As a woman in her 30s in North America, I am often subject to inquiries about my marital status and, more to the point of this article, my maternal status.
I was born to a father and a young mother. My parents have an eleven year age difference, and at the time of my birth, my mother was a month past her 26th birthday. My sister came along a day before my mum turned 28 (happy birthday Mum!), and thus her commitment to the care and raising of two children began. I love my mother to death. She is an amazing woman, capable of feats I would never imagine possible. She has innumerable talents: sewing, construction, furniture building, treatment, and repair, upholstery, gardening, management, coordination and organization like you wouldn’t believe, photography, to name just a few. She is accomplished in her line of work and sharp as a tack (when she isn’t medicated for the migraines she has suffered for her entire adult life)((this deadening of her acute intellect is the result of EFFECTIVE medication, for which she and everyone round her is immensely grateful)). What didn’t come easily to my mum was motherhood.
Maybe it’s the environment she grew up in, maybe it’s a product of biology, and most likely it’s a combination of the two. My mum tries her absolute best to be an excellent mum, and she does a fabulous job, but I know it isn’t second nature to her like it is to some. My mum is bold, brazen, outspoken, fierce. Maternal is not a descriptor I would apply to her when I was growing up. I asked her about why she opted to become a mum once upon a time. Her response shocked me a bit. My dad had desperately wanted to become a dad. He wanted a gaggle of children, which my mum didn’t want. I think she also felt social pressure to follow to social ideal of a good wife and good mother. She came from an immigrant family with some strong ideas about the role of women in a household. She told me they weren’t ready to become parents, but also said that you’ll never be completely ready for it, so they had kids. There are few things in life that my mum has undertaken without ample research and preparation; planning and being prepared is part of my mum’s personality. That she agreed to taking on parenthood before she felt ready was not something I had expected to learn.
I was a very good and well-behaved little girl, and then a monstrous teenager. Moodier than anything, vicious when confronted with discomfort or fear. Aggressive, rude, combative, and uncompromising. I was a terror to my parents. My mother and I butt heads constantly while I lived in the family home. I grew to be very much like her in many ways, and that led to a lot of conflict and frustration for us both. When I was about fourteen, I developed some OCD-esque behaviours. I was compulsively washing my hands. I washed my hands after drying them on the towel in the bathroom. I had to open the bathroom door with the hand towel, because if I touched the door knob, I would have to wash my hands again. I kept my bath towel in my room, along with my toothbrush, my combs and hairbrush, my everything. I spray sanitized everything I touched on the regular, including the pat of the floor that would often come to house my dirty laundry. I washed my hands so often that my hands became so cracked and bled so much that I would wear gloves to school and to sleep. I became a non-functional germaphobe, and I went to therapy for it briefly. During my time with the therapist, I learned that my compulsive handwashing was likely a tool I applied to gain back some control in my life. That I felt out of control. I learned how to manage it a bit better, and in time that behaviour dissipated and my hands recovered. I still have terribly dry skin on my hands, but they no longer crack and bleed to the point of disaster.
As I got older, I came to realize that the control I was attempting to reassert in my life was control over my own person and behaviour in the face of conflict with my mum. To my teenage brain, she was domineering, authoritative, and disagreeable when I made requests or did things that would assert me as me. I undoubtedly did these things in unclear, awful ways, as I was a horrid hormonal beast, but my struggle to become my own person and behave how I saw fit was real.
