The Metaphor

Back in October, I went on a trip with two friends—both of whom are mothers—to Sonoma County, where we stayed on the grounds of an organic vineyard in a 1920s farmhouse, complete with front porch, garden, and free-range chickens. Over coffee each idyllic morning, with the autumn sun touching the leaves on the vines, and the sound of trucks motoring their way down the two-lane road, we delved into subjects both light and deep. And my friend Kelley said during one such conversation, “You should write a book about that.”

That being this: my seemingly peculiar decision not to have children (or get married).

This is not a new topic. Notable women these days, such as Oprah Winfrey and author Elizabeth Gilbert, have talked at length about their decision not to have children, and while Oprah has steadfastly remained un-married, Elizabeth Gilbert—now re-married—documented her struggle with the whole idea of marriage in her book Committed.

I’m sure there are other formidably wise women throughout the ages who refused to reproduce or settle down, and while I can’t name them right now, they’re there.

It’s just that in our current culture, you rarely hear about them.

And therein lies the issue. As Kelley pointed out: “No one talks about this stuff.” And she’s right.

So let’s go there: let’s talk about this decision (and keep marriage for another day).

Pop culture tells us that our job as women is to have babies, preferably with a handsome man we’ve married, or just a handsome man, period. Check out the magazine stands at your local grocery store and you’d think there is nothing else happening in the world. Then watch your favorite entertainment program in the evening, and it’s basically just a regurgitation of what’s in the magazines, but with perky hosts who get paid to make it sound like the most fascinating stuff on the planet. We’re all suddenly on “baby watch.” Every mother-to-be has a cute “baby bump.” Celebrities spend more on their baby showers than the average person earns in a year. And best of all, as soon as someone famous couples up, the microphone points to the woman and this question gets asked: “When are you going to have kids?”

Watch them hesitate. They just got married (or started dating someone three weeks ago). They probably just stepped off the plane from the honeymoon (or romantic weekend away). They’re working on their next movie (TV show, music gig, or stand-up special), and you can see the wheels turning as they try to figure out how to explain that they’re busy, and that children aren’t top of mind right now because other things are, without sounding like a baby-hater and risking looking bad to their fans. Most don’t succeed. They deflect with “Soon!” or “I’m just enjoying being married right now!” with big smiles and nervous eyes.

No one ever, ever says, “I don’t want to have kids.” They squirm and say instead: “I’m not sure if kids are in my future.”

Does that make a sellable cover story? Do the grocery store checkout lines blare with this dud of a news nugget? And why the soft peddling?

Of course, this is just celebrity and pop culture. And most of the authentic and intelligent human beings I know tend not to let the misguided bubblegum mania that sells magazines dictate their lives and decisions.

But it’s a little bit harder when your best friend gets pregnant, and now she can think of nothing else. When your relatives make crass statements about you not being knocked up yet. When you’re in any kind of a social situation, and the conversation turns personal, and someone brings up children, and you say, “Not for me,” and they look at you funny and insist that you explain why not. When you were raised religious, and though you’re not anymore, you secretly wonder if you’re going to hell for not doing this. When your mother and sisters connect over teeny-tiny baby clothes and labor stories and decorating the nursery, and you stand in the background knowing it has nothing to do with you.

When you know, without knowing how you know, that you were meant for something else, and that it is your life’s mission and purpose to do that something else.

And what’s even worse is when you’re just not sure. Being sure—yes or no—is the easy part; you will take whatever comes with your head held high. But not being sure…now that I don’t envy anyone. Not being sure keeps you up at night. It starts fights with your spouse. It’s what leaves you vulnerable to influences of all kinds. It makes you measure the shape and quality of every passing year of your life.

As Elizabeth Gilbert said recently in an interview with Oprah (and I paraphrase): There are three kinds of women. Women who were born to be mothers, women who were born to be aunts, and women who should never come within 10 feet of a child. And if you don’t know which one you are, it can make for disaster.

So what makes us not know? Biologically we’re made to have children if we choose, but why does the choosing part make us so confused?

I can tell you a litany of reasons why I didn’t want my own children. All of them can be argued away as childhood trauma, selfishness, fear, you name it—nothing a good therapist couldn’t fix. But what if the ultimate reason was simply this:

What if motherhood, in addition to giving birth to and/or raising a human being, can also be a metaphor?

We creative types live this metaphor already. We finish a book, a piece of art, a kitchen renovation, and we say we “gave birth” to it. We call it a “labor of love.” Our projects are our “babies.” We nurture them for days, weeks, months, years, and when they are ready, we release them to the world.

