Friday, May 11, 2012

Motherhood: The Road Not Taken

This time of year assumptions abound.

"Any plans for Mother's Day?" the supermarket cashier asks cheerily.

My reflexive answer is well-practiced: "Well, who knows?" I reply, smiling mysteriously. "I'm going to lie low and just see what happens."

She smiles. "Me, too," she says. "Though I'm hoping for a surprise from my kids."

"I hope you get a good one!" I say, turning to leave.

I know surprises are quite unlikely for me this Mother's Day or any other.  I am a childless 67-year-old woman and my own mother has been dead for more than three decades.


It was a radical thought back in the Fifties when just about everyone was married with children -- with a few notable exceptions -- including my beloved Aunt Molly. But I always considered her our third and best parent. And, for many years, especially after our parents died, Mike, Tai and I honored Aunt Molly with a special outpouring of love, affection and an excellent brunch at her favorite restaurant on Mother's Day.

There was one childless couple living in our neighborhood as I was growing up. Shel and Sybil Frye, a middle-aged, long-married couple lived two doors down from us. Their baby was a wonderful Golden Retriever named Honey.

Some people whispered that, as childless folk, they must be very selfish or else, perhaps, there was something terribly physically wrong with them.

But they seemed normal to me. Shel had a great sense of humor and loved to go fishing with my father. Sybil was always very sweet to neighborhood kids. She was quick with cookies, agreeable to my brother running away from home and hiding in her hedge all day as long as he was home by sundown. And Honey was a neighborhood favorite. I invited her to my birthday parties and she was the most popular guest there.

Still, I pitied them at times. Their life was so quiet, their house so orderly, their life together so...predictable.  I never aspired to be them.

All these years later, Bob and I are them -- but with cats instead of a big golden dog.

How did this happen? 

I never smugly chose to be "child-free." Instead, it seemed somehow predestined -- much to my distress growing up.

 I remember seeing "Three Coins in the Fountain" as a child and being greatly affected by a scene where one of the female characters weeps because she'll never have a child. I cried myself to sleep that night -- knowing somehow without knowing that this would be my own fate.

In college, as my suitemates dreamed out loud about husbands and children, I sat by feeling, once again, that what they dreamed so easily would not happen quite that way for me. I heard myself saying something snotty and bitter to soothe my overwhelming sense of anticipatory loss.  Lorraine sat beside me and put her arms around me. "You're scared that it won't happen for you, aren't you?" she asked, so wise for her years. "Don't worry. I just know somehow your life is going to be wonderful, that things will work out just right for you."

What was just right? I had decided that I didn't want to have children unless I could find a man who wanted truly wanted children. I didn't want to relive the eternal tension between my parents -- my mother who had longed for children, my father who largely loathed parenthood.

But things just didn't seem to work out with parenthood.

Michael Lynn, my first post-college boyfriend longed for marriage and children but I wasn't ready to settle down in my early twenties -- and he went on to be a loving stepfather to the children of the woman he eventually married and the absolutely devoted grandfather to their children.

I had an unplanned pregnancy with Dr. Chuck ---- thanks to a malfunctioning IUD. Though it was unplanned, it was far from unwelcome. Chuck, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, loved and wanted children. But the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage shortly before our relationship began a seismic shift. At age 30, Chuck came to terms with the fact that he was gay and we veered away from romance, marriage and children and continued on as friends and professional partners instead, producing several classic books instead of babies.

I was in my thirties when I met Bob, who was divorced and who had had a vasectomy during his first marriage. He had helped his first wife to raise a daughter by her previous marriage and he had no desire to repeat the experience.  Nevertheless, our relationship was so loving, so nurturing, so much what I had always wanted. I chose to spend my life with Bob. And this choice meant I would be childless.

But being childless hasn't meant that our lives are closed off to children.

As the years went by, Bob became a dedicated Big Brother to three generations of Little Brothers during his 22 years in the program. His three Little Brothers -- Paco, David and Ryan -- all became a part of our life together.

 In particular, we both love Ryan immensely and forever. He became Bob's third and last Little Brother as a small child more than 20 years ago and is the closest we'll ever have to a son. He calls us on Mother's Day, Father's Day, and many other times during the year to say "I love you!" and to share the adventures of his young adult life. And we'll be headed back to Los Angeles soon to share his joy as he receives his Master's degree in social work -- a major step toward his goal of becoming a psychotherapist. 

