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“To the world in general, staying childless is still the real act
of rebellion, especially for women.”

– News Item

A few moments past seven on weekday evenings, while I talked
long-distance to my fond friend, “Phineas,” in DC, my next-door
neighbor, “Anne,” six months pregnant, sat down at the piano and played
strings of broken chords to her unborn child. The piano had been silent
for six years, but suddenly she had taken to it. Through the thin walls
that separate our brick townhouses, I could hear every note she played,
memories of a childhood, even the creak of her bench. There was a charm
to this gesture of hers, as if sending the melody to her mother, passed
on last year, or ensuring her future infant would be rhythmic.

Entranced with Phineas’ quirky way of putting words together, his odd
tales of growing up in Munich and Mexico City while his father worked
for “The Company,” for once I was not bothered by the noise, because,
yes, even music out of context becomes a distraction. Instead, I looked
at the bucket of paperwhites against the same wall bursting through a
scrim of pebbles, blind toward the source of light. The music was in us,
too, he and I; we knew all the songs, even each other’s parts.

I never had children. I never really wanted any. I was childless
by choice.

Instead, after my husband and I split up, I had boyfriends, one at a
time. Though I was too young to be a real Child of the Sixties or
Seventies, I look back at the people I used to know after college –
artists and musicians and poets — and see too many of us were indeed
children ourselves, selfish, self-involved, self-centered,
self-destructive, even, but that didn’t stop me from being one, too. My
best friend of that era, Patience Merriman, captured the prevailing
sentiment far better than I could with a line from one of her poems:
“There are no mothers and fathers in bars.”

And yet, now I know better. Now I know parents are everywhere, even
in bars, where some of them may sometimes try to temporarily escape
their parenthood. Now I suspect I may have evaded my inherent
responsibility as an adult to contribute to the biological advancement
and survival of the species. Perhaps I have not done my job as a human
being. I chose not to breed. Yes, I “forgive” myself. But I wonder:
whatever COULD we have been thinking?

What I thought “we” were thinking went something along these lines:
Don’t be one of those girls who go to college for their “MRS” degree.
Don’t admit you can type or you will be forever caught in a dead-end
job. Don’t make coffee for your boss at work or you will never escape
the dread Pink Collar Ghetto
which
is the drone version of the Glass Ceiling. And whatever you do, don’t get caught
in the Baby-Trap. Or else, prepare
yourself to sacrifice all your ambitions and aspirations and potential
accomplishments; instead resign yourself to the drudgery of changing
diapers at 3 a.m. Mothers’ daze! All that Ms. Magazine
claptrap which we took far too seriously –
particularly considering how I had a “lifetime” subscription to Ms., and
when it was sold, they didn’t even have the decency to honor our
subscriptions; so why should we have credited ANYTHING they had to say?

I wonder if perhaps I — we, a generation of women — allowed
ourselves to be led astray? Did we swallow whole the rhetoric of hip
convenience?

Oh, maybe I originally didn’t want children because I thought
horrible childhoods make for terrible parents. But, drama aside, my
childhood was merely mildly unpleasant compared to some. And, during my
brief marriage, though I subscribed to the not yet trendy notion of
“co-parenting,” my then-beloved
did not. And if I say we believed we were too “poor” for parenthood, our
combined income exceeded that of my own parents, who had bravely
blundered into baby-making with my brother and me. Looking back now, it
all just doesn’t wash, does it?

Lately, when I look around at friends and acquaintances, I see new
mothers everywhere. None of them seem to have “bought” the
advice-column-survey propaganda that parenthood diminishes the quality
of your relationship with your spouse, if they even have a spouse. None
of them seem afflicted with the narcissistic worry that parenthood might
even ruin their marriage. These women are so different from me. I’ve
changed their names, but their stories are true.

  • Maggie, a former social worker, is raising a child herself mostly
    on her income as a street-vendor of Guatemalan imports, even sending her
    boy to a private Quaker school. She’s a single parent like her mother
    was. When Maggie turned 40, she felt it was unthinkable NOT to become a
    mother, and so she did. Unfortunately she and the father no longer get
    along. I admire her seemingly endless fortitude. The memory of little
    Seth’s face the night we all went to see “The Nutcracker” — his
    luminous delight, his wonderment as the pomp and pageantry unfolded
    onstage — will stay with me forever.

