Last month I turned 21 for the second time. You can do the math.
Judging from the horror stories I had heard from friends about how traumatic it was to turn 40 — I had anticipated a complete emotional breakdown for the months surrounding the event. Like a boxer who knows the fist is coming or a surfer watching the waves….I braced for it. The big day came and went (with a lot of fanfare) but the overwhelming sense of dread never seemed to hit. While I discovered some gray hair (12 to be exact) and the wrinkles around my eyes have become more obvious – I looked at them as a tribute to the things I had survived in my lifetime – rather than a sign the end was near.
No, I didn’t really understand what the big fuss was about until a trip to the grocery store on Mother’s Day – when a kind-hearted comment from well-intended clerk hit me like a right hook…and left a mark. Now, two years later – that mark is a better described as a scar.
There’s an awkward thing that happens when you are “of a certain age” and have no children. Nobody ever wants to talk about it or if they do it’s discussed in hush tones at a cocktail party by people who think you don’t notice – like cancer, AIDS or the Bubonic Plague. So, I’ve decided to mention the 2-ton elephant in the corner of the room.
As far as we’ve come from the days of June Cleaver and Ozzie & Harriet – we still live in a culture where there is an expectation that a family is only complete when children are added. It is one of the most difficult “assumptions” I have ever encountered. Somehow the question is always posed in a manner that evokes feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy or profound sadness. Guilt for not being fulfilled by the joys of being an aunt, Godmother or step-mother. Shame for making career and relationship choices that set a certain timeline into place. Inadequacy for not being able to bear children. Profound sadness that your legacy is not guaranteed.
I have seen the look on the faces of people who ask “do you have children?” It’s the look of judgment for those who think it’s a lifestyle choice or a look of pity if they realize there was no “choice” in it at all.
Regardless of the circumstances – there is no good response. Just awkwardness.
Having come from a family with both biological and adopted siblings – and having spent a large portion of my life serving as a caregiver for other people’s children – I deeply understand that “motherhood” and family comes in many shapes and sizes. Perhaps this is why it’s so profoundly difficult for me – at age 42 – to face the questions about why I have no children. I suspect there are many other women my age who suffer in the same silence. There are choices at 100 crossroads that brought me here – but the impact remains the same – and the scars from the many questions and pathetic looks are beginning to show.
Life has not blessed me with the opportunity to know first-hand the joys of having a child of my own and it is a sadness that never fully leaves a woman my age. So perhaps – as you make conversation at the next cocktail party with that over-40-year-old woman with no children – you can find empathy and compassion in your heart for the likelihood of what lays upon hers.