In some ways, my life, too, has been devoted to young people. For many years, I wrote almost exclusively for or about teenagers. For 20 years, I was a part-time admissions officer representing Northwestern University in California, Arizona and Nevada, interviewing several generations of promising young students. Some of these young people, whether or not they eventually attended Northwestern, became part of my life. 

But there were times, particularly after my parents died, when I felt existentially alone and wished that my lifestyle could be more traditional. There were times when I yearned for that closest of connections, for that love both fierce and all-encompassing.

Then I would host a parent fleeing from the stress of adolescent parenting for a week, or watch a toddler meltdown in public and think that being childless had its advantages.

But still, I've never identified with the militant "child-free" folk.

When I read books about being the wonders of child-free living, I always came away feeling unsatisfied and ashamed. The mind-set invariably seems to be that there was something the matter with children: they are savages, cost too much money to raise, and, in more promising times, interfered with a jet-setting yuppie lifestyle. These all seemed to be such superficial reasons to bypass a major aspect of adult life. And these weren't the reasons I was not a parent.

When I thought about why I had made the choices I made, it came down to me. Perhaps it was the memory of my father's bitter words "Marriage with children is the complete life catastrophe!" or my mother's wistful sighing about the career she had loved and left behind for motherhood. Deep down, perhaps, I didn't feel I had the courage and willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to be a mother. In my darkest moments, I've feared that something of my father might lurk malevolently in my emotional DNA.

But perhaps it was simply my destiny to fall in love with Ryan and with my nieces and nephew-to-be, to give warm support and guidance to children and teens with my books, and with my college admissions work instead of being a hands-on parent.

There are times of wistfulness, of wondering about what that road not taken might have been like, as well as times of feeling comfortable with my choice.

I see how children of friends have become wonderful adults, a source of joy and comfort to their parents, my peers. I see my friends and neighbors enjoying their grandchildren. I see multi-generational families and smile --and sometimes feel wistful. 

I've rejoiced as my siblings both became late-in-life parents. Tai gave birth to Nick when she was 35 and Mike was 60 when he and Amp had Maggie. He will be pushing 63 when their son Henry arrives this summer.

Despite her traumatic childhood, Tai is a loving, supportive mother to Nick, delighting in her strengths, talents and eccentricities alike.

And I marvel at Mike's -- and Amp's -- patience with their little Maggie. She's two-and-a-half, a bright and beautiful child and I look forward to seeing and knowing the growing person she will be. But I struggle to imagine how one copes with the demands, with the energy it takes, to be a 24/7 parent of a toddler -- especially in one's sixties. My brother, who had a much more difficult childhood than I, handles these demands beautifully. The love he and Amp have for Maggie is an all-encompassing love I will never know.

And yet I rejoice in being an aunt, a mentor, a writer young people can trust.

I love reading stories to Maggie and encouraging her to talk. I love sharing the insights and adventures of young adults I first met in the college admissions process as they venture out into the post-college world. I love hearing from long ago readers. I still sometimes get emails of thanks via my website from middle-aged adults who recall my 'TEEN articles or growing up with one of the seven editions of "The Teenage Body Book." It warms my heart to know that what I've written over the past 44 years has been helpful.

Sometimes warm feedback can take me by surprise.

I got an email on my birthday a few weeks ago from a high school friend Suse Harper-Yates, whom I haven't seen in nearly 50 years. She reminded me that we had played mother and daughter in a school production of "I Remember Mama" late in our senior year.

Her email read, in part: "For 'I Remember Mama' on her birthday! Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with another person, having to neither weigh thoughts nor measure words...I love you! Suse."

What a gift Suse's words were to me: both bringing back wonderful memories and letting me know as yet another Mother's Day approaches, that I had been a temporary mother, a source of comfort to her, all those years ago.

The memories flooded back. I had played Mama and Suzy had played Christine, the middle daughter. I remembered being delighted by the warm chemistry I had with her: it felt natural onstage to snuggle with her, to admonish her firmly but with affection, to meet her smile with my own.

I had no way of knowing then the secrets she was holding: the painful truth of her life at home. I had no way of knowing then -- nor did she -- the challenges she was to face in the years to follow. But for that very brief time, in a very different place in both our lives, I had been a good mother to her. I had helped her to feel warm and loved and safe.

