Into Uncharted Territory


signLast century — that sounds so much more interesting than “in 1991” — Susan S. Lang’s book Women Without Children hit the bookshelves. It was already a dozen years old when I found it but it was one of many books I turned to when it became clear that despite our best efforts my husband and I were unlikely to produce a child. I craved an understanding of what sort of life awaited me.

I had been so fixated on one day turning our spare bedroom into a nursery that I hadn’t even considered how a couple’s life would move forward without the experience of parenting. Evenings and weekends that I once expected to be full of overseeing homework assignments, PTA meetings, Girl or Boy Scout troop gatherings, visits to the zoo and well, you get the picture, would be filled with, what???

I was grasping for new role models. I felt alone, alienated really. I had no cohorts, no one I could rely on to illuminate the new path I was on. Susan’s book opens with a lunch encounter she had with an acquaintance, a women who had battled infertility and arrived after some soul-searching, like me, without a child. While she was confident she had made the right decision, she described the the transition from assuming she would one day be a mother to coming to terms with the fact that she was not going to be one as “fraught with emotional isolation and upsetting upheavals.”

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Truer words have never been spoken. Susan goes on to write that “today, we live in a very pro-motherhood (pronatalistic) society…women who have missed their chance to become parents have a hard time finding support for their lifestyle.” Yes and yes. And if I might add, it seems that the pronatalism has grown even stronger since 1991. I’ve referred to it more than once as an unabashed “cult of Mommy” that curiously transforms women overnight.

They seem, once pregnant (present company — my readers — excluded) unable to demonstrate much in the way of empathy for those who were unable to conceive. It’s a subjugation of identity that leads women to use their child’s baby photo as their online avatars. Did the woman responsible for the baby mysteriously disappear? And what, pray tell, will happen when those children are older and out of the nest? What will their avatars be then I wonder…the mind boggles.

I’m just now into reading Susan’s book for the second time. It’s one way to remind myself that while my path feels unfamiliar and more often than not, awkward, there are those who’ve gone before me. Thank you, Susan Lang, for taking the time to interview and capture the stories of many voices that are very often unheard or overlooked.

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16 Responses

  1. niobe

    February 21, 2008 5:42 pm

    What you say about the avatars rings so true. There are some women who so completely lose themselves in motherhood that it’s hard to imagine what will be left once their children are too old to be an all-consuming focus.

  2. Ginya

    February 21, 2008 6:10 pm

    Thanks for the book suggestion. I will have to check it out. If there are other books and resources dealing with living childfree after infertility that you’ve found especially helpful, I would love to hear about them sometime. I am in that situation myself, and such books and resources seem few and far between.

  3. tabi

    February 21, 2008 10:12 pm

    Thanks for suggesting this book, it looks very interesting. I could not agree with you more the way people’s babies comes to represent self, husband, and your life. It makes it all the harder for us who don’t have children to be totally negated as people. It’s completely messed up!

  4. beagle

    February 21, 2008 11:11 pm

    Women do this in the context of marriage too, I am so and so’s husband instead of saying I am ME.

    I think the all mommy all the time women are pretty dull. But the reality is that they are so numerous that I am finding myself a bit lonely IRL.

    I will read this book.

  5. Bea

    February 22, 2008 1:21 am

    The avatar thing rings true for me, too. No matter how “into” mothering you are, it’s not something that can really account for you entire identity. Maybe in the old days with 17 kids and the grandkids coming thick and fast on the heals of your own, but not these days. We need to respect a variety of roles.


  6. Irish Girl

    February 22, 2008 12:10 pm

    I have this book on my bookshelf and plan to read it over my summer break. The child-free women in my life are some of the most inspirational people I know. They each arrived by different paths but they all live wonderful fulfilling lives. I love hearing the stories (yours included!)

  7. loribeth

    February 22, 2008 1:05 pm

    Sounds like an interesting book — I will have to look for a copy. I’ve read several books on childless/free living (by choice & not). Some better than others, but there hasn’t been one book yet that I felt was “THE” book on the subject. Maybe I’m just waiting for yours to come out! ; )

    I remember reading that many women, once their children leave the nest, find themselves wondering, “If I’m not someone’s mother anymore, who am I? What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” Those of us who never had children just find ourselves confronting those questions at an earlier stage of our lives.

