Bearing Life: Women's Writings on Childlessness / Edition 1

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Overview

A wall of silence surrounds the experience of women who are childless, whether by choice or by circumstance. Bearing Life is the first anthology to marshal the power of literature to break this silence. Now available in paperback, Bearing Life "widens the family circle to embrace childless women and recognize their invaluable contributions to our collective sou." (Booklist). Here, more than fifty contemporary writers, including Margaret Atwood, Sandra Cisneros, Rita Mae Brown, Grace Paley, and Amy Tan, among others, reflect in their stories, poems, and personal essays on what it means to live as women without children. Bearing Life testifies to the complexity and completeness of women's lives whatever their choices, and helps to carve out a space where true choices can be made. Rochelle Ratner is the executive editor of the American Book Review.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Touching on such themes as HIV, abortion, the lesbian/feminist movement and overpopulation, editor Ratner's (Someday Songs) collection of writings by 52 North American women illuminates the difficulties of being a childless female in our society. Grouped in three sections--"Facing Choice," "Knowing Loss" and "Bearing Life"--the poems, essays and fiction of such well-known authors as Margaret Atwood and Grace Paley appear here alongside the works of lesser known and previously unpublished writers. Irena Klepfisz, a Jewish woman whose father was killed in the Holocaust, writes in a moving essay that, despite the pressure she feels to have children since she is the last of her family line, "children are not a medicine or a vaccine which stamps out loneliness or isolation." In Joy Williams's tongue-and-cheek "The Case Against Babies," the author cites overpopulation and its devastating effects as a reason to remain childless. A poem by Diane di Prima, "I Get My Period, September 1964," not only dates back farthest but is one of the most powerful selections, expressing the anguish some woman feel at being unable to conceive a child. In Nikki Dillon's fictional interview with a childless celebrity, "Chick Without Children," the Chick echoes the theme so often repeated in the volume: "It just got lodged in my head--a link between freedom and childlessness." While a few entries are less memorable, the volume contains many well-written, thoughtful pieces, including contributions by Ratner herself, Denise Duhamel, Rita Mae Brown, Sandra Cisneros and Kathleen Norris. It is the editor's hope that, in reading it, "perhaps the next childless woman might not feel so alone." Agent, Shelley Roth. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781558612754
  • Publisher: Feminist Press at CUNY, The
  • Publication date: 12/1/2001
  • Edition description: 1st Paperback Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Excerpt


January 1953

Evelyn C. Rosser


                                          I loved the doll I got for Christmas. Daddy broke it today. You see, it was an accident. My brothers took my doll from me and were throwing it back and forth to each other. When I ran to one brother, he threw it to another brother. I told Daddy to make them give it to me. He came into the bedroom and told them to stop throwing my doll. They didn't. He got angry. He snatched it from my brother and threw it to me. I didn't catch it. The doll hit the trunk. Its head was broken off. I cried. Daddy promised to buy me another doll. Mama told me to stop crying, because a nine-year-old girl was too old for dolls anyway. She said dolls only make girls want babies. She doesn't know me. I don't want a baby. I want a mink coat, a red convertible, and a big house on the beach. I'll have a funeral for my doll tomorrow, and I won't invite her.


Reminded of My Biological Clock—

While Looking at Georgia O'Keeffe's Pelvis One

(Pelvis With Blue, 1944)