What a blessing this was to hear and to know that these feelings had stayed with her all through the years.

Maybe my dear, long-deceased college friend Lorraine was right all those years ago: my life  has been wonderful, indeed, turning out the way it was always meant to be....just right.


  1. Kathy, as you have expressed so well there are so many way of relating to children and young people, to their good and yours, without having been a biological mother. I had elderly aunts who never had children, but they and their husbands were an essential part of my childhood and I loved them. I have friends without children who were so kind and loving with my children. Mothering is much wider and deeper than biology.

  2. I've always felt it's not so much what comes out of a person's body that makes them a mother, but what comes out of their heart. And you, my friend, have that nurturing, loving soul that all true mothers have.

  3. Sometimes not being a mother but perhaps the favorite aunt is almost like being a grandparent. You get all the pleaure of a child but none of the stress and anxiety of parenthood.
    That is how I look at Mother's day. Now we have to get congress to declare a Cool Aunt's day.

  4. So much to think about in this post! I am blessed to have two children and two grandchildren, but I also wonder about the paths not taken and at time am burdened by guilt for all the things I did wrong as a parent. I've come to terms with being content knowing that i did the best I could...and I'm doing even better with the grandchildren. As Oprah says, "When you know better, you do better." Whatever path we take, we try to leave the world a better place. Don't you know in your heart that your contributions have made a difference?

  5. This was a post that tugged at the heartstrings. I understand you feelings about motherhood. It simply was not meant to be for you. You would have been a very wonderful mother, but then on the other hand, you have been able to use your gift of nurturing to enrich so many people. This might not have happened if you had had children of your own. Honestly, Kathy, at times, I feel like you give nurturing to me, one of your readers. As Perpetua said, "Mothering is much wider and deeper than biology."

  6. What a beautiful post! No one can follow every fork in the road of life. We can only try to make the best decision at each fork, at that time, under those circumstances.

    It's lovely that your friend from high school let you know how much you mean to her. And I love that quote ("the comfort, the inexpressible comfort ...") - the longer version was available as a small poster when I was a teenager and it was one of the few things I kept on my wall for years.

  7. So nice to hear your viewpoint on this... I was married for a long time before I had chidren. Mother's day was the worst!!! I truly believe it should be called woman's day and celebrate all the women in our lives. All the kindness shown, all the lessons taught, all the caring that the women in our lives give to others! Aunts, teachers, friends, mentors all hold a special place in my heart.

  8. I often wonder if my daughter will have regrets later in her life about her choice not to have children. (She is such a mother to her three cats!) But she started making this statement when she was a teen so I don't doubt her sincerity plus she and her husband are in total agreement. And, I firmly support their decision. Too many people have children who really don't want them! Good Blog as usual.

  9. Dear Kathy, . . . Your posting on Mother's Day is a thoughtful invitation for all of us to consider the roads we've chosen. Some of these roads are the "less traveled." Some diverge in a yellow wood. All these paths can touch the lives of those we meet along the way. And that's what your life, and I hope mine, have done. Thank you for these reflections. Peace.

  10. Such wonderful reflections, Kathy. I actually have many friends who do not have children -- not necessarily a choice they made but the outcome, anyway.


  11. Our only child says she enjoys other peoples little babies and toddlers, but she has no desire to be a mom and sometimes ever to marry, we adore and are happy with her no matter her choices, she is particular and fussy, always has been, never follows the others, holds up herself to her opinions and lets others do and say what they want..She was always and is still cherished by her childhood friends, she honestly doesn't care what other people think..I lost my mother very young, I missed her so, but we had big problems of too many kids, no income, my dad was wonderful then in a short period of time his wife, my mother passed from this earth he was shattered and it made our lives horrible, we were taken from him, my friends were only children, which to me was the best of all worlds, their families were kind, loving to me.. I never wanted to marry for many years, found a sweetheart from a huge family the oldest and never looked back, our sweet angel is adored, but she is 35 & I am sure she will not be a Mother, but it doesn't matter because she is extraordinary and loving and sweet..Most women today don't marry and if they want babies they can have them by many methods, adopting is honorable..If a person doesn't want to be a Mother, than why not do that? It is a very personal choice and many women don't want to be Mom's now..Rather than be a bad Mom, why not just help children and be a terrific human being...Not everyone wants kids now, men including..why not be a terrific human being and love children that others don't want by volunteering to be a big sister or big brother and truly care about children from families that don't want them, to me it is human, honorable and loving....

