Birth mothers, not

March 11, 2013


Here, three single women share their own experiences of childlessness.

Camilla, 46

For as long as I can remember, all I ever wanted was a husband and children of my own. I witnessed my sisters’ and friends’ weddings and a rapid succession of nephews and nieces.  As my sisters and most of my friends settled down into routines of domesticity and child rearing, I climbed the corporate ladder at a pharmaceutical company and dated a string of eligible, but wholly unsuitable men.

I endured my share of heartbreak and disappointment on the dating front and stoically attended a batch of weddings every summer that passed. I admit that I cried a lot and felt sorry for myself.  I wallowed in self-pity, resented the happiness of others and longed for my prince to rescue me, the damsel in distress, the hopeful lady-in-waiting…  My only consolation was music – I play the piano – and it became an outpouring for my bitterness.  But there came a point when I glanced up from resentment and saw that my nieces and nephews were growing into wonderful little kids.

I had always been close to my sisters, particularly my twin, but backed off when they got married.  In a typically English way, I thought that nobody would want a spinster sister sticking her oar into family life.  But I was wrong.

On the morning of my 42nd birthday, I had what some might call an epiphany.  Since it was now extremely unlikely that I would have a family of my own, the only way I could combat my isolation was to get involved with the families closest to me.  So I got over myself and my perpetual state of singledom – and became a yummy auntie instead.

I relished Christmas with my families, lent a helping hand at children’s parties and became hoarse with shouting at school sports days.  I got involved with one of my nephew’s schools and played the piano in the school play when the music teacher was ill.  Suddenly, my network of friends expanded and I found a renewed passion within my humdrum life.

I am always there for my sisters and their families, and wherever possible, for my godchildren and friends’ children.  I can offer my support, and when my hectic work life permits, take great pleasure arranging outings for the kids or having them to stay the weekend.  We camp in the garden, go to the cinema or the ballet, have barbecues, hunt for fossils in the cliffs and take long, muddy bike rides in the countryside.  I occasionally baby-sit, but limit this to a few times a year – I don’t want my good-natured availability to be taken for granted.

Since music is my passion, I have taken ownership of piano lessons for Chloe and Emily, two of my nieces.  I bought them a Bechstein piano and have funded their lessons right up to Grade 6, swelling with pride and wiping tears away when they have played in concerts.

I have carved a role as friend and confidante to these children, as musical sugar-auntie to two of them, and as an unencumbered extra pair of hands at family events.  It’s wonderful to love and be loved, and to admire their youth and vitality.  And do you know what?  It’s not such an odd role in this family – this is the way of life for large Italian families.

And just as soon as having my own children was off my radar, something in me changed and I met Andrew – a handsome divorcé with four grown-up daughters.  We live about 100 miles apart and both of us are unwilling to compromise our current lifestyles, but I suppose you could say, I do have a love interest there.  He doesn’t want commitment, and neither do I – that would mean giving up on my children and my extended family.

So, I didn’t get what I envisaged in life, but I took the next best thing and it has fulfilled me.  I had the option to be bitter and twisted with my lot, but I chose not to take it.  And right now, I wouldn’t have my life any other way.

Rowena, 45

When I was 33, I made an assumption that the man I had dated for three years, the man who proposed to me, who married me and carried me over the threshold wanted to have children.  But I was wrong.  Our viewpoints were completely polarised, and in just two years, our happy marriage was feeling the strain.  To make matters worse, I became ill and needed a hysterectomy.  My wretchedness at being denied parenthood by my husband was compounded by the surgeon’s knife.  Six months later, our short marriage finally broke down for good and we divorced.

I experienced pain, regret, resentment, bitterness, overwhelming sadness and a kind of black void.  It took a long time to shake off and I have to confess to recoiling at the sight of a new baby, or feeling like I had been punched whenever a pregnancy was announced by a friend or colleague.

I had a good counsellor, and between us we worked through this and other issues I had.  A few years later I met Rod, who was divorced with three children:  Paddy, Hamish and Annabel.  Shortly after his divorce, cancer claimed the children’s mother and he took custody of his brood.

