No, I’m Not a Mother

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What is it like to be a mother?

The game was that we would take a piece of string and loop someone’s wedding ring through it. Then, someone would hold it above the wrist of each of the girl cousins – not the boys – and wait to see how it would circle. It’s an old wives’ tale that is typically used on an expectant mother and perhaps one of my cousin’s being pregnant was what spurred it on. The ring swings back and forth – you get a boy. The ring circles – it’s a girl. We used the test to determine how many children we might have in the future. Mine circled once.

The idea of motherhood scared me from an early age. I grappled with the frightening thought of childbirth and whether I should skip the whole newborn stage and adopt an older child long before I was doing anything to produce a child. I was the youngest of two children, and my only limited experience with babysitting small children was not stellar. Before I was twenty, I had already convinced myself that I was not going to have children. I would not be a mother.

As years passed, I thought about that circling ring. There seemed to be a promise in it. Maybe, I could have one child. It would be a girl. She would be quiet like me and curious. I still could not imagine going through pregnancy, labor, or that stage when babies are so fragile and dependent. I always daydreamed about this potential daughter as a toddler.

In the fall of 2004, I had a dream about her. In it, I was sitting in a church pew. My husband, who didn’t exist yet, sat next to me holding our baby girl. I told my grandmother about the dream the next day. I was in my mid-twenties with no prospect of marriage and my first experience with sex still years to come. My grandmother, who had once wondered too if she would ever be able to be a mother, told me that some people weren’t meant to be mothers and that was okay. I’m not certain what spurred her to say that. There was still a chance that I could become a mother and no reason to expect that I would not beyond my own hesitation to have anything to do with the babies in our family. She died a few months later and that makes me wonder if she had received a dream or some piece of wisdom about me that she needed to deliver in that moment.

When I got married in 2009, I began to prepare myself for the question of whether I wanted children. The image of that daughter stayed with me and an expectation began to settle in my heart. I would have one child someday. Circumstances changed and the idea of children began to get pushed down the timeline. I watched the women in my life have their children or, worse, deal with the agonizing grief of not being able to have the children they desperately wanted to have. I chose to wait.

I separated from my first husband in 2014. Mixed in the pain of a failed marriage was the realization of time. I was 35 on my way to 36. Leaving him also meant coming to the terms that I would likely never give myself the chance to become a mother. The idea of that daughter would have to be let go. I shared that with him when I told him about my decision to leave him. The choices we had both made had made the string test void in my opinion. In my mind, I was choosing to be like my Great Aunt Aggie – single and childless but okay, nonetheless.

I heard a story recently about someone who found out that they could not have children. They had never wanted children so the news should have been a simple confirmation of decisions made. There is a grief in the transformation from “don’t want” to “can’t have” that is hard to explain. It is aching for something you did not want and wondering what you have missed out on.

There are many parts of me in the novel I began writing in 2020, but one of the biggest is Julia’s question of what it would be like to be a mother. When I married my second husband in 2019, I was still able to become a mother. We made the deliberate choice for many reasons to not have children. Though I had already made that decision in my heart for years, I still had to come to terms with it again. I was 41 when I wrote Holding the Stars. I’m 45 now as I write this, sitting in my living room at four in the morning thinking about the dream of a little girl and the path that my life has taken to come to the tenuous peace that it’s okay to not know what it is like to be a mother.