Motherhood–the Hero’s Journey I Didn’t Take

Pregnancy fascinates me. It has all the elements of great fiction: In the opening, something has changed: She is pregnant. Ups and downs follow: joyful anticipation, morning sickness, picking out a name, daydreaming about what the baby will look like, emergency room trips with break-through bleeding, baby showers, Braxton Hicks contractions, the beginning of labor. Pain mixed with euphoria, fear, and suspense. Will the baby be all right? will the mother survive? And then the happy ending. Or not. Either way, it’s a heck of a story.

In her book The Mask of Motherhood, Susan Maushart compares pregnancy and childbirth to the Hero’s Journey, the basic plot that literature teachers insist lies underneath every classic tale. Like a knight on a mission, the mother travels into a strange land on a quest. There is no turning back, and once the journey is completed, her life will be changed forever.

Childbirth is the ultimate rite of passage, Maushart says.

And I missed it. But reading about pregnancy and childbirth, at least now, when it’s too late for me, is not all too different from following the story of a team climbing Mount Everest, a couple crossing the Atlantic in a canoe, or that guy who sawed his own hand off when he got trapped alone on a mountain-climbing expedition. It’s fascinating. I want to know about every cramp and scrape. I want to read about how they were starving, how they carried on despite injuries, and how they hallucinated and thought they saw angels. Yeah, yeah, tell me more. Let me share their joy when they reached the top of the mountain or the sandy shore or when the rescuers came and he knew he was going to live. Tell me about how miraculous it felt to finally see and hold the baby that had been growing in the mother’s belly all these months.

But at this point in my life, I don’t want to actually DO IT. Of course I want the happy ending, but I’m not about to climb a mountain, row across the Atlantic or have a baby. Let’s see, nine months of being sick, fat, and out of whack–and wait, no caffeine?–followed by being torn inside out while expelling a little person who will need constant attention for the next 18 years. I’m just too old for all that. Sometimes taking care of my dog is too much.

Obviously the trick is to have children early in life, before you really understand what you’re getting into. Just like they send 18-year-olds off to war. If they were in their 40s or 50s, they might refuse to go. Hey, I might get killed, it’s 120 degrees in the Middle East, and I’m too busy doing other stuff. Maybe in a way, that’s why some of our partners who are already in their 40s hesitate to have babies with us. They see how hard it will be, especially if they’ve done it before.

I think what I feel bad about now is that almost everyone else took that baby-making hero’s journey, and I didn’t. Every day is another reunion of the I-made-a-baby club. “See, here he is. I made a life. You made a, what? A book, a quilt, a pie, a PhD? Yeah, but I made a person. My grave will say ‘beloved mother.’ Yours will just have dates.”

Good point. Even if the moms complain that their babies have turned into bratty teenagers who argue and slam the door in their faces or adults who forget to send them a card on Mother’s Day, there’s that underlying shared experience that I will never share. I didn’t climb the mountain, didn’t cross the ocean, didn’t slice off my hand to save my own life. I have no stretch marks, no episiotomy scars, and no child.

We women still have a lot in common. We can talk about work, PMS, clothes, aging parents, food, houses, etc., but sooner or later, they’ll start talking about Cub Scouts or swim team or school clothes, and all I can contribute is, well, nothing. As they make plans for play dates and sleepovers, I wander off to talk to the childless friend who has dogs or the old lady whose kids are all grown up and moved to Minnesota or the guy watching football on TV.

It’s a gigantic sorority for which I will never qualify, any more than I belong with the mountain climbers or ocean rowers. So I have to pursue other quests, take other journeys. That’s not so terrible, not from the perspective of later life. Perhaps if we’re not having babies, it’s because we’re meant to do something else. Or we’re meant to embark on the pregnancy journey later. There’s no reason you can’t pursue more than one quest in a lifetime.

If you never become a mother or father, what might your mission be?

 

Sunday brunch with the grandmas

Dear friends: I’m sharing a poem today. Perhaps you know the feeling, when you’re surrounded by friends sharing pictures of their children or grandchildren and you don’t have much to contribute. To the women with whom I shared this meal, I had a good time, really. I love you both, your grandkids are adorable, and I hope to do it again soon. Just  . . . well, it’s a little different for those of us who don’t have kids.

At Georgie’s on Sunday after church,
my friends, both grandmothers,
shared photos on their phones
while I ate my eggs Benedict,
nodding and cooing words of praise
for little Raegan and Jaxon
and Jackson with a K and Dylan
and Damon and Madison.