I have always been a bigger person, and as a teenager that extra weight was very noticeable and of course the subject of ridicule. I was relegated to the status of smart girl or funny girl, and so seldom the object of affection or interest that it was laughable. I never saw myself as being worthy of partnership or imagined that I would gain a partner at all. The idea of motherhood wasn’t something that even crossed my mind until girls I went to school with either had pregnancy scares or became pregnant and were faced with all the difficulties of teen pregnancy. No matter her choice, the girl who fell pregnant was the object of derision. Keep the baby? No future. Give the child up for adoption? Irresponsible. Abort the child? Unfitting for any woman, no matter what. As I watched the reality of this potential unfold in people around me, and as I got older and some of my (older) friends began having children deliberately, the idea of motherhood as an academic possibility began to bubble in my consciousness. Much of the concern at that stage in my life, and this is a tragic reflection of the world we live in, was the possibility that I might have to bear a child as a result of sexual assault. I had the luxury of growing up in a big city, albeit a big city in a very conservative province, but a big city all the same. Abortion services were available, if the worst should come to pass. Even so, the stigma at the time would have been crippling. I didn’t like entertaining the idea.
When I was 18, I met a girl I really liked and we began dating. I hadn’t had any serious interest in any women before I met her, but something about her entranced me. She and I were sort of secretly dating for a couple of months, and then I went on a vacation with my mum and dad to the BC coast for a couple of weeks in the summer. My relationship with her was serious enough that I wanted to tell my parents, who I was scared to speak to about the topic. My mum had been fairly vocal about her political opinions, which at the time were fairly conservative. My dad was pretty relaxed all around, and I was less fearful of his reaction. I’m not sure what possessed me to decide to tell them this information while on a vacation where we were all trapped together for an extended period, but that’s a teenage brain for you. I opted to tell my mum first, and her reaction was more than anything I could have hoped for. She pulled me into a big hug, and told me she didn’t care who I loved, as long as I was happy with them. I felt overwhelmed with relief, and I told her I hadn’t told Dad yet. She said to do it soon, but to do it gently. I was a bit alarmed, but not terrified. I knew Dad had gay friends, and I wasn’t even coming out as gay, so it should be fine, right? I told my dad the next day, and his response was not what I had anticipated. He became quiet, and finally said, “Oh. Well. Okay.” He followed that up with, “I hope you know that I still want grandchildren.” I rolled my eyes at the time, and laughed at him, and we went about the rest of the trip with minimal discomfort. I later discovered he had a hard time with the news and it took some digestion, but that’s besides the point. The assumption that a woman, even a woman in a relationship with another woman, was duty-bound to provide offspring was an ingrained part of my dad’s worldview. He told me some time later that he was worried about the family name dying with my sister and I. I laughed at that, aghast that my dad would really prioritize the continuation of his last name over the happiness of his daughters. He didn’t laugh back.
I was with my girlfriend for a long time. During the twilight years of our relationship, I admitted to her that I wanted to, at some point in my life, to experience sex with a man because I am a bisexual person. She was unhappy with this, as I expected she might be, and I suspect it ultimately became a part of why she left me. After the split, I spent quite a while rehabilitating myself emotionally, as you do following the demise of a decade-long relationship. I decided it was time to attempt dating, which was something I had barely done at all, let alone dating men and dating online. What a disaster.
The first man I dated was a father to a young girl. He and his ex had split but still lived in the same house (for the time being) to have a solid, single place to bring this little girl up. When he and I started to date, one of the first things that I had to consider was whether I could take on the role of a possible maternal figure to this little girl. To my surprise, I found myself pretty okay with it. I had never had to consider the idea of parenthood to a child I wasn’t a biological parent of. The relationship lasted a very short time, and I never ended up even meeting the little girl. However, the possibility of step-parenthood had been cracked open in my life, and it turned out to be something I would have to evaluate many times over.
I was involved with another man with whom I had a pregnancy scare. My period has never been regular, and at one point during the relationship it was quite late. I agonized as I waited, hoping desperately to see blood every time I went to pee. I wasn’t prepared for pregnancy. I didn’t want it. He didn’t want to be a father. We had agreed that, should anything happen, the fetus would be aborted. Neither of us wanted the responsibility or cost of a child. I became a mess — I was crying all the time, I was performing poorly at work, I was anxious and scared and sick. I wasn’t pregnant, thank goodness, but my gut reaction from that experience was fear and dread. The body horror element of it crept up on me and did a real number on my brain.
