‘Motherhood’explores childless questions

Motherhood by Sheila Heti, Henry Holt & Co., 2018

Should I have a baby or not? That’s the question the narrator asks in this new book which is billed as a novel but reads more like a 300-page essay. The unnamed narrator is divorced and living with a man named Miles, who already has a daughter and is not eager to have more children. But he leaves the decision up to her. If she really wants a child, he says he’ll go along with it.

So many readers here have partners who have stated very clearly that there will be no children with them. What if instead they said, “I don’t want them, but if you do, go ahead.” What should you do?

The woman in the book has always leaned toward not having children, so you and I may not identify with her feelings. But now, as she approaches 40, she asks all the questions the rest of us ask. Once I stopped thirsting for a story, I became interested in the narrator’s musings.

As a childless woman, I have asked these questions of myself. For example: What is a woman’s purpose if she does not have children? Is our work as important as having children? Will our lives be diminished if we never experience motherhood? Should the instinct to procreate overrule everything else? Why do we have uteruses if we’re never going to use them? Do I really want children, or do I just feel left out because my friends and relatives have them? Why is it okay for a man not to have children, but “the woman who doesn’t have a child is looked at with the same aversion and reproach as a grown man who doesn’t have a job. Like she has something to apologize for.”

The narrator seeks answers in dreams, psychic readings, talks with her friends and dialogues with the coins of the I Ching. She finds her answer in the end.

I don’t enjoy unusual book forms. There are places in Motherhood where I’m not sure what’s going on, and I personally hate that. I like my novels straightforward and easy to understand, but you might disagree. Heti has gotten as many five-star reviews as one-star ratings.  If you read it, please share your thoughts on this book.

Meanwhile, let’s consider just one of the questions asked here: What is a woman’s purpose if she doesn’t have children, if she doesn’t connect one generation to the next?

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Last week’s post, which included the question of whether people who have children should be allowed to participate at Childless by Marriage, drew some heat. No way. Keep those mommies out of here, a few readers indicated. They feel this is our private space where we shouldn’t have to deal with people who don’t understand how we feel. You’re right. I don’t want to mess that up.

But I would counter that the woman who sparked the question was childless for a long time and does understand, that she didn’t forget everything when she gave birth. But I hear you. I approve or disapprove every comment that comes in. I will be very careful and aware of your feelings before I click “approve.” I treasure you all.

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Is it worse to lose a child or to never have one?

Bialosky, Jill. Poetry Will Save Your Life. New York: Atria Books, 2017.

I just finished this book, and it made me think about some things I want to share here. Jill Bialosky takes an unusual approach to memoir in this book. She pairs short passages about her own life with poems that she connects with those times. After each poem, she offers information and interpretation of the poet and the poem.

If poetry is not your thing, don’t worry. That’s not my point today. Although the book covers a lifetime of other topics, Bialosky includes a chapter on motherhood that sparked two ideas I want to talk about here.

1) Bialosky offers Irish poet Eavan Boland’s poem “The Pomegranate” and quotes Boland as saying that motherhood changed her whole perspective as a poet. “I no longer felt I was observing nature in some Romantic-poet way. I felt I was right at the center of it: a participant in the whole world of change and renewal.”

To be honest, I barely understand the poem, but I do understand the point Boland made about motherhood and finding our place in what one of my college professors called “the great chain of being.” Being a child and then having a child secures our place in that chain, but if we don’t have children, where do we fit? A lot of people who choose to be childfree poo-poo the whole “becoming a parent changed my life” conversation, but I disagree. How could creating a new human being in your body not change everything?

What do you think?

2) Bialosky’s own story of motherhood was not all joy and poetry. Her first daughter and son were both born prematurely and died shortly after birth. This section of her book is heartbreaking. Imagine feeling a baby grow inside month after month. Imagine talking to it, planning for it, dreaming of all that child will become, and then watching it die shortly after it leaves the womb. Awful. After the first baby dies, Bialosky is constantly afraid she will lose the second one as well. And then she does. She and her husband use a surrogate for their third child. He is born on time and healthy. But they are so afraid, they don’t buy anything or prepare a nursery for fear they will lose this baby, too. It takes them a long time to believe they might get to keep this one.

After her babies die and before her son is born, Bialosky feels the loss of her children constantly. Perhaps you can identify with this quote: “For years, I burn with envy every time I see a newborn child. It is impossible to be around friends with young children without inhabiting the spaces where my own losses and desires lay. . . . It’s like being hungry all the time and never invited to the feast.”

