Message to a Childless Woman: There are many Ways to be a Mother.

Image by Pezibear from Pixabay

What shape waits in the seed of you

to grow and spread its branches

against a future sky?

David Whyte

*

I stand with bare feet at the edge of a red rock canyon, facing westward toward a setting sun. Half my life is behind me. The other half, if I’m lucky, lies ahead.

A sharp wind whispers through my being like a ghost of grandmothers past. Its voice echoes over the canyon walls and speaks a message to my soul:

“You are meant to be a mother.”

The wind stops, and so does my breath. I hear only dead silence. I see only a lonely question circling above me like a red-tailed hawk, scanning the shadows of my life for a flash of insight.

Why now?

I gaze long at the horizon, and a tear traverses a path over the curve of my cheek.

Wise nature, help me understand. Help me understand why something inside me is telling me, “You are meant to be a mother,” now that I realize I’ll likely never be one.

*

I never wanted to be a mother when I was younger. It’s not that I didn’t want it. It’s just that I didn’t want it. 

I saw women around me growing into motherhood, their desire to bear children bubbling forth organically from within. I saw friends and relatives becoming mothers by accident and living into the unexpected role with growth and grace. I saw myself pushing motherhood aside in favor of art and learning, travel and romance. 

I knew that I preferred lounging in the sun’s afternoon rays, reading Homer or Plato, to changing diapers or driving kids to Little League and dance lessons. A lover, but not a mother. I was completely okay with that. 

When I was 21 years old and a student in veterinary school, I worked as an intern at an emergency vet clinic. I worked under a surgery technician, a mentor of mine named Janice. She was 37 years old, and she was pregnant. 

At the time, 37 years old seemed a lifetime away from me (it was). I looked at Janice, still vibrant and beautiful and full with child at 37, and thought, “If she’s young enough at 37 to have a child, I have plenty of time” (I did).

I thought, “For now, I will be a mother to the animals.” And I was okay with that.

Over the years, the age of 37 lived in my mind as a sort of yardstick measure of the size of my childbearing window. 

Year after year passed, and year after year I had no desire to have a child. Relationships ended. New ones began. I moved from city to city and job to job, meditated, practiced yoga, learned Spanish, climbed mountains. 

My life was full. I had many opportunities to have a child. I chose not to.

The age of 37 eventually came, and still no children. The symbolism of the entry into my childless 37th year was not lost on me. All my old thoughts and plans about motherhood followed me into the moment, crying for attention. When I was younger, I had thought, “If I don’t have a child by the time I’m 37, then I will know it simply wasn’t meant to be.” Now that I was there, I wasn’t so sure.

Years passed – 38, 39, 40. Friends around me kept having children. Once in a while someone would tell me, “It’s not too late.” I was single and living in my Volkswagen bus in San Francisco. I sat in mediation in the mornings by the ocean, the surging waves befriending my soul. I wasn’t worried.

Then something happened that caught me and my childless wandering self off-guard: my own biological mother unexpectedly died. 

In the wake of her loss, I felt something I had never felt before. I felt completely alone. 

Suddenly, the woman whose body birthed me into this world had left it, as quickly as I had come. The woman who gifted me my voice, my laugh, and my manner of waving my hands animatedly when I talk. The woman who gave me my handwriting, my pointy elfin chin, and my proclivity for falling into bouts of existential melancholy. She was gone. 

In my mother’s absence, I had a strange feeling of everything before me falling away, revealing a clarity of sight into the future I had never seen before. To my surprise, I saw only open space ether ahead of me, where once my mother had been. I realized she had held me on the journey, while I thought I was carrying myself. My connection to her had laid bricks beneath my feet as I walked, while I thought I was paving my own way.

With my mother gone, and my grandmother before her, I stood exposed at the forefront of a lineage. No supportive straps or bricklayers to brace me. No longer merely the grandchild of a grandmother, or the child of a mother, I was now at the head of the line.