The children, who were all under 14 at the time, regarded me with suspicion and resentment.  They felt I was muscling in on their father and trying to resume the role of their mother.  I understood this, but it was still very hard.  If they weren’t ignoring me, they were rude or sullen.  I could do nothing right and I felt them mocking me when my back was turned.  It brought to the surface my barren and childless state – I couldn’t have children of my own, and I couldn’t relate to other people’s children either.  That hurt.  But I was crazy about Rod and finally understood what falling in love was about.  He proposed and I accepted – with some trepidation, I must confess.

It was at this point that the children had a sort of pow-wow in deciding how to treat this woman who was to become their stepmother and an integral part of their family.  They voted in my favour and wrote me a long letter (unprompted by their father), welcoming me into their lives.

They were true to their word and I am now a fulfilled stepmother.  We have been through so much together – good and bad:  exams, sporting competitions, teenage crushes, a dalliance with drugs, plus all their young adult achievements.  I am their mother – they call me Row, but I am their mother.

When I look back over my own life, and the inevitability of my childlessness, this is an outcome which I could barely have dared to wish.’

Jayne, 46

Rummaging through an old storage box at my mother’s house, I came across a photograph of me, taken when I was about three.  I was standing outside a Wendy house in our garden with the little boy from next door – Jeremy, I think he was called.  I was holding my favourite dolly, Polly.  We looked like a miniature married couple proudly showing off our new baby.

The photograph triggered in my mind a recollection that as a child I always wanted to have a family.   Right up to adulthood, this recollection became an assumption.  So, from an early age I aspired to have a family, yet decades later I had failed to live up to this blueprint for life.  Although there has been a man in my life most of the time, this is always a transient arrangement.  A permanent fixture is the house and car, but somewhere down the line I missed my chance to acquire the husband and the children – and love.

I wasn’t a bad person.  I wasn’t unstable or selfish.  I didn’t look or act weird – I was just nice and normal.  And passive.

I didn’t miss out on having a family because I was infertile (although I will never actually know), nor because I postponed pregnancy to concentrate on my career.  Along my romantic journeys I never actually met anyone who mutually agreed that we should make babies together.  I just navigated the maze of serial monogamy, each boyfriend buying a few years of my fertility timeframe.  We had fun, some great holidays and everyday companionship, but each relationship eventually hit a dead end and I would start the unbreakable pattern all over again.

Because I was ‘nice’, I was never the sort of person to trick a man into making me pregnant, nor was it in my nature to bludgeon a man into becoming a parent with me.  I wasn’t brave or selfish enough to seek sperm donation, so I just waited in vain for my dreams to come true, and looked on as my friends hitched and hatched.

I am so angry with myself that I didn’t dump the ditherers and wasted my most precious years.  I indulged myself for the moment and hoped that the future would work out fine.  I yearned for a nuclear family, quietly and to myself.  I lived in fear of a relationship breaking up – I couldn’t bear the prospect of being alone, and I hoped that things would change.  But they didn’t.

Looking back, my life was completely without drama – no ultimatum-fuelled rows, no fraught Christmases, no probing fertility specialists, no mourned miscarriages.  And without defining moments – no breath-catching declarations of love, no blushing bride, no shared ownership, no screaming labour pains or trials of motherhood.  It was a kind of neutral, joyless, middle-of-the-road existence.  I wasn’t prepared to say what I wanted, or to go after the things I desired most.  I didn’t even get angry.  At night, lying awake and alone in the darkness, I imagined that I could hear my unborn children in the distance, crying, ‘Come and get us, Mummy, come and get us!’  And as the years rolled by, their cries became quieter and quieter.   Now there is just silence.

Yes, it is a kind of bereavement and a regret.  I try not to make judgements on cigarette smoking teenage mothers as they stroll past me in the street, pushing a buggy, a phone clamped over an ear with a bawling toddler in tow.  I do get a pang when I see older mothers with babies or small children in a clutch at the school gates.  How did they manage to cross the line when their time was almost up and I didn’t?  And I do wonder how fate conspires to ignore some people’s dreams and lavish on others things that, by rights we’re all entitled to.

I have made my bed and I must lie on it.  There are no children in my life, but I have my health and my (modest) wealth.   I have resolved to find passion, colour, interest and opinion in many new fields and to shake off the beige passivity that has hung over me like a cloud for so long.  I will find a new vibrancy, purpose and happiness and will stop wallowing in the ‘what might have been.’  My horizon is already looking brighter.’

Extracted from Finding Mr Right by Annie Harrison.



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