I am what the parlance of courtesy calls a Woman Of A Certain Age.
That age is the one where motherhood becomes progressively more risky and unlikely, and where a childless state becomes clearly a matter of failed biology or deliberate choice. If, by my time of life, there is no child I am assumed to either be committed to that or incapable of anything else, and how I am perceived as a woman is often based in which pigeonhole I occupy.
When I meet new people, one of their first questions is "Oh, do you have kids?" That I'm usually asked that before I'm asked about jobs, interests, hobbies, or non-offspring family is telling. We still view women primarily in light of their status as mothers, and other concerns remain secondary.
My reasons for not having children are complicated; they are also my own. I am not inclined, or obligated for that matter, to share them with strangers.
But my simple 'no' is insufficient. There must be a reason, and I owe that reason to the world. The silence that follows an uninflected, "No, I don't. Do you?" carries a weight and dimension of its own, as the listener tries to figure out if I am to be pitied, envied, or judged.
Do I leave behind me a string of miscarriages, fruitless pregnancy tests, weeping doctor visits? Are there abortions in my past, surgeries to render me willfully barren and sexually agent, in defiance of my expected role in this world? Have I been a careful creature, calculating days and pills and prophylactic success rates, limiting my pleasure by the prevention of procreation?
And then there's the Why of my absent motherhood. Am I one of the Selfish Women, who puts her own needs and goals and desires above the imaginary child's? That identity sparks envy from some, defiant sorority from others, and scorn from the largest part. Am I a Failed Mother, unable to conceive or carry to term? There's a smug pity she's often given by those who breed easily, and a careful empathy from those who've struggled themselves. Did I want and lose my children, did I avoid or terminate pregnancies, am I one of the sad sisterhood of women who've borne and lost living children?
At my age, now, there is the question of whether I waited too long. Did I put my own needs forward for too many years, only to be punished for it in my fourth or fifth decade? Have I been desperately trying, am I even now willing a small life to take hold in my precarious womb?
There is, of course, the conundrum. A woman who has children in her twenties, when it's healthiest but least fiscally sound, is judged if circumstance makes her unable to care for them, requires her to seek assistance. A woman who waits until later years, when it's more stable but less simple to conceive, is judged for her selfishness; if she cannot have the children she planned so carefully to support others laugh behind their hands at her presumption, that she felt she had any right to dictate terms to Mother Nature.
I used to ease that silence for everyone. I'd distill my reasons into a single sentence that let them, as accurately as possible, know where I fall. Whether to discuss their own children with smug pride at my failure or resentment at my rejection, or simple sympathy. Whether to offer banal platitudes about how nice adoption can be or how I must enjoy my freedom. Whether to share their own stories of hope or frustration, whether to revel in a joyous sisterhood of unstained carpets and cheerio-free car floors. I no longer do that, because I've spent enough time now validating and explaining my life, and I feel that at this point, I'm done. Generally, if another woman answers with "No, me either," we talk briefly about our reasons -- not because we share childlessness, but because we share the experience of being that way in the world where we live.
In some communities this lot is easier. Among my pagans and my nerd friends, being a parent or not is a data point. Usually it relates to "Which things do I invite you to, and do you have kids I can use as an excuse to shop for tauntaun sleeping bags?" The silence there is short, and usually ends in, "Yeah, I have kids, they're awesome/I don't have any either. Oh, hey, do you like (other potential shared interest)?" It's only in the more conventional, mainstream communities that I find myself staring into the uncomfortable silence.
When I really stop to think about it, it's odd that the pagans should be less fazed by my failure to fall into the role of Mother, for which they have a defined phase of the Divine Feminine's life cycle, but there you have it. They accept it far more readily, perhaps because we expand the definitions of 'mother' and 'fertility' to encompass a much larger range of choices.
Within the next fifteen years or so, it will shift to grandkids. And I'll be expected to explain whether the failed womanhood is mine or my daughter's (or my son's misfortune not to marry a proper childbearing girl). The potential causes for my failure as a woman expand with each generational marker, as my family might had I started one.
I find that I don't ask the question myself. I don't really know when I stopped, but it wasn't a conscious choice. I just stopped wondering. People will tell me about their kids, if they want to talk about them.
Most of all, I don't hold any sort of ill will towards those who have kids. I don't covet their children, or resent their happiness. My parent friends share their children with me, and I love them not as some sort of surrogates for my own, but as the bright and amazing beings they are, and the future they represent.
(the title of this blog comes from a Jenny Lewis song making the rounds these days, which is not precisely about this issue, but inspired the thought process)