Happy Mother’s Day? Reflections on a Child-Free Life

Navigating the complexities of not having children, embracing mothering instincts, and reimagining the meaning of Mother's Day.
Happy mother's day - reflections on a child-free life

I used to correct people when they wished me a Happy Mother’s Day. Explaining that I didn’t have children felt like the “honest” thing to do.

Then I realized I was unnecessarily embarrassing strangers—doormen, store clerks, garage attendants—who were just trying to be thoughtful and polite: See a woman in her 50s or 60s or, heaven knows, older, and it’s not abnormal—even in career-driven Washington DC and New York City—to assume that she once gave birth to a child.

So now I simply say “thank you” and move on. No dishonesty intended.

Some of these stranger relationships do take a turn for the more personal—to wit, with the doormen in my Manhattan apartment building, who seem to know everything about everybody, including my-sister-in-New-Jersey’s name, where exactly uptown my nephew and his wife live, and when was the last time I hosted Thanksgiving. When we reach that level, I share more. To their credit, these not-so-strangers have yet to quiz me on whether I’m divorced, widowed, or just stubborn. (Take a guess.) So far, they seem to like me, so I just leave it at that.

Creating a Life Without Children

Senior women laughing happily while having tea together. Group of elderly friends enjoying their summer vacation at a spa resort. Three mature women enjoying themselves after retirement.

I’ve also realized (and this is probably only natural) that many of my friends—in a book club, in an investment club, in my building, in the newsroom where I worked for 30 years—have no children either. And that circumstance doesn’t even come up in our conversations! No moaning, no woulda-coulda-shoulda, just . . . conversation—politics, books, restaurants, whatever. Of course, some women’s friends do have kids, but in many cases, our groups coalesced after the children had gone off to live lives of their own.

To say I never think about children would be . . . just about correct. About 25 years ago, though, I was worried that I was living a selfish life and had the thought one Saturday afternoon that maybe I should adopt a child. On the phone, my sister promptly offered me one of hers (then a rule-defying teen, now a clinical social worker and mom), and my accountant told me I couldn’t afford one. Case closed—although I will admit that I began getting annoyed at every female essayist who managed to work “my daughter,” or “as I was telling my son,” into columns about the budget deficit. (Exaggerating, but not by all that much.)

We often read that we will model the behavior we saw growing up, but that can’t always be true. I grew up in a family with a mild-mannered (okay, slightly distant) college professor father, a dedicated homemaker mother, and two siblings—and we sat down to dinner together every night, chatting about school and our lives. We liked one another. Such a mostly pleasant setup should have put all of us on the path toward family creation, right? Instead, only my sister went off in that direction.

Debating the Value of a Child-Free Life

Happy senior woman enjoying in daughter's affection on Mother's day.

Does my sister, with her two kids and three grandkids, have a richer life than I do? The easy answer is yes. The big old Victorian pile where she and my brother-in-law raised their children is the center of family events, their kitchen the place where my brother, his wife, and I feel comfortable dropping in for a sandwich (yes, we call first). When it comes to family, we seem to have let her do all the heavy lifting.

A woman I used to know, in her bleaker moments, saw herself as an old crone sitting at the edge of her sister’s family hearth, contenting herself with a little reflected warmth from the fire. Grim, I know, but we were in group therapy, where such inner demons are allowed to come out to play.

That harsh image came to my mind after an online home goods retailer put a kind of warning label on its Mother’s Day marketing hoo-ha, explaining that it understood that motherhood could be a sensitive issue and inviting delicate consumers to opt out of such emails. Yikes!

Nurturing Children in Other Ways

I’m made of sterner stuff than that. Nonetheless, I am aware of paying my dues to be an integral part of what I sometimes think of as my sister’s family, the family she created with that generous husband and two head-screwed-on-straight kids who have gone on to create the next generation. I’m not good at remembering birthdays (selfish!), and really dislike buying more crap for little kids who already have too much crap (8-year-olds now need honey face masks?).

But I’m good for estate planning and the occasional college-fund contribution; in one grand gesture a decade ago, bought a condo where the nephew and his wife could live for half a dozen years, paying the monthlies until they could afford to buy it from me.

Three mature women taking selfie in restaurant

So, is mine a selfish life? Quite possibly. When I read the age-old plaint that women take care of everyone else in their sphere first, leaving little time for themselves, I certainly don’t recognize myself.

To be honest, especially with myself, not having children never really felt like a choice. It was just a fact. But in recent years, I’ve found myself being, if not a mother, at least “mothering,” engaging with young women with children, establishing what relationships I can with the little ones (who one day will no doubt ask, Mom, who was that lady with the dog who always used to talk to us in the park?).

I even offer to take care of the kids in a pinch. Now, a woman who would leave her infant in my hands is clearly not a good mother! But as my niece Carolyn assured me about her 6- and 8-year-old, Don’t worry, they’ll tell you what to do. Much better.

And the last thing I’ve done as I’ve journeyed across this mine-strewn motherhood thing: I’ve begun to wish just about every woman I encounter a Happy Mother’s Day.

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