On peer pressure, late-life motherhood, and why I won’t be having a baby in my forties
A few weeks ago, I received a WhatsApp photo from a friend who, at 42, gave birth for the first time to twins as a result of IVF. The photo of her newborn boys was accompanied by a message in capital letters: “JOIN ME! HAVE A BABY! :)”
I’m a contentedly married woman in my forties with no desire to be a mother, and I attribute her somewhat juvenile text to hormones. But I must admit that, as more of my fortysomething friends suddenly decide they want babies after all, I’m feeling a little left out. At times, I am curious about what it might be like to “join them,” to enter the unknown and mysterious realm of “wise, nurturing, earth mother.”
Watching my peers undergo this mass conversion to motherhood has also left me wondering: Why is the calling so hard for many women to resist, especially as they enter the final stages of their reproductive cycles? Why are my friends, despite their prior lack of interest in having children, giving themselves over to the magnetic pull of motherhood? And am I missing out on a pivotal, spiritually enhancing, life-changing event?
As a non-mother, the “other side” can sometimes appear like a utopian version of Wonder Woman’s Amazonian island of Themyscira — a well-ordered, genteel, man-free society where sisters transform from flighty, self-centered girls into strong, self-sacrificing, heroic women. Where those who have crossed the magical threshold take their flat-bellied sisters’ palms and place them on their bulging bellies to transmit maternal powers; where they proudly whip out milk-engorged breasts at dinner parties in a celebration of womanliness and multitask with superhuman powers, juggling memos in power suits by day and reading to their little ones by night. And where, later in life, they all courageously hold in their tears and support each other as they bid farewell to their grown children who are leaving home for college, to get married, or for a stint in rehab or jail.
I know that it is not the child that I want. What I want is to know what it feels like to want a child.
I’m no Wonder Woman, but I do often wonder if I could live in Themyscira. I’m envious of the lessons those women might be learning, the supernova-like personal-growth spurts I might be missing out on. I know, however, that it is not a child that I want. What I want is to know what it feels like to want a child. I am curious to find out if what other women say — that having children changes you, teaches you to love in a whole different way — could be true for someone like me.
But is being curious about the experience of motherhood a good enough reason to have children? If I had a baby out of curiosity, would the child be created for its own sake or for the sake of its mother’s personal evolution?
Among my own social circles, the reasons for having children later in life sometimes seem questionable. One married friend, previously in the “not interested” camp, decided on her fortieth birthday that she and her husband would have a child. Over dinner, she seemed almost apologetic as she explained what had prompted her to switch sides. “You know I don’t even like children, but after my dog died, I realized that my husband and I had done such a good job raising him together, that I think we have it in us to do the same with a child.”
Another older mom — a successful and wealthy plastic surgeon — told me she had her “I think I’m now ready” epiphany when she saw a couple she described as unattractive, out of shape, and from a lower socioeconomic group walking in the mall with their three little children. She said, I kid you not, “Me and my husband are so much better looking, more successful, and we earn more than them. If they can have kids, why shouldn’t we?”
Then there’s June, one of my oldest and best friends. June lives in Milan these days. The two of us have been on the same page about not wanting kids ever since we first met at a party in our early twenties. “There’s no way I’m going to have kids. I can barely look after myself. And I don’t want to be strapped down with all that extra responsibility,” she told me three years ago.
Last year, though, she finally met Mr. Right on Tinder and got married at 45. When I visited her last month, June told me that baby-making was now on her agenda. After learning she doesn’t have enough healthy eggs, she and her new husband had decided to inseminate a healthy egg harvested from another woman with her husband’s sperm and implant the embryo inside June’s womb.
The extent of June’s desire for parenthood is touching, but my inner cynic guffaws at the cost of the procedure (and all the anxious hoping and waiting that will accompany it). Another part of me worries that I might lose a friend, or will have to spend hours looking at baby photos the next time we meet.
I was curious about her motives, and when I queried her, June told me, “I think (Mr. Right) will make a great dad. We want to be a family, and I think together, we can be great parents. And a grandkid will bring both our families closer together, too.” Seen in this light, June’s reasons for choosing motherhood made good sense to me, and reminded me about a chat I once had with a taxi driver who was speaking enthusiastically about his two kids. “A couple isn’t family. You’re only a family once you have kids,” he said.
Ihave wonderful childhood memories of sing-alongs and road trips with my parents, them helping me with my homework and applauding when I got good grades, and us enjoying festive family barbecues with my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. When I focus on these good memories, I can totally understand the draw of family life. In the same way that motherhood looks like Themyscira, those scenes from my happy childhood make me wonder if there’s some kind of magic on the other side that I’ve denied myself by not having children.
Of course, I remember the not so wonderful times, too. When my parents raged at my misbehavior; when they were tired and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of raising children while sustaining their careers and marriage; when they fought over how to discipline me; and when, during my teenage years, we had difficulty communicating and always seemed to butt heads.