Denise Duhamel


I see so many things, a primitive ring,
a nest with a fallen-out bottom,
a white rubber band snapped into blue.
But mostly it's real memory
and the doctor holding up my x-ray
to the screen oflight, a mini drive-in.
The bone was mine—big, oblong
and intact, even though my skin was purple,
my muscles sore. I'd fallen
off of Matthew's ten speed.
There were whispers that my hymen was probably gone,
first broken by the crossbar
that separates a boy's bike from a girl's,
rather than by Matthew himself. And now the x-rays
were showing my ready pelvis, an empty hammock,
just waiting for a sticky fetus sucking its thumb.
"It's beautiful," the doctor said
admiring my illuminated centerfold-skeleton
before he turned to me, the real—and therefore
less interesting—thing. He smiled:
"You have the perfect hip bones, Miss,
for carrying babies." To my mother, he said,
"If everything else inside her is OK, someday
she'll be in labor for no more than an hour."
I was thirteen and I wanted no baby,
only a boyfriend, only some petting.
I wasn't even sure how I felt
about tongues. My favorite game was
swimming deep under water, kicking through
a tent of spread legs, scissoring my thighs
in short quick ups and downs so I wouldn't lose
by booting someone in the crotch.
"But I don't want a baby," I might have said aloud.
The doctor and my mother might have conspiratorially laughed.
My pelvis was as white as the ones Georgia painted,
except the weather surrounding hers
was robin egg-hopeful.
My bone was a whorl in an x-ray-gray storm.
My disembodied pelvis, like a melted hula hoop,
a coiling snake meeting itself, a lasso
without the rope of control to catch what I wanted.
"The women in our family are all Fertile Myrtles,"
my mother explained later, when I changed my
mind, and tongues
and other appendages boys had
became more to my liking. "When I got
pregnant with you, I think I was just
looking at your father," she said as emphatically
as if she were telling me the truth. So I found out how to get
a diaphragm and pills and foams and condoms and used them
all at once, memorizing the percentages
of their individual effectiveness: 80, 82, 89.5.
"I'm pregnant, I just know it,"
I would panic every month, my pelvis
a nebulous halo, a loose-fitting noose.
Exasperated, my first real boyfriend would remind me,
"Impossible. We didn't even have intercourse last month.
Remember? You were too nervous." In the meantime,
my girlfriends, one by one, skipped their periods.
There were trips for abortions or quick marriages.
One young mother left high school
to become a cashier at the Stop & Shop.
While she was still nursing, she leaked milk
through her shirt and smock, leaving
something like a perspiration spot
every time a baby cried in her line.
This wasn't for me, though I felt guilty,
my pelvis being the right shape and all.
My mother watched her talk shows, sometimes
on the topic of childless women, and muttered,
"How can those career ladies be so selfish?
If they don't have babies now,
they'll grow old and die alone."
Sometimes in my dreams I'm back on Matthew's bike,
not falling this time, but riding off
into the orange-cowboy sunset. Other times,
though, a crown of thorns sprouts in my belly—
my nightmare grows dark.
It is always daylight around Georgia's Pelvises.
The sky is the blue that the child she might have had
might have seen when she was first born.
Sometimes I dream bluebirds land on my hipbone
as though I were a round limb
on a desert tree. I feed them anything
they desire. Then the mother birds
feed their youngsters, and I tell them
they can stay as long as they like.


Women Without Children; Women
Without Families; Women Alone

Irena Klepfisz


                                           This essay has grown out of my need to express some of my feelings and conflicts about being a woman who has chosen to remain childless, as well as to bear the silence surrounding the general issue of women without children.

    That the silence has persisted despite the presence of the women's movement is both appalling and enigmatic, since the decision not to have a child shapes both a woman's view of herself and society's view of her. I have read a great deal about woman as mother, but virtually nothing about woman as non-mother, as if her choice should be taken for granted and her life were not an issue, and although I have heard strong support of the right of women to have choices and options, I have not seen any exploration of how the decision to remain childless is to be made, how one is to come to terms with it, how one is to learn to live with its consequences. If what follows seems at moments somewhat bleak, it is because I feel very strongly that in celebrating a woman's liberation from compulsory motherhood, we have neither recognized nor dealt with the pain that often accompanies such a decision.

    My intent is to be neither objective nor exhaustive. I am aware that this issue evokes many other feelings than those expressed on the following pages, the feelings of women whose lives differ drastically from mine. I hope that they too will break the silence. [1977]


1. The Fantasy

At the center of my bleakest fantasy is the shopping-bag lady. I see her sitting on the subway, trudging along the highway, or crouched in a doorway at dusk. Invariably, she clutches her paper shopping bags close to her. From a distance her face looks blank, her skin gray. She is oblivious to the things around her, unresponsive to sounds and movements. She is particularly indifferent to people. Periodically she makes a quick motion, like an animal automatically brushing itself free from an irritation, a tic. Her gesture is loose, flabby, hardly aimed. It is, perhaps, the tremor of a muscle.

