Someone help me understand how to not be a mother.
Help me understand why my inner self is telling me, “You are meant to be a mother,” while I realize I’ll likely never be one.
I never wanted to be a mother when I was younger. It’s not that I didn’t want it, really. It’s just that I didn’t want it.
I saw women around me growing into motherhood, their desire to bear children bubbling forth organically from within. I saw friends and relatives becoming mothers by accident and living into the unexpected role with growth and grace. I saw myself pushing motherhood aside in favor of art, learning, travel, and romance.
I knew that I preferred lounging in the sun’s afternoon rays, reading Homer or Plato, to changing diapers or driving kids to Little League and dance lessons. A lover, but not a mother. I was completely okay with that.
When I was 21 years old and a student in veterinary school, I worked as an intern at an emergency vet clinic. There was a woman working there as a surgery technician, a mentor of mine named Janice. She was 37 years old, and she was pregnant.
At the time, 37 years old seemed a lifetime away from me (it was). I looked at Janice, still vibrant and beautiful and full with child at 37, and thought, “If she’s young enough at 37 to have a child, I have plenty of time” (I did).
Over the years, the age of 37 stuck in my mind as a sort of yardstick measure of the size of my childbearing window.
Year after year passed, and year after year I had no desire to have a child. Relationships ended. New ones began. I moved from city to city and job to job, meditated, practiced yoga, learned Spanish, climbed mountains.
My life was full. I had many opportunities to have a child. I chose not to.
The age of 37 came and went, and still no children. The symbolism of the entry into my childless 37th year was not lost on me. All my old thoughts and plans about motherhood came along with me, crying for attention. When I was younger, I had thought, “If I don’t have a child by the time I’m 37, then I will know it simply wasn’t meant to be.” Now that I was there, I wasn’t so sure.
Years passed—38, 39, 40. Friends around me kept having children. Once in a while someone would tell me, “It’s not too late.” I was single and living in my Volkswagen bus in San Francisco. I sat in meditation in the mornings by the ocean, the surging waves befriending my soul. I wasn’t worried.
Then something happened that caught me and my childless, wandering self off-guard: my own biological mother unexpectedly died.
In the wake of her loss, I felt something I had never felt before. I felt completely alone.
It was not a feeling I invited or expected. But suddenly, the woman whose body birthed me into this world had left it, as quickly as I had come. The woman who gifted me my voice, my laugh, and my manner of waving my hands animatedly when I talk. The woman who gave me my handwriting, my pointy elfin chin, and my proclivity for falling into bouts of existential melancholy. She was gone.
In my mother’s absence, I had a strange feeling of everything before me falling away, revealing a clarity of sight into my future that I had never seen before. I saw that there was nothing more than open space ether ahead of me, where once my mother had been. I realized that she had held me on the journey, while I thought I was carrying myself. My connection to her had laid bricks beneath my feet as I walked, while I thought I was paving my own way.
With my mother gone, and my grandmother before her, I stood exposed at the forefront of a lineage. No supportive straps or bricklayers. No longer merely the grandchild of a grandmother, or the child of a mother; I was now at the head of the line.
I felt myself at the edge of a cliff, half my life behind me, facing outward toward a sun-setting future into which I needed to jump. A sharp wind blew through my being like a ghost of grandmothers, passing a torch into my hands. I was now the one to lead the way.
Except there was no one behind me.
When I got the news about my mother’s death, I was still living in that bus, with few possessions and little to hold me down. I got a trip check done on the bus, made a few repairs for the journey, and drove the 12 hours to Boise, Idaho, the city where I had been born nearly 40 years before.
Remnants of my mother’s and grandmother’s lives stood waiting for my attention.
My mother had asked me years before, in case anything happened to her, to care for whatever she left behind. I obliged. Now I would be responsible for all that she and my grandmother had left behind. A two-lifetimes’ worth repository of materials and memories. House, yard, garage, storage units, cars. Boxes, pictures, keepsakes, and junk. Six cats and a dog who needed a home. It was all mine.
I was a new mother of a sort, nurturing and tending to the piles of the past that had been left as a legacy to me.
I waded through the material legacy left to me through death. I got a job, worked hard, tried to keep up and pay bills as I worked. I swam mostly uphill as I worked through the belongings of my mother and grandmother, their spirits possessing me and swimming with me.
The feeling of honoring my legacy was palpable. This was not only a legacy of material objects—which there were far too many to process—but a legacy of being, loving, and seeing life through human eyes. It was a legacy of life, the gift of life that was passed on to me.
Who would I pass my life to?