Good or bad, pleasant or painful, family life is a major transition from coupledom. Big lifestyle changes such as these can sometimes make us feel as if we’re taking control of our destiny and moving up onto the next rung of the “human-experience ladder.” Transitioning from one state of being to another can be (for a short time at least) an antidote to an unsatisfying life, and motherhood can look like a great opportunity to shake things up.
Another friend, who had her only child at 47, recently got candid with a group of us ladies over dinner (and perhaps too many cocktails): “I didn’t get to do that round-the-world trip I hoped to. I was sick and tired of doing other people’s taxes every day when what I really wanted was to be a concert pianist. My marriage was falling apart. But I felt like it was too late for me to try to change those parts of my life, so I thought I’d better have a baby.”
I heard the opposite from another older mom friend. She had achieved everything she hoped to in her career, had traveled extensively, had written two books, was happy in her marriage, and was now looking for her next challenging project, so being a mom made the most sense.
While many women have very sensible reasons for changing their minds about having children, I observed four common themes driving the unexpected conversions of my fortysomething friends from anti-motherhood to pro-motherhood.
- They wanted to become more nurturing and didn’t want to miss out on family life.
- They felt as if they were entitled to the motherhood experience because they had the equipment (womb + willing husband + financial stability) required to create it.
- They were unhappy with their lives and hoped that having a child might improve it.
- They had ticked all the other boxes and were now bored and looking for a new existential challenge.
This got me thinking: Perhaps the compulsion to have children later in life has less to do with conventional societal and biological cues, and more to do with the fear of missing out on a personality-altering, “positive” life experience? And maybe there’s some anxiety mixed in there over the thought of dying without having created something of substance?
Regardless of the forces involved, the reality is that not all women are designed for motherhood. My own mother told me that she had children because when she was a young woman, once you were married, having children was just what you did. My father decided when they would have their first child, and when my mother got pregnant, she expected a natural birth that would allow her to bond immediately with her newborn.
But, because she had me via an unplanned C-section, she was unconscious, and then in pain and unable to tend to me. She became mildly depressed, was often anxious, and could not lactate for some reason, though she tried and tried. Her well-intentioned mother told her to give up and insisted that she would take over parenting duties, so I went to live with my grandmother while my mother convalesced.
My sister was also born via C-section, and the two surgeries altered my mother’s once smooth and slender body. I believe that, over the years, motherhood impeded her ability to look after herself physically and psychologically. When I look at the dark keloid scars on her lower abdomen, and observe my mother’s often nervous and tense disposition, I see an intelligent dreamer and a beautiful woman with a gorgeous soul, who seems to have been thrown off balance by childbirth.
Motherhood might enhance quality of life for many women, but there are others with personality traits that simply aren’t compatible with children. “No one can write with a child around… It’s no good. You just get cross,” said author Doris Lessing in a 2008 interview with the Telegraph.
In another interview, the Nobel Prize-winning author talked about struggling with guilt after leaving her two small children in colonial Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) when she moved to London to pursue her career: “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn’t the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother.”
Not all women are created the same. What works for one might not work for another. A lot of potential complications and hurts can be avoided if we can fight the compulsion to follow the social script and our own curiosity, and instead accept the inner promptings we hear, and live in ways that allow us to be true to ourselves.
For my part, the thought of being left alone in a room with a child for more than 12 hours makes me nervous. If I have less than six hours of sleep, I am not very nice to be around, so I expect that regular 3 a.m. feedings would not sit well with me. I balk at the idea of coordinating logistics like school enrollments, doctors’ appointments, or playdates, not to mention having to pay for all these things! The idea of cleaning up poop and spilled milk has zero appeal for me, and listening to babies scream makes me feel like punching a wall.
Then again… the thought of family members, colleagues, bosses, and the lady at the grocery store asking me, “When are you due?” and, “Is it a boy or a girl?” — or complimenting me on how “good” pregnancy looks on me — does have its charms. It would be nice to have people give up their seats for me on the bus or subway. How fun it would be to have people look at my toddler with goofy faces and goo-goo eyes and say, “What a beautiful child you have!” (And I’ll hear, “What a beautiful child you have!”) I would be the carrier of new life, the woman bringing forth a new person for her family and friends to marvel at. I would be giving the human race the gift of a new member. What joy! They should throw me a baby shower every day!
In many cultures, pregnant women and women with infants are celebrated by their family and friends, and even by complete strangers. They are treated with extra kindness and gentleness. They are seen as women in the prime of womanhood, doing that thing that women were meant to do.
While I’m not actually interested in all the work that comes with being a parent (not even in the supposedly fun stuff), and the thought of labor makes my knees wobbly, I do envy the attention and hand-clapping that pregnant ladies and mothers of young children seem to receive. Having a baby would also help me avoid the judgment that comes with not having one.
