Happy mothers and non-mothers day

We marched down Wall Street this morning, all dressed in black. Wall Street in East Van that is, down in the semi-industrial paradise by the port lands. A parade, in honour of the Buddha’s birthday.

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 — 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 “for baby”. The lid has blown off the tank, and now that energy is set free.

One day not so long ago I held a friend’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 we  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.

15 Responses to “Happy mothers and non-mothers day”

  1. Roger wiseman Says:

    Carmen as a man I can’t fully identify, but as a parent I do have some experience form the other side, and I can tell you this. Let it go. Forgive yourself. Forgetaboutit. Despite the hype the parent thing is not all it’s cracked up to be. Yes it’s great and yes it’s awful. So, I was a single parent for many many years, the wife/mother left us when girl and boy were 3 and 1.5 years. We, the kids and I, did the whole deal, and now those kids are 38/40. leading their own lives. Job well done, a good outcome, yada yada. And now? Often they piss me off, and I suppose me them. I’m trying to find my own life, exceed my own expectations, which is one reason why I enjoy your posts. I see you trying to break through the cage, the same cage that I often drape around myself. Here is what helps me: i have a little dog, a little ragamuffin waif, a reject no one loved. I love him, he doesn’t judge me, even if I wear a kilt. He weighs five pounds and rides in the basket of my bike. We are sort of in tune with our own nonsense.
    Much love to you.

  2. Leon Mac Says:

    Seems like you forgot to mention the incredible stress placed upon modern parents… Custody battles, day to day stresses of everyday living, and the serious isolation I see some single mothers dealing with. Like being a parent is a discriminated thing. But what would I know, I am not a parent, and not a woman. Should I lament the fact… no orifice for offspring to emerge from? A different hand is dealt to men. In England, Denmark and to some degree in Canada, men arent given any credit, men who want to take part in parenting, and their rights are disparaged and trampled on.
    Have you heard about Japanese, lowest birthrate in the world, they are going extinct. And with the oldest population demographic to boot. SO now one of the diaper manufacturer now sells more adult diapers than childrens diapers. You must fit the demographic also. Educated empowered woman, NOT having children, seems to fit the bill.
    “Many of us will spend a precious decade of our lives in a state ranging from occasional low-level doubt to full-blown and constant anxiety. We carry a burden of unrecognized and unexpressed grief. We are never able to fully embrace our lives, always holding a part of our energy in reserve for the identity we may never assume.” Are you speaking of parenthood?
    L

  3. carmen Says:

    My point is, that no path is any “righter” than the other. With child or without, life offers fun and joy and sorrow and regret. Nobody’s going to win this argument.

    But, like every living being, humans are biologically hard-wired toward survival of the species – i.e., HAVING BABIES. So while it is magnificent that we have finally evolved to the point of taking a second look at this most absolutely basic of impulses, it is still a giant leap. There may still be grief, no matter how good the alternatives. And anger: try being a woman in a small town without a child. Try feeling confident when you are being pitied from all sides.

    For women in particular, who are still under much more restrictive social patterns – not to mention TIGHTER DEADLINES – than men, the burden can be much heavier. And while there is no shortage of crisis lines for new moms and support groups of every kind, NO ONE TALKS about what it is like to be childless.

    Which is not to say – LISTEN TO ME GUYS! – that issues around parenthood are any less difficult for men than for women. But they are somewhat different and somewhat differently complex.

  4. Margot Says:

    I grew up with a “childless” aunt who always seemed to have a better lifestyle than my own mother so I always knew it was an option. I have very little shame or guilt about it, but I do miss some of my old friends who never call anymore because they’re too busy doing kid stuff.

  5. Bernadette Keenan Says:

    If we were all the same and all followed the same path, the world would be a very predictable but incredibly boring place. There is room for all plus I think a place and reason for all.
    Flylady has a nice take on it. She says “…Not all of us are mothers, but we have all been mothered by someone. That mother could have been a father, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, next door neighbor, your sister or brother or in some cases a foster parent or a teacher. Somebody took care of you or you would not be here.

    Whoever it was that mothered you; helped to mold you to who you are today. I am thankful for all the mothering that I received or did not receive…”

    I think by extension we also have to recognize that even with out being biological mothers, we all have a nurturing or mothering side to us and our actions can help others (young and old) grow. Carmen you are big in that respect as far as I am concerned. So it sounds like you have no regrets, or have come to that place and rightly so, since a child might have led you down very different paths, when you are so obviously where you are meant to be right now.

    Hope you get my drift here. I am not as good with the philosophical as you are.

  6. Cori Says:

    Thanks for writing this carmen

  7. Jana Says:

    Hello, imaginative, inspiring, and well traveled Bicycle Buddha!

    You and I have spoken of this “motherless” story since both of us are in our 50’s and both of us genuinely felt/knew/hoped we would be Mothers one day. Your writing about this subject and the responses above illustrate that despite western culture’s unspoken aspiration for Mothers to resemble the Virgin Mary, real parenting doesn’t actually feel religious, or like a Hallmark card or a Disney movie. (Maybe Buddha’s Mom was closer to the mark…pressuring (nagging?) him to do the right thing and make her a nun, damn it.)

    Still, I identify with the trajectory and the yearning to be a Mom, and then the gasping realization, due to tubal pregnancies and infertility issues that no one will ever look at me and say, “I love you, Mom.” That reality is especially hard for women like me who have stood in for absent Mothers. We, the ‘volunteer’ Mothers who lovingly raise children can be ‘retired’ when their Fathers elect to leave. And so I suggest a new Mother’s Day adaptation. For real, I’d like to see Hallmark come up with a card that says: “Happy Mother Double” for all the step-Mom’s and Auntie’s who love children just because they are. Women who don’t need a birth canal connection to give unconditional love. Women, like me, who have decided that every child is mine.

