“Oh, I am sorry. I will pray for you.”
The soft lilt of English whispered gently by a Temne speaker. The comment I uttered that elicited this response was a simple, “no, I don’t.”
I don’t have children.
I am 38, twelve years married, and I do not have a child. The motherhood question is one that spills from the lips of strangers as easily as a greeting, a “Where are you from?” or “Would you like a cup of tea?” Yet, unlike the other answers I give, my response to this question draws sad, confused glances, offers of petition or a quick change of topic. In West Africa, Sierra Leone, and in many other African and Asian communities I have spent time in, the assumption is that my childlessness is because of infertility or another medical complication. Women have held my hand or have offered immediate prayers for my health. I don’t find this offensive. Motherhood in so many cultures is distinct from parenthood. Babies are joy – a woman without a child is a woman yet to find her joy.
In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s beautiful little book, ‘Dear Ijeawele’, she speaks to a new mother on the birth of her daughter. Her first of fifteen pieces of advice is to say: “Motherhood is a glorious gift but do not define yourself solely by motherhood.” The thing is – as women we do, and society does. Our wholeness, our belonging, is seen to be made complete in having babies. Those of us without children find ourselves on the defensive. I have done this too quickly myself. Yet, am I less whole or less of a woman because I have no baby? Is my friend with six sons more of a woman than my friend with only one daughter? Do I find my whole self only in giving birth?
This is a strangely painful blog to write. “No I don’t”, often draws tears from my eyes. But for my husband and I, at least at the moment, “No, I don’t” has been a choice. I write now not as a woman with the pain of desperately wanting a baby but being unable to conceive, nor do I try and compare my choice with the heartbreak of infertility. I have sat and wept with friends who have lost babies, I have also journeyed with both men and women where IVF or other medical interventions have succeeded, or failed. Sometimes, knowing the struggle others have to conceive, my ‘choice’ seems cruel, selfish even. I don’t know whether my husband and I could conceive with the ease of couples who fall into bed and wake up the next day ‘with child’, or whether we too would need more help. This blog isn’t about that.
Assumptions are dangerous things.
Assumptions divide, they judge, and they are often wrong. Parenthood seems to be one of those topics that draws assumptions. Most of my best friends have children and speak of the pressures of assumptions made about their parenting choices – hold the baby till it sleeps, leave it to cry, breast is best, don’t breastfeed too long… It seems with child or not, assumptions and judgements are made. The most common assumption made, and often spoken out loud, by people who know not having children has been a choice is perhaps the most jarring. It is the assumption that I do not like children. This assumption also carries with it the poisonous unspoken words that there is something deeply unnatural about a woman who does not want to love a child. To make this choice is judged to be not only missing out, but missing some kind of natural piece of the jigsaw of what it means to be a woman.
The second assumption is that no human relationship can ever match the one between a parent and a child. This is a difficult one for those of us without children, because we ‘don’t know that love because we haven’t experienced it.’ I don’t doubt or argue that the kind of love that one experiences for a baby when it is born is something outside my grasp because it is outside of my experience. Parenthood is miraculous – it brings life and it changes life. Every new person changes the potential of our planet. It is beautiful. But I also know I have relationships and experiences that cannot be fully grasped by others because they haven’t lived them either. It isn’t a competition. Love comes in many forms. And the love you feel for a new baby has to then be replaced by the tireless kind of love that patiently bears with that child as they grow and learn and live. The love in my life is not static or automatic either – it is a daily choice to give of yourself to others.
The third assumption is that those of us without children do not experience motherhood. I may not experience the feeling of a baby growing in my womb but I have been privileged to be able to be a mother. I have boys (now men) from my time living in Sierra Leone who will forever be sons to me. One in particular who I love with a fierceness and protectiveness that I find hard to define. I have best friends and family whose children I would bring up in a heartbeat if I had to, if God-forbid anything ever happened to their parents. I have the teenage girls I volunteer with, the children I have taught, the young people I mentor. I don’t see them as my children but I still play a role in mothering them. They say across Africa, it takes a village to raise a child. In the west we have dislocated ourselves from that idea. But I am part of a village and I am raising many children – even if they are not my own. People who criticise childlessness will sometimes come out with the gem, “I don’t understand it, because to me family is everything.” The thing is – family can still be everything to those of us who don’t have children. It can just mean our definitions of family are different. Those African women needn’t worry – I have found my joy. My joy is in marriage, in my family, in my friendships and in ‘raising up’ the young men and women in my life.
The last assumption relates to this invisible scoring system we have created around what is worthy and what is not. I find meaning and value in my life through what I try and do for others and for our planet. I feel ‘called’ to be on the ‘frontline’ when it comes to seeking justice and forging peace in our world. Of course I could do this with children too, but for me, I think I can give far more without them. We have a large global population, no shortage of babies being born, but we have a real shortage of compassion, love, justice, mercy and hope. This last assumption often centres on an idea that couples who don’t want children make that choice so they can indulge and treat themselves. It is seen as somehow a selfish choice. To me, this is the most nonsensical argument of all, my bringing a child into the world (or not) is not a barometer of my heart, the way I give or my contribution to the world.
So why does the question around children bring me pain? I will be honest – I don’t know. I don’t sob for the children I haven’t had, or for myself. Perhaps it is something inside me that is moved by that question because I cannot connect with other women around motherhood in the way I can connect on so many other lived experiences. But I don’t for a second think I am less whole because of this. I am not less of a woman. Some of the most remarkable women in my life are the ones who have had children but have also remained so fully alive and whole as women in their own right. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie implores of Ijeawele, they have refused to be defined by their motherhood alone. I think they are better parents too because of that – I see them raising brave, bold daughters and sons who learn from a mother who herself continues to grow, learn and give to the world.
I don’t have children. But I am loved, and I love. I don’t have children but in so many ways I am a mother. I don’t have children, but I am whole, and I have found my joy.