Not Having Children
(I wrote this essay twenty years ago. I published it here for the first time six years ago. This Mother’s Day, I share it again.)
I married when I was forty.
It was amazing at that age how many people asked me if we were going to have children. No, I’d say, We’re not having children. What is amazing to me now is that I thought I was lying. Keeping a secret.
Of course we would have children. Forty is still young.
I’m lucky. Lucky in my career, first of all. I am immodest enough to know that my business success is largely due to brains and hard work, but I am also honest enough to know that a part of my success is the result of just too much time on my hands. I work hard because I have no place better to be. I’m not so much ambitious as simply trying to pass the time as interestingly as possible. People at the office listen to me, value my opinion, and pay me pretty good money. How ungrateful I am to rather have a baby.
And on top of a great career, I found a husband at forty. A nice one. Those horrible statistics say I have a better chance of being hit by a meteor. And I want a baby too?
My husband never quite felt the same way. He’s a few years older than I, and was married before to a woman who could not have children. He got used to the idea years ago that children weren’t in his future. He has no experience with kids. He doesn’t think he’d be a good father.
He’d be a wonderful father. I’ve seen how he adores and protects our little cats – feeding them treats from the table, gently untangling knots from their coats, bragging about their exploits long after his audience has lost interest, and, in time, building small cedar coffins through his tears.
When we married, he knew I wanted a baby. He just couldn’t know the completeness of my desire
Early in our marriage, I was late with my period. My anxiety and happiness overwhelmed me. I found myself sitting still for long stretches, holding my breath, counting the seconds until my life changed forever. Two long weeks. I was terrified that it wouldn’t be true; I failed to see that my husband’s fear was different. A baby would be great…but…financially, things are tough right now, it would be career-limiting for you, we’ll be retirement age when college tuition is due, we could die leaving a child for someone else to raise… I never really listened past A baby would be great. When my period finally came, I was quietly devastated. My husband was kind and sweet, but woven through his condolences were the unmistakable threads of relief. I spent all day in bed with the shades drawn. I’d feel him every so often watching me helplessly from the doorway, as if he knew he could not enter my grief. I guess it would be nice to have a baby, he said. I know how happy it would make you.
I am the most selfish person on earth.
The following month my doctor recommended a fertility specialist. I put the referral in my purse, knowing I wouldn’t call.
But even without professional help, I was sure I would get pregnant. Every month I was sure. For ten years. I still cry when I get my period. I try to keep this private but sometimes my husband sees. He comforts me, and I hope he thinks that it’s just hormones. At my age, it probably is.
I am very jealous of mothers. I am jealous of teenage mothers. I am jealous of older mothers. I am jealous of women who get pregnant the first month they try. And I am jealous of women who finally, finally, after miscarriages and disappointments, have their babies.
And now I am fifty. We’re not having children.
Not having children doesn’t take any big adjustments. I am already living a childless life. Now it’s just permanent. It’s a very good life, and it will continue exactly as before. I just have to make some minor modifications of my imagination.
For thirty years I’ve watched mothers with their children and stored little scenes for my own future. I have stolen other women’s moments like a shoplifter who keeps all her pilfered items in the closet, afraid to wear them. My closet is full.
But these clothes don’t fit me any more. It’s time to pack up these images likes bundles for Goodwill.
The first day of school, Mother’s Day cards and macaroni necklaces. Ice skating, singing Old MacDonald in the car. Chicken pox and computer games; soccer practice. Tantrums. Cheerios in the sofa cushions, bicycles in the driveway.
They are such little pictures. Insignificant really. Someone else’s memories. Time to give them up. We’re not having children.
At the restaurant a young boy rests his head for a moment on his mother’s breast. She smooths his hair. He returns to his pizza. Last year I would have certainly snatched up that moment. But now I have no place to put it. I let it go.
There is an emptiness where my vision of the future used to be. But not forever. I am a women with aspirations after all. So I know that there will be new images. Maybe warm fireplaces and good books. Fresh flowers on the table. Beaches. Sunsets. Conversations. Porch swings. I tend to think these new dreams will be quieter dreams, but I know that they are already waiting for me.
All these years I have been saving money for a rainy day that was secretly a college education. But we’re not having children. The money has been redirected.
My husband and I are building a home in the country. It’s a wonderful home on a breathtakingly beautiful piece of land. We designed the house ourselves. So it has almost everything we ever wanted.
Remember the movie, Grand Canyon? I don’t think the critics liked it, but I did. In one storyline, Mary McDonnell is out jogging and finds an abandoned baby in the bushes. She keeps it. Her husband is not crazy about the idea, but he is Kevin Kline and fabulous and their relationship is perfect and they have such a healthy outlook on life that you know it will work out beautifully.
Sometimes when I am out walking, I keep my eyes on the shrubbery.