I’ve always been one of the most maternal women I know. I’ve quipped for decades “Jewish mother in training” while offering sunscreen or a sweater or more food to someone I thought needed it. In my teens and 20s, I told anyone who would listen that if I made it to 30 or 35 without meeting him, I’d go to a bar or a friend or a sperm bank so I could be a mom. News of a friend’s miscarriage or a celebrity’s infertility brought me visceral pain. I always stumbled when asked “Where do you want to be in five years?,” because the truth was I hoped to be pushing my kid on a swing set, and that’s no way to answer a job-interview question.
So I couldn’t imagine I’d be among the 15 percent of American women who end their years of fertility without children. My desire to have children was too strong, too definite. Yet here I am, nearly 50, without offspring. And I am completely at ease.
Sure, once in a great while, a friend’s child will be so adorable or smart or engaging that one of my few remaining shriveled eggs screams, “Use me, use me!” The last time it happened, two friends, both much younger, said it was proof that I need to hurry up and have kids while I still can, or at least adopt. I recoiled. I like my life without children now — so much that I’m not even fazed anymore when heads tilt sympathetically at class reunions.
My changed outlook followed my life’s circumstances pretty logically. A handful of “hims” wandered in and out of my life, but I never met one I wanted to raise kids with. I could have gone it alone, and I have great respect for women who choose that route, but the demands of daily journalism and a chronic migraine condition made raising a child solo seem too daunting. And then came an unexpected wrinkle: the challenging and draining, rewarding and gratifying task of taking care of my parents.
When I hit 40, my aging parents’ health declined precipitously. Without regret, I left my career and moved back home. Moving in with Mom and Dad might seem extreme. But more than half of Americans with parents 65 and older said in a 2015 Pew Research Center study that they had helped their parents with personal care or day-to-day tasks in the previous year. I just did it full time, with help from my siblings.
Devoting myself to my mother and father was the most important work of my life. It also left little energy, urge or time for pregnancy or baby care.
The first eight months, my mother’s last, were a blur. We had clashes, but we also had the most intimate, emotional, mutually nurturing moments. My favorites, I think, came in the middle of the night, after near-emergencies with mobility or the bathroom or medication or pain had eased. I would curl up on her bed and we’d talk, my presence comforting her the way her voice and touch had soothed me as a kid. I got to return some of the love and support she and Dad heaped on me and grab some more of my own while I could.
Eventually I had to let go — and every parent who sends a kid off to college or their first out-of-town job knows how much that hurts. This, of course, was forever. Mom was done with medical treatment and ready to die; my siblings and I had to tell Dad, and I had to persuade the medical staff to stop trying to fix something they could not. It was certainly not what I wanted to do, but it was what she needed us to do. And so, as loving parents do, I yielded to what was best and inevitable.
Dad’s needs, understandably, grew after we lost Mom. Our four years together included crises of emotion, hospitalization and dementia. Sometimes he’d get irate at my refusal to run some top-secret errand for him or take him to the airport so he could get to some far-flung place to which he never would have traveled. Sometimes he hated the dinner I’d spent hours preparing in hopes that he would eat something. But sometimes his wry humor prevailed. Once, when he let out a yelp, I asked what was wrong. He glared at me and barked: “I don’t know, but you’re an asshole.” We both burst into raucous laughs. Often, when we’d wheel him out into the sunshine, a grin would spread over his face and a wondrous “Oh, my” would escape his lips. And my heart would fill to the brim.
I never experienced such pure love as I did while taking care of my mother and father. The basest chore of cleaning him up, for instance, had to be an act of tenderness because it unmanned him so. When a day of his hallucinations, frustrations and temper exhausted me, all he needed to say was, “You really are my angel,” and my weariness would dissolve into the resolve I needed to sustain me through the next valley. I finally understood how parents could look at sleeping children who had acted like devils all day and think of them only as precious gifts.
Dad would never have relinquished authority enough to think of me as the parent — he was a proud World War II veteran, and the roles aren’t supposed to reverse — but my need to parent was surely filled in caring for him and for Mom. I got so much joy in providing them relief, humor and, in an odd way, freedom to live their lives without the day-to-day worries of adulthood. I took on the minutiae and the logistics so they could just enjoy themselves.
After Dad died, I moved west to recover and regenerate. I was 45, and my fertility was expiring rapidly. But I was too drained to think about my “last chance” to have a child. I didn’t even have the energy to want to keep a plant alive; no way could I take on a person. Rebuilding myself and my life took more than two years. As the possibility of parenting waned, friends would remind me that I could still adopt or marry into kids.
Then a sweet dog reached under his cage at the local animal rescue and begged me to take him into my home and heart. I adore my Malcolm with a depth I never imagined. He accepts my love and cuddles with glee, freely and without condition. After being abandoned twice and with medical issues of his own, he needs me as much as I need him.
Of course it isn’t the same as mothering another human, but it is mothering nonetheless. And at my age, I am grateful that it doesn’t carry the same long-term commitment. With 50 bearing down, I wear out much more easily than I did at 30. I cannot imagine chasing after a toddler day and night or — shudders — trying to launch kids in their 20s when I am in my 70s. I have a life that I love, plenty to give when friends or family are in need and the freedom to indulge an adventurous whim without upheaval to others.
The world still revolves around couples and families. From the people we know to advertising and movies, everyone and everything tells us to have babies because our lives will be so much better. I understand why one of my 30-something friends who “can’t wait to have kids” cannot grasp my fulfillment. I get her. I used to be her. I’m a little shocked I’m not still her.
But my ache is gone because I’ve learned there are many ways to nurture. I am content. And eager to see what happens next.