Beyond Beyond Motherhood

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids - Meghan Daum 2016

Beyond Beyond Motherhood


Jeanne Safer

Nobody will ever send me a Mother’s Day card—one of those Crayola-decorated creations made by dedicated, not fully coordinated small hands. I will never search my newborn’s face for signs of my khaki eyes, or my husband’s aquamarine ones, or sing a lullaby. No child of mine will ever smile at me, or graduate, or marry, or dedicate a book to me. I will leave no heir when I die.

Now that infertility is so much in the news, this has become an increasingly familiar litany. But there is a difference in my case: I chose this fate. I made a conscious decision not to have a child.

I wrote these words in 1989, for a magazine article that would eventually become my first book, Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children. I was forty-two years old then, married for nine years, a practicing psychoanalyst for fifteen, and in the final stage of making the hardest, loneliest decision of my life—I waited till the bitter end of my fertile years to commit myself—and I wept as I wrote them. When I saw them in print, which made my assertions undeniably real, I wept again.

Reading them now, twenty-five years later, at what I hope is not the ripe old age of sixty-seven, I am still struck by their stark power, the pain I was trying to work through by putting them down on paper and absorbing their impact. Of course my original feelings came back, and I shed a few tears of recognition and empathy with my younger self. But along with that memory came a retrospective sense of pride and gratitude at what I did and how I did it: I realize now that this choice made my life possible.

It says something about the strength of the stigma, both internal and cultural, besetting intentionally childless women that I felt I had to publish this intensely personal exploration (its subtitle was “A Therapist’s Self-Analysis”) under a pseudonym. I even took the additional, totally irrational step of insisting it be published in August, the traditional “shrinks’ month off,” as if anyone who knew me and read it would know that I couldn’t possibly have written it then because I wasn’t in town. At the time I thought I was simply protecting my privacy, but now I see that my real motive for the subterfuge was to prevent the remote possibility that my patients, colleagues, and acquaintances would recognize me and judge me as harshly as I judged myself. Shame—for being selfish, unfeminine, or unable to nurture—is one of the hardest emotions to work through for women who are conflicted about having children. Of course, the small minority of women who decided against maternity early on may avoid the angst that engulfed me, because wanting a baby is irrelevant to their identity. The infertile, though they have anguish of their own, don’t have the same struggle as I did because society assumes their hearts are in the right place, and does not question their femininity. At that time, I wasn’t yet ready to stake my claim aloud.

Nor was I prepared for the flood of responses my confession elicited from readers. The magazine it appeared in, the excellent but short-lived 7 Days, received more mail about the story than about anything else it had ever published. The topic had scarcely been written about before and it was clear that like-minded women felt that someone was speaking for them at last. Of course, the magazine also forwarded me a few letters from strangers asserting that I was misguided or neurotic, or both. Several were from helpful fellow therapists who recommended that I go back into analysis so that I would come to my senses before it was too late. Entering this fray was, and still is, not for the faint of heart. But I knew I had to write a book about it.

Among the prospective nonmothers I knew as patients and as friends, one of the most momentous questions to be wrestled with was whether they would have regrets later on. Would their hearts and their homes feel too empty, too quiet? What would they have in common with their friends who were mothers? What kind of connection would they have to future generations? Would they feel fully feminine? How would they tolerate missing the less complicated gratifications of grandparenthood? To whom would they leave their stuff? These issues certainly tormented me. So as I spent the next several years expanding my article into a book, I tried to interview as many older women as I could. Of the fifty interviews I conducted, five were with women over sixty. These women offered a unique perspective. I needed to know if the passing decades made them question their decisions and what it was like to make such a radical decision in the days when women had little control over when they had babies, much less whether they had them at all. They had made their choices in the prefeminist days before reliable contraceptives were widely available, in a world where there was even less support than there is now for outliers like them. Each one was content with her life. They did not fear aging without progeny (many noted that having children was no guarantee of care), they were satisfied with their mates and themselves, and, quite strikingly, they were proud of their independent spirits.

In 1996, when the first wave of baby boomers turned fifty, I recounted the testimonies of some of my childless subjects for an op-ed in The New York Times and reported that none of those who had made a conscious choice was grief-stricken by reaching the end of the line; in fact, they expressed satisfaction with their decision and its consequences. In 2014, the last cohort of that generation—my generation—reached fifty. I have every hope that the intentionally childless among them will be just as much at peace with the path they took.