I know some of you have struggled with infertility and miscarriages, and these words hurt. I can’t imagine going through that. I think it might be easier to have never been pregnant at all than to lose one’s babies during pregnancy or at birth. Perhaps I am lucky that, having never had a child, I will never suffer the grief of losing a child.

It goes back to that famous quote, “It is better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all.” Does the same thing apply to having children?

What do you think? Have I just ripped off all the scabs and left you bleeding? I’m so sorry, but it’s an important question. Is the desire for children worth the pain of possible loss? Most pregnancies in the developed world turn out fine, but there’s always that chance.

Tell me what you think. And if you like poetry, check out this book.

Can a childless novelist write about moms?

An early reader of my new novel Up Beaver Creek, coming out in June, thanked me for writing about a woman who has no children. My protagonist, who calls herself PD, is unable to conceive with her husband. They are starting to look into adoption when he is diagnosed with cancer. He dies, and she moves west to the Oregon coast to start a new life as a musician. Lots of things happen along the way to make it interesting, but none of it is about having babies.

PD meets a colorful group of new friends, including a lesbian couple, a bipolar man who has created a garden out of glass and cast-offs, a young soprano who becomes her best friend, and a music store owner who likes to jam.

Most of the characters don’t have children. Even for those who do, the children do not play a big role in this book. Did I do this on purpose? No, I think it’s the just the way I see life. I do not live in the circle of mothers and grandmothers. I occupy the circle of women who live alone. Occasionally those circles cross. Is this a handicap? Can I write about something I have never experienced? I worry about that sometimes.

Ages ago, I wrote a never-to-be-published novel titled Alice in Babyland. I was still fertile back then. Our main character, Alice, is surrounded by people having babies. It’s driving her nuts. It’s not a very good novel, but it’s how I was feeling at the time.

My published novel Azorean Dreams ends with Chelsea and Simão getting married and preparing to “start a family.” You just know they’re going to have a flock of Portuguese kids. But readers will have to imagine that part.

I have been rewriting another novel I’m calling Rum and Coke. The characters do have children. One of them is pregnant. I’m struggling to get it right, to make the children real people and the relationships and challenges among parents, grandparents and kids authentic. I will never know how it feels from the inside, only from the outside. There are a lot of other things I have never experienced. I count on research, observation, and imagination to write about them. Can I do that with motherhood? I sure hope so.

Think about the books you have read or, if you don’t read books, the movies and TV shows you watch. How often are people portrayed as permanently childless by choice or by chance? We see a lot of single parents and a lot of couples with kids, but how many do we see without children?

The book I just finished reading yesterday, Hot Season by Susan DeFreitas, has no children, but the characters are mostly college students under age 25. Presumably, they’ll think about that later. In the book before that, Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You, nobody was talking about babies, either, but Louisa was very young, and Will was a quadriplegic contemplating suicide. The focus was on making him want to stay alive. I have ordered the sequel, After You. We’ll see if babies show up there. (If you have read it, don’t tell me.)

Is the tide turning? Are we getting more books where the characters are not moms and dads? Is fiction beginning to reflect the fact that one out of five women in the U.S. and other developed nations is not having children and the number seems to be growing?

I’m pleased to offer PD as a strong, childless woman. I hope that not being a mother doesn’t mean I can’t write about mothers or anyone else.

Your thoughts?

Book Review: The Female Assumption

The Female Assumption: A Mother’s Story: Freeing Women from the View that Motherhood is a Mandate by Melanie Holmes. CreateSpace, 2014.

I started out feeling that everyone who reads the Childless by Marriage blog must read this book. It’s loaded with information we all need to know while deciding whether or not to have children. Now I’m not so sure. Despite the fact that Holmes has three children, it leans heavily toward the childfree viewpoint and doesn’t much address situations where women who want children are unable to have them. Still, there’s a lot to gain from reading this book. I’ll let you decide.

The Female Assumption includes:

  • Convincing testimony that motherhood is hard. Holmes writes about the lack of personal time and space, the financial cost, and the opportunities lost while providing full-time care. Even though she tries to reassure her own children that she’s very glad to have them, I’d be wondering about that if I were them.
  • Clear information on birth control, including the various methods and myths about how they work. She also goes into abortion and “morning after” options.
  • A list of questions women should ask themselves before considering motherhood. If nothing else, read this section and think about how you would answer these questions, things like: why do you want to be a mother, how much are your feelings about this being influenced by other people, and how would you manage childcare and career if you did have a baby?
  • A discussion of how even in the 21st century, women still do most of the childcare and housekeeping. Until partnerships can become equal, women will still bear more of the burdens of motherhood.
  • “Dirty Little Secrets,” things mothers don’t admit out loud for fear their peers will hate them and their children will feel unwanted. Two examples: “Mothers yearn for time alone,” and “Your ‘stuff’ will never be your own again.”
  • How women are held to a different standard than men. Who questions the validity of male leaders or achievers who don’t have children, yet it happens with women all the time. Holmes suggests women are given an impossible choice: give up everything else to be mothers or live alone, childless, with work as sole consolation.
  • How the American workplace is behind the times, offering lower wages for women and failing to offer paid family leave.
  • The often-negative effects of parenthood on marriages.
  • Examples of successful women who never had children.