  8. Donna Jean MacKinnon Says:

    Thanks for opening up this important discussion Carmen. I think a forum for it is long overdue.

    I feel for you and other women who would have loved to have had children and who would have made wonderful, strong, and nurturing mothers.

    I have sensed the envy and longing of women who are unwillingly childless but at the same time felt inertia about speaking up for fear of being perceived as patronizing or trivializing. I want these women to know I mourn with them and want to bridge the gap that I too feel with some of my childless women friends.

    I know I felt a great longing for children before I had them and now feel very grateful for the two I have. Grateful for the experience, the joy and even the daily frustration and knowledge that other personal interests are either temporarily or permanently on hold.

    I wonder if a lot of what makes the childless/motherhood dichotomy so poignant is our individualistic culture. If we lived in a society where children are seen as truly belonging to the community, noone would be denied the involvement with and experience of caring for children.

    I think that the capitalistic, individualistic perspective perversely assigns parenthood as a success and non-parenthood as failure. I wonder if in more inclusive cultures, the longing for children of one’s own is as profound.

    In the Asian cultural group I married into, I do not sense the same longing from my childless female in-laws. Is it because I don’t ‘read’ them right or is it because the group mentality of family relationships gives them a place in the extended family that is less available, if at all in the individualism of western families? I certainly find my cousins and sisters-in-law quite opinionated and even somewhat pushy in their involvement with our children!

    In any case, I believe that all women are nurturers and men too, given the chance, expectation, and encouragement. And we could use as much of that as we can get.

    It’s also lousy and unfair that women who want to have a stronger role in raising children and having them in their lives are denied the opportunity. Children need adults of many stripes in their lives to help them find their place in the world. And parents need other involved adults to share the work and joy of child-rearing. But the two universes are greatly separated in our culture and it will take some creativity and effort to make places, times, and activities converge.

    I don’t want to feel this disharmony between women – the unspoken longing and apparent privilege between women who are mothers and those who aren’t.

    Let’s keep talking about this.

    And….. Happy Mothers Day to all the women!

  9. Amy Kiara Says:

    Thanks Carmen,

    It takes the proverbial village to raise a child… and as we embrace the gifts of the diversity of our various contributions (as mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, mentors, etc…) we see that there are many ways to birth, generate, and nurture our offerings into the world. We are in such an intense time on our planet and we need the creative dreaming of all of us, sensing into the web of relationship and connection, in order to support the healthy emergence of the next generations.

    On a side note, it is interesting to look at some of the origins of Mother’s Day… one was a “Mother’s Day for peace”, asking women around the world to join for peace.

  10. Pattipow Says:

    Carmen, you know I love you. But when you write such wonderfully honest and insightful and big-hearted stuff like this, I can’t help but love you and life and my own life even more. Thanks for your ever-thoughtful and bridge-building writing.
    xo
    Patti Pie Powell

  11. pattipow Says:

    …and Dj, thanks too. I love hearing your experience and thinking.

  12. Garth Says:

    Hi Carmen,
    I am reading two distinct themes woven through your post and reflected in the comments – one is about whether or not you have your own children, and one is about whether or not you have children in your life. You can have the latter if you choose to.
    I welcome my friends with open arms when they want to spend time with us and our daughter. I have found, though, that relatively few of my friends have stayed in touch since our daughter arrived because they haven’t adjusted to the change in my life to be more kid-involved. We see the friends who don’t wait around for us to call them, and aren’t above doing ‘kid stuff’. The other friends fade into the distance as the months go by.
    Being an awesome auntie is a win-win: time invested in relationships with kids gives you reciprocal unconditional love from an adoring niece who benefits immensely from the creativity, enthusiasm, wisdom, and most of all the “I-sleep-enough” energy of non-parent aunties and uncles.
    And the parents get to see their friends and also catch a bit of a rest.
    Mothers day can be for aunties too!

  13. Kate Says:

    I was at a fundraiser event a few weeks ago with my newborn and noticed a woman looking at him longingly so I struck up a conversation with her. She was a mother herself, but hadn’t been around a baby for a long time and expressed how she missed having a baby. I could feel the love just radiating from her onto my little guy so I offered him to her to hold. She beamed and accepted the offer and I watched her in quiet joy for about half an hour while she just sat there glowing and loving him. It was such a simple and effortless gift to give and it gave so much joy.

    It’s really a tragedy that childless people are rarely included in the intimate family lives of people with kids. I for one would love my kids to have as many loving aunties and uncles as possible. I really believe if more people had the opportunity to share in the family experience, the world would be a softer and more forgiving place. Of course people create community in all sorts of ways, but what DJ says is totally true, the childless and child having groups are greatly separated and we need to be thoughtful to the ways we can include each other more.

  14. Lorraine La la la Says:

    Its hard to feel longing, that we cant wish or wash away. I wished we’d kept in touch, my babies were wonderful to hold. I read the book “The Myth of Motherhood”. It helped wash away my longing when I was in my 20s.

  15. carmen Says:

    Thank you all for your wise observations and heartfelt comments. I have to pass on, though, a comment made directly to me by a friend who is over 40 and childless. On reading the responses to this blog piece she said, “it makes me want to scream, SHUT UP AND LISTEN!”.

    The path of parenthood is intensely consuming. I am realizing how difficult it can be for people who are on that path to imagine life beyond it. Which is one of the things that makes non-mothers crazy!

    Not to be harsh, because i know you all mean well and your suggestions are valuable. I really love spending time with my nearfew Gabe. But for childless women, the ultimate answer is not to be found in hanging out with other people’s kids or getting a dog. It is above all an inward journey of self-acceptance, not a quest for band-aid solutions.

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