    I keep my distance from her, though at times in my imagination I venture closer, detecting a faint stale odor, an odor distinctly communicating stagnation. In reality, however, I have moved only close enough to discern the discolored skin, the broken blood vessels on her legs, stained purple bruises, barely healed wounds. I have eyed her socks and stockings, her shoes, her faded dress, the safety pins that hold her coat together. I have studied the surface content of her bags, seen the bits of material (clothing, perhaps), newspapers. I always wanted to know more, to know if the entire bag is filled with rags and papers, or if, deep inside, wrapped neatly and carefully in a clean cloth, lies an object from the past, a memento from a life like mine. But my desire to know has never overcome my real terror of her. So I have never ventured closer.

    I have a distinct fear of contagion. But it is not necessarily of disease, though there is that too, the physical fear of being touched by such a creature. My greater fear is that she carries another kind of disease. On a subway, I watch as this creature sits, harmless, self-contained, oblivious to the other people in the car, while an invisible circle seems to form around her. No one will come near her, no one will sit close to her, no one will risk being touched by her. If she has succeeded in excluding us from her world, we must remember that our response to her reflects our equal determination to keep her out of ours. It is almost as if I, as if everyone else in the subway car, were determined to classify her as a species apart, to establish firmly that there is no connection between her and us. By keeping my distance, I affirm that she is not of my world, reassure myself that I could never be like her, that there is nothing she and I have in common—in short, that her disease is not communicable.

    It is, I think, the most comfortable way of looking at her, for it deems her irrelevant to my life. Of course, if I were totally convinced, I would lose my fear of contagion. But this is not the case. More and more, I sense my connection to her, allow myself to absorb the fact that her world and mine overlap. More and more I dismiss as romantic the notion that some great, swift calamity, some sudden shock must have overtaken her and reduced her to her present condition. It is far more probable that her separateness, her isolation, resulted not from fire, nor from sudden death, nor from unexpected loss, but rather from a slow erosion, an imperceptible loosening of common connections and relations—a process to which I too am subject. Her disease is one to which I am and will remain vulnerable. She is not an anomaly, nor is her isolation from the rest of us a freak accident. She came from the same world I did, underwent the same life processes: she was born, grew up, lives.

    So I remain in a state of terror and keep myself separate from her. I fear that I will not build up the proper immunity to resist the erosion; I am afraid I too will end up alone, disconnected, relating to no one, having no one to care for, being in turn forgotten, unwanted, and insignificant, my life a waste. In the grip of this terror, I can only anticipate a lonely, painful old age, an uncomforted death.

    It is difficult to own up to this fantasy. I do so because it is true that I have it, but also because I know I am not unique in having it. I have heard many other women express it, perhaps not always in terms of shopping-bag ladies, but in terms of old age, insecurity. And it is not surprising because among my friends, many in their late thirties and early forties, these issues are becoming increasingly important. It is not surprising because we are living in a depression when everyone is worried about money and jobs, about the possibility of surviving in some decent way. For me, the shopping-bag lady epitomizes these fears, and though I often tell myself that she is an exaggerated example, equally often I think that she is not.


2. The Myths

For a long time I believed (and on some nonrational level still believe) that I could acquire immunity to the shopping-bag lady's disease by having a child. When depressed about the fragility and transiency of friendships, or the inconstancies of lovers, it was the myth of a child, a blood relation and what it could bring me, which seemed to be the only guarantee against loneliness and isolation, the only way of maintaining a connection to the rest of society. And certainly one of the difficulties for me, a woman who now knows that she will never bear children, is to let go of that myth without sinking into total despair.

    That the myth is powerful is not surprising, since it is nurtured by everything around us, fostered by the media, by popular literature, by parents, by the questionnaires we fill out for jobs: Are you married? No. Do you have children? No. Do you live alone? Yes. How many members in your household? One. It is a myth perpetually reinforced by the assumption that only family and children provide us with a purpose and place, bestow upon us honor, respect, love and comfort. We are taught very early that blood relations, and only blood relations, can be a perpetual, unfluctuating source of affection, can be the foolproof guarantee that we will not be forgotten. This myth, and many others surrounding the traditional family, often make it both frightening and painful for women to think of themselves as remaining childless.

