting a handful of young kids as a teenager is the best form of birth control.
My first job in publishing was in the Golden Books Adult Division. (No, we weren’t publishing porn—we were publishing books for the parents whose kids read our beloved children’s books.) The editor I worked for acquired self-help, psychology and relationship books, memoirs, and many parenting books. When I finally became an acquisitions editor myself, I naturally found myself gravitating toward similar subjects. My authors would at some point inevitably ask, “Do you have any kids?” And I would respond, “No…not yet. I’m not married. But someday I will be really prepared, having worked on all of these parenting books!”
I didn’t marry my husband until I was 36, but we deliberately stalled our efforts to start a family because we wanted to get our finances in order. We were trying to be responsible. I was working in publishing at the time, not making much money, and my husband had given up his musical aspirations to settle down and get a blue collar lawn-care job. We had mounds of debt. As I found myself once again editing parenting books at a new company, that old question resurfaced: “Do you have kids?” And I answered, “No…not yet. We just got married.” I wondered if they could hear the wistfulness that now crept into my voice.
At the same time my husband and I finally decided that—money or no money—the fertility window was closing, our marriage hit the rocks. Baby-making got put on hold yet again, and I found myself teetering between feelings of desperation and denial. I knew I couldn’t really afford this holding pattern at my age, especially since we lacked the financial means for fertility treatments or adoption, but I resented the opinion that if you really want kids you do whatever you have to, regardless of your circumstances. Sometimes it’s not so easy, not so black and white, and I didn’t want to bring a child into the world until I knew it was the right time. Now that I’m older and have witnessed so many friends experience this rite of passage, I better understand what a serious decision it is to raise another human being.
As my husband and I glued the pieces of our marriage back together, we revisited our desire to start a family. We finally began trying in earnest, and I dutifully began to take my temperature every day, tracked my cycle, and became the type-A methodical person that I am, even in procreating. Over time, the excitement wore thin. With every negative pregnancy test, I felt a little more depressed, a little more inadequate. I began dreading that time in my cycle, knowing that even as I convinced myself I would be fine either way and to not get my hopes up, I would inevitably feel a powerful sense of loss. People continued to ask me if I had any children, and I continued to respond, “No…not yet.” But now I began to wonder if soon the answer would be, “No.” Full stop.
By this point, most of my friends had multiple children, and still it seemed that everywhere I looked, yet another friend, co-worker or acquaintance was pregnant. I love my friends, and I love their children, so I was thrilled for them. But seeing so many pregnant bellies still smarted. I began driving myself crazy every month, imagining that I was experiencing pregnancy symptoms: I felt sick to my stomach, exhausted, and my boobs were sore. All signs, right? Thanks to Mother Nature, they are also all signs of PMS. One month I was convinced I was pregnant. I just knew that this time it was going to work out. The day I got my period, one of my best friends called me with her own happy news. I came home and sobbed on my husband’s shoulder.
At a certain point in your life as a woman, you are either in the “mommy club” or you aren’t, and so much of our womanhood is tied up in having children. I don’t know what it feels like to be pregnant. I don’t know what it feels like to give birth. I don’t know what it feels like to breastfeed. I’m simply not a part of that conversation, and I wonder if I ever will be.
Every Christmas, my husband and I wonder if next year we’ll receive the best present of all. We dream of sharing the holiday with a child, of Santa Claus and wrapping toys, favorite movies and baking cookies. We imagine first-day-of-school photos. We envision bedtime stories and guitar lessons. We also worry about being alone. As we watch our own parents age, we are increasingly confronted with our mortality. If one of us goes before the other, we don’t want that remaining person to be alone. I want to know my husband has someone left to love him, someone to visit him in the nursing home. Someone to deliver a heartfelt eulogy if I am already gone.
My husband and I stopped trying to get pregnant after about a year or so, because the company where I worked was flailing and I feared that no one would hire me if I was pregnant and lost my job. I had worked for my company for seven years, so I knew that I had put in my time and proven myself, but if I were to start over somewhere new and get pregnant, would it reflect poorly on me as an employee? Would a new boss be angry that I had recently been hired and was already taking maternity leave? I felt angry and frustrated that men did not have to navigate such predicaments. I stressed out about every worst-case scenario and felt paralyzed with indecision. It felt irresponsible to get pregnant when everything was so uncertain.
Nine months later, I lost my job, and the world didn’t end. A part of me wishes I hadn’t wasted those nine months living in fear, but I find it relatively impossible to live a life with no regrets. I have spent the past nine months trying to find a full-time job, building a freelance editorial business, and, yes, we’ve pulled the goalie, as one of my friends jokingly refers to it. Because I finally understand that life is never going to be perfect and sometimes you have to do the thing that scares you most. Because I’m tired of worrying about what everyone else thinks or wants or believes is the responsible thing to do. Because it’s my life, and I really don’t want “No…not yet” to turn into just plain “No.”
As Mother’s Day approaches, I steel myself for the well-meaning people who will innocently wish me a happy Mother’s Day. I know that I will flash a good-natured smile, thank them, and move on. For now, I am grateful that I still have my own mother to celebrate and buy cards for on this holiday—I know this is an extraordinary gift. Maybe, just maybe, next year my answer to the parenting questions will change.
Maybe it will even be yes.