So it was that I found myself at cliff’s edge, half my life behind me, facing outward toward a sun-setting future into which I needed to jump. The sharp wind blew through me, passing a torch into my hands.

Except there was no one behind me.

When I got the news about my mother’s death, I was still living in my VW, with few possessions and little to hold me down. I got a trip check done on the bus, made a few repairs for the journey, and drove the ten hours to Boise, Idaho, the city where I’d been born some 40 years before. 

All the remnants of my mother’s and grandmother’s lives were there, waiting for my attention.

My mother had asked me years before, in case anything happened to her, to care for whatever she left behind. I had said yes without hesitation. Now I would keep my promise. I would be responsible to sort through the pieces of life that she, and my grandmother before her, had packed and preserved and held dear to their hearts. A two-lifetimes’ worth repository of materials and memories. House, yard, garage, storage units, cars. Boxes, pictures, keepsakes, and junk. Six cats and a dog who needed a home. It was all mine. 

I became a new mother of a sort, nurturing and tending to the material legacy left to me through death. I sifted through the miscellany of the past with a daughter’s care, touching every letter, every dish and every piece of jewelry. (“What to do with this? And this…?”) I fed the cats, walked the dog. I got a job, worked hard, and tried to keep up with the bills as I pressed on diligently with my task.

The feeling of honoring my legacy was palpable. This was not only a legacy of material objects—which there were far too many to process—but a legacy of being, loving, seeing life through human eyes. It was a legacy of life, the gift of life that was passed on to me when I was born.

*

I don’t regret not having children when I was younger. I remember how sure I was back then that I wasn’t ready. I trust the instincts of my younger self. She was strong and confident and in touch with what she wanted. I don’t second guess her.

But this new message that blows through me feels just as strong, and I know I should listen.

“You are meant to be a mother.” What does it mean?

Maybe it means my heart wants to give the gift of life to someone new. The connection to the past that lives through me is praying to live into the future. It doesn’t want to die.

I recently sat in conversation with two friends of mine. One, a mother of grown children, spoke to the other, a new mother with a baby in her arms. They spoke of motherhood. The older mother cooed lovingly to the younger, “Becoming a mother is the highest calling a woman can have in this life.” They embraced one another in joyful laughter.

Neither of them looked at me, and I wondered if either of them even remembered I was there. Ouch.

When I witness women around me becoming excited new mothers, I am thrilled for them. Women my age, and even younger, are now becoming grandmothers, and as they do, I lean into their happiness, smile at their joy.

But as I see other women building their families, and their families’ families behind them, something inside me longs to be surrounded by such love. I feel a pang of anguish in my heart. It’s a soft and tender little hole that Homer and Plato can’t fill.

I’ve become infected with a case of comparison-itis—comparison with others, and comparison with the person I “should” have been.

I grasp for remedies to soothe the ache of impossibility. I could foster a child, yes. I could adopt. But is that what my heart really wants? Or is that just my intellect comparing itself with someone else’s “highest calling”?

To be honest, I don’t know. Seems I can’t hear what my heart wants anymore.

Back in Boise, going through boxes of my mother’s and grandmother’s things, one day I came upon a greeting card that caught my attention. In a nondescript box of paperwork, I found the little card lying dormant amidst the clutter, still in its envelope, never sent. 

The front of the card displayed a photo of a person in silhouette, walking through a mist-shrouded field among speckles of yellow wildflowers. Tall pines towered above the horizon behind them. At the top, embossed in white script lettering, was a familiar quote by Henry David Thoreau: 

“If I man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.”

Inside the card was sage green paper with a message block printed in black type:

“Wish there were more people like you.” 

Below it, written in my grandmother’s graceful and looping handwriting, is nothing but her signature: “Love, Mary.”

My grandmother, as well as she knew me, never knew that Thoreau was my favorite author. She could not have known I would find this message, in a card in a box in a room in a house that used to be hers, many years after she signed her name. 

Yet somehow, I knew the message was meant for me. 

When I found the card from grandma Mary, I tacked it up on the front of my refrigerator, held by a magnet clip I had made out of an old, never-used mousetrap. It still lives there today, a loving directive sent across time from my grandmother to me.