As I said, Holmes does not spend much time on infertility or women whose partners are unable or unwilling to have children. She seems to be encouraging readers to remain happily childfree. However, this book does contain a lot of useful information. Holmes really did her research. Read it and use what you need. Skim the rest.

As always, I cherish your comments. Go back and read some of the comments from last week’s post, “Are You Delaying Parenthood Until Conditions are Perfect?” We got some great ones. You can still join the discussion.

Book Review: The Pregnant Pause

 

The Pregnant Pause by Jane Doucet, published by All My Words, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2017.

Does she want to have a baby? As her 37th birthday approaches, that’s what Rose keeps asking herself. She loves children, but also loves her job. She and her husband don’t have much money, and he won’t commit until she’s sure one way or the other. He feels no pressure. He will still be fertile for many more years. Plus he’s not getting harassed by parents, co-workers and even strangers who want to know why she hasn’t reproduced yet. Nor is he the one to whom his mother gave a book of baby names for Christmas.

Readers of this blog and my Childless by Marriage book will recognize many of the situations Rose faces–the clueless remarks, the friends obsessed with their offspring, the fear of waiting too long, the spouse who won’t commit to parenthood, the wondering if you’re not cut out for motherhood.

In this enjoyable novel, Doucet hits all the familiar notes. Childless or formerly childless readers will nod in sympathy. I especially ached for Rose as she tried to get her husband to explain why he hesitated to have children. He really didn’t want to talk about it (sound familiar?). Rose asks why he doesn’t want children right now. Is it because he thinks he’d be a bad father? No. Is it the loss of sleep? No. He finally admits he doesn’t want the responsibility. What if she got pregnant by accident? Would he leave her? “No, of course not. But I wouldn’t be happy about the situation . . . are we finished with this discussion?”

This self-published book by a long-time Canadian journalist could have benefited from another run through the copy editor to deal with tense inconsistencies and add more life to the dialogue. But bravo to Doucet for offering a novel in which children are not guaranteed. I think you’ll enjoy reading it.

Doucet’s website: www.thepregnantpause.net

Full Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the author.

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Have I mentioned the NotMom Summit? It’s a two-day conference happening Oct. 6 and 7 in Cleveland, Ohio. I will be one of the speakers, along with many of the most active women in the childless/childfree community. Jody Day of Gateway Women is coming all the way from the UK. We’ll have Marcia Drut-Davis, author of Confessions of a Childfree Woman; Laura Carroll, author of Families of Two and The Baby Matrix, Laurie Lisle, author of Without Child: Challenging the Stigma of Childlessness, and so many more. Think about coming. For once, you will not be surrounded by moms. For details, visit http://thenotmom.com/the-notmom-summit-2017. I would love to see you there.

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Readers, We have been getting lots of great comments on recent posts. People are talking about stepchildren, childless women’s roles, Klinefelter’s syndrome and more. Scroll back to past weeks and join the discussions. Or use the search box at right to find subjects you want to read about.

Book tells stories of ‘missed motherhood’

Let’s talk about books on this snowy morning. Yes, it’s snowing on the beach in Oregon. So pretty. So not going to my dentist appointment. 🙂

Comstock, Kani with Barbara Comstock. Honoring Missed Motherhood: Loss, Choice and Creativity. Ashland, OR: Willow Press, 2013.

In a world where having children seems to be the default setting for most women, Comstock acknowledges that large numbers of women do not become mothers for physical or circumstantial reasons. Even if they do have children, they may have lost other babies to abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth. The book includes the Comstocks’ personal stories of non-motherhood, followed by a series of first-person narratives from other women. It concludes with a series of resources to help deal with grief and the loss of children.

Aside from some grammar glitches, the book is well-written and the stories are engrossing. I was shocked at the number of women here who had abortions, sometimes multiple, and others who had one miscarriage after another. The situation I address in my own Childless by Marriage book and blog, the partner who is unwilling or unable to make babies, is glossed over with one story that ends happily with a great relationship with the woman’s stepchildren. Believe me, it doesn’t always work that way.

