“I can’t imagine not having kids,” Liz, a 39-year-old friend, said over drinks after another disappointing end to a promising start. “As I get older, it’s not enough to just be sad because a relationship with a man I could see marrying has ended. Now, I have to also be sad because that means I may never become a mom. How can that even be possible?”
I know how my friend feels. I heard those words repeated in my thoughts for years, in a voice so loud it often woke me from my dreams. But that was years ago. Now, at age 53, I can’t remember what came to an end first: the dream of motherhood, or the pain of childlessness. Though I’ve never married and never had children, those feelings of fertility FOMO eventually tapered off. Still, I’m not carefree and “child-free” — free of the children I always wanted. And neither do I feel less than for being childless. I just am.
Like my younger friend, I had once wondered how I’d be able to live without the family life I always imagined. The young Melanie never doubted that one day she’d fall in love, get married and become a mother to two, maybe three children. As a young teenager, I picked out names for my kids, changing my mind on names over time, because I still had time, I always had time, until I ran out of time.
As a young teenager, I picked out names for my kids, changing my mind on names over time, because I still had time, I always had time, until I ran out of time.
I moved to New York City from Montreal, Canada, in my early twenties, expecting that meeting someone would be easy. In my early thirties, my expectations blurred into hope and by my late thirties, hope bleared to grief over the life I was missing out on as married friends announced they were expecting their first, then second child. And as the years rolled into my early forties, I still believed in love, but not motherhood. It wasn’t like a light that switched off and that was that. I mourned for years until there was nothing left to grieve.
It wasn’t just that I wanted children; I wanted children with the man I loved. There are many women who endure pain and grief over remaining childless when they do not have a partner with whom to have children, despite their best efforts to find love. This type of grief is one that psychologists refer to as disenfranchised grief, one that goes unrecognized and unacknowledged, even by those closest to you. While the pain of biological infertility is understood as real, remaining childless by circumstance is not, despite the fact that as single women, we often grieve alone and keep our sadness to ourselves. Even a hint of it can be followed by accusations of being “too picky,” too “career-focused,” or too “naive” about our own fertility window, as if our emotional and monthly physical reminders aren’t enough.
While the pain of biological infertility is understood as real, remaining childless by circumstance is not ... we often grieve alone and keep our sadness to ourselves.
Back at the bar with Liz, we ordered two more of the same, and I listened empathetically to more of the same story I’ve heard from many friends and acquaintances, from readers of my books, in the emails I’ve received from women who found one of my articles online that comforted them, let them know they are not alone. And they’re not. They are among the many Generation X and older millennial women, the daughters, nieces and granddaughters of the feminist movement, who were able to have the education and careers our mothers and aunts didn’t have, but not the husband and kids they just assumed they’d have as well.
In my 2014 reported memoir, “Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness,” I wrote about this tribe of women waiting for love and motherhood. The number of women who are childless has been growing for decades. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that half (49.8%) of women between the ages of 15 and 44 in 2018 had never given birth, and of that group, nearly four in five (77.2%) had never married. My research has shown me that many of those unmarried women do hope for or plan to have children one day.
Women of the “Otherhood” are choosing to wait for love over motherhood. Sometimes the wait is too long. And that is that.
“How were you able to move on when you didn’t have kids?” Liz asked me. “I just can’t imagine it.”
“You don’t have to imagine a life without children. This is life without children,” I said. “Look, when we first sat down, we toasted to your incredible new job, remember? Good things are happening! But when you measure your life to the life you always imagined, you’re not present to realize your life is pretty amazing in its own way, on your own terms, right here, right now.”
“You’re right, but it just feels unfair,” Liz said. “Why is it so easy for some women to find a great guy, get married and have kids? All that can happen for those women while my eggs sit on ice, waiting to meet someone I can fall in love with and for that relationship to work out. And yes, I can try to use my eggs, but I don’t want to have a baby on my own. I want a baby with the man I love. I want a family.”
I understand. I wanted that, too. I’ve said many times that this is not the life I expected. But, in many ways — in magnificent ways — it’s a life beyond my expectations. I’ve learned the key to happiness is to live the life I have, not mourn a life I don’t.