Are You My Mother? (No, I’m Not)



There’s a story about Ernest Hemingway that goes like this: A local paper was running a competition for the saddest short story. Hemingway is said to have won with just six words:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Can’t you just feel the ache of that? You can almost hear dreams shattering like glass. The attribution to Hemingway is unsubstantiated but I can see why the tale persists. Is there anything more acutely sorrowful than the unrealized dream of a baby? It’s an ache I know well.

One of the central truths of my life is this: I am childless.

I didn’t plan to be. I always thought that I’d be a mother by now. I imagined I’d meet someone and we’d fall into sugary love. We’d have the wedding and in time, hopefully not too soon or too late, we’d have kids. It would be easy and natural. But that’s not the way the story went.

I thought I might meet the love of my life at university, but he wasn’t there. My last year of school a friend of mine fell in love with the boy who lived across the hall and she married him. My apartment was the only one in the building that was across from a brick wall. I tried not to take it as a sign.

I did not find my husband in the group for young adults at church. He wasn’t the beautiful boy playing Gabriel in the theatre show I stage-managed. I did not find him in any of the classes I took. There was no meetcute at the coffee shop. So, here I am, 40, and childless. It’s entirely possible that it’s too late to have a baby. Maybe I’m not out of time, but maybe I am.

I have what I call “situational infertility.” I am not childless because of biology, but rather biography. I wish this kind of childlessness was something we could talk about.

There is a certain kind of knowing that comes with motherhood. I’ve seen it in knowing glances and the stories mothers tell each other. They all start or end with, “You know how it is …” They speak a language I have not learned. Without that knowledge I am on the edge, peering in like an innocent who has not been told the secret of where babies come from.

I am not a child. I know where babies come from and I know the road to motherhood is not always easy. But there is a legitimacy that comes with parenthood that we, the childless, have to try and make up for in other ways. When you’re a mother, people understand where you fit in the scheme of things. When you’re childless, you can linger in the no man’s land between young people and adults for years. Without children, it’s harder to convince others—and even ourselves—that our lives have definition and meaning.

Children anchor you. They tie you to a calendar and mark out the years in a predictable order. There’s babyhood, the years at home, going to school, graduation, a clear accounting of the passage of time. In the absence of children, marking time is a lot more complicated. What is the main difference between being 33 and being 35 if you’re only counting yourself?

We mourn for women who deal with medical infertility and we should. There is an acknowledged sadness for life lost, or the life that never began. It is a pain that has a name and we say it out loud, even if we have to whisper it. But I have only ever had one conversation about situational infertility, a single conversation about women like myself who long to be mothers, but have not had the opportunity.

There is so much joy in birth, but some days it feels like there’s an amazing party happening on the other side of town and everyone else was invited. We weep with our friends when the test comes back negative, when there’s blood in the underwear again, but I’ve never found a place to weep for this.

I don’t know what to do with the verses that promise God will give us the desires of our heart. Do I interpret them more broadly and equate family in general with the specific longed-for child? Do I chalk it up to the brokenness of the world and the redemption that is coming, but is not here yet? I don’t know. I know that God is good and I am not forgotten. But I also know that some people don’t get to have babies and that’s a very sad thing.

I wish there was a way to tie this up with a pretty bow. I wish I could tell you that in the time it took to write this article I’ve fallen in love, gotten married and experienced a medical miracle. I do know that bodies defy science some times. I know that God puts families together in ways that we could never imagine. I know my life matters whether my limb of the family tree branches or not.

I wish it could be easier, but don’t we all?