My mum wanted very much for me to believe that motherhood is not the only experience that gives value to a woman’s life. She was a part-time bookkeeper, allowing her to be home when I got in from school, and while she hoped that I would have children one day, she also believed women should do other stuff first. Like many girls raised in the 1980s, who learned maternal lessons that felt like a direct corrective to our own mothers’ lives, I was encouraged to believe that it’s not a question of who will you marry but of what, in the end, will you be?
I mention all this because something happened to me when I hit my mid-30s that shocked me to my core and still does. A few years earlier, I had emigrated from London to New York and was living in a nice apartment in Brooklyn. I had good friends and a good job. I was single, or sort-of-single, and I was doing just fine. And then, suddenly, I wasn’t. My 37th birthday loomed and to my horror, with it, panic, rising around me like the skirts on a hovercraft.
I’m talking about the baby thing, obviously, and the surprise in that moment was not the discovery that I wanted one—I had always known, as per my mother’s wishes, that I would try to knock out a baby at some point—but the overriding feeling of shame that came with it. Shame! Of all the things. I had thought I was part of the post-shame generation (feel free to laugh bitterly), among women in general and in my own particular circumstance.
Here are the things that my mother, a fiercely uncompromising and unusually courageous individual, nonetheless felt deeply ashamed about: having had me at 42, almost 43, an advanced age particularly in pre-IVF 1975. Having had “only” one child. Being 10 years older than my dad and the other mothers at the school gate. And behind that, she felt the deep-rooted shame of being the survivor of child sexual abuse.
Every one of these things was connected, obliquely, to her feeling that a woman’s value rests on her sexual history and maternal productivity, which no amount of internal cheerleading can overcome and little of which, of course, was in her control. Watching her when I was a child, it was the thing I knew before I knew it: that if I did anything in life, it would be to say no to shame.
Well, ha. Here I was at 37 and suddenly drenched in it. I felt ashamed of wanting a child, which seemed to me like a feminist failure. I felt ashamed of looking at a childless future and being horrified. I felt ashamed of my secret belief that having kids alone was preferable to having them with the person I was sort-of seeing, and when all this shame got too much for me, I felt ashamed of the way I consoled myself, by looking around for people in seemingly worse situations than mine, then telling myself, God, at least I’m not them.
With any luck, I thought, I’d squeak in with a baby just under 40 (good!). But I was a single woman (bad!). I was in a sort-of relationship (good!). But we didn’t want to have a kid together (weird!). Also, the relationship was same-sex (challenging!). On the other hand, having a kid via sperm donor was more “natural” than via egg donor, which was more “natural” than surrogacy, which was more “natural” than adoption, which was more “natural” than no children at all, a domino run that ended at the foot of the towering black tombstone marked “childless spinster.”
I knew these thought processes were bad—that I was appealing, at some level, to the very thing that was causing me harm—but still I couldn’t avoid them. Eventually, I went ahead and decided to have a baby alone, or as it turned out, twins—not the plan!—but the shame came relatively close to derailing that decision. And had I failed to conceive, shame would have made the disappointment infinitely worse.
What is this? Seriously, what the hell is going on here? In the midst of my baby panic I would audit myself: educated, solvent, capable, loved, but failing, failing, failing. Even now, when one glance at my babies makes me feel like Boudicca leading a charge against the Romans, I am not entirely immune. A woman came up to me after a book event the other day and said she was wrestling with the decision to have a baby alone, but couldn’t quite let go of the hope of something better. “Obviously, I’d rather have a baby with a man I loved,” she said. I smiled and said “yes, but” and promptly dried up. And there it was, still lurking, in spite of my pride in my babies and my sincere conviction that what I had done was not second best.
In these circumstances, I find there is a gravitational pull toward talking about children in terms I don’t really believe. I hear myself going on about the “ideal” nuclear family and how one should make peace with oneself when it doesn’t work out. This is insane! Discussing the shape of one’s family shouldn’t be relational to an ideal and how far one falls short of it. Neither should it be a question of saying to 37-year-old women, hey ladies, not all marriages survive, so you should feel OK about doing something equally doomed! We need to actively undermine the notion that there is inherent value in how one comes to have children, that our personal choices—about who we date or have kids with or whether we have kids at all—are indicators of anything greater than individual circumstance. Every aspect of women’s lives is held up against some overarching ideal and it is bogus, and harmful, and sad.
The woman I met at that book event was entitled to feel regret that things hadn’t worked out as planned, but it is still worth questioning what forces and pressures shaped that plan in the first place. If we’re sold one story of how we’re meant to live, other stories become loaded with shame. I look at my girls sometimes and can’t believe I came close to not having them on the basis of what others might say.
Emma Brockes is the author of An Excellent Choice: Panic and Joy on my Solo Path to Motherhood.