The Non-Mother’s Mother’s Day…

Pencil drawing of baby holding Mom's finger (by Diane Mottl)Whenever I am doing the polite get-to-know-you Q & A with someone, it inevitably happens. I am asked whether I have children. I used to say, “No, we do not have children” but since I look far younger than I am,  I would get the pity look and the “You still have time” comment.

So a few years ago I changed the response to, “No, my husband and I chose not to have children.” Judging from some of the looks I got, you would think I sprouted horns out of my forehead. Their mouth would freeze in this half-smile of politeness (that looked more like a grimace) while their eyes furtively searched for someone else to talk to. Preferably someone normal. Someone who liked children.

Hello? I do like children. Even love them. My friends’ children. My nephews (one of whom recently introduced me to his girlfriend as his Other Mother”). I am the woman who babies burble and giggle at. Kids like me. I like them. But liking children and having them are very different.

And no, I was not scarred by bad parents. Quite the opposite in fact. I have loving, well-equipped parents, just no surging biological desire to have children of my own. I was not immune to societal messages urging me to want to have them: I had more than my fair share of messages thrown at me.

But I already knew the stress of my chosen profession and my own need for quiet time to re-charge myself. I had seen both sides of parenting: the joys versus the sacrifices and hard work involved in raising a healthy child. In my work as a therapist, I also saw the darker side: when parents ill-equipped left wounds on their children that bled for years.

Did this skew my thinking of how hard parenting would be? Maybe. But in a society that touts the joys of parenthood, isn’t a reality check important too? Yes, the rewards are enormous. I do not need to have children to see the glow in a parent’s eyes; to see the love and awe that being intertwined in each other lives forever brings. Without a doubt, parenting brings much joy. But it’s not a simple fairy-tale get-married-have-children-and-live-happily-ever-after. Parenting is a huge responsibility.

Do I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to be a parent? Do I look at my husband and wonder what a child of our mixed genes would have looked like? Which of each other’s quirks and nuances we might have seen in our child? How our lives would have been different, had we chosen the path of parenthood?

Of course I have. But choosing not to have children was a conscious decision that involved deep soul searching on both my husband and my part, alone and together. We talked about it when we seriously dated, we talked about when we planned our lives together, we talked about it in my 30’s as our relationship grew and evolved, and we revisited it again when I turned 40 to make sure that neither of us would have any regrets.

We chose what was right for us. It was our choice. Yet it is a choice that often gets me shunned looks, “what-is-wrong-with-you?” stares and a double-standard of questioning. Somehow it is okay to ask me why I chose not to have children and belittle my response (or simply assume I am selfish) yet how often are parents asked, “Why did you have children?”

Being a parent is a job. Yes, it has incredible fringe benefits but they come with huge responsibilities. Shouldn’t the decision to have children be given some soul-searching to see if one is up for it? Skilled enough for it? Willing to make the sacrifices necessary to do a good job at it?

No parent is perfect. No parent needs to be perfect. But a child needs a parent who at least knows what being a parent involves. A child needs someone who has the ability to provide a foundation of love, respect and security.

So this Mother’s Day, I honor my Mom, my sister, friends, and the many women who have taken on this role with the commitment and sacrifice it takes to raise healthy children. But I also honor those women who looked within themselves and chose not to have children.

We do not have horns. We do not have four-eyes. We are not selfish. We are women who made a choice that showed our respect for this joyous yet challenging role.

We honor you. Please honor us.

“People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they’re not on your road does not mean they are lost.” — Dalai Lama

“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus, everyone’s task is unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.” — Viktor E. Frankl

“The two most important days of your life are: the day you were born, and the day you find out why.” — Mark Twain

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” — Nelson Mandela

20 Responses to “The Non-Mother’s Mother’s Day…”

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  1. Loreen Graw says:

    thank you for this post Diane! Over the years I have met many couples who have chosen not to have children and always admired them. I have always respected yours and Ricks choice too and, I can’t remember it ever coming up in conversation with you, wondered how it was for you in society…and in our family…a super huge family with lots of kids. much love always to you…Loreen

  2. says:

    Love this post Diane! We should all respect each other’s choices in life. And as a mum myself I want to be honest about motherhood too: it isn’t all joy. I sometimes wonder if I would have had kids knowing what a harsh society they have to face nowadays.

    • Compared to when I grew up, it is a very different world indeed. Must be hard for a parent to watch their children struggle through it (or have to imagine what may come). Thanks for your comment, Daphne (and your honesty).

  3. says:

    It’s a strange phenomenon, isn’t it? People assume that since I’m a woman, I MUST want children. I must be unable to have them, or perhaps I’m a poor unfortunate creature who hasn’t found the right man yet, and soon time will be running out… What I generally encounter is a strong sense of disbelief. They’re simply unable to fathom the concept that someone might not want children. Yet on my end, I have trouble understanding why other people do want them. In any case, I believe that even those who do want kids need to think long and hard about whether it’s a responsibility they’re willing to accept – because children are a lot more work than I think most people realize, and very easy to screw up if you don’t handle them properly. It takes just as much courage to choose not to be a parent as to choose to be one.

