Last night I attended a virtual discussion between two women, both professors, about the creative body of work one of them had produced. Apparently her latest effort is concerned with female bodies, with the experiences of embodiment, so naturally the talk turned to motherhood. As a unique part of women’s embodiment. As a rite of passage, almost. In the chat area, other women gushed with gratitude: Finally! A place for motherhood in literature! A space where we can talk about the dark, ugly sides of maternity!
But as a woman who is not a mother, I feel like those discussions happen all the time, everywhere I go. Mommy blogs are huge, and every “You’ve got this, girl!” inspirational book I pick up talks about the challenges of child-rearing. Yes, they might drop a token line or two acknowledging the single women who always wanted kids and mourn the absence of board books and binkies in their lives, but then they turn back to the mommy talk.
Even when I attended a women’s Bible study at my former church, the conversation veered onto toddler music. I’m sure those women needed that conversation — as badly as I needed to not be reminded of the fact that everyone else at the table had children. As Sesame Street says, one of these things is not like the others. For once, I would like not to feel like that’s me. Motherhood just represents one more space where I’ve always wished I could belong but don’t.
It’s not that I traded becoming a parent for a wildly successful career or a glamorous social life. I grew up hearing that women had to choose between motherhood and a career; I never heard that sometimes the choices you make leave you with neither, despite your best intentions and attempts to make the wisest decisions you could in keeping with your own goals and dreams and values.
Not having children is partially my choice, but only partially. I understand that there are options for becoming a single parent. I also know myself well enough to realize that raising a child solo would be a disaster. Nor do I have the financial resources to support another human being. Heck, I’m trying to figure out if I can even afford a second dog.
I always believed that sooner or later, I’d meet the right man, and we’d embark together on the journey of starting a family. I envisioned a nursery in a ladybug motif. For years I planned baby showers for friends, excited for them but also anticipating the day when I’d be attending my own.
That day has never come, and realistically, it won’t.
This is usually the point where some well-meaning person jumps in to tell me to just foster or just adopt or just find a guy who already has kids, and voila! instant family. Of course, every. single. person. who has given me this advice has their own biological children. I don’t think they understand how cruelly their words slice. Fostering or adopting would still entail single parenthood without the financial resources to support a child. And while I have friends who are wonderful step-parents, that is not an option for me. Every time I looked at those kids, I’d feel scourged by the knowledge that the man I love chose to start a family with a woman who wasn’t me, during the same span of time I was choosing not to start a family with anyone who wasn’t him. I know I’m not supposed to admit this; people respond like it’s shameful. People who have what I want behave like I’m unreasonable to want what they have.
There’s no resolution. I’m hurting today, feeling excluded from yet another space — a literary conversation — that I had entered in the expectation of finding connection rather than dissonance.
But that discussion also emphasized the need to write our unspeakable truths. So I’m writing this, because it feels shameful to speak but it’s also a deep truth of my life. This is the space I occupy, the space you’re left with when you don’t belong anywhere else.