Usually, I laugh it off. For years, when friends and family have countered my resistance to motherhood with their own insistence I would be a great mom, I’ve fluttered a dismissive hand or cracked a joke about faulty biological clocks and the ghastly, unnerving — even unnatural I would claim with a shudder — business of giving birth. No, my path was elsewhere. Even if I could appreciate the generous compliment behind their assertions, something in me has always latched onto a contrary urge, a longing apart from the sweet and certain ache heaped in so many women I know.
But recently when talking motherhood with a friend who has always known she wanted children, I was surprised when, beneath my breezy not-for-me mantra, a darker emotion flared as the conversation took a typical turn. When she stated I “should” have kids because I’d be such a good mom, I was tempted to fire back “What makes you so sure?” I know: I possess a big heart, and a kind and gentle disposition; I’m joyful and optimistic by nature; my relationship with my niece Josie is one of my greatest treasures; and I genuinely enjoy — for the most part — being around babies and kids. Not to mention I have a goofy streak a mile wide.
But being an aunt is different than being a mom, and the pockets of time spent marveling at the too-cute charms of my friends’ kids and the antics of innumerable cousins feel much more manageable than a 24-7 commitment. And while my positive attributes no doubt suggest the makings of a fine mom, I don’t know that the vocation is for me (though, I’m sure plenty will argue, who ever truly does?).
Yet my pique in that moment extended beyond the personal. I am simply tired of the societal expectation, despite our gender’s many great strides and accomplishments, that a woman’s ultimate fulfillment lies in motherhood. It aggravates me, too, that the title remains so rigidly defined when there are countless ways for us express ourselves as nurturers.
I think of my Aunt Kandie in St. Lucia, a great and loving “mom,” though the only children she has are those of us blessed to be her nieces and nephews. She has never wanted kids of her own but over the years has doted on all of us — as our favorite ringleader of fun and a tower of strength and reassurance during life’s challenges.
Not too long ago, as she made plans to travel to Florida to be with my cousin for the birth of her first child — circumstances, sadly, prevent my cousin’s mom and partner from being there — she joked about always being the one to involve herself in our affairs.
But hers is a presence we welcome. When my dad died in 2012, it was she who propped me up until my mom arrived in St. Lucia. Even with her own sorrow engulfing her, she took charge of most of the funeral arrangements, navigating an overwhelming sea of decisions while I often sat dazed and tremulous beside her. She made sure I ate and got to bed at a decent hour and carved me small reprieves from so much somber doing in those strange and blackened days.
She may not be a mom in the traditional sense but as far back as I can remember, she’s found an outlet for her many mothering traits in her selfless concern and devotion to the children in her life, including those she serves as a social worker.
Like her, I’m happy to be an auntie. It’s a badge I wear with pride and relish. But I believe I’m meant to mother in an even broader way. I haven’t fully explored the root of this impulse, but I think it gave bloom to my still-untapped desire to work with children in an African community, and I feel its quickening every time I volunteer with Rubye’s Kids, the Jenkintown-based nonprofit with a mission to enrich the lives of children living in poverty.
In December, when I participated in its annual holiday party for inner-city kids, that hum — of unfolding purpose and pure joy — seemed more electric than ever. I knew I would cry when I saw those eager little faces marveling at so much fuss and festivity, all for them, because I do every year. But this time, looking back on the day, I was also struck by how easy and natural it felt to be there, even as I chaperoned my first group of all boys through an enchanted wonderland. Tangling my hands with cotton candy-sticky fingers, celebrating the colors and figures they wove into their arts-and-crafts creations, watching their eyes widen with talk of Santa and his elves and affirming their thoughtfulness as they chose gifts and made cards for this parent or that, this relative or another, I felt time fall away.
There was only me and them and love flooding the space between us, even though I’d just met them, even though we’d be together for only a few hours. The rush of affection I felt for them, the desire to have them leave carrying some imprint of being a joy and a blessing, the deep contentment in seeing the shyer ones open up with just a hand brushed across their back or cheek — these were all real gifts.
The love that stirred within me may not have been what a mother feels for her child, but it was sacred and satisfying and immensely profound. And I can’t help thinking I am meant to create and experience more of these moments in the world — that all these qualities so many of my friends identify with my potential as a parent are to be shared with children, yes, but not necessarily those I raise.
There are many ways we as women can mother. That we often give effortlessly of ourselves may indeed point to a deep-rooted maternal instinct — one that’s by no means universal — but we are not all moms-in-waiting. Sometimes, the love we have to give is meant for something or someone else, and that’s a decision no less valuable than the choice to lavish it all on a child we can call our own.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times