I realized then, and I still think of it like this, that the idea of carrying a child is akin to having a parasite for me. To have a leech gorging itself on all my nutrients and resources. To have it growing, unstoppable, inside of me. To have it move around, and to be able to feel it do so. And, worst of all, to have it remove itself from my body when it’s completed its development. The pain, the damage, the risk, and the complications that come with giving birth are so absolutely abhorrent to me that it makes me ill. Something happened to my mum’s pelvis when she gave birth to me. My giant baby head was too large to descend and emerge easily from the birth canal, and the doctor had to use forceps to forcibly remove me, the stuck baby with a giant noggin, from my mother’s body. This extraction left me with a seriously misshapen head for a while (it’s better now), but it also damaged my mum’s body irreversibly. That knowledge terrifies me. The argument that I am constantly faced with by people with no vested interest (aka men) is that women have been giving birth for the entirety of human existence so it can’t be all that bad. When they says things like that, I want to give them a swift kick in the nuts and tell them to never speak on the subject again. This is the same perspective of my dad’s sentiment expressed in a different way — that women have always done this and women should continue to do this because that’s what they’re built for.
Beyond the immediate physical implications of giving birth, the responsibility for another human life, and a pathetically inept one at that, is also terrifying. I don’t intend to disparage babies, but as a species, we’ve evolved to the point of being able to bear offspring extremely underdeveloped. Humans spend a very long time developing and growing outside the womb, in contrast to most other mammals that must gestate to near independence before they are born. Human babies rely very heavily on their parents for a very long time, and that kind of commitment to physical care is not something that I feel capable of providing or want to do.
Finally, the emotional and mental health and stamina that is needed to be a parent is immense. As I outlined above, my mum said she wasn’t ready to be a mum. I know her mum wasn’t ready to be a mum when she got pregnant in the 60s. Socially, both women were constrained by the culture they found themselves in. Obviously in the 1960s abortions weren’t available — they weren’t even legal until 1969, and even then, only under some circumstances and with exceptional approval from a committee of doctors. It wasn’t until the year I was born that the abortion laws of Canada were found to be unconstitutional in their restriction of women’s rights to bodily autonomy that abortion became more available in a legal sense. I seriously doubt that a woman getting an abortion in Calgary in 1988 would have been met with a huge amount of sympathy. I know many people who have confessed to having had abortions secretly or in dangerous circumstances because they weren’t ready to become a parent. Mercifully, today, abortion services are much more readily available to pregnant people and so the decision to become a parent can be made with greater consideration and emergency help if things go wrong. I also have better access to mental health resources than my mum or my grandmother would have had when they were faced with their pregnancies and having to raise children. I am permitted, culturally, to attend to my mental health and to be autonomous in that respect. I am not beholden to a husband who can dictate where I can go and how I can pay for things. I can look after myself first and can triage my own life and health concerns. With how much I struggle with my mental health, I am beyond grateful that I was not forced to become a parent at 22. The last thing I would want for a child is to be resented by their parent from birth. No child deserves that, and if I were to become pregnant here and now, that’s how I would feel about that child. I know that mentally, I am not prepared to parent a child, and I think that knowledge, combined with tools to prevent pregnancy, is a luxury previous generations have not always had when faced with parenthood.
