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?


A Childless Life Well Lived

Jill Baker
Jill Baker photo posted by Maureen Little on Facebook

Dear readers,

One of the women I interviewed for my Childless by Marriage book passed away last week. Jill Baker had been suffering from major heart problems for years. She was married once in her youth, divorced and never remarried. She never had children. But none of that defines who Jill was. Full of life, even when her body was failing, a large presence even though she was a small woman, Jill stood out wherever she went. She was funny, opinionated, and loaded with talent.

I first met Jill at the Central Coast Chorale, a singing group that I joined shortly after I moved to Oregon. Jill was the one always raising her hand with suggestions or laughing loudly from the alto section. We were both chosen to sing in a smaller ensemble that used to be called Octet Plus and is now Women of Note. You could count on Jill to hold down the low notes while the rest of us warbled up above. She was also a talented flute player. After I moved on to other musical endeavors, Jill rose to assistant director of the chorale.

Jill taught music—piano, flute, voice, and more. She sang in small groups and major choruses. She had also worked in bookkeeping, accounting and computer software because it’s hard to make a living with a music degree, but she was finally able to focus on music after she moved to the Oregon coast.

Back in the 1960s, she was engaged to be married when she discovered she was pregnant. Her fiancée took off as soon as she told him. She had an abortion in a motel room. “She was some kind of a nurse and did illegal abortions and it was awful,” Jill said. “I hemorrhaged for six months, during my final six months of college.” Once the baby wasn’t an issue, her fiancée came back, and they got married. He refused to even discuss having children. Eventually the marriage ended. She said she never found another man she felt strongly enough about to marry.

Before our interview, Jill had never told anyone about the abortion, but she had reached a point where she was willing to share her story and happy to have me use her real name. Telling me meant she would have to tell her family, she said. She was a brave woman.

Jill never knew for sure whether that abortion affected her ability to have children. Suffering from fibroid tumors, she had a hysterectomy in her 40s, . “I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” she said.

When I asked how she felt about never having children, she said, “I felt lucky in that I didn’t have that massive craving to have a child. I would have liked to have kids, but only if I was in a marriage where the husband could be a father. I never wanted to have kids just to have kids.”

Instead of having her own children, she dove into the role of aunt to her siblings’ children and dog mom to her precious canine companions. Jill was the one holding her sheet music with one hand and petting her dog with the other in the chapter of my book about dog moms. Asked if she felt left out when her friends talked about their children, she laughed. “No. I get ‘em back; I talk about my dog.” She added, “I get irritated when people feel sorry for me. I really detest that because I think I’ve had a good life. I don’t believe you have to have a husband or kids to be happy.”

As for old age, she was determined to live on her own as long as she could, moving into a retirement home if necessary. She never had to. As she left this life, her hospital room was full of friends who loved her like family.

Rest in peace, Jill.