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I played with Cabbage Patch dolls incessantly as a child. I asked for them for birthdays, holidays, and saved allowance and any petty money I had to buy more. My nieces still play with the dolls I loved; although, I can’t help but notice that they are more into stuffed animals and other toys than I ever was.
I was obsessed. I played house, dressing my babies and lovingly tucking them in at night
Why did I never morph into the mother and caretaker I thought I would be?
The answer, of course, is more complicated than simply answering why a childhood dream fell by the wayside. I’ve navigated the labyrinthine byways of being childless since my early twenties when I was first married, and I have to say that I’ve never come to a clear conclusion.
Some of it has been circumstantial: my marriage began when I was 21, and he was 23
In my late 20s, I entered a PhD program, and plans to conceive fell by the wayside as graduate school felt a lot like trying to wrangle a herd of cats while standing on my head—who could have a child in the middle of all that? The answer is, actually, several of my amazing friends, but I think they would tell you, too, that it was in no way easy or ideal.
In the middle of all this, I think my husband and I both felt a lot of pressure to have children even though the time never felt quite right.
Both of my siblings are younger than I am, and by the time I had started my PhD program, my sister’s first child was about five months old. I told myself that the PhD was my child, but seeing my sister raise my niece (and then nieces) always felt a bit bittersweet.
When would it be my turn to read to a child, to love him/her beyond what I even thought possible
More than that, though, a big part of me wondered where my desire to actively pursue being a mother even was.
I’m certainly not alone in what I’m calling “fertility apathy.”
According to a Pew Research Study, fertility rates among women with advanced degrees have fallen over the past ten years. In fact, “the most educated women are the most likely to never have a child” (Pew). The decline in fertility rates is not limited to just women with advanced degrees, however.
Millennials in their late twenties and early thirties are also opting out of childbearing—in fact, birth rates among women in their 20s fell 15% between 2007 and 2012.
In short, women are actively choosing careers and alternative paths in life that don’t involve motherhood as a central narrative.
And so I plowed on through a PhD in another country (Canada) while my husband supported us from the States.
Eventually, this separation and other problems got the better of us, and I found myself alone after 13 years of marriage. Thirteen years in which I had put the pursuit of a Phd first.
I looked around and took stock: I had an elderly dog, a fantastic support system of family and friends, a job I loved, and I was amicable with my ex. Surely I could make it through this
I can’t imagine involving a child in the heartbreak that was divorce.
Plenty of people navigate that with grace and love, and to those moms and dads out there: you have my praise and my respect. I’m just so glad that I didn’t find myself in that position.
Divorce, for me, was a complete paradigm shift.
My husband had always been the primary breadwinner, and for that, I will be forever grateful. He put many of his own dreams to the side to support me as I pursued mine. What this meant, though, was that I was now the breadwinner on a much more meager salary (that, as an academic, I was very grateful to have at all!).
Making it through the divorce emotionally and financially took every waking bit of my strength. I rarely thought about what I was missing in terms of a family because I was so busy trying to teach classes and not fail at adult life.
And at age 34, this felt uniquely strange because we had been so successful by societal standards.
I left a large house in a suburban area to live in a small, very modest rental.
I left the potential for children.
For the first time in my adult life, I was single and back to the place where most women in their twenties begin their journeys.
Since then, my heart has mostly healed, and I have a partner who makes me very happy. I am even able to watch my ex (through social media) find new love, and I can honestly say that I am happy for him. But then the old feelings of fertility apathy come floating in again . . . I just turned 36, and I’m still no closer to knowing what I want than I was during my twenties when I had a reason for not trying to conceive.
I’m relatively stable now: I have a job; I purchased a home; and I have a partner with whom having a child could be a possibility. But I still don’t desire it. I wonder often if there’s a magical age when my biological clock will begin ticking loudly enough for me to hear it?
At age 35, women officially become “geriatric” mothers, and a host of risks associated with childbirth appear
With the depressing statistics stacked against me as a 36-year-old, why then do I still not feel pressure to conceive? Just yesterday, I was waiting at a red light when I looked over to see a beautiful little blond girl sitting in her car seat. She was clearly listening intently to her mother, and my heart contracted and swelled with love for children everywhere.
By now I have eight nieces and nephews, and most of my friends already have children between 5-10 years of age. I love playing with all of them; in fact, I look forward to seeing kids at outings while my friends usually apologize for the fact that their kids are there
I’m not sure I’ll ever know the answer, but I’ll tell you what I do have anxiety about, and it’s two-fold:
#1 I have anxiety that my biological clock will finally start ticking, but by then it will be too late. That I will have to endure multiple tests, procedures, and rounds of IVF. All because I privileged my education and had life changes interrupt what I thought would eventually happen.
But, you know what, dear reader? That kind of thinking serves no one, especially me. You know why?
Because my life is so FULL.
I have three pets I love unconditionally. And a boyfriend whose presence in my life makes me feel warm and supported. I’m surrounded by parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, cousins, uncles, grandparents, and friends whom I love without restraint. And I have hundreds of students every semester that I pour love and time and energy into.
#2 My second wave of anxiety has to do with the way in which the world perceives me, a childless academic who has been divorced. As a highly competitive, type A personality, to be “less than” in any way is a natural anxiety stimulant.
But am I “less than” for not enduring the sleepless nights that come with a newborn? For not knowing the fear that comes when a child is sick?
The answer is no.
I cringe every time I hear someone say childless folk won’t know love until they have a child. This statement is so unfair and so so hurtful. I watched a childless friend of mine stay up all night lying on the floor with her sick dog. The memory of her lying by the dog is etched on my brain as a selfless act.
That is real love, folks. For me, I worry constantly about my students, my friends, my partner, our democracy, climate change…the list goes on and on.
Guys, I love. I love big. And even if I never know the love of my own child, my form of motherhood will have kept my life oh so full.
This is not apathy, after all, my friends
. This is the opposite of apathy; it is love.
Sarah Creel, PhD, is the editor of Undefining Motherhood, and Director of the Research Communication Certificate in the Graduate School at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Sarah loves to be with her family (including eight nieces and nephews!), friends, boyfriend, and animals (she has two cats and one weird dog. Wait, who is she kidding? They are all weird). At Undefining Motherhood, Sarah brings new perspectives by shedding light on nontraditional ways of being a mother.