Sunday, April 10, 2016

Preparations for Mother's Day: an open letter

Being an adult without a child to call "our own": in 2016, is this something we as a community need to discuss? If you have something to say about it, please do ...


Dear everybody,

Soon it will be May, and we’ll have Mother’s Day. For many, this can be a day of love and appreciation.

For others, it can be a festival of difficult emotions ... for those whose mothers have passed, for those who never knew their mother or child due to adoption, for those who feel they are failing as mothers due to whatever impossible situations face them and their children. It can be a day when women mourn for children lost.

For the past couple of years, as I’ve entered my late 30s, despite my best intentions to be supremely beyond the grasp of human emotion, Mother’s Day has evoked sharp feelings of discomfort. Last year, I was out with my mother and two of my sisters - who are busy mothers, teachers and artists - for a bright morning of coffee and high art. I couldn’t seem to escape the shadow of difficult emotions, and I beat myself up for it (double flagellation – yeah!). I posted something about my feelings on Facebook, and a few people piped up to air their experience of similar feelings.

This week, I met with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. The topic came up of where we're at – being women in our latter 30s, single, without children. We both work with children, we both love children, and we have none of our own. This was something she could barely speak about in public due to feelings of shame, as if she had “failed at being human”.

There are so many reasons why people don’t have children (which, I’ve realised, are often examined more closely than the reasons why people do have children). My reasons for not ending up with a tribe of offspring at this time in my life are very personal, and I don’t feel ready to air them publicly. Suffice to say, I walked away from the opportunity several times, in the interests of walking away from toxic relationships and/or potentially impossible situations. 

Someone said to me recently, "When you have children ..." and I thought, "Are you mad?" This is a huge departure from my thoughts a few years ago. I’ve been through some times of grieving as I’ve entered my late 30s. I’ve begun to question whether I can be OK with not having children. I’ve had to tease out the social expectations from the biological drive, from the least obvious factor – what do I really want at this point in my life? 

For the past couple of weeks, sharp feelings have been coming up. There were several triggers, and then I started support work with a new person in a new neighbourhood. Her family history is one of fostering, from a long lineage of mothers having babies beyond their capacity. The neighbourhood is a world of poverty, violence, people embedded in the welfare system for generations. With the triggers in place, my thoughts started to turn dark. Experiencing this world made me think I could have made a go of those impossible situations that confronted me – I was at least lucky to have capacity, to know what care feels like, to know what health feels like.

And then my thoughts turned again, and I realised that I would personally know more than 100 women who don’t have children. And yet, from conversations I’ve had over the past few years, women believe that if they don’t have children, there is something wrong with them, that they have failed, they are not complete. We struggle to untangle ourselves from these stories, and it seems we’re sometimes struggling individually, alone. Maybe there is a need for this, but maybe there is a need for something else as well.

I’m wondering if this is something we need to look at. I’m wondering how it’s an issue for people of other genders. I’m wondering if it’s a huge phenomenon, happening in these pockets of isolation, throughout our society. I'm wondering if many of us are scared off from having children by the individualism of our social structures. 

I'm wondering whether we need to come together to tell new stories.

I’m mindful that I don’t want this conversation to be exclusive. It’s possibly not just about women. It’s possibly not just about people who haven’t had children. It’s possibly a broader conversation about dismantling ideas about traditional family structures, and community structures. 

It's possibly an opportunity for a new story about our entire society, where the child is not "your child" or "my child", but "our child".

If you want to say something about this (and because I'm interested to gauge the mood), you can post comments, or email me at justine.reilly@gmail.com