Yesterday, I sat down at the communal table in my usual neighborhood café with a coffee and croissant. I opened my laptop and was about to begin writing when my ears pricked up to attend to a conversation taking place between two women sitting a few feet away. They looked like they were in their early or mid-thirties, and each had a pram parked behind her chair. As I eavesdropped, the conversation went something like this:
Lady 1: You remember Emma, my friend from when I was working at the bank? She’s in her mid-forties and has been married for a while now, but she says she’s not interested in having kids. We used to be close, but now I feel like there’s this wall between us. Like I have to be careful not to gush or show her photos of my kids. Like I need to avoid talking about mommy things.
Lady 2: She doesn’t want kids, huh. That can’t be true. I think she’s just telling herself that because she’s already in her forties, so it’s a little too late for her anyway… Seriously, no woman can really be okay about not being a mother. Those who say they are, they’re just in denial.
Lady 1: I guess. I hate to admit it, but I find them weird. You know what I think their problem is? They’re afraid to love unconditionally. They think there’s some kind of limit to how much they can give, and they’re terrified of messing up.
Lady 2: Let’s face it, you’re incomplete, you don’t fully evolve as a human being, as a woman, until you become a parent.
Ouch! Is that what those in the mommy camp really think about those of us in the not-interested camp? I hope not, but I can see how it may look from their point of view. It’s one thing for a woman to be single and not ideally set up for motherhood, or coupled but infertile and trying, because then she’s still “one of the girls,” just an unlucky one. But if youare capable of having children, and still turn your nose up at the noble role, then there’s clearly something wrong with you.
Though I am nearly always sure about my choice to be childless, this resolution had been shaken on three occasions when women in their sixties and seventies told me that their greatest regret in life was not having kids. Listening to these golden girls speak of their regrets was frightening, because who wants to live with regret, right? But I realized that these women all had one thing in common — they had all desperately wanted children and were unable to have them.
These stories from women in the “want but can’t have” camp can make me feel a little depressed, and at times can even tempt me to reconsider my stance. But I’m aware that they’re not the only ones grappling with regret.
Though they may sometimes joke about missing the child-free life, mothers know it is improper to express wholehearted regret.
I wonder how many mothers — when they can’t find the space and time to do the things they really want to, when they’re broke, when they’re dealing with difficult and spiteful teenagers, when they want to date again after a divorce, or when their child gets seriously ill — secretly regret becoming a mom? Though they may sometimes joke about missing the child-free life, mothers know it is improper to express wholehearted regret about choosing the path of motherhood. They know that holding on to such an attitude would have a detrimental effect on their child, so they do their best to banish such thoughts as soon as they appear.
Some time ago, I came across a post about hormonal birth control that listed the “freedom to bleed on your own terms” as one of the benefits. This got me thinking about what it really means to “bleed on your terms.”
In life, we all bleed one way or another. The woman at the café spoke of motherhood in terms of unconditional love. The way I see it, unconditional love is free-flowing and a generous sharing of self; it is, in a way, a form of bleeding. And despite what Lady 1 said about child-shunning women misunderstanding unconditional love, I believe there isindeed a limit to how much one can and should bleed. To give your love to too many people is a surefire way to ensure that everyone gets only a small portion. Bleed too much and you’re no good to anyone. Bleed too much and you disappear.
“If there’s even a teeny tiny part of you that thinks you might want a kid, freeze your eggs,” was June’s advice to me as we knocked back espressos in Milan’s Navigli neighborhood. Oh, how ambitious we modern women are when it comes to what we think can achieve in a single lifetime.
Today, advances in fertility treatments mean that women past their “reproductive prime” now have new possibilities for late-life motherhood. We have so many more career and leisure options than we did 50 years ago, so it makes sense that one should delay the little ball and chain till one is completely ready.
But if the desire was not a priority early in one’s life, why does it suddenly become something worth paying tens of thousands of dollars for? Perhaps we do, because we can. Because we are in possession of an apparatus of production, and it seems a shame to let it go to waste.
“Unless you really, really, truly want one, don’t have a baby. If there’s even an ounce of reserve, don’t do it,” my mom told me.
But a woman is not her womb. Her intellect, personality, and predilections should have as much say in her decisions as her biology.
“Unless you really, really, truly want one, don’t have a baby. If there’s even an ounce of reserve, don’t do it,” my mom told me when I talked to her about my fears of regret in my old age.
I think she’s right. If you don’t yearn to take care of a baby, wipe away poop, attend PTA meetings, have heart-wrenching disciplinary conversations, or set aside a chunk of your savings for college funds, but you think you can wing it and be a decent-enough parent, perhaps you’re being overly ambitious.
No matter how generously you hope to love, you will always be constrained by a finite amount of financial, physical, and mental resources. Rather than embarking on a new project (children) that requires massive amounts of my time, sacrifice, and devotion, I’d rather double up my efforts loving the people who are already in my life, and giving myself over to what’s most important to me — writing.
If the ladies at the café are reading this, I’d like them to know that women with no desire for motherhood are not “weird.” We are evolving, too, spiritually and emotionally — perhaps in a different way from you, but no less wonderfully.
Michele is the author of “Without: Stories of lack and longing”.