“They’re getting big so fast.”
“He’s such a handsome boy.”
But I couldn’t quite melt the way
real women who’ve had babies do,
that catch in the voice, that
“Isn’t she precious? Oh my Gosh.
Look at those itty bitty hands”
as they remember another baby’s fingers
touching their breasts as they nursed
or squeezing their daddy’s giant thumb.

My eggs were cooked just right,
not too runny, the hollandaise
creamy around the ham, so thick
I scooped it up with my fork.
I was tempted to lick the plate.
Out the west-facing windows,
the winter ocean thrashed,
all white froth and gray
one shade darker than the sky.

A grandma flipping through her phone:
“Did you see my grandson’s fiancée?”
“No,” said the other. “Oh, she’s beautiful.
Would you look at that gorgeous ring.”
My plate was empty now, but they
had barely touched their food,
feasting instead on grandmother pride.
I sucked the ice left in my glass.
When our waitress brought our separate checks,
they finally put their phones away
to eat blueberry pancakes and sausages.

“So Sue, how’s your dad?” a grandma asked.
“Doing really well at 95.”
And that was all I had to say.
My phone is full of dogs and trees
I could have shared my baby niece
if my phone weren’t sitting in the car,
but I have to admit it’s not the same,
this stranger who lives so far away,
whose pictures I save from Facebook posts,
but you have to offer what you’ve got
when you’re sharing a booth in Grandma Land.

 

What’s God got to do with childlessness?

Since I tiptoed into a tricky topic by writing about abortion last week, let’s take it a step farther and talk about religion. I know you all have different beliefs, and that’s good. This post will not challenge what you believe, just perhaps how we all apply our beliefs.

We know that Catholics believe abortion is a mortal sin, grounds for excommunication. But do you also know that when couples get married in the Catholic Church they promise to accept the gift of children from God? To refuse could mean not being allowed to marry in the church.

The church maintains that sex should only happen between people who are married and that its only purpose is procreation—making babies. Birth control is not allowed. Do millions of Catholics break these rules? All the time. So did I. It’s hard to ignore the fact that if I had followed the rules of the church back when I could have gotten pregnant, I would probably have children now. And grandchildren. My whole life would have been different. I would still have gotten divorced from my first husband and God knows how I would have supported myself and the kids, but I would be a mom.

So you could say religion, or ignoring my religion, is a factor in why I’m childless. But when people ask me why I don’t have kids, I rarely mention my religion or God or the church. And neither do most of the people I talk to, even though most religions see children as a blessing if not a requirement. I can’t name one faith that suggests we don’t have babies. Not one. And yet, it doesn’t seem to be part of the decision.

With all the people I interviewed for my Childless by Marriage book and the countless folks who have joined the discussion here at the blog, any mention of religion is rare. Why is that? Is it that our culture seems to make fun of people who are visibly religious? Try bringing it up with somebody you meet today and watch for the uncomfortable reaction.

Or is it that our faith doesn’t factor at all into our decisions about having children? I get comments every day about what he wants and what she wants, what I need and what he needs, will I regret it in my old age, and who will take care of me, but not a word about what God wants us to do. If you don’t believe in God, that makes sense. But a July 2016 Gallup poll shows that 89 percent of Americans claim to believe in God or a higher power. So where does God fit into our decisions about children? Do we consult Him/Her/It at all? If we don’t, why not? And if we do, why don’t we talk about it?

Are we afraid of being mocked? Afraid we don’t want what God wants? Do we figure it’s none of God’s business, part of our right to free will? When I was using birth control with my first husband or the men who followed; when I married a man who had a vasectomy and didn’t want more children; when I was feeling bad because I didn’t get to be a mom, did I think about God? Not much. Oh, I’d shake my fist and ask how He could let this happen to me, but that’s  not the same thing.

How about you? I know religion is an itchy uncomfortable subject for lots of people, but let’s try to talk about it. How does/did your belief in God or a higher power fit into your decisions about having children?

I promise to write about something easy, like puppies, next week. Tomorrow’s my dog Annie’s ninth birthday! But we need to look at the big issues sometimes. And maybe sending up a prayer will help someone who’s trying to figure things out.

Which is worse, no kids or a dozen?

The novel I’ve been reading, A Place of Her Own by Janet Fisher, takes place in the 1800s. It’s based on the true story of a woman who came to Oregon by covered wagon and settled not far from where I live. The heroine, Martha, married at 15, has one baby after another, 11 in all. She’d probably have had more, but her husband died. I almost want to add “thank God.” He was an abusive SOB.

