Childless, But Not Quite By Choice

Photo: Getty Images.
I never expected to not be a mother. My body is made for childbearing — generous hips, plenty of soft flesh for an infant to hang on to. I also love babies, their tiny fingernails, their first gummy smiles, the way they fit in the crook of my arms, a bundle of warmth. And while I’ve always been ambitious in my career, I’m also an alpha nurturer, the one friends and colleagues call when they need to vent or just hear a soothing word or two.

So how did I get to be 53 and childless?

I can’t say it was a choice, exactly, though you’d think I’d have made a conscious decision about something so important. It wasn’t due to malfunctioning equipment, either. At 27 and in the hospital for a gynecological procedure, my surgeon gushed: “Your ovaries and fallopian tubes look beautiful. You’re good to go!”

I never went.

For one thing, I was a late bloomer in love; I didn’t truly give over my heart for the first time until I was close to 30. Instead, I spent my 20s in New York City with other single friends, most of us more focused on work than on marriage. And even when a few of those friends began to walk down the aisle, I was content to savor the relatively new joy of being part of a couple, married or no. A baby felt like something that would definitely happen — of course it would — but in good time. I wanted to get the love thing right first, to learn how to be in a healthy relationship.

The healthy relationship took a long time coming. After that first major love affair ended, leaving me heartbroken for months, I cautiously took up with others, a series of mini-marriages, each lasting four or five years and taking me straight through to 40. With each boyfriend, there was talk of weddings, of future children, even shared real estate, but always, something held me back, a sense that I hadn’t yet found my home, the man who would feel like family.

Of course, for many people, the word family is synonymous with children. During the years of my ultimately failed relationships, my younger sister gave birth to two beautiful boys, nephews I held in my arms only minutes after they’d emerged from her body, the first child full-lipped and wriggly, the second saucer-eyed and long-lashed like my sister, a little round hunk of sweetness. I loved those boys so hard it hurt. As soon as I was able, I’d steal them away to my nearby apartment for sleepovers, my sister always generous when it came to sharing. When they were old enough to talk, the boys took to calling me Aunt Yes, because I never said no, and why would I? Whatever gifts I gave them were given back to me in spades, each boy teaching me what it was like to wake with a little body curled next to mine, the sweet sound of a toddler’s prattling before coffee. Later, I took each nephew to Rome, my favorite city, navigating the narrow cobblestoned streets and steering them into the best places for pizza and gelato. When Italians fussed over the boys, assuming I was their mother, I felt a little thrill.

Yet despite the delight I took in my sister’s sons, the way my stomach lurched whenever yet another pal with that telltale glow would say, breathlessly, I have news! I did nothing about my childless state. Instead, I continued to wait for a man who would make me feel cared for before I started caring for anyone else. At times, I wondered if I was simply selfish, unwilling to give up my freedom, my travels, or even the ability to stay late at the office to nail a tough deadline. Maybe, as nurturing as I seemed, I lacked some essential motherhood gene, or the right level of estrogen. Because certainly, most of my friends seemed clear enough about wanting kids. Many, having waited to marry, like I was waiting, were starting to take drastic measures on the reproductive front. One adopted a daughter with her husband at 47; a few friends resorted to donor eggs. Some just ended up getting lucky, becoming pregnant relatively easily long past their peak fertility. Those burgeoning 40-something bellies were the most painful for me to see, evidence that it was possible to get pregnant just under the wire. I gamely threw these friends baby showers but inside, I anticipated the loss of another friend no longer available to grab a glass of wine at a moment’s notice. I also mourned the bigger loss, of the experience of pregnancy, of being a mother, choices I hadn’t definitively made but that I seemed to be choosing all the same.

Not that I gave up hope entirely. Sometimes, I told myself I’d be willing to adopt — a little girl from China! — or from whatever country would give babies to single women older than 40. Or I’d consider the turkey-baster method, find a sperm donor or a willing ex, and become a mother on my own, no husband required. Many nights, I’d lie awake in my one-bedroom apartment, arranging furniture in my head: If I moved the desk into the living room, I could fit a little crib right there.

By morning, I could see things more clearly and would think, really think about what it would take to raise a child in a small city apartment that faced an air shaft, without a washing machine or dishwasher. I’d think about my job in print journalism, an industry that was seeming increasingly wobbly. Ultimately, the idea of creating a family consisting of just two — me and a baby — seemed frightening, financially and emotionally. More than that, I somehow knew I didn’t want my entire life to center around a child. That didn’t seem fair to the child, or to me.