“You are meant to be a mother.”
I don’t regret not having children when I was younger. I remember how sure I was back then that I wasn’t ready for children. I trust the instincts of my younger self. She was strong and confident and in touch with what she wanted. I don’t second guess her.
But now there is a new instinct inside me that feels just as strong. She sweeps me up in her arms and runs with me, like a mother bear absconding with a loaf of bread from a camper’s kitchen. This feminine instinct pulls me into the future with her firm grip. She tells me again and again, “You are meant to be a mother.”
I trust my instincts now, as I always did. So I trust this mother message is real. But I don’t know what it means.
When I witness women around me becoming excited new mothers, I am thrilled for them. Women my age, and even younger, are now becoming grandmothers, and as they do, I lean into their happiness, smile at their joy. I see them building their families, and their families’ families behind them.
I see their legacies filling in, their communities emerging around them, surrounded by loving children and grandchildren. Something in my heart longs to be surrounded by such love. I feel a pang of anguish in my heart. It’s a soft and painful little hole that Homer and Plato can’t fill.
It’s the gift that’s calling me, I know. The gift I got from my mother, and she got from her mother. My heart wants to give that gift to someone new. That connection to the past that lives through me is praying to live into the future.
Back in Boise, going through boxes of my mother’s and grandmother’s things, one day I uncovered a small greeting card that caught my attention. In a nondescript box of nondescript paperwork, I found the little card lying alone and dormant among the tousled clutter, still in its envelope, never sent.
The front of the card is a photo of a person in silhouette, walking through a mist-shrouded field among speckles of yellow wildflowers. Tall pines tower into the sky behind them. At the top, embossed in white script lettering, is a familiar quote by Henry David Thoreau:
“If I man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.”
Inside the card is sage green paper with a message printed in black type: “Wish there were more people like you.”
Below it, written in my grandmother’s graceful and looping handwriting, is nothing but her name: “Love, Mary.”
My grandmother, as well as she knew me, never knew that Thoreau was my favorite author. She could not have known I would find this message in a card in a box in a room in a house that used to be hers, many years after she signed her name.
Yet somehow, I know the message is meant for me.
When I found the card with the message from grandma Mary, I tacked it up alone on the front of my refrigerator, held by a magnet clip I had made out of an old mousetrap. It still stands there today, a sentinel message sent across time from my grandmother to me.
I have always stepped to the music I hear. In fact, that is exactly what my mother and my grandmother desperately wanted for me. They did not want me to be confined to the limited roles that were considered appropriate for women in their day.
They wanted me to be free, free to be myself and free to live in the world according to the dictates of my own heart, my own drummer. They were proud of me for not feeling I had to have children based on social pressures or outdated stories of a woman’s value and worth. I’m sure they’re here with me now as I fall into sad confusion about their legacy, and mine.
I trusted the beat of my drummer when I was younger, when it told me I was not yet ready to be a mother. And I still trust my drummer now, the one that sounds curiously like a lumbering bear as she whispers to me from within her own heart, saying, “You are meant to be a mother.”
I stand on that cliff’s edge, facing down the second half of my life. Mother bear and I move together. Grandmother bear follows close behind. I’m soothed by their beating hearts and warmed by their powerful intentions. I trust them. But I wonder: where are they leading me?
A couple years back, when crossing a street in Oakland, I passed a man crossing in the other direction. An elderly black man carrying a cane, he had a spring to his step and sparkling eyes. His glowing presence uplifted me and I smiled and said hello.
He tipped his hat to me and addressed me cheerfully, “Happy Mother’s Day!”
I knew it was indeed Mother’s Day, but I was startled by his words.
“Thank you!” I nodded back. “But, I’m not a mother. I don’t have any children.”
He chuckled at my comment and winked at me mischievously.
“Young miss, don’t you know that every woman is a mother? This is your day! So you’d better get out and enjoy it.”
I smiled. Is every woman a mother? Now that’s a conundrum and a sweet invitation.
Maybe it’s not true that I don’t know how to be a mother. Maybe it’s more true that I don’t know how not to be one. And maybe that’s the point.
Is it possible that I am already a mother, just by being here now, and just don’t know it? Is this new call to be a mother just a call for me to live more fully into life, to become more deeply who I already am?
Maybe I can step off that cliff into the fullness of my own self and the depth of community that already surrounds me, and live my legacy from where I stand. Maybe these lumbering bears are running with me, swift and breathless, simply to lead me back home. I’m not too sure, but I’m willing to lean in and wait for the answer.
In the meantime, great mother bears of the world: do you have any advice for this wayward soul?