    I totally agree with you that our society is even more pro-natalist than it was in 1991. Wonder what the author would have to say about that now?

  8. shinejil

    February 22, 2008 3:41 pm

    I think this book sounds like a great resource, especially for those of us still on the treatment path, though that may see strange at first glance. It sounds like it might help to illuminate those weird, obscure (or sometimes not so obscure) pressures to get pregnant and be a mother.

    I am so glad, too, to hear you speak out about the bullshit “Connor’s Mommy”-type stuff you see online. It’s just plain creepy. It is also, to my mind, a symbol of the ongoing negation of women’s worth on some deep level. We just can’t be sufficient in and of ourselves, no matter what our personal accomplishments and contributions to society may be. We have to be “Connor’s Mommy,” or we’re nada. Bleck.

    Thanks again, Pamela Jeanne, for putting this out there!

  9. Ann

    February 22, 2008 7:14 pm

    I’ll go even farther to say I can’t understand families that send out pictures of their kids on the Christmas card–and not the whole family. So, what, the child is the only one that matters now?

    I hate it when mothers–either subtly or not-so-subtly–get all bitchy about the vacations that childless couples go on. They say things like, “I haven’t been anywhere in I don’t know how long. We simply don’t have money for something like that.” Different situations, people!

    Do you find that people respond to you differently when they find out that you did, indeed, want children, but couldn’t have them?

    • Pamela Jeanne

      February 24, 2008 2:27 am

      It’s weird, Ann. Most people don’t take the time to consider the fact that we wanted them but couldn’t have them any deeper than the superficial … as if having children was an optional purchase of a discretionary item. “Yeah, I always wanted a puppy” or “oh, we always wanted to get to Italy” … they just assume that we “got over” the disappointment just as easily ordering the red couch when the blue one we wanted wasn’t available any longer. Not succeeding in creating our family was only a distraction that was to be forgotten once another distraction came along and “oh, well, look at the bright side, your life is much less complicated.”

      Oh, really?

  10. Rachel

    February 23, 2008 2:52 am

    Great subject, as always… I’m not entirely sure, but I believe I’m currently being shunned by a woman at my gym… because she’s about 4 months PG and knows that we’re doing ART and as of yet, have not had success. I’m going to make a point of congratulating her on her pregnancy (when I’m sure it’s that and not a sudden indulgence in beer) so that she can see for herself that not infertiles are fragile, ruined, ravaged witches.

    As you point out, there is life beyond the empty nest. And I’ve always thought the women who are not prepared for that (my own mother included) are hopelessly neurotic. To wake up at 50, 60, 70 and realize that you have given your life to someone else? Maybe that’s some women’s idea of a enlightened, fulfilled existence… but it ain’t mine. Maybe it’s yet another reason why I am dealing fairly well with this. Not that it doesn’t hurt of course… but I guess the rest of my life is my rock. And I think it always will be.

  11. shlomit

    February 24, 2008 4:45 pm

    thanks for the heads up on this book…i’m going to search for it now…it sounds like something that i could do with right about now…

  12. Babystep

    February 24, 2008 5:28 pm

    I know a couple of women who had kids VERY young, like right out of high school. Their identity is so wrapped up in their kids. Their kids are in the middle of high school, college isn’t too far off. I wonder how they will survive. I mean, they had their kids when they were practically children themselves. They didn’t have a chance to establish anything on their own yet, it has always been them and the kids. When I do get pregnant (please, please) I think I will be grateful that I have already had a life without kids, I am ready now, you know?

  13. Freyja

    March 5, 2008 3:17 am

    Sometimes I feel so… odd. The longer my stay on IF island lasts, the more that other residents find a way off. Some via pregnancy. Some via donor whatever. Some via adoption. If we don’t conceive with our on biological material, I’m pretty sure we won’t do donor anything or adoption. Sometimes it feels like we are the only ones. Sometimes it even feels like we are BAD for not being willing to finance the perpetuation of someone else’s DNA… I guess maybe the reason I’m so draw to your blog (other than your wit) is that you are, at least in some respects, my Susan Lang.

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