When I met the man who was to become my husband, an adventurous traveler with a tender heart, the man who felt like family, I was a ripe 44, our relationship unfolding so effortlessly that it stoked my remaining sliver of hope: Maybe it’s not too late! So when he brought up the subject of children a few months in — Do you want any? — I decided to be honest, to risk scaring him away with the truth.

“Well, biologically, I think it’s too late for me,” I started shakily. “But if I found the right person I’d be willing to adopt.”

“Uh oh,” was his reply.

“Why uh oh?” I asked, my heart sinking a little.

“I’m done in the kid department,” he said, gently but firmly. “My two kids are just about launched; one’s out of the house, another almost. I’m ready for the next phase.”

A moment passed. And again, I chose the man over the theoretical child. “That seems fair,” I said. “After all, if I’d wanted a baby badly enough, I’d have made it happen.”

I made a vow to myself that I would take full advantage of my childless life.

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Though what I actually said to myself was harsher: Tough luck — you made your bed, now lie in it. I hear that critical voice sometimes, whenever I have the pleasure of cuddling someone’s little one in my arms, or when I visit my nephews, young adults who now want to spend time with their own friends, however cool their Aunt Yes may be.

I did go on to marry the adventurous man, and together, we’ve made a modern family, each of us keeping our respective homes in different states but seeing each other every week, sharing the highs and lows of our days, cooking together, building a house with lots of light and room for guests — our friends and their children, too. I love what we have, but that doesn’t mean the sadness has gone, at least not completely. I live with the choice I didn’t quite make, as we all have to live with our choices. I occasionally worry what will happen when I get old and sick; will my nephews visit me when I can no longer whisk them away to exotic destinations?

But I try not to wallow, to get mired in regret. Instead, I made a vow to myself that I would take full advantage of my childless life and the freedom it brings, that though I didn’t consciously choose to be childless, going forward, I could at least choose the kind of life I did want to have. And so, I have satisfied my urge to travel, taking as many trips as I can, including spending a month every year in Rome. When I eventually got laid off from my magazine job, I took a risk and started my own business, something I might not have done if I’d been worrying about college tuition down the line. I’ve written a book, and am working on another. And I try to be spontaneous, whether that means staying up late drinking whiskey and dancing in the living room with my husband, the volume cranked way up, or jumping on a motorcycle, my arms tight around his waist, to see the fall foliage. (If I had a child, you can bet I wouldn’t be riding a motorcycle!)

It has also helped, as my friends’ kids get older, to watch them coping with a daughter’s adolescent bitchiness or a son who speaks in monosyllables. I’m not gloating; I know parenting can be deeply satisfying. But I’ve observed firsthand how difficult it can be — also frustrating, exhausting, bewildering, not to mention tough on a person’s sex life. It’s easy enough to love a wide-eyed, chubby-cheeked infant; less so a hyperactive 8-year-old or surly teen. Plus, as my friends’ kids begin to move out and go to college, I’m suddenly getting my pals back.

I won’t lie. It may always sting when I pass a pregnant woman with a proprietary hand on her stomach, or find myself cradling someone else’s delicious-smelling infant. But I try to assuage that pain by doing my mothering where I can — grabbing time with my nephews; dispensing advice to my grown step-kids when asked (and sometimes when I’m not); having heart-to-hearts with my friends’ kids when they come to stay.

In the last four years, I’ve also developed a bond with a young South African woman named Zethu, through a nonprofit known as Infinite Family that pairs mentors with at-risk kids. For a half hour a week, Zethu and I talk via videoconference or, more recently, WhatsApp, about boys, school, and her plans for the future (she hopes to be a preschool teacher). When we first met, Zethu was a little lost, struggling with depression and thinking of dropping out of high school. A few weeks ago, proud in her royal-blue cap and gown, she gave a speech at her graduation, which, she excitedly told me, “was perfect in every way.” Later, when I texted her to say how proud she’d made me, she texted back: Thanks Mama Paula, and my heart did a little somersault. It was a reminder that these days, there are quite a few kids in my life who call me Aunt Paula, and even one who calls me mama. Right now, at least, that feels like enough family for me.
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