If you are a woman of sufficient age in Oakland on the second Sunday in May, strangers are very likely to wish you a happy Mother’s Day. I don’t recall this happening any place else I’ve lived, so it might just be an Oakland thing. Or perhaps I have now reached an age that makes grown men – it’s mostly men – think of their mothers.
I am not, and never have been, anybody’s mother, but I always thank these people politely. They mean well and are being friendly, and I wouldn’t want to discourage well-meaning friendly behavior. It’s in short enough supply as it is.
I’m not only not a mother, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on a crucial part of life by not having children. The purpose of life is to live it to the fullest, which doesn’t mean doing everything, but does mean putting our hearts in the things we do decide to do.
There may be a biological urge to reproduce, but at this stage in human development we know enough about biology not to be enslaved to it. And if there’s one thing the world has, it’s enough people. It’s way past time to get over the idea that “everyone” should have kids.
Not that I made a vow not to have children, though some people do. When I was young, I thought – in an abstract way – that I’d probably have kids one day. But I didn’t want to be careless about it. My mother took the “planning” part of family planning seriously and taught me about birth control from an early age. (She didn’t object to sex, just ill-timed pregnancy.)
I’ve never had an abortion, because I never had to have an abortion. I can think of times when I would have had one without question, because I was in no position to raise a child. I can also think of a couple of times when I might have had a child if I’d accidentally become pregnant, but given my attachment to birth control, I never had to address the issue.
It’s partly that I was never in a relationship long enough to think about having kids when I was in the right age range. And even if I had been, in my twenties I definitely felt too young (even – or maybe especially – when I was representing divorce clients who were younger than I was and had four kids), and in my thirties, as I started creeping up on the age when pregnancy becomes more problematic, I didn’t feel a great drive to reproduce.
The lack of a relationship made single motherhood the most likely outcome. I knew a lot of single parents, and I did not envy their lifestyles. But I admit that, once I was in my forties, I occasionally looked into single-parent adoption. Adoption, after all, is a good way to get the benefits of parenthood without adding more people to the world.
Around that time, a friend of mine decided that she would adopt a daughter from China. When she got the notice that she’d been approved and took off to pick up her child, I found myself thinking: When she comes back, I’m going to take one look at that child and want one, too. I began to give serious thought to how I might bring a child into my life.
I picked them up at the airport the day she came home with her baby daughter and the friend who had gone with her to help handle things. All were exhausted from the trip, though the baby was not as fussy as I would have been after 24 hours on an airplane. In fact, as I recall, she was quite well-behaved for someone not yet a year old who had been through quite a few disorienting experiences in the last couple of weeks.
I drove everyone home and made sure they were settled in. When I left, I breathed a sigh of relief: I am so glad that’s not me. Instead of feeling envious of my friend’s new baby, I was elated that I had not taken on the responsibility.
I should add that this all worked out very well for my friend and her daughter, who has just started college. It was the right choice for both of them. But it would not have been the right choice for me.
My sweetheart has two grown daughters. Parenthood was very important to him, and I think he was a little puzzled when I told him that I had no regrets about not having children. I very much like his daughters and I’m glad he has them. But again, it was important in his life in a way that it was not important in mine.
In her new book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Donna Haraway creates a story about people who believe children should be “rare and precious.” She also says, “Make kin not babies,” and by “kin” she means developing relationships with all kinds of life forms – friends and neighbors, companion animals, even the tentacled ones of the deep ocean. Oddkin, in her words.
I like this idea. We human beings are social animals. We need to tie ourselves to each other and the other critters on this planet in a variety of ways. Those ties don’t have to be by blood and they don’t require giving birth.
You don’t have to be a mother to love others, human or not.