    In reality, of course, I know that many shopping-bag ladies are mothers, have families, have children. What is obvious to any mature, rational woman is that children are not a medicine or a vaccine which stamps out loneliness or isolation, but rather that they are people, subject to the same weaknesses as friends and lovers. I have talked to many women whose ties to their families seem to be irrevocably broken. It is common to hear stories of the prodigal daughter going cross-country, returning home after fourteen, fifteen years to parents who are strangers. Expecting a traumatic, painful reunion, the woman returns numbed by the lack of connection, by her indifference to strangers. They are people with no special relation. They follow the accepted and expected rules, in a dire crisis write dutiful checks, and, upon their death, bequeath china to their unmarried daughters. But the emotional pull is not there from either side. There is no exchange of love, of comfort. Blood might indeed be thicker than water, but it, too, is capable of evaporating and drying up.

    Yet despite this, despite having read Shakespeare's King Lear and Tillie Olsen's Tell Me a Riddle, despite having been taught by experience that children often come to love their ideals more than their parents (and vice versa), that children may take different roads, rejecting all ties to the past, despite all this, the myth retains its power and dominates my fantasy life. And there are important reasons why it does.

    First, what I have just described is what I would like to believe is an extreme, an exception. There are, after all, many warm, loving relationships between parent and child. In these relationships, one can recognize genuine affection and ties among members of the family, even if often the very same relationships are fraught with tensions and painful encounters.

    Once, when talking with a woman about our feelings about being childless, she began to tell me about her relationship with her mother, a relationship that for years had been filled with anger and pain. But I could sense that on some level the woman had a deep attachment, felt genuine concern and responsibility toward her mother, despite the fact that the relationship remained problematic, and many painful conflicts were still unresolved. While she was describing this to me, she suddenly revealed that her mother was on welfare and was receiving $180 a month. When I asked her how her mother could possibly manage on such an absurd amount, the woman laughed and said that, of course, she helped her out financially. We continued talking more generally about the issue, but then the woman suddenly said: "You know, it scares me. Being alone, without family. I think about my mother and what she would be doing now without me. I keep trying to think of her as just a woman, like me, trying to cope with the world. But there is a difference, a major difference between us. She has a daughter."

    A second reason for the myth's ability to retain its hold on my fantasy life is that I have found no adequate subtitute for it. To discard it is to be left with nothing, to be faced with the void (or so I think in my most depressed moments). I admit this with some hesitancy, because certainly one aim of the lesbian/feminist movement has been to expose the superficiality of the family myth. The movement has consciously struggled to develop new alternatives for women, has, in a certain sense, offered itself as a new and better "home" a source of the support, affection, and security that many of us seek. I think, however, that for women who at one time or another were involved in various movement activities—support groups, collectives, business projects, experimental communes—for those women who, as a result of these activities and groups, experienced the first flush of excitement in their discovery of other women and in the sharing of feelings and goals, for those women who thought that they had indeed found new and permanent homes, alternate families—for them the disappointment has been quite keen. Too often, instead of providing a new and supportive home, the collective experiments ended in frustration, bitter anger, a hard silence that severed what everyone had hoped would be permanent ties. That this occurred, is repeatedly occurring, is not surprising. Because expectations were so high, because we wanted these groups to fulfill so many divergent needs, they were destined to disappoint. For me and for many other women it was a sobering experience, to say the least.

    I do not mean to imply that nothing has worked or that we are standing in the midst of ruins. What I wish to emphasize is rather the sense of disillusionment and disappointment experienced by me and by many women with whom I have spoken, a sense that has contributed to a feeling of insecurity and, to some degree, pessimism. It is when these feelings become acute that I am most vulnerable, that my fantasy returns again to the concept of family and children. The old images resurface. But the difference between envisioning them now and envisioning them years ago is that now they hold no solace, they remain empty. Their uselessness in my life creates further pain, for I am without the alternatives that a few years ago, when I first became involved in the lesbian/feminist movement, I thought I had. I find the community's present and future only vaguely delineated; whatever community exists is still very young and rather shaky. The emptiness of the past, the vagueness of the future, leave me fearful, hesitant about my decision not to have a child.

    Many women have had to face a similar issue on a more personal and more immediate level. They have had to face the fact that lesbian relationships are not instantly more stable, more secure, more permanent, than heterosexual ones. And because of this, the myth of motherhood takes on added power. A woman who thought she was about to break up with her lover told me, "For the first time in a really long time, I thought about having a child. I won't do it of course. But I did think about it." She was clearly expressing the idea that somehow a child would guarantee her a permanent relationship.