Elizabeth Gilbert takes it a step further. She says some of us were meant to “mother” our communities. We listen to our friends’ tales of despair and offer advice. We support our familial units in a multitude of ways. We have random conversations with strangers that spark change in their lives. We volunteer. We vote. We organize. We hug. We protect. We teach. We look around us and notice new buds on the trees, new blossoms on the flowers, new families of ducks waddling to the pond’s edge, new life springing forth and changing and growing at every turn, and we point it out, and we demand that it be honored. We walk outside on a beautiful day and our hearts fill with joy, and everyone knows that when a woman loves—truly loves—the whole wide world shimmers with it.

Modern-day “motherhood” as we know it is just that: it’s modern. A fixation of a population. An idea. A thing you check off a bucket list. Something you just do, whether you’ve given it much thought or not. It’s trendy. It’s ever-shifting. It’s exhausting. There are a gazillion mommy blogs dedicated to telling it like it really is. There are hundreds of parenting books telling you how not to raise a perfect monster. There are mom exercise classes and mom clothing stores and mom book clubs. There are photographers who specialize in capturing all those precious moments with you and your offspring (with a nod to my friend Kelley, who does that, and is brilliant at it). And there are even duplicates of all of the above for dads, because even dads are getting into raising children now more than ever before. And all of this—all of this—let me say it again one more time: ALL of this is NOT actually motherhood.

It is NOT what should make us decide whether or not to have kids.

And no matter how meaningful or helpful or relevant it may feel, no matter how much importance we place on it, this kid stuff, mom stuff, dad stuff is simply a factor of our times, part of the zeitgeist of today. It will be different a hundred years from now.

So as women, we either choose to buy into it and think that it is our participation in the stuff that will make us happy and fulfilled, that will make us real women. Or we choose to sit down, be alone, get quiet, go silent, and give ourselves permission to look deep into our hearts. Because something is beating there, if you will only just allow yourselves to hear it.

What you may hear is that you have already borne children; you just need the right partner or circumstance to bring forth these little beings.

What you may hear is that children will touch your life in some way; just that they will not come from your own loins.

What you may hear is that children are not necessary for your survival, your self-worth, your worth to the world. Children do not make you a woman. And that in this blessed age when choice is both our biggest gift and our biggest conundrum, at the end of the day we have it—we actually have real choice—and it can be harnessed in this very big life decision for the genuine betterment of not just yourself, but of all around you, and not just in tireless allegiance to the breathless headlines of the newsstand magazine.

Choice can be harnessed for truth. And truth always begins and ends with you. You are a real woman when you recognize your truth.

There is much happening out there. Hurt, sorrow, violence, anguish…a lot that is broken. There is also, equally, much that is beautiful, brilliant, shining with potential, alive, well, and worthy. If you must mother a child, then by all means mother a child. But if you have ever wondered how else you may contribute your time, energy, and the fierce love in your heart, and if you have ever known (without knowing how you know) that it has absolutely nothing to do with holding a child of your own in your arms, then by all means honor that. There is work to be done. There is much more other “mothering” to do, even—and especially—if it’s simply the work of art you must nurture that is your own amazing, unfolding life.

And this is why I am writing this blog post. Kelley wanted a whole book, but let’s start here first.

With much love…and a happy holiday season to all of you. See you next year.

5 thoughts on “The Metaphor

  1. It starts early too. You’re twenty four and you decide to spend two years abroad volunteering for no money and people ask, ‘What about starting a family’, ‘what about getting married’, ‘How will this advance you career’ (the one that will pay for the kids and the house). Then you get to southeast Asia and the locals ask ‘How old are you?’, ‘You haven’t started a family yet?’ ‘Where is your husband?’ ‘Did your husband let you come here?’ ‘Who is caring for your kids?’.
    Makes you feel like a walking talking baby making machine.

    http://fromcambodiathisisgarlaine.wordpress.com/

  2. Some of the most important women in my life have chosen not to have children. Despite knowing them for most my life, considering them as my role models I have fully never understood their chocie until reading this. Thank you for making me smarter . The part about mothering their community really resinates with me.

  3. One day, years ago, in my mid-20’s, I think, I asked my mom if she would be disappointed in me if she didn’t have grand-children by me. Her response has been with me ever since– as long as you are happy, it’s all that matters. Sadly, I never been happy with any of the men I lived with [mental illness, drug addiction, abusive], I’ve never gave birth. Yet, with my faith in God, I’m joy-filled.

  4. This is so well said. It’s obnoxious how our culture , well , all cultures , badger women about getting married and having babies. It so needs to be a personal decision. Thank you for sharing this!

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