The Mother of All Dilemmas: Dreams of Motherhood and the Internship That Changed Everything by Kathleen Guthrie Woods, Steel Rose Press, 2021. Woods is approaching 40 with no husband in sight. She wants to be a mother, but it will soon be too late. Should she get herself pregnant with donor sperm and become a single parent? In her quest to answer that question, Woods undertakes a two-week “internship,” caring full-time for her nephew Jake while his parents go on vacation. She comes out of it with more questions than answers. Can she bear to NOT have a child? What will happen to her career if she does? How does any woman work and care for young children at the same time? As Woods works it out, the reader learns a great deal about what it’s like to be childless when one in five women reach menopause without children, but motherhood is still the norm.
Dear readers, I posed some questions to Kathleen Guthrie Woods last week, and here are her answers.
SFL: At the beginning of the book, you are 40 years old. Clearly you need to move quickly if you are going to get pregnant before you run out of viable eggs. You don’t say much about your 20s and 30s. What was happening in those years? Were there really no suitable partners to be found? Did you worry, especially in your 30s, about your fertility passing by?
KGW: For me, one of the most challenging parts of writing the book was the editing. In early drafts I had a lot more backstory, which covered those decades—which I then had to cut because they didn’t serve the final story. Painful!
In brief, I spent my 20s and 30s dating far too many Mr. Wrongs. I didn’t really feel the ticking of my biological clock, as I was so certain becoming a mother was something that would happen in my life. I was more frustrated that I hadn’t met someone who wanted to marry me, and who I wanted to marry. I spent that time building great friendships and an interesting career (one I thought of as temporary, because I assumed I would stop working to be a stay-at-home wife and mother). Around the age of 38 is when the clock started working against me. I knew I wanted a solid marriage, and that would take time. But if I really wanted kids, I maybe needed to bypass marriage and pursue motherhood on my own. And there began the journey that began the book.
SFL: How did you get to be such a good aunt? Have you always been great with children?
KGW: Nature plus one amazing role model. I started babysitting when I was around 11. I was the person who could pick up a fussy baby at a gathering and soothe them to sleep. Into adulthood, I was the neighbor who became friends with the kids next door. Loving and enjoying all those kids came—and still comes—easily to me.
My parents and their friends were really great about including the kids when they got together. We didn’t have a “kids’ table” at most dinner parties, and the grownups engaged in conversations with us; we all ate together then played games that could be enjoyed by all ages, like Charades. But the big influence in my life was my Gram. She listened and she valued what we had to say. She acted like a kid with us. For example, we would interview her (using a cassette tape recorder) and she’d make up characters with silly names and funny voices. I’m smiling just thinking about this. With her, we felt seen, loved, and never judged. I hope I do the same for the kids in my life today.
SFL: You were able to try out full-time motherhood for two weeks with 15-month-old Jake while your sister and her wife went to Europe. You seemed to know Jake quite well already, yet you seemed to be very anxious about it. Why were you so apprehensive? Have you considered how it would have been different if Jake were younger or older? Have you had any more extended babysitting experiences with Jake and his baby brother or with your nieces? How old is Jake now? Are you still close?
At the time, I was living in Los Angeles, and Jake and his moms were living in the San Francisco Bay Area. We got together several times a year, so I’d gotten to know him a bit, though with a child that young, it takes a few hours for them to remember you and re-warm up to you. Heading into the “mommy internship,” I was mostly worried that I wouldn’t be able to take care of him on my own, that I would be overwhelmed – or worse, that he would get hurt on my watch. I mean, I wasn’t borrowing a car or something that could be repaired if I damaged it by accident! I felt like he was completely dependent upon me, and this was a big shift from just being responsible for my own well-being. If he had been a little older, a little more independent, I would have felt somewhat differently, but I still would have been very cautious.
I’ll give an example: A few years ago I stayed with Jake and his brother while their moms were on vacation. The boys were pretty self-sufficient, but I still took my responsibilities as the grownup seriously. Jake came to me one afternoon and said oh-so-casually, “I’m going outside to play with the blowtorch!” Um, HECK NO! “But my moms let me!” No to the never, no way! He did know how to use it, he probably would have been fine, but I didn’t want to be the person “in charge” the one time he accidently burned down the garage.
Since the events of the book, I’ve had several kid-sitting adventures with the nephews or nieces for weekends or over a few days. Nothing to compare to the two weeks I had with Jake. The two older nieces are now college students, so our visits are more like friends reconnecting, and I am thoroughly enjoying this chapter with them too.
I should mention that this book took a long time to write because I had to live it all first. Many years and countless drafts passed before I knew what my message and my ending would be. That said, Jake, as of our last in-person get-together, is almost my height. He’ll be getting his driving permit soon! He’s handsome, smart, engaging, kind, and funny, and I’m grateful for how our relationship has evolved.
SFL: While you were Jake’s temporary mom, you seemed to enjoy those occasions when people assumed he was your child. I have experienced that with other people’s kids, too. What is that all about? Why do we want so badly to be seen as mothers?