    The emphasis is, of course, on guarantee and on permanent. If the parent is good, so the logic of the fantasy goes, then the relationship with the child will withstand shock, change, growth, poverty, differences in temperament and ideals—in short, anything and everything. The woman who dreams this way may acknowledge that such a relationship has yet to be realized, but she may be quick to add that she has learned a great deal from her own experience as a daughter, that with her child, she will avoid all the mistakes that her parents made with her. By learning from their errors, the woman now fantasizes, she will establish a far more perfect, loving, supportive relationship with her child and thereby guarantee for herself a permanent connection during her lifetime.

    My fantasy of being a mother and my desire to have a child have been with me for a long time. It has taken me years to realize, however, that both the fantasy and the desire were to a great degree expressions of my dissatisfaction with my relationship with my own mother. It seems clear to me now that by becoming the calm, loving, patient, supportive mother that I have so often envisioned, I have hoped to annihilate the impatient, critical voice within myself, the voice that has kept me insecure and dissatisfied. Thus my desire to become the perfect mother, to act out that fantasy, has in reality nothing to do with having a child, but rather with my desire to experience something I wish I had experienced. It is not a child I wish to mother, it is myself.

    In my fantasy, of course, the understanding, the patience, the support are always outwardly directed, because the myth of motherhood demands that they be so. According to the myth, if I do not have a child I will never experience that caring, that uncritical peace, that completely understanding sensibility. Only the role of mother will allow me that. This is clearly a wrong reason for having a child—one which can be ultimately disastrous.

    This kind of thinking, however, points up another aspect of the myth about having children: that certain qualities can only be expressed through a relationship with a child. I am not saying that a relationship with a child is not unique. It is. But some of the qualities that we attribute to it are not limited to child-parent relationships. I would like to discuss just one of these qualities. Women expressing a desire to have a child often explain that they want their values and beliefs to be passed on. They feel that by having a child they can have some measure of control, some input into the future. A child, after all, can be molded and influenced; to a child can be passed on a whole way of life. That parents have tremendous influence over their children is, of course, self-evident. But the myth excludes the fact that they do not have total influence over their children, that they can never exert total control. As a woman once said to me about her child who was going to a day-care center, "Oh yes, I have great influence. I send her off in the morning looking like a human being, and she comes back in the evening wearing green nail polish because green nail polish is some teacher's idea of femininity."

    There is something extraordinary in the idea of being able to participate so immediately in the shaping of another life, no matter how much other factors attempt to undermine that influence. Nevertheless, it is not only through a growing child that a woman can influence the world around her, though in the interest of the traditional family, women are taught to believe that it is the most direct and most meaningful way for them. Obviously, a woman taught to think this way will think that her life, her work, are totally useless and ineffectual if she does not have a child, an heir to her ideals and values. This is another real impasse for many women who decide to remain childless. I was interested in a conversation I had with a woman who told me she was considering adopting a child. One of her main reasons was the one I have just discussed. Later in the conversation, she told me about a talk she had had with a friend. Sometime after the talk, her friend told her that she had had a tremendous impact on her, that the talk had helped her in making certain basic decisions about her life. The woman told me, "I was really stunned. I always consider conversations with friends just talk. It never occurs to me that anyone really listens to me, or that what I say has any effect on anyone."

    This is not to say that for every aspect of a relationship with a child we can find a substitute, and women who decide not to have children can somehow "make up for it" by looking elsewhere. I believe a relationship with a child is as unique as a relationship with a friend or lover. Each has its own special qualities. But myths about having children do prevent women from seeing just what it is they want from having a child and from participating in such an intimate way in another life. It is something which needs closer examination, so that when a woman decides not to have children she knows what she is giving up—both the negative and positive aspects of being a mother—knows it in a real, concrete way, and not in the foggy, idealized, sticky-sentimentalized version with which we are all so familiar.


3. The Consequences

Myths and private fantasies are not the only obstacles in the way of women coming to terms with their childlessness. There are also the very real, often harsh, circumstances of living in a society where a woman who does not marry and, above all, does not have a child, is stigmatized, characterized as cold, as unwomanly and unfeminine, as unnatural in some essential way. I wince when I recall how throughout my twenties, when I was certain that I was destined to marry and to have children, I would assume with total confidence that a married woman who did not have children must either have physical problems or deep psychological ones. And I remember with some shame the freedom with which I would mouth these opinions.

