By Moira Sennett
Tethys, they say, is the mother of multitudes: rivers, lakes, streams, all the fresh waters. But look closely, and she tells a different story. As she passes by you, her arms are empty. The only child she was ever given to hold was not her own. She protects her dear ones with a fierce mother love. She will lie and rage and move entire seas to protect them. But when you really look at her, you will see that the goddess of childbirth trails her like a shadow, a whispering voice: “Mother of none.”
The ultrasound pictures set side by side are proof of a dream realized. In the first, he is tiny. His head and body seem squished together, bearing a striking resemblance to a gummy bear. In the second, his baby shape is more clearly identifiable. In the third, his perfectly defined little features—nose, mouth, and reaching hands—belie the fact that anything is wrong.
My fear for him is a tangible pain in my chest, as real as the joy I felt from the first moment I knew of his existence. I would lie and rage and move entire seas to protect him. I love him with a love that is fierce and true and bittersweet. Bittersweet because he is not mine.
Becky and I sit across from each other in the booth at Culver’s. For some reason, it is particularly busy tonight. This is hardly the type of place we would normally have a heart to heart conversation, and now I feel like I’m going to have to yell. I shuffle some fries around on my tray, and delve in with something masquerading as humor.
“You know how we always said that you would carry my child for me? I figure Dave might not love that idea. I’m going to need a different plan.”
Becky pushes her tray aside. No pithy response to my failed joke about her husband ruining our life plan. Seeing that I’ve scared her, I plunge in.
“I made a decision. If I’m not married by the time I’m thirty-five, I’m going to adopt. Or at least try to. That gives me a few years to figure out how to make it work.” Having pushed the entire statement out in one breath, I feign extra interest in my soda.
Becky’s sigh of relief is audible. “That’s a great idea. Really a fantastic idea.”
There are pictures we create inside our minds. Sometimes they blur together with the real pictures. There is a photo of me at my high school graduation, still in my green polyester gown, holding my cousin Gretta on my hip. She is just shy of her first birthday. For some reason, this picture is remembered, and mentioned often, by everyone in our family even though it was taken more than twenty years ago, and Gretta is now an adult with a daughter of her own.
Maybe it is because they always thought, just as I did that, I would be a mother. Maybe most Irish Catholic girls growing up in big families think this. There was always a baby—niece, nephew, or cousin—around our house, at least part of the time, from a month before my tenth birthday until I was halfway through college. I started a regular babysitting job when I was twelve. To this day, I am taken aback when I hear adults say they are uncomfortable with or don’t know how to take care of a baby.
The eighteen-year-old me holding a baby on my hip—that was perfectly natural. It was supposed to be a prelude to a day in the not too distant future when I would hold my own child. It would take me many years to begin to accept that it was not to be.
We are in a generic meeting room of a hotel in Central Illinois, attending the bridal shower for my soon to be sister-in-law. It is our first time meeting her downstate cousins, with their lilting Southern accents. One of them holds a tiny baby, maybe a few weeks old. He wears a tiny yellow cap and matching mittens intended to keep him from scratching his face.
I am sitting next to my oldest sister, Stacy. With a series of fertility treatments in full swing, and more than one miscarriage behind her, this Madonna and child scene is too much for her. She is suddenly undone.
I am eleven, and it is my first time seeing the pain of childlessness up close. This particular pain of my sister’s would be alleviated three years later, with the birth of my nephew, but the image has stuck with me. I have known many women in the decades since who have struggled to become mothers. Their stories have a multitude of endings: adoption, successful in vitro, heart-wrenching resignation.
In my adult years, I have also met any number of women who do not want children. Maybe there really are more than there used to be, or maybe the public outspokenness of celebrities like Oprah and Jennifer Aniston has emboldened women to talk about their decisions to remain childfree.
What of those of us in between? The ones who desperately wanted to be mothers but nonetheless chose not to be. I refuse to believe I am the only one to have shed those tears.
“I’m planning on adopting a baby.”
Amanda is a person of great certainty about nearly everything. She sets goals. She plans for them. She faces setbacks head on. She is relentless in pursuit of the things that matter most to her. This is why I have never doubted that her plan will eventually be successful. It is also why I never told her about my own intention of adopting.
