Monday, September 26, 2005

Mothers, Children, Childlessness and Legacies

Years ago, we had a dog, a bitch actually, named Nikki. "Nik the Dog." We let her have one litter of pups before we had her spayed…someone told us that was the thing to do. She got pregnant, got big as a house, and dutifully gave birth, depositing the first whelp in the middle of the basement floor. And then she looked at those strange, wriggly little creatures that had issued forth from her own body as if she had absolutely no idea what to do with them. She reminded me, for all the world, of my own mother.

Mom never talked much about her childhood. I don’t think it was a great time for her. Even though she was younger by almost a decade than her two brothers, the only daughter and the "baby" of the family, she was not petted, spoiled, or coddled. Or even particularly parented, except by those selfsame older brothers who were drafted to mind the inconvenient tag-a-long. Her dad was ill, and her mother hired out as a housekeeper to keep food on the table. Mom was a latch-key kid decades before there were latch-key kids. Which may explain why she never developed a knack for parenting. Any female animal can bear offspring, but nurturing those progeny—being a mother—is not necessarily instinctive. It’s a learned behavior. And when you spend most of your childhood raising yourself, whom do you use as a role model?

But, like my dog, Mom dutifully procreated. Not, I think, because it was what she had dreamed of doing all her life, but because it was what you did. She always said that she and Dad planned to have four children (which, being #5, always rankled me a little.) They were so pleased with my oldest sister, and they were such a cute little post-war family. Joyce was almost three years old when my next sister was born. Pretty good planning! But then, they just seemed to lose control. Twenty-six months later, came number three. Ooops…just sixteen months between number three and number four. And, speaking of "oops," two years later the "complete" family added a seventh member. I can’t get my arms around the idea that my parents enjoyed sex so much that, despite practicing that ever-so-reliable method of baby-boom birth control—the "rhythm method"—they just couldn’t contain themselves, and got caught coloring outside the lines that many times. We were a houseful, and way more, I think, than my mother ever realized she had signed up for. She probably could have stopped at two, or maybe even one, and been a much happier and more successful parent. Rather than the harried, bedraggled, overweight, overwhelmed housewife she became. When the last of the brood was packed safely off to school, Mom divorced the house and went to work. By the time I was nine, she was working full-time, and never looked back.

It’s no wonder, then, that I don’t have a maternal bone in my body. I am my mother’s child, even though there could not be two more opposite personalities on the face of the earth. Luckily for me, and for any children I might have produced under the duress of societal pressure, women of my generation could, and often did, choose to remain childless. Still, my childlessness is more an accident of nature than an act of will. I was married at twenty-one, and stopped taking my pills at twenty-five, ready to give myself over to whatever happened, but not terribly enthusiastic about it. Pregnancy did NOT happen, and, we soon found out, was not likely to happen without a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and money. It didn’t make much sense to brave that road, to get to a destination about which I was, at best, ambivalent. Nature wisely took the decision out of my hands.

Like any childless woman of my age, I sometimes look back and wonder if I made the right decision. But really, I wonder for all the wrong reasons. I don’t feel the ache of empty arms and womb. I selfishly ponder who will care for me when I am old…who will remember me when I die…who will get my "stuff," such as it is, when I no longer need it. At times, when I see women my age enjoying the fruits of their labors of love—watching with mixed emotions as their precious chicks try their wings and fly from the nest—I get the feeling that I missed out on a very important aspect of life. But then I realize that, in all probability, based on my own upbringing, I would have been a rotten parent. I can’t help but think that my, "If it happens, it happens," attitude would not have stood me in very good stead for bringing up children in these insane times. It was an experience best left untried…because you can’t give them back if you figure out halfway through that you really aren’t any good at it.

So I am challenged to create my legacy some other way, since the "normal" way was sensiblydenied me. I may write, weave, sculpt or build something that will outlive me by some decades. I may say or do something that lives on in the hearts and minds of somebody…anybody…for many years after I go. Or I may fade into oblivion, like a leaf drifting to the forest floor, crumbling to dust and becoming silent fodder for the next generation of living things. Better to have that to look forward to, than to have forged more links in a long chain of damaged, struggling human beings. At least I’ll feel I’ve left the world no worse than I found it.