KGW: Ego? Pride? Social conditioning? I don’t have a satisfactory answer, but I do know my heart swells when it happens. I longed to have a mini me, to have people compliment me with “S/he looks just like you!” Recently I was looking at family photos with my aunt and we were identifying traits passed through the generations: a grandmother’s high cheekbones, a great-aunt’s red hair, my father’s green eyes now mirrored in one of my nieces. Maybe seeing these traits is how we keep some of those loved ones alive for us, long after they’ve passed.
SFL: Your comment about Fourth of July and how, as the childless one, you attended other people’s celebrations but were never the host hit home for me. Like you, I’m the one who either travels or spends the holidays alone. Now that you live close to your siblings and their children, do they spend the holidays at your place sometimes?
KGW: My husband and I are still the ones who travel for family holiday gatherings. In all fairness, he has a big job and we both usually work through December, so sometimes it’s nice to have some quiet times to ourselves. (Or, at least that’s what I tell myself.)
SFL: I don’t know if you want to spoil the suspense by sharing what you finally decided to do about having children. If so, feel free to tell us how you came to your decision. Do you want to talk about Braden? Surely having this man in your life eased a great deal of your need for human companionship. He sounds wonderful. Have you considered what your life would have been like if Braden hadn’t come along?
KGW: I’ve been writing about being childless for over a decade, so sharing my final decision won’t be too big of a spoiler. The story, I think, is more about how I came to it. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t linear. Time passed. I often felt like the decision was made for me because I aged out of being able to become a mother with my own eggs, and I knew I couldn’t adopt, use a surrogate, or pursue any of the other “fixes” people threw at me. I really beat myself up for maybe not wanting it “enough” to do whatever was necessary to make it happen. At the same time, as I weighed the pros and cons and considered what I would need to make a decent life for myself and a child, I knew I couldn’t do it – and I ultimately decided I didn’t want to do it. I still have moments of total baby lust, by the way. The desire to be a mom doesn’t just switch off because your brain has told you it’s not the best choice for your life.
What I got instead is a great marriage to a great man. He was worth the wait. Had we met 10 years earlier, I wouldn’t have been ready for him and he—well—he was married to someone else. I am incredibly grateful for him and the life we share.
There is a pivotal scene in the book when I wrestle with my role in possibly making him childless by marriage. I was prepared to sacrifice my happiness had he had his own dreams of being a father, something I couldn’t promise him at that time.
Your question about what my life might have been like had I not met him is interesting, and one I hadn’t really considered. As I think about it now, I might have hung on to the possibility of having a child on my own longer—probably longer than would have been healthy. I suspect I would have become bitter before I allowed myself to grieve my losses around not becoming a mother. Eventually I would have moved to be closer to my siblings and their families, though I would have missed out on a lot of fun years with them. I want to say that I would have pulled myself up by the bootstraps and made a good life for myself, but I’m not entirely convinced I would have succeeded. There was a real chance I would have grown lonelier and more isolated over time while silently licking my wounds and envying my friends. Or…maybe I would have gone on the road as a backup singer and written a book about those adventures!
SFL: Most readers of the Childless by Marriage blog are childless because their partners are unable or unwilling to have children. Many are struggling to decide whether to stay in that relationship or seek motherhood/fatherhood on their own. What is your advice for people in that situation?
KGW: My heart goes out to you. While this is part of my story (my husband never wanted kids), I was able to make the decision to remain childless for myself before we had the Big Talk. In the book, I share that I had reached the point where I was willing to let him go if having children was something he really wanted; I didn’t want to deny him that dream.
This is going to sound like such a cliché, but I think there’s truth to the saying “If you love someone, set them free.” I wanted Braden to live his best life, and if I couldn’t give him that, I was willing to let him go find it with someone else. (It still hurts to think about that happening, but I never wanted to him to have regrets and grow to resent me.)
The same holds for our dreams. Sometimes the best, healthiest way for us to love ourselves is to let go of those big dreams we’ve been carrying around for so long when they no longer serve us. Gosh, it’s hard. But we have to release and open up space in our hearts for new love to grow. Be true to yourself. If having children is what you want most, you have to open yourself up to the opportunity, and that may mean leaving the relationship you’re in to find the one that helps you create the life you want. You will be making hard choices, and you have to move forward with the one that will leave you with the least possibility for regrets, for those eat away at you.
My marriage did not replace my longing for children. Let’s be clear on that. But I will say that having a childless marriage has its advantages. We take care of each other. We enjoy each other’s company. We have a ridiculous amount of fun running errands together on weekends (versus going in different directions to attend to the needs of children). Our vacations and meals and cars and movies are all age-appropriate, and we get to choose how we spend our time. Every day I give thanks that I get to share my life with someone who respects, appreciates, and loves me. What a gift!
SFL: What would you like to share that I have not asked about?
KGW: I was incredibly fortunate to find lifelines in my journey toward healing. Writers and bloggers—including Sue—provided safe places for me to explore my feelings, discover that I was not in fact the only woman on the planet grieving the loss of my mommy dreams, and develop friendships with phenomenally compassionate woman. Find and build your community. Reach out to others through comments, chats, and forums. Let’s continue to lift each other up.
Kathleen Guthrie Woods wrote the “It Got Me Thinking…” and “Our Stories” columns for Life Without Baby, and she co-authored Life Without Baby: Holiday Companion with Lisa Manterfield. The Mother of All Dilemmas is available in Kindle ebook and paperback on Amazon.
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