  • Alicia is a busy, ambitious young professional, single and
    successful, who has a four-month-old baby, a full-time job, and no
    husband in sight. Where did she find the baby’s father? Actually, from a
    sperm bank. That never would have
    occurred to me to do. What a brave new world we live in. And, the sperm
    bank, she says, recently approached her to see if she wanted a sibling
    for her child, sometime in the future, to let them know soon, so they
    could put a specimen on ice and reserve it for her, since the donor was
    about to quit this line of work. She’s not sure. Ordinarily, Alicia
    says, for some reason donors are limited to siring 35 offspring. This is
    a woman from a good family background. Her deliberate choice of being an
    unwed mother brings her no shame or stigma. Already, at four months, her
    baby’s in day care.
    Tiny, delicate,
    on antibiotics, with an ear infection and cradle cap, the baby weighs 12
    pounds. Under those circumstances, I would be a basket case. Alicia’s
    not fazed. She loves being a mother.

  • Lisa, an acupuncturist and herbalist with a demanding practice in
    Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM),
    wanted a child so badly she went to Burma to adopt
    one. Her baby, Sage, is the
    light of her life, and its centerpiece — initially, she scaled back her
    busy practice drastically to be home as much as possible. Each time I
    see her she is THRILLED, about parenting, particularly now, since her
    new boyfriend is crazy about the child, too.

  • Marie, who studied sculpture in art school, went to considerable
    expense and effort attempting to become a mother. She endured painful
    major surgery and a prolonged convalescence so she and her craftsman
    husband James could someday be parents. Despite her complicated
    operation, doctors warned her odds of conceiving were nil. But Marie and
    James persevered. And guess what? She became pregnant and gave birth to
    a beautiful little boy, Luke. Like they say, she glows. In the nearly 20
    years of our friendship, I have never seen her more at peace. And, what
    may come as a shocking aside to some abortion apologists who
    depersonalize the baby as “the fetus,” even from the most
    nerve-wracking, earliest months of Marie’s pregnancy, she “felt the
    fluttering” of a living thing, relieved to discover “it’s alive,” right
    from the start.

  • Diane and Jeanne, two lesbians, one a writer, one a doctor,
    arranged to have a “turkey-baster” baby, right, by artificial
    insemination.
    Diane, ever the audacious
    jokester, passed out cigars at her job. When they broke up in a few
    years and eventually reconfigured as different couples, they created a
    Mommy Network for their child who will never want for love, attention,
    and support.

I could say that none of the men I knew seemed like “father” material
to me, and before I knew it, my interest in child-bearing waned. I could
say that. But it probably wouldn’t be accurate, or true. I could say
that I knew childbirth was physically painful, and I didn’t want to
endure that pain. I could say I was a coward. But I’m not. I could say
that instead of children, I raised several men: the penniless writer,
the penniless artist, the penniless musician, ad infinitum. I could say
that, but it would just be a sassy spin on the truth. I could say if I
had PAID ATTENTION, perhaps I might have produced a child, only I
blinked. Or I could make jokes about my dog Freda having had my
biological clock crisis
for me as my surrogate. But the joke might be on me. I could say I
didn’t want to rear a child on my own, or how could I sacrifice my
career as a working writer, or that I wouldn’t want my children to have
baby-sitters until they were age five, but what is that about?

Once I had a dream, a nightmare, really, that my mother was giving a
rubber baby-doll a bath, face-down in a basin of water. In the dream,
watching her, I realized I could do that — better. But I didn’t. I
didn’t HAVE TO. At least I came to finally realize I didn’t have to be
held back or imprisoned by perceived inadequacies in my own upbringing.
Sometimes I derive comfort from a clairvoyant’s counsel: “You have had
many, many children in many other lives, and in this life, you are
taking a rest.” And recently two separate incidents caused me to rethink
my perspective if not position on motherhood.

I got a note from Cheray, a young student artist, 21 — intelligent,
perceptive, articulate, talented, complex — from a troubled and
sundered family. I had always given her encouragement, recognizing
something of myself in her. After she moved out of my neighborhood, we
tried to stay in touch but see each other infrequently. She wrote me a
note which began, “To my psychic mother.” It was a bitter-sweet moment.
I had never imagined she had viewed me that way. I was touched.

One sunny day, as I was leaving my house, I saw Anne, my next-door
neighbor, and her new baby, Donnasue. Like her husband John, Anne is a
lawyer, but she left her profession to care for her dying mother, and
then start a family. Donnasue is named for her mom. When I asked Anne
how she’s doing, the force of her reply startled me. “You know, the
media always concentrates on the negative side of things, so I never
imagined how wonderful motherhood could
be. You never read about that. I am simply ecstatic being a mother,”
Anne declared, “I want to tell you, it’s the best thing I’ve done. I’ve
never known such joy in my life!”

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