But that’s not my point. The story takes place in the 1850s and ’60s. Martha has no access to birth control, abortion doesn’t even occur to her, and there is no such thing as a vasectomy or tubal ligation. If you have sex–and her husband isn’t going to take no for an answer–you have babies. She spends the 21 years of their marriage either pregnant or nursing. Think about that. One baby after another, with no way to stop them from coming.

There comes a point in the novel where she has had two babies die in infancy and discovers she’s pregnant again. “I don’t want to have another baby,” she cries. She already has so many to take care of and she can’t stand the thought of losing another one.

Her husband treats her horribly, at one point beating her with a whip. She leaves him for a while and tries to divorce him, but discovers the laws at that time  allow him to take all of their seven living children away from her. So when he promises never to hurt her again, she goes back. She has two more babies.

Why am I telling you about this when you and I don’t have any babies at all? Think about how few choices women had back then, long before they earned the right to vote. When Martha, as a widow, went to buy land, the guy selling it preferred to deal with her 11-year-old son because he was male.

Only in recent times have we had any say about whether or not we would get pregnant and have babies or when we would have them. When I was born in the 1950s, abortion and birth control were not legally available. Nor did women have many career options. Most became wives and mothers. They started their families young, long before age-related infertility might be a factor. We never heard about spouses refusing to have children. I’m sure it happened but not nearly as often as it does now.

Today we have so many choices it’s frightening. We make those choices and then we wonder if we’ll regret them later, whether it be birth control, abortion, vasectomy, or committing our lives to someone who is not able or willing to make babies with us. In these days when divorce is common, we’re often the second or third spouse, and our partners have already created families with their exes. They’ve had their children, but we have not. They want us to be happy taking care of their children, but it’s rarely enough.

Sometimes I wish we didn’t have so many choices. Life was less complicated in the 1860s. But to be honest, I would no more want to have 11 babies and have two of them die than I would want to have none. Also, considering the lack of choices back in the 1800s (when my great-great grandmother had 13 children who lived), why would any of us let anyone else decide this most important life choice for us now?

What do you think about all this?

***

Last week’s stepmom post has created quite a hot discussion. Take a look at https://childlessbymarriageblog.com/2017/01/12/he-already-has-his-kids-but-i-dont/.

 

 

 

 

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.

No, I am not my dog’s mother

annie-9314Back in 2008, I published one post after another about my puppies Annie and Chico. This was my motherhood experience, I believed. The pups were exactly the size of human newborns when my late husband Fred and I picked them up from a nearby breeder. For that first year, I was obsessed with those furry critters. There was an element of mothering, the feeding, the cleaning, the shots, the classes. I even had a puppy shower, hosted by my church choir. I was a raggedy mess as I neglected my poor husband because it was all about the puppies.

Reality woke me up. Fred’s Alzheimer’s became so advanced in 2009 that I had to put him in a nursing home. Now the dogs were big enough to knock me down. Chico started jumping the fence and fighting with neighbor dogs. After months of chasing him and threats from the neighbors, I gave him up to a shelter. So it was just me and Annie. Did I think of myself as her mom? Yes, but I don’t anymore, even though I devoted a whole chapter to dog-motherhood in my Childless by Marriage book.

Annie, now eight and a half years old, is my friend, my companion, and my responsibility, but she is not my child. I continue to live in a home that is much too big for one person with a yard that I can’t quite keep up because of Annie. I hesitate to travel because she doesn’t travel well and I hate to leave her. She is a constant responsibility, but no, she’s not my baby. She’s just Annie, an aging yellow dog with arthritis.

Does she help fill the gap where children would be? Some. Get a dog or a cat. It helps. A cat or a little dog stays baby-sized forever. But it does not take away the sting when I get to hold someone’s infant for five minutes then have to give her back because she’s not mine and I will never have one of my own. Last week I had that chance and it felt good until reality kicked in again like a punch in the stomach. No children, no grandchildren. Ever. I hate it.

But a dog does help. When I got home from my travels, Annie leaped in joy. We collapsed together on the loveseat as she wiggled all over, licked my face and let me know that I had just made her the happiest dog in the world. I probably wouldn’t have gotten that kind of greeting from my kids.

No, my dog is not my child. But she is a precious gift, and I’d glad she’s here.

What about you? Do you have pets? Do you think of yourself as their mother or father? Do you know people who do? Let’s talk about it.

***********

Want to read some of those old puppy posts?

“Sounds Like Motherhood to Me”

“Sometimes Even Puppies are Too Much”

“Puppy Love is the Best”

 

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.