By Nancy McKeon
A COUPLE OF days ago MyLittleBird posted my Mother’s Day essay on not having children. I talked about how I had given up being “honest” about not being a mother when someone wished me a Happy Mother’s Day, how I was just going with the flow from now on. It was only my perspective and I wondered what some other women, mothers and not, might say. I got some responses.
M in Manhattan has no children and agreed about the awkwardness to being wished a Happy Mother’s Day:
I just don’t know how to respond. By saying “thanks” I feel like I’m “pretending” that I’m a mom; but in the other hand, if I say I’m not a mom, I worry about embarrassing or offending the person who just wished me a Happy Mother’s Day.
Is it like “Happy St. Patrick’s Day”? I’m not Irish. Never felt the need to tell anyone that!
Guess it’s time to embrace it and follow your lead!
Jane in Maryland has a grown son and said:
Possibly I live around unkind people, or maybe I’m unkind and do not attract sweet wishes, but if anyone has ever wished me a Happy Mother’s Day, I can’t recall it. If they were to do so it would bring to mind that during the first decade of married life I was sure I did not want children. Had a change of heart and was pregnant before I came to my senses. Never regretted the decision, though . . . well, except during the teenage eon.
LittleBird Mary Carpenter, who has two sons, pointed out:
My concern with all holiday greetings is for individual circumstances. . . . Knowing women who have lost children in tragic ways makes me hesitant to say Happy Mother’s Day unless I know the person pretty well. . . . On the other hand, the greeting can just mean Have a great day!
AT ONE POINT I confessed privately to some friends that I had harbored my own prejudice regarding parenthood: When I would meet married couples who said they had decided not to have kids, I would wonder (rather unkindly), Do they think they’re enough for each other? Don’t marriages need children?
LittleBird Kathy reacted to my embarrassing prejudice:
I don’t know that people who choose to be childless do so because they believe they’re “enough.” Perhaps some do. But I think there’s a whole host of reasons. Primarily they just aren’t interested in procreating. I’m of the opinion opting out of reproducing is actually selfless rather than selfish.
This really has nothing to do with anything, but I remember watching an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, when it first aired in the 60s when I was at a very impressionable age. I probably didn’t even know yet the details of conception and/or birth. It centered on a character called Mother Orchis, who was one of several women confined in some weird otherworldly realm that vaguely resembled a setting where a Roman orgy might take place. All wispy togas covering opulent women reclining on fancy couches. Mother Orchis wanted out. It seems that all these women were used for was having babies. I sympathized with Orchis. I wouldn’t have wanted any part in it either. Clearly it made an impression. Thank you, Alfred Hitchcock.
PM from Washington DC, who has one grown child, said:
Many of my friends have chosen not to have children, and that strikes me as a reasonable choice. Raising children is expensive, it tends to dominate your life while it’s happening, and you never know if the kids you raise are going to end up loving you the way you hope they will or appreciating what you’ve done. When it’s going well, parenthood can feel life-changing in a good way—especially if you have the temperament for it. But in my experience it’s always competing for time and attention with other interests that are less demanding or are demanding at the same time, so you are often having to make a choice that will disappoint someone.
The process of trying to get pregnant is exhausting, especially if it’s taking its damned time to happen. And women trying to have children who have repeated miscarriages, especially if they lose a child well into the pregnancy, go through hell. You [Nancy] were lucky: You didn’t have to go through that! And you can direct your parent-like instincts toward [your sister’s] children.
Happy Mother’s Day to ALL! We know numerous couples who are childless. I find myself wondering if this was their choice or it just didn’t happen for them. Nonetheless, these couples seem fine and satisfied with their childlessness. I don’t judge: All women were not cut out to be moms (I know a few moms who weren’t cut out for the role). But after three kids and four grandsons, I am happy it was my choice.
A COUPLE OF women without kids spoke sweetly and directly to that point.
F of Manhattan was one of them. She wrote:
Having grown up as an “only,” I was lucky enough to have a bunch of cousins who did, and do, fill that gap of siblings. Their children became my extended offspring. I am Auntie.
But I must admit I do regret not having any of my own. So instead I talk to every dog and child on the street, visit my friends’ grandchildren and do my best on trying to understand them all.
So I think it is okay to say Happy Mother’s Day to all of us who don’t have our own offspring. I take it as saying you are a caring woman, just like my Mom.
IN MY PIECE, I also wrote that I often reacted resentfully when journalists would (to my petty mind) “flaunt” their parental status in first-person articles.
LittleBird Stephanie Cavanaugh, MLB’s Green Acre columnist, responded in her usual tongue-in-cheek way:
One day when MY DAUGHTER AND I (see how cleverly I worked that in?) were off to the store for something—I suppose she was about 10—the cashier looked from her to me and said: YOU have children?