I have always stepped to the music I hear. In fact, that is exactly what my mother and my grandmother desperately wanted for me. They never wanted me to be confined to the limited roles that were considered appropriate for women in their day. 

They wanted me to be free, free to be myself and live in the world according to the dictates of my own heart, my own drummer. They were proud of me for not feeling pressured to have children based on social norms or outdated stories of a woman’s value and worth.

They prayed that I might shine my light into places they didn’t get to see, grow into someone they never got to be.

Now, as I fall into sad confusion about how to honor their legacy and mine, I imagine they’re here with me, amused. I imagine they’re not nearly as worried about the whole thing as I am.

Every woman is a mother.

A couple years back, when crossing a street in Oakland, I passed a man crossing in the other direction. An elderly black man carrying a cane, he had a spring to his step and sparkling eyes. His glowing presence uplifted me and I smiled and said hello.

He tipped his hat to me and addressed me cheerfully, “Happy Mother’s Day!” 

I knew it was indeed Mother’s Day, but I was startled by his words. 

“Thank you!” I nodded back. “But, I’m not a mother. I don’t have any children.”

He chuckled at my comment and winked at me mischievously.

“Young miss, don’t you know that every woman is a mother? This is your day! So you’d better get out and enjoy it.” 

I smiled, and considered his words. Is every woman a mother? Now that’s a conundrum and a sweet invitation.

I know that mothering is not only about bringing children into the world. It’s also about caring for the world itself, and all her beings. We do this as if they were our own flesh and blood, because on some level, they are.

I’ve been a mother to the thousands of sick and homeless animals who have passed through my healing hands. To countless spiders and bugs I’ve carried from danger to safety. To birds I’ve nursed to health. To roadkill victims I’ve lifted gently from the pavement and laid to rest among the trees. I’ve been a mother to young people I’ve counseled in their anger, to people without a home who I’ve offered shelter, to family and friends I’ve cried with and embraced through hard times. I’ve been a mother to six cats and a dog who got to keep their home when their first mother died.

So maybe it’s not true that I can’t be a mother. Maybe it’s more true that I don’t know how not to be one. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe I’m exactly where I need to be, and this “new” call from within is just a call for me to live more fully into life, to become more deeply who I already am.

*

I may be childless, but I know I’m not alone. I know there must be many women who receive a call to motherhood, like mine, that doesn’t fit the common mold. There must be many of us who lose our footing as the ground of life shakes beneath us, and wonder, “Who will we pass our lives to?”

Maybe legacy, for some of us anyway, is less about what we leave behind in boxes, and more about the bricks we lay for others as we make our own paths through life. Maybe it’s less about passing a torch behind us, and more about lighting the way ahead for those who follow, into a future we all must share.

For if we have no children of our own to inherit our legacy, then all the more important it must be to live into our future dreams now, that they may manifest as gifts to the world in our lifetimes, and not leave it to future generations to wait for them.

As I sit with my thoughts, a quote from another beloved poet comes to mind:

“Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing, live along some distant day into the answer.” 

Rainer Maria Rilke

My chalice is still filled with so much not-knowing. But I’m willing to “love the questions,” as Rilke suggests, and lean into the answers. I’m willing to accept that the emotions I feel–frustration, sadness, or confusion–are part of that love. And I do know there are many ways to be a mother. What remains is for me to step over the edge into my own future story, to travel the way that is mine, and trust that life itself will carry me.

My feet have grown impatient standing on the canyon rim. The sun hangs a little lower on the horizon, and the wind picks up again. Her familiar voice speaks to me once more, softer now: “You are meant to be a mother.”

This time I understand.

I lift my eyes to the sky. The hawk, satisfied, changes course toward the horizon and soars into the sunlit clouds above.

Wind at my back, torch lifted high, I take a breath. I close my eyes, lean into the mystery, and jump.

*

A version of this article originally appeared on Elephant Journal at this link.