For all intents and purposes, Amanda and I are in the same situation. We have essentially the same job. We have approximately the same level of financial stability. To the casual observer, I have the added advantage of a large extended family, something that is not true of her. For all those reasons, it would make sense to enter into some sort of commiseration, but I don’t. I suppose I am already having doubts. I haven’t completely given up on my goal, but I have more questions than answers, more fears than confidence at this point. This dear new friend will want to help me fix all of this.
The better version of myself would like to believe I am keeping quiet because it is her moment to shine. That I want nothing more than to let her share her dream and glory in it with her. I am not that version of myself that day. I am just the version of myself that doesn’t want to show someone my weakness.
“Happy Mother’s…” Henry, the sweet maintenance man/usher at church realizes his mistake just slightly too late. For a moment, he cannot meet my gaze. Then he hands me a pink carnation anyway. “You keep on taking good care of those girls.”
This awkward scene plays out several more times during the two-hour Mass. Each time, the speaker is embarrassed. These people have known me for fourteen years. They know I don’t have children. Each time, the recovery is a variation on the same theme.
“Those girls are so lucky to have you.”
“You’ve been a mother to so many students.”
And each time, I nod. I smile. Sometimes I say thank you. All the while, I am repeating in my head a negative mantra of sorts: It. Is. Not. The. Same. I have never believed it is the same. My students do not believe it is the same. Most importantly, the people who are saying this to me do not believe it is the same.
The end of Mass nears, and it is time for the blessing of mothers. The priest calls for all mothers to stand: birth mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, grandmothers, godmothers. A well-meaning church mother tries to pull me to my feet. I stay seated. I won’t participate in that lie.
It’s rare for me to watch comments on my blog posts as they show up in real time. This particular post, about accidentally going off my anti-depressants and then going back on, is getting much more of a reaction from readers than anything I’ve posted before. Most of the comments are about how brave I am to share my story: I’m helping people understand that medication is necessary for some people; I’m proving that there shouldn’t be so much stigma around mental illness; I’m demonstrating how brave I am. All this adulation makes me feel like a hypocrite. Everyone seems to believe this story in the blog post I’ve just shared is one of triumph. I guess the part I told is. The part I didn’t tell is about failure and choice—the hardest choice.
I am just two months shy of the date I set for beginning the process of adopting a child, and I know I can’t do it. The months without medication, following closely on the heels of the months without a job, proved that without a doubt. I do not want a child any less than I ever did, but moving forward would be a selfish choice. My financial situation, my mental health, the geographical distance from my support system—none of these would be fair to a child. It hurts like hell. It is the hardest choice I’ve ever had to make. But it is the right choice.
I suppose I could have chosen differently. I could have decided that I would go ahead and pursue adoption despite all my reservations. I could have left a career I love for one that does not make me happy just so I would have the money to raise a child, or I could have decided that my child would just have to make do with less than I would want to give him. I could have decided to raise a child in a city more than an hour away from those people who would love her nearly as much as I and who would be most willing to help when I needed it. I could have taken on the daunting role of single mother even though I know that I’m not strong enough to handle the very real emotional hurdles that come with it. That’s not the kind of mother I would want to be. It’s not the kind of mother any child deserves. So yes, I made a choice.
The central atrium of the Intercontinental Hotel is a cavernous space of marble and glass, with small tables and benches in the center. I am sure that the sound of my tears must echo through it.
I have arrived nearly an hour early for the theatre, and as I scroll through my Facebook feed, I see it again and again. “That was a lovely tribute to your mom.” Somehow, they have missed the other half. The half that was raw pain. The half that was just as real as the one they heard. I wrote a piece, auditioned, and read it in front of an auditorium full of people. I had never written anything as hard as that piece about emulating my mother while never being a mother myself. And they missed half of it.
I struggle to push the hurt out of my brain and let pride in a job well done take over. Out of fear that someone will notice me, I turn my attention back to my phone and text my friend Amanda. “They didn’t get it. They just didn’t get it.” It would take much prodding from her, over a very long time, for me to realize that people could not understand something I didn’t say.
“When are we going to have the conversation about how you’re going to be affected by the adoption?” I must reread this question of Amanda’s a dozen times. I roll the possible responses around in my head. Which one am I supposed to give?
