EVERY SECOND SUNDAY in May, I call the woman who brought me into the world to wish her a happy Mother’s Day. Then I demand details; I want my mother to tell me about my birth. She can recall with rich accuracy the particulars of her five pregnancies, and I want her to spare nothing. I myself will never get a Mother’s Day call, and I yearn to comprehend the commonplace miracle of having a baby.
You see, a year or so ago I suddenly found myself childless. Having never actually given birth it should have hardly come as a surprise. But at a certain age (I’m in my late-thirties—so late-thirties, in fact, as to be mid-forties) you realize that a series of choices has led to an irrevocable result. Sometimes I’ve wondered if having children was just one of those things that I keep meaning to get around to, like climbing Mount Everest or cleaning out the closet. I could list certain logistical issues that never dovetailed properly to pave the way for a baby, but infertility isn’t among them. The truth of the matter is I never wanted children.
A woman gets a bit nervous admitting such a thing in polite company. It comes with assumptions, both spoken and silent, about just what kind of woman you are. You might as well say that you kill butterflies for sport. We still just don’t quite know what to do with gals who might not want to procreate. I always want to add, “But I’m a decent person! Really!”
I have never felt that primal craving to bring forth a child, a trait that’s supposed to be inextricable from being female. I have rarely felt the deep urge that so many of the women in my life have tried to describe. A friend said it was as if her body ached to be full with an infant, and her arms “watered”—the way a mouth does for a morsel of food—to hold a baby.
For the record, I do not dislike babies. I fear them. I mean, couldn’t a four-month-old just up and attack you if she really put her mind to it and coordinated those tiny muscles in a perfect storm of assault? My own mother will tell you, with in-the-trenches candor, “When you have kids, you gotta keep your back to the wall.”
Still, I am fascinated by this biological imperative we call maternal instinct, this inborn drive to protect and nurture one’s offspring at any cost. So many of the women in my life come by it effortlessly, and I know that I am lucky to have been on the receiving end of maternal affections. However, I must say that if a multi-pound human being thrashed its way out of my nether regions and then expected me to take care of it without even so much as an apology, frankly, I think I’d be a little put out.
I find tales about pregnancy and childbirth spellbinding and, well, a little dreadful. Most women have attended at least one baby shower in their lives, and amid the flowery wrapping paper and elaborately decorated pieces of cake, stories circulate. Stories of blood and pain and the general mayhem of giving birth, stoutly and graphically narrated. I’m a sucker for ’em; I want to know about this country I will never see. I feel like a kid listening to horror stories around a campfire, heart pounding, eyes wide, palms sweating with the sheer gruesomeness of it all. All that’s missing is the woman shining a flashlight under her chin for the grave denouement: “And then the doctor said, ‘Push!’”
It is at such celebrations that the topic of being childless invariably comes up. I don’t participate in the exchange of war stories, and when people ask about my children, I say I have none. Usually, they want to fix this. There’s still time, my fellow women counsel. There are sperm banks or you can always adopt. (In fact, I have considered adoption, but if would have to be an older child, say twenties or thirties, and she’d have to live elsewhere and support herself.)
People have said that it is selfish not to have children. I’ve never quite been able to figure out this logic. Surely, there are also selfish parents, as well as selfless childless persons. I simply lack that thing, whatever it is, that drives people to reproduce. Others will insist, of course, that I have the mothering instinct—it’s simply dormant. But what if it isn’t? I wouldn’t want to chance it at the expense of another human being.
It is lonely at times. When most everyone seems to be in on the whole procreating craze, you start to feel out of the loop—your friends, your siblings have different worlds. But I’ve found that they’re as curious about my childless life as I am about motherhood. Even as they offer advice, mothers also want to know: What is it like to sleep late? What is it like not to be laden with juice boxes and diapers and Cheerios? What is it like to be able to do whatever you want whenever you want? We both pretend we’re joking about what life is like on the other side of the fence, but I suspect we’re both wondering what we might have missed out on. Yes, I have choices my mother didn’t have, and feminism might maintain I can have it all, but the laws of physics remain immutable. We cannot both have children and not have children.
Whatever atavistic motherly qualities I might possess probably exhibit themselves most vividly in the presence of my nieces and nephews. I, as the result of other people’s choices, find myself a beloved aunt to more than a dozen kids. I may not be maternally gifted, but I dare say that I am superior to a wire-and-terry-cloth monkey. My siblings call on me to change diapers and administer food and take their kids to the park; why, I’ve even successfully kept the little ones away from band saws and bonfires. What’s more, I have a bursting love for these young ones. In true aunt fashion, I rush after each to kiss them on the cheek, even my towering 18-year-old nephew. And, as is their duty, they grimace and laugh when I try to rub the lipstick off their faces. They are thrilled with the pennies and old gum I dig out of my purse for them, and I know that this, this is where I’m needed. I haven’t missed a thing. And the human race will manage just fine without my biological contribution.
Mary Jo Pehl is a writer who lives in Minneapolis. She wrote about her job as a character on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the January issue.