I was also bothered by the frequent mentions of something called The Hoffman Process, a personal growth program in which both women are deeply involved. For approximately $5,000, you can spend a week at one of their retreats and release all your trapped feelings. Some online writers call it a cult. Are the Comstocks trying to sell us the course? Are they qualified to offer the psychological information they include? They are probably right that most of us do not fully express our feelings or acknowledge our losses, but I don’t know if we need the “process.”

Those concerns aside, the resources included at the back of the book are a boon for any childless woman trying to figure out how to grieve her loss and move on. They include rituals one can perform alone or with friends and a wonderful Mother’s Day ceremony I would love to try. You can also find these rituals at their website, http://www.missedmotherhood.com.

The emphasis really is on physical loss of a baby. If your problem is with your partner, well, you have already found us right here.

Kani Comstock and I will both be presenting at the NotMom Summit in Cleveland, Ohio October 6 and 7.

Michele Longo Eder, Salt in our Blood. Newport, OR: Dancing Moon Press, 2008

Right after I read the Comstocks’ book, I launched into this memoir by a local woman about the loss of her stepson at sea. I’m still deeply engrossed in this 430-page paperback, but wanted to share part of her story that applies here. The author, an attorney with no children, married a fisherman with two sons. He had custody of the boys, and their mother was not involved at all. Michele immediately became their mother. They call her “Mom,” and she calls them her sons throughout. There is no “step” between them at all. There is also no mention of wanting her own biological children or regretting not having them. Of course, it’s not a happy story. One of the sons dies. She grieves him like her own. Is it possible for a woman to step into a family and bond so completely bond that someone else’s children become her own? Is this only possible if the bio mom is not around? Something to ponder.

Meanwhile, there’s snow blowing past my window. I’m calling the dentist’s office. Not coming. Have a good day, wherever you are and whatever your weather.

Books offer discouraging view of IVF

Fertility treatments aren’t necessarily relevant when you’re fertile enough but one partner just doesn’t want to have children. However, in some couples, the problem is physical. You both want to make babies, but due to problems with sperm or eggs, it’s not happening. Should you try in-vitro fertilization and other high-tech procedures? Would it work? The books I’ve been reading lately suggest the costs are high and the chances are poor.

Avalanche: A Love Story by Julia Leigh, WW Norton & Co., 2016

This book was sent to me to review. If you’re considering fertility treatment, you might want to read it. Or you might not because it could scare you out of it.

When they can’t get pregnant the usual way, novelist Julia Leigh and her husband resort to science. When their marriage fails, she continues alone with sperm donated by a friend. She is already in her 40s, and the odds are not great. Hormone injections, freezing eggs, embryo transfers—none of it seems to work. How long can she support her dream of having a child? Reading this book confirms my personal belief that success is rare and it’s not worth the misery. Leigh, an accomplished novelist and screenwriter, is very clear about the odds—not great—and the treatments—not fun. But it is a gripping story, easy to read in a day or so.

You can read a longer review of this book at Jody Day’s Gateway Women site.

Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility, and the Pursuit of High-Tech Babies by Miriam Zoll, Interlink Publishing Group, 2013

Like many modern women, Miriam Zoll wanted to get her career well-established before she had children. She thought she had plenty of time. Finally married and pushing 40, she was ready. When the natural way didn’t work, she went to a fertility specialist. She soon learned that fertility assistance treatments such as in-vitro fertilization and using donor eggs were not the guaranteed route to parenthood most people believed. This memoir takes us on her harrowing journey to become a mother, trying every possible way. As it tells her story, this book also serves as a warning to anyone who thinks technology will lead to pregnancy. Not only is the success rate depressingly low, but no one knows yet what the long-term effects will be. This book, a little long but well-written, successfully blends memoir and research and should be required reading for anyone considering procreation after age 35.

The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness by Eliot Jager, The Toby Press, 2015

This memoir emphasizes Jager’s complicated relationship with his father and his struggle with being a childless Jewish man. Jager and his wife could not conceive. Fertility treatments failed. They did not want to adopt. Meanwhile, his religion told him a man was not complete without children. In addition to his own experiences, he shares conversations with other childless Jewish men and offers the scriptural view of childlessness. I would have liked him to talk more about his personal struggles with not having children, but the narrative kept veering back to his father. It is also mired in footnotes and Hebrew words. Still, it’s an interesting read.

So that’s my book report. Read ’em if you dare. Meanwhile, the comments have been pouring in on previous posts, especially, “Go or Stay” from Aug. 31. Take a scroll back through the posts and see if you want to add to the conversation. Thank you all for being here.