“It shouldn’t matter to you how I feel about your baby.” This is my gut reaction, but I know it will not sound right. I won’t be able to convey that I am saying that any doubts or hurt I might have should be second to the joy.
“As long as I have known you, I have known that you would have a baby, and I wouldn’t.” This is probably true but maybe not.
“What difference will it make?” This question is the truest response. I do not understand why the conversation is being initiated, but I also know that asking this question is not a good idea. It will hurt feelings, and I may not actually want to hear the answer. What if this conversation has very little to do with concern for me and more to do with concern for a future child? Because that is what a mother would do—protect herself and her baby from a childless woman broken under her own sorrow.
I give the only answer I can. “I will love your baby no matter what.”
I end my phone conversation with Becky. I’ve told her that my reference letter has been mailed to their adoption agency. I’ve also told her that I’m going to be sending her something I’ve written.
I begin drafting the e-mail to which I will attach a piece written over a year before. I struggle with the right way to tell one of my closest friends that I will love her child, but in some ways, this might break my heart. In the way that teenagers do, we planned on raising our children together. Some part of me held onto that as an adult and only had to let it go at the very real prospect of a child in my friend’s future.
Her response is not what I expect. I reread it more times than I can count, this e-mail from the only person who has read my true story of not being a mother—the story that came after the public piece and the anger that followed. Her words are so filled with love, that reading them is a physical pain in my chest.
“You don’t believe you are enough. Those of us who love you know you are. Enough teacher. Enough friend. Enough mother. You have to believe that you are enough.”
These words weren’t intended to tell me that I was wrong. At least not exactly. They were proceeded by something just as important. “I will respect your choice.” Choice—it is the word that keeps others from understanding. It is the word that continues to trip me up as well. If I have chosen it, I need to be at peace with it. Some might even expect me to be happy with it.
I am not happy. I am not at peace. I doubt I ever will be. My happiness, my peace of mind—those are the sacrifices I make.
“If you want something badly enough, you find a way to make it happen.”
It is said only by those who love me, with the intention of being encouraging. I wish I could find a way to explain why this comment both hurts and infuriates. This has never been about can. It has always been about should. Just because I can do something doesn’t make it right. It circles back to that every time. Because, in this case, wouldn’t even the smallest sliver of doubt about should provide the answer?
I’m not asking for pity. Pity should be reserved for those who don’t have choices. I ask only that it be acknowledged that there is another kind of sorrow. The particular kind of sorrow of a woman who looked at her life and realized that in this single, most important choice, no, she is not enough. If I cannot have my baby, can I at least be left the certainty that I am doing what I should do?
I see you in the chapel, where you bend before
The enhaloed calm of everlasting Motherhood
That wounds your life; I see you humbled to adore
The painted miracle you’ve never understood.
Tender, and bitter-sweet, and shy, I’ve watched you holding
Another’s child. O childless woman, was it then
That, with an instant’s cry, your heart, made young again,
Was crucified for ever—those poor arms enfolding
The life, the consummation that had been denied you?
I too have longed for children. Ah, but you must not weep.
Something I have to whisper as I kneel beside you…
And you must pray for me before you fall asleep.
–from “To a Childless Woman” by Siegried Sassoon
“He is perfect.” I hold this sweet little boy close in my arms. We have been through countless tests and medical appointments and a frightening delivery. There have been times when I could almost feel the needles myself. I certainly have shared the sleepless nights. Despite, or because of, it all, the words are true. He is perfect. But he is not mine.
The most honest words I have heard about this choice I made: “It will always be with you.” It will always be with me. It will be with me in the moments when the child I have been given to hold is not my own. It will be with me when I stand in that fierce mother love. It will trail me like a shadow, a whisper.
It was a something I denied myself. It was the hardest choice. But it was the right choice. Believing that I could make that choice and then leave it behind was the mistake. Instead I must stand in it and invite the shadow to stand beside me.
Moira Sennett is an English teacher by vocation (with nearly two decades in the classroom), the youngest of six children, and a lifelong Wisconsinite. She received her M.A. in English, with an emphasis in creative writing, in 2010. Over the past year, This winter, her poem “Southside Drive” was published in the chapbook Where I Want to Live: Poems for Fair and Affordable Housing.