In a recent interview about her upcoming movie First They Killed My Father, Angelina Jolie voiced a sentiment that so many women can relate to: She never wanted a family and in fact never had any desire to be a mother. Of course the actress, humanitarian and filmmaker is now the proud mom of six, so something definitely changed her mind.
To some mothers, that won't make a whole lot of sense. There are women who were born to be maternal; they always pictured their lives as being incomplete without a few kids in the family unit, and they always knew they would find the experience rewarding, if not challenging.
But to a lot of us, this will sound instantly familiar. Just as we all have different interests and aspirations, there are those women who don't imagine themselves as "Mom" and maybe don't even desire the title. Some will go their whole lives without starting a family that includes children, and they'll do it without any regrets. It's certainly possible to live a full life without ever having or adopting a child.
But others — many others, including Jolie — will find over time that what they thought was a certainty is now entirely negotiable. For Jolie, that moment came during one of her early visits to Cambodia as a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador in 2001.
"It's strange, I never wanted to have a baby. I never wanted to be pregnant. I never babysat. I never thought of myself as a mother," Jolie told an AP reporter in the interview. So what changed? On that 2001 trip, the actress had the chance to meet with and play with a group of Cambodian schoolchildren when she was struck with a realization. "It was suddenly very clear to me that my son was in the country, somewhere."
She's referring, of course, to her son Maddox, whom she adopted the next year. From there she went on to adopt two other children and give birth to their three biological siblings, a huge divergence from never wanting children at all.
It's too easy to say that this kind of huge change is just the inevitable result of a ticking biological clock. It feeds the misguided idea that eventually all child-free women will change their mind, which just isn't true. Though biology certainly plays a role in when we choose to start a family, there's something else at play here. One that any mom who never imagined they'd ever be a mom can attest to.
For lots of mothers, the tides turn after a huge change in perspective. For Jolie, that was the certainty that her son existed; she just had to find him. That feeling of "just knowing" is one that's common among adoptive parents, by the way. Many parents who go on to adopt here or abroad will tell you that they didn't "pick" their children and instead were drawn to a child that they just knew was their son or daughter.
For other women, that perspective shift might come in the form of an unplanned pregnancy or even a pregnancy scare. There are more than a few women who will tell you that it wasn't until they confirmed that they weren't pregnant that they realized they'd been holding their breath and hoping they were.
There's also more than one mother who takes on the role after an unexpected pregnancy and finds that while they'd never longed for a baby or fantasized about nurseries and baby names, they're actually quite good at this mothering thing. They may even go on to have more children on purpose.
Still others find that while they can't imagine their lives without the person they helped create and find the experience of becoming a mother extraordinary, their original instinct still stands: They were not meant to be mothers — except to this one particular child.
It's not always something we talk about. When the conversation about people who remain child free essentially begins and ends with words like "selfish" and "heartless," conveying a sentiment as blunt as "I never wanted to be a mother" when you do have kids is often conflated with something much more malicious. Speaking about your children and your desire for them with anything less than giddy breathlessness is proof positive that you are the worst kind of woman — a Bad Mother. That's not accurate, and it's not honest.
We come by motherhood in so many ways: adoption, IVF, accidentally, with careful planning, reluctantly, excitedly or not at all. How we get here might inform the what we do when we get here, but it doesn't dictate it. The more openly we can talk about that, like Jolie did, the less alone we will feel.
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