Two smiling black-robed priests led the procession. I followed, striking the brass inkin bell. Behind me walked a tall man strewing flower petals, and then two young men bearing a small flower-canopied palanquin. Next, a woman holding aloft the six-inch baby Buddha, then an eight-year-old girl carrying a trumpet to herald the baby’s arrival, and then the rest of the various congregation. I’m not sure what our Wall Street neighbours made of the procession, but it felt the perfect way to ease into Mothers Day Sunday.
We processioned out of the zendo and down Wall Street to a sunny little park overlooking the inlet. There, protected by the grain elevators and the Second Narrows bridge, we bathed the baby buddha in sweet tea and listened to the story of his birth and awakening.
The Buddha as it turns out, was not your average family guy. His mother died when he was seven days old and he was raised by his aunt Mahapajapati, who nurtured and challenged him (as a good auntie should). She supported him in his radical departure and when he eventually got all famous she was the first woman to request ordination. At first, times being what they were and a woman’s place being clearly in the kitchen and the nursery, her nephew turned her down. But Mahapajapati was a relentless lobbyist on behalf of the women of the day. She mounted a full-blown campaign and finally was ordained as the first Buddhist nun. When the Buddha himself left the family palace to bring his ideas to the wider world, he left behind his own wife and child, knowing that love must extend beyond the nuclear bond. There are so many ways to live, so many ways to serve, and so many ways to forge intimate relationships.
We know this. Still, for women like me, Mothers Day can be a strain. I don’t have a mother and I don’t have any children. When the airwaves are jammed with odes to motherhood, and kids skip down the street carrying offerings of macaroni art and flowers, women like me can feel like freaks. But we are not freaks, and we are not alone.
Actually, we are one in five. In the U.S. and in Canada and in the U.K. the number is the same: one in five women (age forty and up) do not, and so likely never will, have biological children.
The one-in-five stat is a national average. In low-income and rural communities more women have children, which means that in cities and in higher-educated circles, the percentage is lower. Here in affluent Vancouver we are what â€” one in four? One in three? It’s impossible to say, because for all the time I’ve spent searching online I’ve not found any recent statistics. The lack of data or discussion is mystifying.
If you glance at the magazine covers in the grocery checkout or the bulletin boards cluttered with ads for pre-natal classes and mommy-baby yoga, you might think childless women were one in a million. Sometimes when I watch the stroller parade on my cozy residential street I feel like a freak of nature. But again, here’s the news: one in five. One in five. There are lots of us, and we have every right and reason to dance on our paths.
There’s a common misconception that women are childless for one of two reasons: infertility or conscious choice. I do know some women who who firmly decided to take a pass on motherhood, and who are fully satisfied and comfortable with their decisions. I applaud them and I’m grateful for their support. But for many of us the path is more subtly determined by circumstance, or by the small choices we make day by day and year after year as our lives unfold. We decide: not this time, not now, maybe some day. And then one day it dawns on us that the window of childbearing has shut, and that “some day” has effectively become never. For myself, as for many others, that is a shattering moment met with shock or denial or aching regret.
Many women will spend a precious decade of our lives in a state ranging from intermittent low-level doubt to full-blown and constant anxiety. We may carry a burden of unrecognized and unexpressed grief. We might never fully embrace our lives, always holding a part of our energy in reserve for the identity we may never assume. Some of us carry regret to our death-beds.
We might feel like failures. We might feel forgotten. We might feel envious. I am not proud of the fact that I have let some good friends slip away from me after they have had children. I might complain that they go to bed at 8:30 and are obsessed with dhoulas and potty training, that’s not the whole story. There is also an element of envy that has driven a wedge between us, and it has taken time for me to recognize it and forgive myself for it.
Now listen, this is important: I am not arguing for or against. Science will never prove which is better: the parental or the child-free life. Don’t bother telling me about the upsides or the downsides, to either side. And PLEASE do not send me any screeds from strident and self-righteous “child-free” advocates, whose dogma on the subject of procreation rivals that of the Pope. Having children is no more or less “selfish” than remaining childless. The pleasure and deep fulfillment people get from having kids is real, and good parenting is a gift to the world.
Again though, parenthood is only one possible path, and it cannot be the road for everyone. We are the childless one in five, and we don’t need to hear about the latest developments in in-vitro fertilization or foreign adoption. Nor do we need to be reassured that being childless is so much better. No one will win this argument. We have only one life we to live, and on this path we have endless opportunities to fulfill all of our emotional and physical needs in a myriad of creative ways. We can enjoy deep and ongoing relationships with children and with parents if we want them. We can leave meaningful legacies of all kinds. We can feel unconditional love. We are blessed to live in an evolving world where so much is now possible, as the buddha foresaw: both within and beyond the family mold.
I find now that as I plant my feet firmly into the soil of the present, I release remorse for the path not taken. Opportunities blossom around me in the freedom that non-motherhood affords. I find myself writing, adventuring, making art, and offering myself to creative service. In the back closet of my self I found a reserve tank of energy and creativity labelled â€œfor baby”. The lid has blown off the tank, and now that energy is set free.
One day not so long ago I held a friendâ€™s newborn in my arms, and for the first time in my life I felt genuine sympathetic joy. Joy for the baby, joy for the mother, joy for me. Unconditional happiness, with or without, anything or everything. It is what weÂ all can have, and what we all deserve.
I am wishing a very happy day to all women and men, and to all the juicy mothers and non-mothers of this world.