Happy Wednesday! Today I offer you an essay by a poet friend who is also childless. This piece previously appeared in an online literary journal called Quiet Storm. As you will see, there are many different ways we can end up not having children. In her note to me, Sherri said that when she told her father she would not be able to have children, he responded, “Get yourself a dog. Dogs are more loyal.” Which they are, but that’s not the point. As always, please feel free to comment.
By Sherri Hope Levine
I have been grieving over the loss of a dream for many years. The feelings of profound emptiness and sorrow have overwhelmed me. I have always wanted to have a child, and I knew that I would make a wonderful mother. I would break the cycle of critical voices that played a big part of my childhood. Ideally, I would be a loving, nurturing, and accepting parent.
Whenever I see a mother and a child holding hands in the park, or a mother strolling her baby with other mothers, or watch my sister read Harry Potter to her son, I cry out: “Why not me? It’s not fair!” I tell myself to try to move on with my life—to remind myself that I have a loving and supportive partner, family, and friends, that I have a rewarding job teaching English to immigrants and refugees, that I am a passionate and published writer. But is this enough? Do these things take the place of being a mother? Is this the dream? Is this something I have been dreaming about my whole life?
My mental health has suffered tremendously from bipolar disorder, a chronic mental illness. During my teenage years, I endured severe depression and was hospitalized due to suicide attempts. In my twenties, a psychiatrist prescribed an antidepressant, and I immediately shot into a full blown manic and psychotic episode. I was living with my mother at the time. While in a heightened state, I impulsively packed all my belongings and took the train from New York to San Francisco. While living there, I was reckless and impulsive. I slept with many men, spent most of my money, and I lost a lot of weight. When my dad found out I was calling my grandma in the middle of the night to tell her I was an artist and model, he flew me home.
What I didn’t know is once you are committed to a mental hospital, you cannot leave. I didn’t believe this. I thought for sure after I got stabilized, I could leave. At first, the doctors figured out the right combination of medications, and I got better. But then I became depressed. Why was I still there if I was better? I had a tough time coping in there because I saw many sick patients, a lot worse than me. The only way “out” of there was to write. I found poetry. The staff allowed me to sit in an empty room with a computer. And that is what saved me. That was my escape. The staff recognized that I was well enough to take day passes out of the hospital. They came up with a plan for me to attend classes at a local liberal arts college. I worked closely with some very fine poets. My writing improved, and I became a student there. I even graduated without any of my classmates knowing that at the end of the school day, my ride had been a shuttle that took me to a locked mental facility on the outskirts of town.
After I graduated, my friends had moved away, and my sister had relocated to Seattle. I wanted to live near her, so I moved to Portland, Oregon. Little by little, things started to improve again. I took my medication, entered a master’s degree program, and got my first job as an English teacher at Portland Community College, where I have taught for almost twenty years. I was finally stable, happy, and productive.
After months of rest and recuperation, I felt strong again. I was ready to settle down, get married. I married a man twelve years younger than me. Another impulsive decision! Then I found out that he didn’t want children. He didn’t even like children. I was so upset because I knew if I was stable, I could have children. I did everything I was supposed to do to prepare myself for motherhood. I took my medication, continued my teaching job, ate well, and exercised vigorously. I remember talking to my doctor about medication and pregnancy. It was a risk, he said, but I would be monitored carefully. Still, my husband wasn’t interested in having children or having sex. He finally did give in, and we tried to get pregnant for a year, but something was wrong. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t getting pregnant. By then, my husband had become increasingly withdrawn from me. He stayed at work late, and when he came home, we hardly ever spoke. I was devastated. I wasn’t a mother and my marriage was falling apart. I felt empty.
My husband and I split up. I was alone, without a child. By then, I was in my 40s, and it was too late for me to conceive. I thought about adoption, but I was single, so I knew it would be difficult to raise a child on my own.
Many people can tell you to move on, but it does not help. Letting go is part of the grieving process. Losing someone is the most difficult part of life. I believe that raising a child with a mother who has a chronic mental illness would not be fair to the child or to my family. It would put a heavy burden on all of us.
I have thought about what it would be like if I did choose to be a mother. I might have to stop taking my medication during the first trimester. This risk could cause me to become manic or depressed. Then, after I gave birth, sleep deprivation could also cause an episode. Who would take care of the baby? My husband who was absent most of the time? My 80-year-old mother? My sister who lives in another city? If I became ill, would I be in the hospital loaded with medication? Would the court take away my child?
Some dreams do not come true. I have had to close the door on the dream of being a mother. It doesn’t mean I don’t still grieve, but the intensity of grieving has waned. I have learned to accept the reality of my situation. I put my efforts into my art and my writing. My work has been published in various journals, and I have been hired to be a poetry editor of a literary magazine. I have a loving partner who has a young son. My friends and family are all around me. I realize that embracing loss is embracing life. As I close the door on my dream, other doors will continue to open.
Sherri Hope Levine is a poet, artist, and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. She received the Lois Cranston Memorial Poetry Prize and Oregon Poetry Association’s Poet’s First Prize (Poet’s Choice). Her poetry and other writings have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including CALYX, The Timberline Review, Poet Lore, The Jewish Literary Journal, and Mizmor Anthology. She founded and hosts Head for the Hills—a monthly poetry series and open mic. Her first book, In These Voices, was published in 2018 by The Poetry Box. She escaped the harsh weather of upstate New York and has been soaking in the Oregon rain ever since.
Do you want to tell your story at the Childless by Marriage blog? I’m looking for personal stories, 500-750 words long, that fit our childless-by-marriage theme. You could write about infertility, second marriages, partners who don’t want children, stepchildren, feeling left out when everyone around you has kids, fear of being childless in old age, birth control, and other related issues. Tell us how you how you came to be childless “by marriage” and how it has affected your life. Or you could write about someone else. We love stories about successful childless women. We do not want to hear about your lovely relationship with your children or how happy you are to be childfree. Not all submissions will be accepted, and all are subject to editing. If interested, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notice anything different about the blog? Yes, the puppy picture is gone. As I polish the “Best of Childless by Marriage” book–and as WordPress makes changes in the formatting software–it seemed like time. I’m still working on making the header type more visible. What do you think of the new look so far?