    Today many of us know better. But although we may understand that a woman has a right to choose to remain childless, the society in which we live still does not, and most of the time it is extremely difficult to be a woman who is deliberately not a mother. On the most immediate level, a childless woman must deal with the painful confrontations and equally painful silences between her family and herself. Let me use myself as an example. I am an only child, a survivor of World War II. My father was killed during the war, as was his whole family; my mother is the only family I have. Most of her friends are, like us, surviving members of families which were wiped out. It was an unstated aim of the individuals of this circle to regenerate the traditional family, thereby making themselves "whole." And over the years, most of them were quite successful. Some remarried; those who did not had the satisfaction of watching their children grow up and of knowing that they would take the "normal" route. Soon there were in-laws, then grandchildren. The nuclear family seemed to reassert itself.

    It has been extremely difficult as well as painful for me to live with the knowledge that I deliberately never produced the child who could have continued "my father's line," that I never provided my mother with the new family and the grandchildren she was sure would appear, which she thought were her right to expect. I know that other women, coming out of different circumstances, have experienced similar difficulties and pain—women who were raised as only children, who were given the burden of providing their parents with the stereotypical props of old age. These women have complained bitterly about how their parents' disappointment in them (as if they had failed at something) has affected them. The "you're-the-last-of-the-line" argument always makes the woman who chooses not to have children appear perverse, stubborn, ungiving, selfish. Equally painful can be the excitement of parents when they inform the childless daughter of the birth of a friend's grandchild. I have heard this kind of excitement in my mother's voice, and have often resented the fact that nothing that I could achieve could elicit that tone of voice, that kind of lasting, enduring satisfaction. Her envy of her friend is clear; and underneath it, I know, lies a silent, unstated criticism of me: I have held back.

    A woman who is not an only child is often relieved of this kind of burden and pressure when one of her siblings marries and gives birth. But this, too, creates its own problems; often the childless woman feels resentment and jealousy because the parents seem so pleased with the other sibling for making them grandparents. A woman once told me how her sister, who had recently given birth, said to her that she was glad she had been able to provide their mother with the pleasure of seeing her first grandchild. The mother was dying. The woman felt deeply hurt, not only because of her sister's insensitivity to her feelings, but also because she felt she had nothing comparable to offer her mother.

    At moments like these, women often yearn for the perfect excuse which will relieve them of the burden of having chosen to remain childless, which will convert them back into "warm, loving women." The choice seems too great a responsibility, seems too much against the values of our society. I remember a few years ago, when I had to have surgery on my uterus, how frightened I was at the prospect of having a hysterectomy. I told the doctor that, if at all possible, I wanted to keep my ability to have children. What I did not express to anyone, and barely to myself, was that a part of me wished that in fact a hysterectomy would be necessary. By becoming sterile, I would be relieved of having to make an agonizing decision. Remaining childless would no longer be a result of my "perverseness." I would be childless because I could not bear children. What could anyone possibly say to me after I had had my hysterectomy? I have heard other women reluctantly confess similar secret thoughts, women with raised, feminist consciousness, who nevertheless find it difficult to make the decision not to have children, and also to take full responsibility for it without feeling defensive and to some degree unjustified.

    In the end, I did not have a hysterectomy, and my childlessness is a result of my own decision. The process by which that decision was made is in large measure difficult for me to reconstruct. To a certain degree, I think I made it over a long period of years, during many of which, on the surface at least, I was not consciously thinking about the issue. Certainly, for a long time I thought there was no decision to be made; I was sure that I would marry and have a family. Furthermore, I never doubted my intense desire to have a large family, never stopped to question whether I really wanted this, or whether it was something I thought I should want. Looking back, I find that often, in order to appear normal to myself, I adapted attitudes and values which were clearly not my own. In this particular case the unconscious argument went as follows: A normal woman wants children; I am a normal woman; I want children. This kind of short-circuiting of real feelings is quite common with many women, women who cling to fantasies created by others. These fantasies, many women think, will keep them in the mainstream, will prevent them from appearing different or conspicuous.

    I fantasized about my future family for a long, long time, though in my actual life there was nothing to indicate that I was moving in that direction, that the fantasy would become a reality. I never married, never became pregnant. Yet I continued to assume that it was simply a question of time, that of course it would happen. It did not.

