Watching the Mother Ship Sail: The Regret (and Relief) of Not Becoming a Parent
Before the pandemic, I was a good sleeper. Now, understimulated by day, I am on overdrive at night. I lie awake for hours, cycling through a whole series of worst-case scenarios and past mistakes. In these anxiety marathons, the thing I keep looping back to is that I don’t have children. I just turned 45, so that ship is rapidly sailing — or, really, has sailed. We might call it the “mother ship,” the one I’m watching disappear over the horizon, carrying the alternate life where I am somebody’s biological mother.
I met my husband when I was 36 and married him when I was 39 and he was 40, so we were a bit behind schedule. (He had been married before, and I was just a late-bloomer.) On an early date, at an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn Heights, we discussed our mutual ambivalence about having children. We both had some family trauma and were relieved to be solidly in the adult world and on our own. We agreed we wanted “somewhere between zero and one child.”
That joke has become one of the defining features of our marriage: our inability to decide between zero and one. In the five years we’ve been married, we have waffled and wavered and hemmed and hawed. We went through a brief period, when I was about 42, where we “tried,” meaning only that we got lazy about contraception and decided we would leave it up to the fates. The fates were not our side — or perhaps were on our side, depending on how you look at it.
I realized during that time that I was terrified of getting pregnant. After unprotected sex, I would lie there with my heart pounding, in a state of mortal dread. Partly it was the physical reality —the changes to my body, the pain of labor — and partly it was fear of the child itself, the way it would disrupt and transform everything, not least my relationship with my husband.
The issue, really, was that we were happy — we liked our life together the way it was. We did things we loved: movies, live music, dinners out, and extensive travel, often staying away for weeks at a time. Compared to our friends with children, we were freer, more independent, more self-determined. And our marriage, which had a late start, was harmonious. It didn’t feel like anything was missing, so we had no compelling reason to make a tremendous change.
All of that is still true now, a few years on, aside from the fact that it’s harder for us to do the things we love and see the people we love in the COVID era. But the basic facts remain: I’m still happily married, and I still don’t feel anything is missing. And we now have a little rescue dog, who I love so much it surprises me every day. He is a kind of baby substitute, of course, and I might be less rapturously in love with him if I had a child. But he is also his own creature, and—baby or no baby—my love for him is real.
But in the middle of the night, in those hours of fretful wakefulness, my mind veers frantically from one form of regret about children to another. I wonder if I’m missing out on the most precious thing life can offer. I want to do life right, I think. I want (as they say) to live it to the fullest. How can it be the “fullest” when I have not filled it up with all the possible people to love? And what about my marriage — it is excellent, yes, but excellent enough to sustain us if it is just us forever? No children means no grandchildren. It’s like an equation on a high school math test: the time we spend together increases, but the number of people in our family holds steady at two.
Then my anxiety might change tack: Who will take care of us when we are old? What if my husband dies first and it’s just me, alone and ailing? After he recently spent a week living with his parents while his mother recovered from knee replacement surgery, helping her with everything from cooking meals to getting out of chairs, I wondered, who will do this for us?
In this nocturnal funk, I often ask myself what I will leave behind. There was a moment a couple of years back when I was working on a book about my childhood, and my husband was getting ready to start a furniture-building business. “Maybe we’re going to have a book and a business instead of a baby,” I said to him. Now he has a business, but I still don’t have a book. Or a baby.
Part of the problem is that the door is not entirely closed. There are still some (pricey) options: IVF, egg donors, adoption. I’ve always held onto adoption not only as a kind of escape hatch, a last-ditch possibility, but also as a way I might help the world a tiny bit. Why continue to populate an already overburdened earth when there are children who need homes? Somewhere around 5 AM, I’ll start cycling through the logistics of it: domestic or international? How long will it take? How much will it cost?
In the harsh light of day, I rarely speak about these things to my husband. Early on in the pandemic, we drove upstate and went for a day hike with the dog. About two hours into the woods, I brought it up — the adoption fantasy. He listened, he was open, he didn’t rule it out. He told me to do some research and talk to some friends and tell him how I was feeling. I haven’t done a lick of research.
Although it seems obvious, it’s only recently dawned on me that this is the one major life choice with an expiration date. You can continue to change your mind about your career, your friends, your partner, your education, where you live until the day you die. But as a woman, you have only a brief window to have children and then that option is gone. I know women who are certain they don’t want children; I am not one of these, and I never will be. But every day, I move one step farther from this path I could have taken, one of those two diverged in the yellow wood.
In my more sober daylight moments, I ask myself why I can’t settle comfortably into this nice life I have made for myself. I question to what extent my misgivings come from within versus stemming from external cultural pressures and expectations. A part of me thinks a woman will only be truly fulfilled if she becomes a mother. I don’t actually believe this, but somehow this idea is floating around in my head.
I may not ever be at peace with my childlessness, but in moments I glimpse a kind of equilibrium. I can admit to myself that I have already answered what Rebecca Solnit calls “the mother of all questions,” and that I answered in the negative. That I did make a choice, even if I made it passively.
I am an aunt to two amazing nieces. When I look at my siblings (their parents), I feel some mixture of envy (they have children) and relief (my life is not theirs). I love my little nieces with my whole heart. Maybe the joy they bring me and the way they fill out my family is enough. Maybe they’ll come see me when I’m old.
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