  1. It is a tremendous act of love to recognize limitations.  Parenting is hard on a good day.  Lots of just sucks.  Too many people don't think past the cute little babies...that someday grow into demanding and unappreciative teenagers.  Most of us have no idea what we're in for, and unwittingly make the same mistakes our own parents made.  I have no regrets that I have my children...but I can see my mistakes, and pray that I have not inflicted damage that will run too deep.

  2. Great piece, Lisa.
    But you do have a maternal bone in your body... You nurture your furbabies, your goldfinches, your baby are an Earthmother :)

  3. Hmmmm...I have a feeling that I know from whence this beautifully written enrty emerged.

    There cannot be a soul on earth who does not look back on certain human experiences which have an appearance of universality and wonder how they could have missed out on it and what they unwittingly lost.  And as we age, we become excruciatingly aware of the what-might-have-beens.  That awareness  seems to be an experience of which none of us are absolved.

  4. I think looking at the road you didn't take is a very normal experience. I don't think you would have been a rotten parent, and I think your cats would agree with me.  However, I'm a firm believer in trusting your instincts especially about having children, and I don't think that everyone has to be a parent to have a complete life.  I also don't think that my child is my only legacy, and I hope to exit this place before I need tending.  

  5. I do think more and more, that young people are making the decision to NOT have children.
    Too many times it is the fulfillment of an ego, or rash sex, or a need to propagate the family name, that brings children into this world.
    But more and more, it has become a decision, and in light of the enormity of the responsibility, that is as it should be.
    While I would never for a second take back any of my three sons, if I had to make the decision tomorrow whether to bring additional offspring into this world- I simply would not be able to do it.
    For now, I just pray that I'll die first. I am too much of a coward to go beyond that.

  6. There are many ways to nurture, and assuredly you do so ~ your husband, your friends, your animals, your flowers...  We tend the gardens we're given.

    I have a number of women friends whom have never had children and for whom that holds no regret.  Nor do they particularly worry about  their legacy.  You live your life as best you can, according to your values and character; if these are solid, the result will be positive.  Your legacy will take care of itself.  Que sera, que sera.  :)

  7. ::::clap-clap-clap::::

    I think this is one of your best entries yet. But, I'm a bit prejudiced in the matter since I have no intention of being amongst the childbaring lot. I often wonder and nearly ask every woman I know who is a "bit" older than me, if they have any regrets because I have this fear that once it's truly too late I'll look back with deep regret. Although, some of my reasons for bucking the system are somewhat different, I really believe the choice I've made is the right one. Thanks for sharing this. :-) ---Robbie

  8. this entry has touched me profuoundly......

  9. I don't think you would have failed as a mother....but life has a way of giving us what we need even when it isn't what we necessarily want....

    Your life plan was something other than motherhood.

    I won't say that motherhood isn't the most important aspect of my life...hun you know I'd be lying....

    You have things to do that women with children can not or will not...

    I wish I had the time and energy to think about American society and politics the way you do...the fruit you do produce is valuable and as important as the fruit I have produced....You educate people and you often take a fearful stand alone.  Your children are ideals and action.  You are raising them well.

    You are who you are meant to be.....

  10. A beautiful entry!  Isn't it interesting that those women who shouldn't have children, have a brood.  My mother was the same way!  I think she had a good role model, but she really didn't ever fully develop that maternal, nurturing bone.  She even had her 5 kids taken away from her for neglect!  Then, had one more child!  Geez!  I don't get it!  Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject!  Lisa

  11. I do not believe that all women are meant to be mothers and I think it's wise that at least you recognized what you did not want.  And Lisa, even if you had procreated and watched your child move away, you would still wonder what your legacy will be because I do myself.  

  12. Oh, I think you've got a few nurturing bones. After all you've nurtured friends. cats, the local birds, (congratulations on the poplars in case I didn't mention it before) a marriage, and a business or two. But, it is true that we aren't born knowing how to raise kids, be friends, husbands or wives. We have to learn from the people around us. Actually my mom's mother was a lot like your description or your mother.

    Heck one of the reasons the folks moved to Oakridge was to get away from grandma expecting mom to come over and clean house and do the laundry every week. My grandmother was not the maternal type.

    Jackie (darn can't type or spell to save my soul this evening, pretty good when you have to type your own name three times._

  13. You are a nurturer. maybe it is that you were just not meant to nurture children of your own. I am a firm believer that anybody can give birth but that does not make you a mommy.

  14. Having kids is something you need to really want to do beyond all reason. You are wise to know yourself. your legacy is your words.