Maybe it was my “wife-beater” T-shirt and combat boots . . . ?
I do have a child—the one in the first paragraph—who has managed to be brilliant, kind, and beautiful without much input from me. If anyone were to be wished a Happy Mother’s Day around here, it would be my husband, who did all the school volunteering and schlepping to this and that practice. All I did was read to her.
But even he, on the occasion of my first Mother’s Day, which took place less than a month after the babe was born, didn’t say a happy word acknowledging my labors until . . . he suddenly remembered what the day was and said: I have to call my mother and sister!
THE ESSAY triggered some other great recollections as well.
Grace Cooper wrote:
So much to unpack here. Thank you for a thought-provoking piece.
I love my children, but I must admit to being relieved when they launched and left the nest. Shortly afterward, I left their father. Admitting to others that both these events were positive forces towards rebuilding a better life for myself going forward, have been heavily judged by others in our ridiculously intrusive and judgmental world as selfish and odd.
It’s nature’s way to have an unconscious instinct to reproduce. It’s also natural for offspring to leave home once the parents teach them to survive on their own. Only in some human societies has motherhood been elevated almost to sainthood, while simultaneously leaving many women diminished economically, physically, and emotionally. It’s also becoming increasingly obvious that the natural world and global economy is becoming inhospitable to all living creatures in many other respects. Why indeed do we continue to breed and populate our planet under these conditions?
So why do I feel judged for admitting to decades of my own ambivalence towards motherhood and marriage? I suppose it’s because I realize finally that my real discomfort—and the reason for ruminating about why I made questionable life choices for myself—stemmed mostly from worrying about how others perceive me. Rather, I should accept that as a human being I can think and reason and project outcomes for myself, rising above instinctual impulses.
In other words, congratulations are in order. As Descartes declared perhaps you chose not to decide to have children, and in doing so still made a choice. Yet you indeed made life choices many of us were too young and inexperienced and influenced by societal pressures to defy during our reproductive years. I respect your intellect . . . and your choices. Brava.
Years ago my sister, seven years my junior, was summoned by my husband to come take care of my two toddlers when I had emergency surgery and a two-week hospital convalescence. Mind you, she’s was a busy scientist, but it never occurred to my husband to stay home with his two offspring. She left her lab for those two weeks and drove three hours to come to my aid.
Admittedly, her attempt to engage toddlers in rolling sushi or making scratch Chinese dumplings one night was predictably disastrous, but she tried her best and I love her for that unconditional love and generosity.
When I finally returned home she told me that she and her husband, now deceased, had been on the fence about having children. After caring for my two, she’d decided that their lives—rich with work and international travel—were too precious to sacrifice for children. I heard her clearly and supported her decision wholeheartedly.
I love my two children, but they move on with their own lives . . . as it should be. And my sister, now widowed, has sometimes questioned her decision. That’s when I assure her that her role as the favorite auntie is less fraught with angst and the old parental grudges against me that my kids will presumably take to their graves! As for me, I’m happy to be available to my children on an as-needed basis but finally delighting in my favorite role as the “fun grannie” with what my daughter ruefully calls “CeCe’s own set of rules” for her offspring.
Here’s to women having choices! And here’s to women supporting women in whatever choices they make.
I think it’s a good topic and high time to revisit what years ago we labeled “the mommy wars.” I believe that each one of us has to find our own solid truth within, then perhaps we won’t be so apt to project our internal fears and biases onto others. I vote “go for it!”
A COUPLE OF readers appended their remarks to the Comments box on the page of the original essay. To wit . . .
From Jennifer Reed:
And a Happy Mother’s Day to you. We don’t need children to nurture and support those around us. We’re all mothers. In my mind, having children is what is selfish. The drive to spread one’s DNA into the future seems bizarre to me when it’s clear the planet doesn’t need more human beings and there are plenty of children already here who need help. Who’s so special that we need more of them? It’s the ultimate act of narcissism. And yet, people are emotionally and biologically tied to the act and do it every day. But live and let live, I say. So again, Happy Mother’s Day!
To which Valerie Monroe, the How Not to F*ck Up Your Face columnist, replied:
The ultimate act of narcissism? Oh, well, I’ve been accused of worse!
Happy Mother’s Day to you, too, dear Nancy. May 14 is also National Buttermilk Biscuit Day, International Dylan Thomas Day and (best of all) National Chicken Dance Day. So Happy All Of Them to you, as well!
3 thoughts on “Mother’s Day Questions and Answers”
I ditto Nancy G ❤️
This column was such a pleasure to read. Well written by not just Nancy, but all the commentators included. Happy Mothers’ Day to all the women out there, mothers, aunties, honorary grannies, and those without children, but who had/have their own mothers.
I agree that our readers are THE BEST!!! Thanks, all!