The other morning I was at the chiropractor paying for my adjustment when the doctor asked the next patient, a woman seated in his small lobby, how she was doing.
“Fine,” she said, shrugging. “Just waiting until I can not be here for a while.”
We have two and a half months left in Seattle, part of which I’m spending at home in North Carolina. When David and I decided this past summer to move to Maui, we came up with lists of places we had to go in Washington, islands we had to visit, hikes we had to take before moving. We didn’t want to take our remaining time in this beautiful state for granted. But little of it has been accomplished. As our move date creeps closer, our desire to explore has lessened, weighing on us.
In Seattle, if you want to find real solitude in nature, you have to wake up at 3 a.m., drive two hours outside the city, then hastily scramble to the top of some mountain before the majority of other hikers awaken and find you there. We used to love to do this. We love getting up really, really early and venturing out in the dark. But an activity we once found novel, we now hold in contempt. We don’t want to wake up before the sun to find solace in nature—we want to be able to walk out our back door and find it. I suppose this sounds bratty, but I think access to wilderness, to quiet, to calm, is a basic human right. Here, unless you have money, transportation, and time, it’s almost an impossibility.
Normally I love exploring any place in which I find myself. I never understand folks who claim boredom. No town is too small or too remote or too seemingly plain for me; I’ve always been down to scout out some obscure trail or backroad or landmark. I used to do this for a living. But I’ve lost my adventure mojo recently, and so has he.
Instead, we’ve been hibernating, enjoying the remaining weeks in our cozy apartment, digging into shows like “His Dark Materials,” and reading. I’m on a break from graduate school as I apply to transfer to the University of Hawaii, and this time off has freed me up to read whatever I want. Whatever I want! So of course I moved quickly from heavy stuff like trauma and transference to books on marriage, monogamy, and children. First up was Motherhood by Sheila Heti.
As a 30-something woman from the South who is in a healthy, happy relationship, the question …kids? is always in the back of my mind, like a ghost. Sometimes I use the daily events of my life to try and answer it. A day spent with one of my best friends and her kids: yes. Hearing shrieking children in my building morning, noon, and night: you know? Maybe not. To quote Heti:
Sometimes I’m convinced that a child will add depth to all things—just bring a background of depth and meaning to whatever it is I do. I also think I might have brain cancer. There’s something I can feel in my brain, like a finger pressing down.
I understand that parenthood is more complex than any of these wonderful, impossible moments. I can’t know it until I know it—and I know there will be something to mourn no matter which path we choose. The older I get, though, the more my ambivalence grows. Often I tell people that I don’t think this is a world I want to leave to any child. And there are so many motherless kids; why not take care of them?
This is all true. David and I often talk about fostering or adopting later in life. We are deeply concerned about climate change. And we both want to be involved with children in some way, whether as a coach, mentor, or therapist. Before we decided to move, I was interviewing for an internship at a play therapy center for children on the peninsula and was so excited. I am particularly passionate about working with “difficult” kids and adolescents—those who are often cast as the black sheep of their family.
And yet. The truth at the heart of all these truths is I value my freedom more than I value the experience of becoming a mother. I love being able to get up and go with little planning, use my money for travel, have quiet nights at home, write endlessly, selfishly, ask questions, explore all kinds of paths and dream up all kinds of futures, like—what if we lived in Maui? What if I trained as an analyst in Zurich? Or applied for a grant to travel to Antarctica? Or worked with sled dogs in Alaska? What if we spent a season in Japan or South America or built a house in the Great Smoky Mountains?
As Heti writes, “A life is just a proposition you ask it by living it, Could a life be lived like this too?”
This is not to say that parents can’t do all these things too—but the doing is more complicated. And this is not to dismiss the choice of women I know who have become, or are becoming, mothers. I have always felt that if you have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude about something, it’s best to leave it to those who wish to take it, to really grab hold of it. I bow down before mothers. I just don’t know if I’m cut out to be one.
On a flight a couple days ago I watched a mom hold her chubby-cheeked baby up to the window during landing so he could see the sky and the earth and the setting sun, and I felt my heart twist up, oof, like, am I really never going to have that? But then the feeling passed, and like most days I thought that the greatest gift I unknowingly gave myself was making it to my 30s without marrying or having children. I am not who I was 10 years ago. I want different things. Do I even believe in marriage? I think so. But it’s kind of a creepy proposition (for hetero couples, at least), isn’t it, if you squint real hard—the whole let’s-get-this-virgin-in-something-white-and-stick-a-ring-on-her-finger thing? And do I believe in monogamy? Do I truly feel that life is best lived in a dyad, that all of my loving and longing should only be shared with one person… ’til I’m dead?
I don’t know. These are not questions women are supposed to—and in some cultures are forbidden to—ask. In general, nothing is more ghastly or offensive than a woman who doesn’t want what she has been told to want, or worse, who believes, as Heti describes, that she is “an end in herself.”
Of childfree women, she writes:
What sort of trouble, indeed?