  12. Dr Kathy, I really enjoyed reading your delightful post today and came over from your comment to my sweet friend Grandma Yellow Hair.

    I 've been meaning to join your followers before but somehow I forgot to sign in the last time I read your blog . I love to read about what makes people tick and anything about how the mind works and the different ways people choose to live their lives.

    My oldest daughter will be 46 in two months and is childless as she travels around the world and has a very busy and full life style. She missed not having children in one way and like you sometimes she glad that she is childless.

    She a wonderful aunt that all my grandkids adore. She was wonderful with kids when she babysat when she was young and they too adored her and were well behaved with her. She would have made a wonderful mother but it has never been an issue with me. I'm happy that she does what she love doing teaching students at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. She's a lecturer and is a Dr of Anthropology.

    We are not supposed to all take the same journey but we are to do the best we can in the life we chose to live and try to balance our desires with a measure of reality to find happiness. I think that the worst we can do is to compare ourselves with others. We are supposed to be unique.

    Right now I'm going to join before I forget. Have a great weekend. JB

  13. Thank you for sharing your story. I enjoyed reading about the choices you made, ultimately the same choice I made but for totally different reasons.

    I just never wanted kids. It wasn't that I didn't like them or thought they cost too much, I just never felt the urge. I never wanted them, it was as simple as that. Those of us that come to this decision are usually under a tremendous amount of pressure and judgement from friends, family, and indeed society. We are deemed to be selfish, among other things--basically, though, "less than."

    The reason I share this is to perhaps give you a different perspective than the one you have when you describe the "child free" as militant or smug. Why can't it just be that we are happy with our decision? Over the many years that I've been hounded to defend my decision not to have kids by people that have them, I've encountered my share of militancy and smugness to be sure.

  14. I think you probably have been more of a mother to many children than their own mothers. God has a way of taking care of us that sometimes we just don't see ourselves. I think he gave you the gift to write and to mentor children and to nurture them in a way they need and for some never receive from home.
    I find myself too often thinking of my Christi and her being in her late thirties and not married and no children. I keep praying that her prince charming will come into her life but maybe I am praying for the wrong things for her.
    Your a lovely woman and have helped so many and even now reach out to us here in the world of blogging and inspire us to be better women.
    I love you dearly

  15. Kathy, this post so resonates with me. I experienced much the same path -- wrong place, wrong time, wrong guy, and when the right one came along, he already had two boys which he graciously shared with me. It's close. But I'm not their mom.

    Till this week, as you know if you stopped by the blog, I was the "mom" of the Marmelade Gypsy. He became my "child" as much as any two-legged baby could be and my heart is broken with his loss. Your kids are who you make them be. I just lost mine. As for the two-leggeds, mostly I'm OK with things being just the way they are.

    It's nice to check back with you after our travels and several weeks of non-blogging, due to that, re-entry and Gypsy. I've missed a lot of posts I know I'll spend time catching up on.

  16. Hi, Pearl (and all others commenting on this post): I apologize for my long silence. I've been in Los Angeles for family/friend reasons and only sporadically connected since the day after Mother's Day. I was visiting my dear friend Mary and her husband (who is suffering from dementia and she from occasional caregiver stress), my brother Mike and his wife Amp who have a nearly three-year-old and who are expecting a baby boy within the next few weeks and, not the least, Bob joined me to attend the graduation this week of our beloved Ryan, his last and dearest Little Brother in the Big Brothers program. Ryan and Bob were matched when Ryan was 9 years old. He is now 29 and just received his Master's degree in Social Work -- on his way to becoming a therapist. We are so thrilled for him -- and cried like all the real parents around us at the ceremony! I promise to get back to blogging very soon -- and, in the meantime, look forward to getting caught up with all of you!

  17. Good to know! and thanks to Pearl for asking :)

  18. Parenthood is not the ultimate joy of the world. I am sure you have touched many young people's lives in special ways that made a huge difference to each of them. Oh, do not get me started on the trevails of parenting ...

    So glad to have you pop by today.
    Please pray for those that are serving our country & those that have gone before us.

    TTFN ~
    Happy holiday weekend ~