    At the age of thirty, I was finally able to admit to myself that I did not want to marry. That realization, however, did not resolve the question of whether or not I should have children, and so I began to think about the issue in more real, more concrete terms. Two years later I became involved with a woman, and a year later I had to have my operation. At that point I was already thirty-three, was beginning to realize that I had to make a clear decision. And I made it by doing nothing about it. I thought a good deal about children, my need for them, my intense longing for them, my fears about being without them. But I did nothing.

    The long years during which I was making my decision were extremely difficult. Most of the time I felt inadequate and incomplete. I was conscious that many people around me thought it was peculiar that I was not being swept away by "a normal woman's instinct" to bear and rear children, an instinct that should have overridden any of my qualms about marriage. The message communicated to me was that I—a woman alone, without a partner, without children—was enigmatic at best, superfluous at worst. In those years, I was unable to articulate to myself or to others that I was following other instincts. The best defense that I could muster was to say, "I'm too selfish for that life." Nevertheless, I evolved my decision and stuck to it.


4. Conclusion

This past April I became thirty-six and I think it is not accidental that it was about that time I began thinking about writing this article. Though most of the time I really do not know what to make of my age, it is around the issue of having a child that my age becomes real to me. For if I do not feel thirty-six (whatever feeling that is supposed to be), I certainly know that biologically my body is thirty-six, that the time for bearing children is almost over for me, and that once I pass a certain point, the decision not to bear a child is irrevocable. That the decision has already been made is very clear to me, though I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when I made it. No matter what my age, the issue is closed.

    Often, of course, I wish I had done it, done it in those unconscious years when so many women I knew were doing it. They are now mothers whose children are almost adults—eight, ten, twelve years of age. Frequently I find myself envying those mothers for having gotten it over with in those early years. That certainly seems to be the perfect solution: have the child in the past so you can have it now. Fantasizing in this way, I can easily skip over all the hardships and frustrations that many of these women have experienced in the past ten or twelve years of raising their children under extremely difficult circumstances, hardships which they continue to experience, and which I can only partly understand.

    Still there are moments when I can actually assert a certain amount of pride in the way I have chosen to lead my life, when I can feel extremely good about the fact that I did not succumb and did not keep myself in line. I am pleased that I withstood the pressures, that I kept my independence, that I did not give in to the myths that surrounded me. I know, of course, that there are various reasons why I did not and others did, which include conditions over which none of us had very much control. Nevertheless, I do experience momentary delight in the fact that I escaped and did what I wanted to do (even when that was somewhat unclear), that I did not give in to the temptation to please my mother, did not give in to the pleas of my father's ghost to keep him alive, did not conform with the rest of my friends, but instead kept myself apart and independent in some essential way. In moments like these, I can easily take responsibility for my life and say it is the life that I have chosen.

    None of this is ever very simple. There are pleasures that one gives up when one decides not to have children. But as I keep telling myself: you can't have everything. Choices have to be made, and consequences have to be lived with. The act of choosing inevitably brings loss. It is a difficult lesson to understand and accept. I keep trying to relearn it.

    While writing this article I visited my mother, who had just discovered, stuck away somewhere in a closet, my favorite doll. I was surprised by my instant sadness at seeing and then holding it. The sweetness of the face, the smallness of the head against the palm of my hand. I felt as if I wanted to cry. But in touching it, it was not a baby I envisioned, but rather myself, five or six years old, cradling the doll in her arms and rocking it gently to sleep.


This Is a Question I Do Not Answer

Mary Mackey


"You don't have children, señora? Your blood, then, is it poisoned?"


    "You have no hijos? A woman so old! Is there something wrong with your husband? Is he less than a man? When he tries to make love to you, does his chile wilt?"


                                     It began in 1966, the summer my husband and I drove from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Cierro de la Muerte in our old battered Plymouth Valiant so he could study hummingbird mites in the jungles of Costa Rica. We had been married less than a year and I was only twenty-one, but nearly every woman I met along the inter-American highway that summer had a baby in her arms and two small children pulling at her skirts, and all of them wanted to know where my children were.

    "This is a question I do not answer," I repeated politely in Spanish. The mothers looked at me dumbstruck, as if no woman who had been given the chance would refuse to explain her childless state. Many of them threw me a look of pity and changed the subject, but one stared at me darkly and muttered: "This is not God's plan. A woman must give her husband children. You must be a bad woman. Very bad."

