Nearly 46 percent of American women through age 44 are childless. That's up from 35 percent in 1976.
All reasons this generation of women are not bearing children at the same rate their mothers did are valid. Some are young women and just not at a point in their lives where motherhood is a choice they'd like to make. Some are 'fence-sitters,' not sure about whether or not they want children. Some are childfree by choice. Some are gay and need to take a potentially longer and less traditional route to motherhood. Some are suffering from biological infertility. And some, like me, are what I call "circumstantially infertile."
I want children. I always have. At age 12 I purchased baby name books in preparation for the son and twin daughters I dreamed to be a mother to one day. I was a nanny, camp counselor and frequent babysitter. I would make up songs to sing to the kids I babysat that would become 'our thing' or visit the kids even when I wasn't officially working for their parents. By age 21, I was hosting teen tour girls in my home. Motherhood was always a path I felt ready for.
At age 23, when interviewing for my first job in New York City, I inquired about maternity benefits to make sure it was the right place for me. I focused my career in the non-profit sector, hoping it would give me more flexibility in dating, marriage and motherhood. I dated men with traditional family values, men who have since gone on to be fruitful and multiply.
By my mid-30s, now in my third job working for some of the best companies in the world to make enough money to live in New York City, I was still unmarried. I wasn't a mother. My work hours were longer, some days were spent overseas, and I was beginning to suffer the prejudice of being an 'older' woman. At 34, I was approached by a male friend who said he wanted to set me up with a friend our age but I was just 'too old.' At 35, a man said he would date me if I agreed to freeze my eggs. At age 36, another man told me he'd (reluctantly) date me since I could probably still 'pop one out.' Now we all know these are exceptional instances but they were nevertheless embedded in my psyche.
The grief over not only not being a mother, but now also suffering from feeling 'less than' because I just simply hadn't found love (or mutual love), was at times overwhelming. And as I saw couples younger than I getting sympathy for their biological infertility, I wondered why all I got were accusations of not doing enough, not trying hard enough. Trying too hard. Being too picky. Not being picky enough... And the hardest comment to defend: "You better hurry up!" (Hurry up and fall in love?)
While I have not suffered from biological infertility (as far as I know), I imagined my grief was at least as deep as couples trying to conceive as I didn't have a love who shared the grief. Heck, I often didn't even have a date to get closer to trying! Every month that passed, I grieved a loss. But I grieved alone. I have no husband (or male partner) to grieve with me. And lamenting my infertility to close friends who are parents or to family was never well-received.
Generation X is the first generation of women who have a choice to wait for love. Unlike many of our mothers, we earn enough to take care of ourselves (please don't call us 'career women' as careers are as much a choice for women as they are for men.) But still, the assumption is that all women who don't have children don't want children. There is a place between motherhood and choosing not to be a mother. And tens of millions of American women are there.
I'm 42 and still single and I have come to acknowledge the truth: it's very possible I won't have children of my own. I've grieved and have found my happiness on the other side. There are days that are still hard for me (Mother's Day, the day a friend announces her pregnancy, when I hear a guy won't date me because I'm too old to have kids, my birthdays, my monthly reminder...) but most days I'm happy. Very happy. I'm not in the wrong life being the wrong wife and trying to get out. I have no regrets.
My circumstances have left me infertile but they have not left me non-maternal. I love the children in my life with boundless adoration. If I was not meant to be a mother to 2.1 kids, then perhaps I was meant to be motherly to many more. From a girl in Tanzania I've adopted as a niece and email with many times a week, to the little ones down the hall in my apartment building, and of course to my amazing nephew and nieces by relation, I am an aunt.
I'm not childless, I'm childfull. I'm not a mother but I am maternal.
My infertility is circumstantial but my life is not barren. And to the women who are on the other side of hope, know that you are more powerful than your womb. You are maternal whether or not maternity ever comes. You are a woman and your love and how you choose to offer and receive it, is a gift.
And you're not alone.
Melanie Notkin is founder, SavvyAuntie.com and national best-selling author: SAVVY AUNTIE: The Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers and All Women Who Love Kids (HarperCollins/William Morrow)
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