It was the Tupperware lady who got me thinking about the role of women as wives and mothers in our North American culture. About five years ago, I invited one of these ‘’ladies” over to help organize my kitchen. I told her I was single and described the kinds of things I needed to organize, to cook and store (beans, chocolate chips, and the like). This woman couldn’t listen and couldn’t break out of her woman as mother and wife mindset. Whenever I mentioned my single status, she blithely ignored it and went on to describe which containers I would use to pack lunch for the kids, and which I’d use to make meals for my family. Well, I was a family of one. The experience left me feeling left out of our culture.
Another time I felt left out was in a women’s spirituality group I belonged to for many years. There were about ten of us, and we all started out single. Fast forward a few years, and every woman married and had children except me and one other woman. Eventually, being in that group became too painful, and I left. I decided to seek spirituality elsewhere in place that felt more inclusive of a range of different choices. Not having children never felt like a decisive choice to me. It was more a blend of fertility issues, timing, ambivalence, and not having the right partner at the right time. Also, on the light side, I once told my mother, “I think I’d like kind of a quiet life.” And she said, “Then don’t have children!”
Yet children have a big role in my life. I teach kids, am an aunt to four boys, a Big Sister, and I have an active role in my friend’s kids’ lives.
I think women who don’t have kids are left out in a certain way and are forced to forge their own path through the proverbial Robert Frost woods!
I once had a spiritual experience at a retreat center. I connected with this young girl, and she with me. We were at a bohemian Shabbat Service. I had this transcendent experience, as if I were getting to feel what it would be like if she were my child. It brought tears to my eyes, and I took many walks pondering whether I could handle being a mother. I was afraid that I could not, and therefore would be doing a disservice to a child. I think that is why I choose to be a Big Sister. I know what I can commit and what my limits are. This way, no one is disappointed.
The book that inspired me to write this article is Betsy Israel’s Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century. It is primarily, as the title suggests, a book about single life, but I pressed on to see what she might want to say about children.
The writes, “Older single women are, in the span of one afternoon and three conversations, first cool pioneers figuring out how to live singly, or make communities, and have children, or else they are unbelievably pathetic losers. People who waited. People who were deluded by feminism. People who will have nasty experiences with Pergonal and Clomid. And depending on the circumstance – the speaker – ‘old’ can occur at 30 or 35 or 40, 50, or 27.” (p.246)
One night last year I was visiting my best friend from college, who had just adopted a baby from Russia. At 2 a.m., in their living room on the pullout couch, I had an existential crisis. A dark night of the soul came over me and I was awash with questions: What had I done with my life? Was this a huge mistake not having children? What had I been thinking and could I never go back? Though this feeling faded with the morning sunrise, uneasiness about my life and my choices remains.
The feelings are not simple: they are convoluted and perhaps mysterious. I’m blessed with the richness that children in my life bring. And when I’m stressed out in the supermarket and someone’s kid is screaming, I feel bad for the kid and the mother, but sometimes when I feel overwhelmed enough with life already, I’m glad that’s not me. People always say you feel different when it’s your kid. Sadly, I may never know.
Someday, I hope to become a stepmother, but in the mean-time, being a good friend to my friend’s kids, my students, and my Little Sister seem enough for now.
Fennel is a long-time member of BBWN who has lived in the Boston area since 1990.