    For the next thirty years, until I looked too old to be presumed fertile, the questions continued. The pressure on me not only to bear children and—that failing—to account for why I hadn't, never let up. And when I went on stubbornly refusing to offer an excuse (on the grounds that I was not obliged to share my private life), more than one person turned nasty.

    "You," a rather well-known female poet once angrily wrote me in the early 1970s, "are obviously the abortion type, not the mother type."

    "You're obviously one of those selfish, self-centered feminists," a man I had just met at a party snarled at me when I admitted I had no children.

    Well-meaning mothers warned me that I was foolishly missing out on the best thing in life; friends urged me not to wait too long; distant acquaintances swore I would live to regret what they assumed to be my voluntary childlessness. I even had one man describe to me in great detail the lonely old age I was going to lead without any children to care for me. According to him, after a long life of thoughtless narcissism, I would end up in a nursing home, drooling and babbling, with bed sores all over my body. "How," he asked grimly, "would I like that!" Never mind that he had walked out on his own son and daughter, never saw them, and never sent them any child support. He was absolutely certain his kids would be there for him when he was no longer able to spoon his granola into his mouth.

    During the three decades when I asserted my right to remain silent, I was constantly struck by the question, "Do you have children and if not, why not?" This was a question that only women were obliged to answer under pain of being suspected of immorality and selfishness. No doubt cultures exist where the majority of people believe that a man who has not fathered a child is less than a man, but I have never seen a man backed up against a wall and lectured like someone who is suspected of harboring a secret lust to kill puppies.

    I think my most insensitive interrogator was an old boyfriend I reencountered at a high school reunion. It had been nearly thirty years since we had briefly dated, grappling a bit in the back of his Chevy but never having sex. In the interim he had prospered, girthed, and fathered two children. At the reunion we nodded to each other politely, but three days after I flew back to California I received a long, bombastic letter from him in which he upbraided me for not having had children and informed me that he should have gotten me pregnant when I was seventeen. Not married me, mind you; not helped me raise these phantom children he regretted not fathering; just impregnated me like a stray tomcat so I—who had clearly put my perverse desire to be a novelist before my desire to be a mother—wouldn't have missed out on what it meant to Really Be a Woman.

    For a while I toyed with sticking his letter in an envelope, slapping a stamp on it, and sending it to his wife, but I decided that, cruel as I found it, she would find it even crueler, and I had no desire to shatter any illusions she might still have about him after twenty years of marriage.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vi
Introduction 1
Part 1 Facing Choice 13
January 1953 15
Reminded of My Biological Clock--While Looking at Georgia O'Keeffe's Pelvis One 16
Women Without Children/Women Without Families/Women Alone 19
This Is a Question I Do Not Answer 29
From Rita Will 31
Old Maids 36
The daughter of fur 38
The Vow 40
Tie Me Up, Tie Me Off 48
Minor Surgery 51
From The Joy Luck Club 60
Antisocial Baby Notes 64
Pretty Story 67
Something I Forgot to Tell You 69
Meditations on Childlessness 70
The Case Against Babies 77
The Arm Baby 84
Outside the Hive: A Meditation on Childlessness 92
Part 2 Knowing Loss 103
I Get My Period, September 1964 105
From Crossing the Moon 106
Forty, Trembling 112
The Wash House 113
Outside Pisa 120
The Deferred Dream 122
The Childless Woman Poems 131
The Mother 134
Cutting My Heart Out: Notes Toward a Novel 136
The Weremother 140
Stork Talk 144
Mother and Two Daughters 147
Taking the Train to Harmon 155
Norton #59900 157
The Child Taken from the Mother 163
In the Garden 165
All the Colors of Sunset 168
Nothing 172
Mother of Nothing 173
Part 3 Bearing Life 175
Land of the Living 177
Liferower 179
You Remember Sophia 182
From Obasan 185
A Lifetime 188
Hairball 190
Chick Without Children: The Latest Celebrity Interview 200
Cherry-Shiree 204
Parent As a Verb 209
The Question of Children 211
All My Kids 213
Imagining Motherhood 218
From Black Woman Artist Becoming 222
From Journal of a Solitude 226
Upbringing 231
About the Authors 233
Further Reading 242
Credits 244
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