Being a mother is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about for someone who isn’t one, by most definitions.
It’s something I might have expected to think about more on the exam table while I got an abortion 11 years ago, but I thought about the topic surprisingly little then. I think my bigger concern was whether the person I was dating could be forgiven for this thing that we had both caused to happen. I was worried about the pain and later how dizzy and nauseous I was. I was thinking about the kind, young counselor who had asked me how I was feeling, the first person to do so since I saw the little lines appear on the at-home pregnancy test. I remember asking the doctor if being pregnant, even for eight weeks, would make my boobs saggy. He laughed and said no, he didn’t think so.
Mothering is something I think about almost daily now that I have no plans to have a child and can reasonably assume it won’t just happen somehow. I think about it when I wash the dishes before I go to bed, knowing that I’ll appreciate my own gesture the next morning. Or when a friend calls me and I put aside whatever’s been pressing on me to listen to them instead. Sheila Heti brilliantly observed that a childless woman will always come across people wanting to make her into a mother—that to be a mother to no one is going completely against the grain of everything that’s expected.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing—to be made a mother or to decide to be one even if you only have yourself to parent. That’s what this part of my life—the age at which so many of my friends are deciding to have children—has been about: being a mother to myself. And every day that I spend doing just that, I can’t believe there is so much to it. God, is there a lot to it. Some days opening the fridge door just to stare at wilting lettuce feels Herculean, but we’re meant to be doing more than that; we’re supposed to be thriving and jogging and laughing with our friends at happy hour.
In Motherhood, Heti talks about the idea of mothering the people who are already here. It’s not like we stop needing mothers or nurturing or support or a kind shoulder at some point. Are we all done being raised at a certain age? Maybe that’s what we’re told so we can grit our teeth and get to work. But I have never gone a day where I didn’t need softness in some form. We talk about having children like it’s a gateway to unconditional love. We want so badly to be in that special VIP club where unconditional love is on the menu. Having a child, giving birth…those things are monumentally difficult, but aren’t they worth getting into the club for life?
But I’ve learned so much more about unconditional love from the people who have no obligation to stay in my life and choose to do so anyway. They could just stop replying to my texts one day; I won’t see them at Christmas or a family reunion. And yet they keep showing up for my clumsy stumbling through life with a solidity that feels greater than blood. Whatever I may have in my heart for mothering a child seems well placed in being a mother to my community—adults who are still really children, including myself, and haven’t outgrown the need for acceptance and warmth.
If I hadn’t had an abortion, I might have been a good mother. But only because I was trying to redo the way things had been for me. Either I would have failed at that, or I would have succeeded and been angry—why did this child get it so much better than I ever did? Why didn’t anyone love me this much? Being a mother to a child would have meant putting myself aside, burying a self that would have just begun to burgeon through the cement of a childhood that had never allowed me to be a child the first time around.
As women, we only get so much time on this planet to experience everything we want to. To do it alone, to not bring anything into the world to love toward, allows us to mother as a practice.
There have been enough considerations on why mothers are the ones in the hot seat, why we expect more from them, all from them, and so much less from men. All I know is that it was my mother who let me down, even as my father did all the things you’re not supposed to do, didn’t offer what was needed. Somehow it was her failure to vet him that hurt most. She had let this happen; it was unjustly on her shoulders. Unfair as it is, I’m not sure how to feel any other way.
I never expected a man to save me, but I always hoped a woman would. Even if that woman is me.