I bought my first journal in my early 20s and still capture my inner thoughts most days. Completed volumes are cached in a storage box I rarely open. Recently I discovered the writings of my 25-year-old self, then a swimming teacher. I was shocked by her prescience.
She loves the children. Their affection is free and genuine, their eyes clear. They make her want to be a mother, yet she doubts that will happen. Either she would smother them with love and allow them to become the central force in her life, or she would resent the vast amount of time it takes to love and rear them. She thinks the decision will be hard to make.
Ten years later, I’m partnered, ambitious, and trying to get pregnant. I like marriage, and my career trajectory is on the rise. I picture myself in a smart, tailored suit-dress that would flatter a professional’s rounding middle. Months of trying become years of disappointment. My then-husband and I seek medical help. The issue is me — a period too short, a uterine wall too shallow for an embryo to implant. Three more years of invasive procedures and nasty drugs don’t work. Too old to adopt, we step off the roller coaster of infertility and quit trying. My destiny is one that doesn’t include motherhood.
In what I now see was a radical about-face, we chuck our corporate careers, shrug off our gabardines, and sell our suburban home. We relocate to a small rural community, shifting everyday realities to focus on a new way of life. My hands get dirty. I better appreciate what’s involved in growing food — some with roots, others with hooves. When lambs arrive in springtime, I’m a doting, perhaps overly attentive shepherdess.
Country living amplifies how much I differ from the women around me. Everyone, it seems, has children. I’m searching for my place and an identity that resonates. Surely there are women somewhere who can guide me along parallel paths to a fulfilling life. I crave the kind of counsel that comes so easily between mothers and those expecting, yet rarely do I meet other women who don’t have kids. Most of my friends are parents. Because our interactions so often focus on their children (and later grandchildren), I feel like I know them better than they know me. I try to shift the conversation to other topics, but it works only when others are willing to engage. Sometimes that seems impossible.
The work of opening doors to frank conversations falls most logically to those of us over 45. No longer in the throes of decision-making and clarifying our reproductive futures, we have experiences to share with others hungry to hear them.
In new groups of women, I cringe at the ubiquitous kid question. I also begin noticing a few women who sit quietly by as motherhood stories are swapped. My desire for connection eclipses my self-protective silence, and I gravitate in their direction. Soon I’m posing questions to these kid-quiet women about life options they’ve considered and choices they’ve made.
Some are eldest children, like I am, who tell me how early caregiving curtailed years of play; they now dedicate time to creative pursuits. Some travel widely, fill leadership roles in their communities, volunteer time and resources generously to causes they care about. Some are on spiritual quests or committed to disciplines that pique their interests. Whether by conscious design or a result of time passing, every woman has woven an intricate life tapestry that matters. When we talk, we acknowledge the richness and downsides of life without children of our own.
I’m like a junkie who can’t get enough. A friend and I start gathering other non-moms to talk about how our lives differ from those we know who have kids — from work life, friendships, how we define family to end-of-life planning and what we hope to leave behind when we die. Like my friend and me, rarely have these women shared their stories, yet we find so much in common — regardless of how old we are or why we don’t have kids.
My 25-year-old self saw a perspective I’d lost while pursuing motherhood. Hearing other women’s stories connected me to a range of possibilities that had eluded me. Today I’m convinced that sharing our experiences is crucial to understanding what might be in store for our futures and creative options for living today.
Trouble is, we’re not accustomed to speaking about what life can be like for non-parents. Stigmas about not having children have stayed the same for years — pity for those who wanted them, a mixture of envy and disdain for those who chose not to. Yet our lives and characters are so much more broad and nuanced than the stubborn stereotypes that are perpetuated by our silence.
The work of opening doors to frank conversations falls most logically to those of us over 45. No longer in the throes of decision-making and clarifying our reproductive futures, we have experiences to share with others hungry to hear them. Every time we offer insights into what our lives are really like, we bust those stereotypes and demonstrate the other perfectly normal way of being a woman.
I suspect I’ll always have moments of curiosity about the kids I might have had. But I now know it’s more fruitful to appreciate the possibilities and people now present in my life, those who graced my past, and those I’ll enjoy the rest of my days. I now celebrate the broad-reaching value that comes as a direct result of not having kids of my own. Let’s keep talking.
Kate Kaufmann’s book, Do You Have Kids? Life When the Answer Is No, came out in April. Her work has also been featured on NBC’s Know Your Value, KATU’s Afternoon Live, numerous podcasts, and in Conscious Connection, GirlTalk HQ, and The Washington Post. Learn more at katekaufmann.com.