I’m visiting my family up on the Panhandle this Labor Day weekend. Yesterday, I went to a children’s birthday party with my sister. Of course, it’s not something I’m normally inclined to do, but I have a six year-old (well, very nearly six — his own birthday is looming) and a nine year old nephew. They go to children’s birthday parties, as do the parents, so this sort of thing is normal. It’s routine. It’s habit for them. My sister, who seems to have a million and one tasks running through her head every day at breakneck speeds and frequencies, had almost…almost forgotten about the event. Naturally, the requisite children’s party stuff was needed, pre-party, so “breakneck” became utilitarian, a practicality. We must travel and do it all So Very Quickly Until We Get There. Party gift was found as were Buy-One-Pair-Get-One-Pair-At-50%-Off shoes for the nephews, who have the mundane process of trying everything on down to a precise, quicksilver science, physics be damned.
The party was held at a local gymnasium that actually specialized in gymnastics and bounciness. I’m not kidding. On one side of the gymnasium, there were bouncy mats with colorful, giant, foamy shapes everywhere. A brunette Skipper with the booming voice of Authoritative Cheerleader had kids line up in relatively orderly fashion as they moved from one bright, bouncy activity to the next. Another room had been set up as a party room, complete with DC superhero decor and bowls and dishes of children’s party foodstuffs — lots of sliced fruit, tiny cupcakes, pretzels. It was not the norm for me whatsoever, and of course, it showed. I just…didn’t belong.
In retrospect, I would’ve been a little more “at home” had the whole thing NOT started on a bit of a sour…and very typical…note for me. My sister introduced me to the thirtysomething, athletic mother-in-charge of the event. Firm handshake, genuine smile, and a “Oh, yes, I’ve heard a lot about you. You just had a baby, right?”
Um, No. Wrong sister, sister.
That would be the youngest sibling of the three of us. Her kiddo, my other nephew, is a bit over a year old.
Frankly, I wouldn’t be bothered by this if it really didn’t matter to me. But it does. Oh, it does. The faction of motherhood that only sees and only hears key words and phrases that center around the very notion of Woman As Mother, it’s everywhere. That same faction likes to think of the Childless Woman as self-centered and/or incomplete. When I corrected the mama-in-charge, telling her who I was, she sort of went blank-eyed. Embarrassed that I was not THAT sister, the other one with child. The other one who is now a mother. I can read that look well these days. It’s a look that says, “Oh. Well, we’ve nothing in common already…Moving on…”
A colleague of mine, a woman I professionally admire (she’s an excellent literature professor), really floored me a while back when she told me, in not so many terms, that motherhood was It, that my time was ticking away, that I needed to hop on that train before it was too late because there was nothing in the world like It. She proceeded to tick through all the cultural, unfair stereotypes of the Childless Woman. She, my colleague, was no longer “self-centered,” “careless,” “unloving” and so forth. Having a child had changed her in so many ways “for the better.”
The implication that I am unable to care…to love…because I’m childless, and not necessarily entirely due to my choices, infuriates me. As for self-centeredness, excuse me for being controversial here but what of the mother who has children only because she wants to be loved? What of the mother who feels so obligated to remind women who aren’t mothers, whether by choice or not entirely, that they’re “self-centered”? Isn’t that an act of smug “self-centeredness” in itself? Isn’t the very act of bragging about one’s children a teensy bit self-centered, too?
All of this wouldn’t be quite so personal if I really was the very epitome of what the articles and buzz believe the Childless to be. I am not. Once, I had wanted children. Now, however, I think having a child as a single woman in my 40s would be the most selfish act I could muster, moreso than all of the acts of “self-centeredness” pop psychology believes I presumably experience already. If I were to have a child now, he or she would have an elderly, single parent at a young age — I just couldn’t put a child through that sort of difficulty. I couldn’t bear it. I doubt I would even make a good mother, especially now that my mental (and physical, somewhat) health is in decline and my finances are a disaster.
I think about these sorts of things every day I am reminded by someone or something around that I am “self-centered” because I am childless.
I am not “less” of a woman, an “incomplete” woman, because I have no children, because I am not a mother. No childless woman is.