Nonmotherhood is forever. Making a conscious choice about something so fundamental, and so intertwined with one’s own past, with society’s expectations, and with notions of femininity and the purpose of life, takes every ounce of will you have; going against the grain always does. After the childbearing years pass, unless you opt to adopt or use a surrogate, you cannot reconsider. How did this critical decision, which of necessity I made intuitively, affect my destiny and sense of self? How, now that I am sixty-seven, does it continue to reverberate?

Revisiting the issue after a quarter century, I am relieved and delighted to report that I have never seriously questioned that the life I chose was right for me. In the five years it took me to come to my conclusion, I endured intense anxiety, self-doubt, sorrow, and a great deal of ambivalence about my future. But I realized in retrospect that most of that time was actually spent recognizing and accepting what I had already implicitly decided. The turning point came when, after seeing that I had run out of excuses and still wasn’t enthusiastic about pregnancy or motherhood, I finally said to myself, “I don’t really want to have a baby; I want to want to have a baby.” I longed to feel like everybody else, but I had to face the fact that I did not. This meant that I had to work through the implications of being radically different from most other women in a fundamental way, that my requirements for happiness and fulfillment actually precluded the things they found crucial. I tried to confront every feeling I had, no matter how excruciating. Taking this route to self-fulfillment required that I pay attention to what I really felt, as opposed to what I was supposed to feel, or wished I did. Only then could I grieve for the lost possibilities that lay in all I was ruling out; grieving for the road not taken is a healthy thing to do. That has served me well.

I was also extremely lucky to have a husband who backed me up. He could have gone either way about having a family, but felt, realistically, that since motherhood was more all-encompassing than fatherhood, it ultimately had to be my decision. He made it clear that sharing his life with me was what mattered most to him. His attitude was one of the reasons I love him as I do. As a result, we have enjoyed a rare intellectual and emotional intimacy for the thirty-five years we have been married.

In the ensuing years, I have accepted that I might actually have made a better, or a happier or wiser, mother than I feared I would be. But I could not have predicted how much the things I merely suspected I needed turned out to be, in fact, exactly what I needed: freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted (traveling the world, sleeping until noon, or going out to dinner or the movies at midnight on occasion); to concentrate on my relationship with my husband; to give myself completely to the dual careers of psychotherapy and writing. I realized that my initial instincts were right; I didn’t want to be torn between my needs and those of another, particularly someone I had brought into the world. Trivial as it may sound, I’m thrilled I never had to set foot in Disneyland (or feel guilty about not taking someone there), or worry about playdates or, down the road, online pornography and all the other scourges of adolescence. I don’t miss any of it. Neither do I feel selfish or “barren,” as childless women used to be called (it is telling that there is no parallel term for childless men). Thanks to that conscious decision I made in early middle age, I can respond undefensively to the universal conversational gambit from strangers, “How many children do you have?,” that embarrasses many childless women. “None,” I say with a smile. “Motherhood was not for me.”

The decision process itself has influenced me both personally and professionally in ways I couldn’t have imagined, in ways beyond the issue of whether or not to become a mother. It led me to a stance I call the “Affirmative No.” I define this stance as the refusal to pursue a course of action that, on serious reflection, you discover is not right for you.

Asserting an Affirmative No means rejecting attitudes and courses of action (for example, always forgiving wrongs, or reflexively following doctors’ orders) that most people treat as gospel. It also often means saying yes to points of view that may be unpopular but are in fact authentically in line with your own thoughts and feelings. Such conclusions are reached only through relentless self-awareness. Any decision made in this way is not an act of rebellion; it is an act of willed self-assertion, of standing your ground on your own behalf.

Refusing to act against your sound inclination is a profound action, not simply a reaction to something external. And to claim the benefits that come from advocating for the person you truly are as opposed to the one you think you’re supposed to be, you must face your own reality no matter how it feels or what its implications may be.

The Affirmative No is the basis of authentic individualism. It has become the foundation of my philosophy of life and the cornerstone of my work with patients. It has inspired me to articulate the against-the-grain positions on the “taboo topics” that I have championed in all five of my books; it has also helped me preserve my identity through two serious illnesses. Beyond Motherhood paved the way.

