I used to brace myself for Mother’s Day. It was hardest in my thirties, when many of my peers were new parents. Given how challenging their lives appeared, I didn’t envy them. But I did long to be someone’s mother. For many years, I focused on the absence.
Many of the non-moms I know never craved children. I got here with less intention, in a life-didn’t-quite-go-according-to-plan way. In my first marriage, I was fairly sure I wanted kids. He was absolutely sure he didn’t. In those kinds of stalemates, those who are most sure of themselves win. When the marriage ended (longer story here), I became less sure about the idea of having kids. Then I fell in love with another man who was sure he didn’t want to. So here I am. I still have moments of regret, but way fewer than I used to. Now that the biological clock has definitely stopped ticking, I’ve made peace with it.
That peace came in part thanks to some older women who showed me the way. It started in my 30s, when I discovered Audrey, an English teacher and poet, who modeled how to live as a woman of words, a woman without kids, a woman young people flocked to. Her tiny New York apartment was overflowing with energy — often the energy of other young people wanting to be in her presence, in that space where the red wine was flowing, an endless collection of paintings climbed the walls, there was always a book I wanted to read on the shelf, and we cozied up in the window seat to talk about love and life.
I meet women like me everywhere, a multigenerational sisterhood that has helped me find a sense of belonging in the world. The ’auntie,’ teacher, mentor, caregiver, and all manner of extra women in the extended friend/family/community circle. There are even Mother’s Day greeting cards especially for us — chosen family, bonus moms, surrogate moms, like-a-moms, it-takes-a-village moms, moms to our pets. I’m not quite sure when this trend took hold, but leave it to capitalists to ensure no one is left out of a Hallmark holiday.
When I chose not to become a mother, the joke was that working women without kids had simply forgotten to have them. Now in my mid-fifties, I see the conversation shifting. Younger people who are bypassing parenthood talk about climate concerns, financial pressure and an overwhelming sense of the world’s fragility. Almost 1 in 6 — nearly 17% — of adults aged 55 and older have not had children, according to a 2021 US Census report. And in a 2019 Pew survey, some 44% of non-parents ages 18-49 said it was unlikely that they would ever have children. Regardless of how we got here, my crowd is expanding.
These days, I relish the spaciousness that my kind of life affords. I have windows of time that so many parents — especially those in the throes of raising younger kids — only dream of. And that time is a gift I can share. There can be no shortage of people who nurture. We all need adults in our lives who aren’t our parents, and those of us without kids are often raising our hands for the role. I think of non-moms as a largely untapped national resource hidden in plain sight. And it’s not just non-moms; non-dads are equally available.
I’ve started to call people like us the “pro-creatives” — a word I’m co-opting for new use. A pro-creative life is filled with connections across generations, a life that stands for something bigger than one person’s needs and desires. Yep, a lot like parenthood, only without the procreation.
Pro-creatives are people like Gloria Steinem, who kept a spare room in her apartment for younger feminists to come and stay, Dolly Parton, who has repeatedly said that she sees “everybody’s kids” as her own and Tracee Ellis Ross, who talks in countless interviews about bucking societal pressure to marry and have children. They are also the neighbors, teachers and coaches who show up for kids who need extra adults in their lives. They are the people who believe that every adult is an aunt or uncle, and every child matters.
Over the years, as my work has focused on how to find purpose, meaning and continued impact and relevance across longer lives, one thing has become increasingly clear. The secret to a fulfilling longer life is generativity — investing in something that will live beyond us. For parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren are natural ways to connect to the generative impulse. For many, a body of work can play that role. My friend Audrey was a generativity pro, pouring herself into legions of young people rather than just those in her family line.
As a teacher, Audrey had a natural pipeline of young people to influence and guide. But I’ve had to be more intentional about putting myself in the path of younger people. For years, I’ve been a supporter and champion of Girls Write Now, a mentoring-through-writing program that is a hotbed of intergenerational relationships. I was drawn to this particular community because I felt I had something to offer to young people who are mostly aspiring first-generation college students (like I was), but I get a whole lot more than I give. I now have a collection of young women who are part of my life in various ways — some feel like mentees, some are friends, others are woven into my writing or professional life.
I’m also a member of Cirkel, an intergenerational cross-mentoring service where I get a personal intro each month to someone older or younger (I’m focusing on younger at the moment). While many of the people joining programs like Girls Write Now and Cirkel are or will become parents, these are natural places for non-moms and others like me to plug in and show up for young people — and to forge the kinds of connections that feel good as you age.
Younger people often ask me about my life as a non-mom, and one thing I say is that this path has allowed me to go wide, like a teacher — rather than deep, like a parent. And while there are a handful of people who will forever be part of my chosen family, I often show up in someone’s life for a reason or a season. It’s a way to be present for a critical moment, like when they move to New York City (something I think all people should do once in their lives!) and their parents ask me to keep an eye on them.
I find these relationships just about anywhere. At my local coffee shop I met Madge, my twenty-something barista, who came to New York from Australia to study acting. She’s one of those people-magnets who knows how to turn a latte order into a conversation, and before long we were meeting up for coffees elsewhere. One day I invited her to the seasonal clothing swap my mom and I regularly co-host. She came — bringing a basket of sweets from the coffee shop which made her instantly popular – and we turned the corner from acquaintances to real friends. We are drawn to each other through our writing and creative projects, but I wonder if part of it is that she’s thousands of miles from home and I’m old enough to be her mom (yet not exuding “mom” vibes).
It’s a touch ironic that in thinking about how I want to live as a non-mom, it’s my own mom I look to as a role model. Just as I headed out into the world seeking mentors who weren’t her, I had to share her with scores of friends and strangers who adopted her as their “extra” mom. I’m forever overhearing phone calls where she’s helping someone with a problem, usually around love, career choices, or money.
I’ve written books on careers and spoken on TV, yet Mom’s the one with hard-won life experience, and everyone knows it. While she’s never joined a formal mentoring program, she does it the old-fashioned way. She shows up – cooking and delivering food to neighbors, knitting sweaters for new babies, checking in by phone, remembering birthdays and graduations. Mostly, she just lets people in – to her home, and to her heart.
Like my mom, I strive to be the favored aunt, the mentor/friend to the youngers in my life, the all-purpose extra woman in the world. I relish the moments when friends and family members carve out roles for me in their children’s lives: “You’re the one who’s going to be a sounding board for the college essay, help them find their purpose, think about careers, take them shopping.”
I’m down for all of that. I’m also available if they’re wondering what life looks like when you choose not to have kids.