    • It is a strange phenomenon, indeed. Thanks for joining in the conversation, Lori. Here’s to honoring the courage it takes to follow what is right for each of us.

  4. says:

    Having made the mistake of assuming other couples have had children and asked the question, I can tell you the awkward look you may see on the other face could just be one of embarrassment and “Oh shit, how could I have been so stupid to make this assumption!” As a former inclusion and diversity practitioner who works very hard never to make assumptions so I can ask neutral “get-to-know-you” questions, I made this same mistake last summer. It was an innocent mistake on my part at the engagement party of my oldest son. I was speaking to the bride’s aunt. She was so incredibly rude to me that I was left speechless. There are many ways that individuals may not fit into the norm, many opportunities for assumptions that lead to questions we may not appreciate. I get the same looks when Christians assume I’m a believer like them. I’m not. It leads to discomfort on the part of the questioner. I try to respond in a way that educates the questioner, much like your new response explaining your “childlessness” is about choice. After all, isn’t that what our life experience is? A compilation of choices!

    • I agree, Sheila, that even when we consciously try not to make assumptions, it is easy to slip and ask a question that leads to that awkward moment (been there many a time – smile). In my books, there is nothing wrong with asking the child question, it’s what happens afterwards. If we are both coming from a place of respect for each other’s choices (whether we relate or not), there can be some very comfortable back and forth dialogue. But if either of us respond defensively, with the belief that our choice is the only choice, then it becomes awfully uncomfortable rather quickly. Like you said, life is a compilation of choices, up to each of us to make for ourselves. Thanks for adding in your voice, Sheila.

  5. says:

    Appreciate your post, Diane, and, for the reasons Paula gives in her comment, brave of you to post on Mother’s Day. I’ve also seen too much of the damage ineffectual parenting can do, which is often a theme of my fiction, and did post about this last year (Mother’s Day comes earlier in the UK)
    but chickened out this year. You’ve inspired me to try again next year and will keep a link to this post to come back to.

    • I just read your post, Anne. Brave of you too, although I would think that the many — as you said — “good enough” parents out there would support what you wrote, wanting all children to have “the start in life they deserve.” Thanks for your comment, Anne.

  6. Brenda says:

    Well said Diane! After working with families and preschool age children for over 20 years I knew what and where my abilities lay regarding having my own children. Now in my 50’s [gasp!] I do not regret my choice not to have children, however I do get the “look” and just shrug it away. My kids are my nephews and nieces and great-nieces and great-nephews who live near, and fill my life with joy. And no I am not forgetting about the other 40 plus nieces and nephews who live in Alberta who I rarely see-including you Diane. Miss you, Love you!

    • I’m getting better at “shrugging” it away when I get the “look” (or comments), but it also felt good to express my perspective about it in this post, in a way that I believe honors both choices. You have touched the lives of many, Brenda (myself included) and I’m happy for you that you are living a life filled with joy. Miss you and love you too.

  7. says:

    As a woman in her mid-30s who has chosen not to have kids, thank you for this post. My husband and I had vastly different childhoods (his traumatic, mine white picket fence). But we both knew we didn’t want kids, for a variety of reasons. I frequently get the dreaded stare you mentioned and I’ve even been told, “Oh, honey, but you never grow up until you have kids.” Like you mentioned, no one ever asks people who have children why they made that choice. I wish it was more of a two-way dialogue, because I’d really be interested in hearing specific answers.

    • Sorry for not replying right away — for some reason your comment got caught in my spam-catcher (sigh). I’ve occasionally had some of those two-way dialogues you mentioned, and you’re right, they are very interesting. I’ve heard several say that they are now encouraging their own adult children to make more of an informed decision, realizing (in retrospect) that they had not given it as much thought as it deserved.

  8. says:

    It never ceases to amaze me when people are more comfortable pitying others for not having experiences they have had than they are with the idea that there are perfectly legitimate reasons for not choosing to have the same experiences. The psychology of it I can understand, when I think about it. The person who choses differently is perceived as a threat, consciously or unconsciously, to the other person’s values. And when those values are seen as normative, it is very easy to project feeling threatened outward, and imply there is something wrong with the other person. Good for you for calling that out.

  9. says:

    Great post, Diane! Roz and I totally get it. She chose not to have children; my husband and I chose to have three. I’ve seen her love for kids in action, for decades (and vice versa). She is an “other mother” to my kids as well as others, here and abroad! It’s a better world when we DON’T all make the same choices!

    Cheers!

  10. says:

    I don’t understand why people would look down on you and your husband for not wanting to have children. I’m friends with many childless couples and I admire their honesty. It’s better than having children for selfish reasons without realizing all the responsibilities and then end up awful parents.
    Jan

    • I’ve never quite understood the reaction either, but I am always grateful when I cross paths with people such as yourself, who have a more open, respectful attitude. Thanks for your comment, Jan.