As I have continued to date and interact with people, my ideas around parenthood and the expectations surrounding it have evolved. I have come to realize that for many men, parenthood is a secondary concern. They are not as hyper aware of the potential or the outcomes as women, nor do they care to be. The price of becoming pregnant is principally paid by the person who becomes pregnant. It isn’t until later, when the logistics behind parenting and support and financial concerns arise, that the idea of pregnancy is one many men really weigh. On one hand, I understand this. Most men are socialized to pursue sexual pleasure and exploits while less often receiving education about the physical and emotional costs of pregnancy and parenthood. In the same vein, most women are socialized to be extremely aware of pregnancy, how damaging it can be to your social standing, your career, and your future, and how to avoid it. The two worlds are not as interwoven as they should be; men should be taught the repercussions of pregnancy much earlier when they’re even taught it at all, and women should also be taught the pleasures and joys of sex rather than being chastened so much. I know this is changing, and I hope the rate at which it shifts accelerates. On the other hand, I am frustrated and insulted by this. The person who becomes pregnant pays such a high price and invests so much, sometimes by choice and sometimes not, into the development of a child that it seems fucking criminal that someone who impregnates someone could NOT be thinking about these things too. There is no way that someone could be so willfully ignorant about the consequences of pregnancy that they wouldn’t worry about it beforehand, that they would be so callous in their treatment of another person that they wouldn’t have a partner’s interests at heart in a situation like this. I certainly go to lengths to inform partners that if an accidental pregnancy occurs, I would pursue an abortion. These two sides of this issue battle in my head constantly.
I understand that many people pursue and enjoy parenthood. I know several women who have enthused at length about how much they loved or love being pregnant. About how easily it came to them, about how their bodies felt connected and healthy and wonderful. I know some people relish the opportunity to be an important figure to a child, and that raising a child is a very fulfilling element of life for some. I wouldn’t dream of discounting a person’s perspective on something they hold in such high esteem or so dear. If parenthood is something you desire, I hope it becomes a reality for you, but I also hope that you’ve considered your physical, mental, and emotional health before you take parenthood on. Your decisions will affect the life of your potential child, no matter how small they seem right now. That warning of course comes with the knowledge that really, as I’ve discussed above, no one is ever really ready to become a parent. There’s no way to be entirely ready. I think a sound, thorough evaluation of the costs to you and to your potential child should be undertaken by anyone who plans to become a parent (whether the plan is before the sex or after, doesn’t matter).
The people I often receive questions about my lack of child from are women. I am very rarely asked by men if I am a mother, and honestly that’s to my preference. When women ask if I’m a mum, I’m instantly anxious. Why are they asking me this? Do I look like a mum? Are they hoping I am a mum? Are they judging me for having kids or NOT having kids? Do they see me as deficient or lesser than for not being a mother? The responses to my answer are as varied as my worries. Some women will say, “Oh that’s a shame.” Others will say, “Smart.” Others still will ask, “So when do you think you’ll have kids?” No matter where or who the questions come from, I’m irritated by them. Not necessarily by the person, but by the questions. The questions annoy me because they’re borne of a world where the expectation is that I be a mother by now. That I should have kids. I have women tell me I’d be a great mum, and I honestly have no idea how to respond to that. What makes you think I’d be a great mum? Was it my tendency to curse a blue streak? Did you see me interact with a child? Is it because I have big hips??? I never know what to say. Sometimes people will tell me I look like a mum, and that will absolutely ruin my day. I hate hearing that I look like a mum.
I’m doing all this musing after a month of working a terrible job, heartfelt and honest conversations with loved ones about their lives, and my own reflection on my situation. My physical health, my mental health, my relationships, and my desires for the future. At 33 years old and with no impending pregnancy, I’m not ready to become a mum. If I were to become pregnant, would my opinion change? Would my evaluation of my situation differ? Would hormones affect how I thought about the situation? Would the partner I became pregnant by affect my decision? Maybe I would be a good mum, if faced with the challenge. I’m self aware about my shortcomings, and to a growing degree about my strengths. I know the things that I struggled with growing up, and would be aware of what to do differently. I suspect, though, that every parent messes up their kid no matter what. We all bear the stamps of our parents, and there’s no way to avoid that. At my age, my mum had a seven year old and a five year old. Would I have the strength and stamina to do what she’s done?
As a final disclaimer here, I know not all men are like the men I have described above. I know not all women are like those I’ve described above either. I know not all people who can become pregnant are women, and I’ve tried to be careful to word it selectively above, but if I’ve made an error, I apologize.