I went to a party on Saturday night and I stayed late. This is newsworthy, believe me, I don’t get out much. For the past nine years I have been knee-deep in various stages of pregnancy, breastfeeding, broken nights and the exhaustion that attends them all and I am someone who bows to the demands of my body. I am usually in bed by 10:00 p.m. But my youngest children are not babies anymore and a good friend was turning forty. It was time to celebrate.
The friend is a member of my book club, the only regular engagement on my social calendar. Book clubs are the stereotypical outlet for parents of young kids and ours is no exception. We take it seriously, don’t get me wrong. The books are read, the issues are aired, it even gets a little feisty with dissension from time to time. But more often than not the conversation is pulled, a moth to a flame, in the direction of our children. It is a blowing off of steam in the most needed way: the majority of us are mothers obsessed with mothering.
I tend to surround myself with mothers for just this reason. Before the party, for instance, I had dinner plans with a couple of other friends, a rare occurrence of having double booked the evening. These friends are women I met in a pre-natal group, when we were expecting our first babies. I remember sitting around a cramped room with them, a lifetime ago now, it feels, sizing up each other’s bulging bellies alongside each other’s hopes and fears. We talked about epidurals and episiotomies and I wondered if we had anything in common other than the fact that these creatures we were housing in our bodies were due to make their appearance within days of each other.
It turned out it didn’t matter what else we had in common. As soon as the babies came, once a week throughout that unseasonably warm September, we clung to each other like ivy. Feeding times, how often last night?, cracked nipples (ouch!), the poo is green, that can’t be normal, the tiredness, so tired, our husbands, can they do anything right? All of a sudden, there was very little else to say. My world had shrunk considerably (though happily) and I wanted, I needed, to occupy it with people whose own horizons were comparably narrow.
Of the many gulfs of interest that divide people, children are a chasm. Mothers, particularly new mothers, have tunnel vision. That’s understandable. But it can also be boring, tear-your-hair-out boring, especially to those non-mothers who can see the light, so to speak. I hold onto this perspective tightly, because I didn’t have it when my first kid was little. Sometimes I hold onto it too tightly. I now err on the side of assuming, if you don’t have kids yourself, you don’t really want to hear the minutiae of mine.
But that’s not always the case. Friends without children support friends with children routinely and, often, genuinely. They coo at the photographs. They applaud the story about how the baby turned over the hard way. They make sympathetic noises at the lack of sleep, the cascade of dirty diapers, the diabolical temper tantrums. A lot of the time, though, they do this because they are child-less and you are simply a step ahead of them. They are not child-free, which is a distinction with a profound difference.
One of the women from my book club is decidedly child-free, but she engages with enthusiasm when the rest of us spin our progeny-laden tales. She was there, at the birthday party that night, and we fell into a head-touching kind of conversation, fueled as much by alcohol as by opportunity. We like each other, instinctively, but we don’t spend that much time together. I imagine at least in part because of the fact that she isn’t a mom.
Somewhere in between the third and fourth glass of champagne, or maybe it was the fourth and fifth, our focus shifted onto why this was so. “It’s not that I woke up one morning and decided,” she said. “It’s that I’ve never longed for a baby enough to give up what I love about not having one.” And then her tone grew confessional: “nobody’s ever asked me why before.” She said it almost with giddiness, like this was a conversation she had been waiting to have. A successful and happily married woman on the cusp of forty, I understand the reason the subject isn’t raised off-hand: who likes to conjure the specter of infertility?
Because that’s the assumption, of course, that child-less-ness is more a matter of “can’t” than “won’t.” Mothers can be blind in this way too. Once we embrace the title for ourselves, we fail to see the meaning in an existence without it. We struggle to believe that having it all is not a question of how best to balance kids and career: it is a declaration of not wanting half of that equation in the first place. I fall into this trap myself. Motherhood has become so consuming to me that, despite best efforts, I find it hard not to project onto other women a desire for the sense of purpose it offers.
The party was a revelation in this respect. For as much as I looked at this lovely, child-free woman and wondered if something was missing, I discovered that she was looking at me and wondering the same thing. “Sometimes I think,” she said that night, clearly weighing up either her word choice or whether to continue at all, “What could Lauren be if she didn’t have four kids?”
At 2:00 a.m we left the dancing behind and that question, among others, unanswered. We went our separate ways, back to different houses and very different lives. I would be woken in the morning, too early, by the scurrying of feet and the tips of my daughter’s hair on my face. She would be stirred by an alarm clock, perhaps, or by the rhythms of her own body. My day would unfold, for the most part, according to the needs of people other than myself, with all of the beauty that entails. She would rise to a day of her own choosing, with all of the beauty that entails. And we would both be happy.
Illustration by Christine Juneau