Theresa May. Jennifer Aniston. Sania Mirza.
The British prime minister, one of the world’s most celebrated and successful actresses, and the world’s number one tennis doubles player were all called out in the past week for not being mothers.
As a childless, married woman, I have been watching this with a mixture of horror, sympathy and amusement. I feel for these three. I really do. Because the older I get, the more I find I am subjected to rude and offensive questions and comments even from complete strangers. Comments range from “Aapko tho 35 ho gaya hoga? Bacche karlo! Bacchon ke bina aapka marriage tho boring ho jayega!” (You're 35? Have children. Without children your marriage will become boring) to “How can you not want babies? You will regret it all your life!” to “But have you thought about your husband? Where will he go if you don’t want kids?” It's as if I am on some kind of selfish strike.
I am expected to answer queries that range from doubting our health to whether we are perhaps not financially equipped to raise kids or whether it’s because our marriage is not stable enough and finally – my favourite – whether we are afraid of the responsibility. Here’s the thing, though – no one questions my husband in this offensive, judgemental, rude manner. It’s only me, ten times out of ten, who has to deal with it. It is ridiculous that I am viewed by the majority of people as a deeply flawed woman just because I do not have a child.
As a married woman in my 30s, I am expected to want babies with some kind of fervour. To pine to be a mother in the classic sense of the word. To raise children, and to conform to the societal ideal of a “normal” woman. My unenthusiastic response to all of the above seems to worry or disturb people in some primal manner. They assume I don’t like children, and they never believe me when I say I love them. I have left mothers open-mouthed when they see that I am perfectly capable of feeding a fussy child a meal, or putting a cranky one to sleep. And they seem even more incredulous that I do these tasks with a lot of tenderness and love. I have wonderful relationships with my nieces and nephews. I adore several of my friends’ babies, and cherish any opportunity to spend time with them.
That's because it is possible to feel maternal, to feel nurturing and loving towards a child (or animal or plant, for that matter) without going through the biological act of giving birth. That act is not the only way to express your maternal feelings. Yes, I know nothing about the physical, emotional and mental strength and mettle that go towards conceiving a child, being pregnant, and then living through the sleepless nights, growing pains, etc. I have never experienced the complicated jumble of emotions that parents live through, every single day via their children. I have a lot of admiration and awe for the amount of work it takes parents to raise children in a mindful, fully invested manner. I know several, and have nothing but respect for them. But the point is I am choosing not to participate.
Isn’t it ironic that in a world in which we are redefining basic societal constructs and definitions, we want to stand by old, outdated constructs of marriage, parenthood and, especially, motherhood? We need to be able to recognise and celebrate the qualities of parenting/fathering/mothering, without boxing them into the constructs of roles. Some of the most celebrated maternal qualities are often found in fathers. If we were to break parenting down to the bare neccessities, it comes down to love and nurturing, which each one of us is capable of – regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation and relationship status.
Any ‘good news’?
Anne Lamott writes about this brilliantly in an essay explaining why she hates Mother’s Day. (Note: she is a mother and a grandmother.)
“…Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult, and many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. I say that without judgment: It is, sadly, true. An unhealthy mother’s love is withering.
The illusion is that mothers are automatically happier, more fulfilled and complete. But the craziest, grimmest people this Sunday will be the mothers themselves, stuck herding their own mothers and weeping children and husbands’ mothers into seats at restaurants. These mothers do not want a box of chocolate. These mothers are on a diet.
But my main gripe about Mother’s Day is that it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. I am the woman I grew to be partly in spite of my mother, and partly because of the extraordinary love of her best friends, and my own best friends’ mothers, and from surrogates, many of whom were not women at all but gay men. I have loved them my entire life, even after their passing.”
Each time I am asked for “good news” or lectured about the rewards of motherhood versus a career, I have to stop myself from saying, repeating what the preternaturally cool and composed Claire Underwood said when she was asked, on an episode of House of Cards, if she ever regretted not having children – “Have you ever regretted having them?”
Because that’s all it comes down to. Choices. I choose not to have children. I am very aware of the consequences of that choice. I do not stay up at night worrying about who will change my adult diapers 30 or 40 years later, if it comes to that. My womb does not collapse in sadness when I see other people’s kids giving them hugs.
The funny thing is, though, that if my husband and I change our minds and do decide to have a child, we will be celebrated, applauded and cheered on, even if we make a bloody mess of parenting. But if we never do, and yet spend our whole lives building rewarding careers, a loving home, and a network of meaningful relationships with our families and friends, we will still be considered selfish, uncaring and not “settled down”.
If I am being completely honest, I don’t know if I will ever want to be a mother. I like my life just the way it is – I feel grateful for my marriage, my chosen and given families, my work, and for the fact that my world is not incomplete without a child. Because it really is not. And if that bothers people, they need to examine their own lives. Not mine.