So how does a woman who has chosen not to have children relate to a world that is full of them? I will probably never be as important to anybody—even my patients—as every mother is to her offspring. I gave up precious experiences and relationships so that I could have others that I needed even more. But I have found my own ways to be important to the next generation. Some women who made the same choice I did delight in being aunts to their siblings’ children, or special adults in the lives of their friends’ children, neither of which I have had the opportunity to do, but such roles might have suited me. In general, though, I have never been comfortable around young children, with the exception of a memorable seven-year-old girl whom I connected with when I worked in a children’s psychiatric hospital in college. To be a model, mentor, and teacher of younger people in my field is a source of gratification for me. I especially enjoy working in therapy with young women, helping to set them up for a life of self-awareness and self-expression. I am glad that being childless has not prevented me from helping many women make decisions—in both directions—about motherhood, or from empathizing with mothers. I love the children of my patients from afar, and I feel deep satisfaction that I can give their parents good counsel about how to understand them.

* * *

When I reread my teenage diaries recently in preparation for a book project, I came upon a startling fact: I actually had begun to consider a voluntarily childless life in 1963, at age sixteen, when I wrote, “I’ve decided to live my life disproving that women’s only creativity is bearing children.” I didn’t remember writing this, but my prophecy came true. I knew even then, well before I had to confront it. I just didn’t remember that I knew.

When Beyond Motherhood was published, I was worried that my mother, whom I identified with in most other ways, would feel spurned and repudiated by the book that proclaimed my decision, and analyzed her role in it. Instead she was overjoyed. She had always, it turned out, wanted me to be a writer more than she wanted me to be a mother, and her pride was boundless. As much as I’d always felt she had oppressed me with her own needs, I realized then that she’d done even more to encourage my independence of mind. The book is dedicated to her.

* * *

How has the landscape changed for women who are childless by choice in the quarter century since I joined their ranks? Their numbers have increased—the percentage of women who opted out of maternity hovered around 10 percent of women of childbearing age when I wrote about it; now the number is rising, and they are more honest, more outspoken, and less apologetic and defensive—at least publicly. But I don’t imagine human nature has changed dramatically; private anguish persists, as I discover from patients who come to me to help resolve their motherhood dilemmas. Most of them have discussed it with nobody and are plagued by the same distress and unanswered questions I remember so vividly. If you haven’t rejected the possibility in advance, or embraced it automatically, you have to do the hard work of figuring out where you stand, and why. It is never easy.

Some things are definitely different—for both good and ill. In August 2013, Time magazine ran a cover story on the topic of deliberate childlessness, a first for them. The title was “The Childfree Life: When Having It All Means Not Having Children,” and it was illustrated with a photograph of a glamorous, sexy, smiling (heterosexual) couple in bathing suits lying on the sand, unencumbered. I was glad that the subject was finally getting attention. Back in 1996, an editor at Time, who was childless by choice herself, interviewed me about Beyond Motherhood. But her supervising editor killed the story because he apparently could not accept my depiction of nonmothers as fruitful and feminine. He believed no woman could, or should, feel good about such a life. To my recollection, the magazine didn’t cover the phenomenon again until 2013.

But while I was pleased to see the story, I was perturbed by the message, and by upbeat catchphrases like “having it all” and “childfree,” which seemed to imply that denying a loss makes it disappear, or that acknowledging it means one feels incomplete. “These women,” the author cheerfully asserted, “are inventing a new female archetype, one for whom having it all doesn’t mean having a baby.”

The problem is that there is nobody alive who is not lacking anything—no mother, no nonmother, no man. The perfect life does not and never will exist, and to assert otherwise perpetuates a pernicious fantasy: that it’s possible to live without regrets. There is no life without regrets. Every important choice has its benefits and its deficits, whether or not people admit it or even recognize the fact: no mother has the radical, lifelong freedom that is essential for my happiness. I will never know the intimacy with, or have the impact on, a child that a mother has. Losses, including the loss of future possibilities, are inevitable in life; nobody has it all.

A thoughtful mother I know, who put her law career on hiatus to raise two sons, captured that truth in a note she sent me after she read my book: “I think of you often—your travels to exotic countries, your professional pursuits: in short, your adult life. Suburban motherhood is wonderful in many respects; there are moments so golden that they take my breath away. This is, however, also an extremely circumscribed existence. Not surprisingly, part of me craves your life.”

Real self-acceptance, real liberation, involves acknowledging limitations, not grandiosely denying them. It is true, and should be recognized, that women can be fulfilled with or without children, that you can most definitely have enough without having everything. How fortunate we are to live in an era when we can make deeply considered choices about which life suits us, and that now the world looks slightly less askance if we go against the flow. Making the less common choice has its gratifications but also its drawbacks. Having enough—and having the right stuff for us—is all we can get, and all we need. For me, what I hoped in 1989 that I could achieve has come to fruition: my womb has always been empty, but my life is full.