The most meaningful thing: to be or not to be a mother

we are absences. we are silences. we are holding back. we are making room. we are nurturing. 
I did not know loving first required a temple sanctuary and all my guardians
 dragon-toothed, bloody and sharp, scales as hard as gold.
I did not know loving needed first this—
an unflinching boldness.
Paper-cutting by Kate Gillett

A girlfriend of mine, sitting outside on her porch with her laptop so her children wouldn’t hear, said to me over Skype the other day, I don’t get the logic of this. I want this to be enough, but there is a wild woman inside me… She didn’t finish her sentence because she began sobbing.

She is six years into a partnership with a good man. A kind man, a thoughtful man, a man who has worked hard at their relationship and their life together. The father of her children. She has spent the last few years trying desperately to fit herself in around the life they share together. She takes time alone to go spend time with family and friends down south. She makes time for her art between cleaning up her children’s poo from various locations around the house that are not the toilet. They even explored an open relationship so she could experiment with her sexuality and intimacy and discover what that really meant to her. They are a courageous couple. I know her better than him but have huge respect for a young Australian man who can create that kind of room for my friend to explore herself.

I feel for her and am in awe of her bravery, to stand on such a painful precipice of not knowing what she needs or wants, but still be able to give voice to her longing. I don’t get the logic of this. I want this to be enough. But there is a wild woman inside me…

These words for women, in my experience, are hard fought for. It’s difficult to get to the point where we are brave enough to say them even to ourselves, let alone each other.

I think women, more than men, are handed a script in life. The script is usually some form of the most meaningful thing I can do with my life is have children.

I don’t have children, and I am not disparaging women who do. Many of the women I am closest to and respect the most have children and the experience has deepened their compassion, wizened them and made them very, very funny.

My concern is that this societal script that the most meaningful thing a woman can do with her life is have children is handing women a looming deadline, a ticking time-bomb of a biological clock, ready to explode us into a meaningless life if we should fail.

It hands us an answer before we've had time to ask the question, and for many women it's the wrong answer. I have met women who genuinely experience motherhood as a joy and as the most meaningful experience of their lives. Equally, I have met mothers for whom this was not for the case, and while only a few regret having children, many more, like my girlfriend sobbing on the porch, know this isn’t their deepest calling, that their deepest longing and sense of meaning in life does not come from parenting.

This cult around motherhood turned my twenties into a To Do List:
    •    Know myself well enough to decide on a career and husband
    •    Earn (or marry) enough money for a house
    •    Establish a marriage strong enough to support child-rearing.

Frankly, I spent my entire twenties stuck on the first point—knowing myself well enough. Which got complicated because I then decided on a career and husband and bought a house without having really managed that first step.

Young men get handed an open horizon: Go find yourself. Find out who you are, what you want to be. Study, work, travel, sleep around for as long as you need. Fatherhood will find you, or it won’t. There is a flexibility and range of lifestyles open for men. Even if they do have kids, it’s just one part of their lives. Incredibly rich perhaps, challenging and helping them grow, but it’s not assumed to be the most important contribution they’ll make to the world or themselves.

Women get a brief window of freedom but by their late twenties are warned: Get serious so you don’t miss the baby-train and oops—end up in a meaningless life!

I am not debating here whether or not a woman should have children, I think that’s an intensely personal choice. I do however, think all women, those with children and those without, could help challenge this script still so prevalent in our society.

Having been handed a script about what would make my life most meaningful, I didn’t take the time to find my own voice and write my own script. Instead I started having dreams in which I screamed but no noise came out. In one reoccurring dream I swallowed liquorice and realised too late that it was poisoned. It inflated inside my throat, blocking it, and then I screamed and screamed but no sound ever came out.

So many women I know are screaming inside. Ultimately it doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not they have children, it’s that at certain point, the part of them not defined by having a uterus, needs expression.

They long for the space to feel their own yearning, their hunger, their dreams. They want to give voice to things long twisted and silenced inside them. They want to discover who they can be when they're not hurrying to build that nest in time, or holding back to take care of and make room for their partner or children.

One woman in her sixties recently told me she had never really lived her life. She clearly wanted to live and work overseas. It showed in her frustration at the end of each day, in her short fuse at work and her jealousy of her husband who is traveling for work. She’s sixty years old still putting aside her deepest longing—now for her ageing father, now for her grandchildren. Did I mention the part where her husband is travelling?

When I stopped believing that the most meaningful thing I could do with my life was have children I instead began listening to my own voice, my own calling. I allowed myself to gravitate towards what I truly wanted without constantly straightening the wheel to ensure I ended up in motherhood. I let myself feel out what I personally found most meaningful in life.

The answers surprised me, and I'm still embarrassed to admit the answers publicly. I found I liked being alone, silently meditating. That the deepest satisfaction I ever experienced came from weeks on end of meditation. I found that reading literature and setting my own pen to write exploded my insides into a galaxy of stars. I fell in love with the most impractical person—a love as colourful as fireworks and the same tendency to blow holes in things. I discovered I was good at an impossible job, work that ravaged me body and soul and left me with little energy for anything else. Work I couldn’t imagine doing with children, but leaves me tearfully grateful at the end of everyday—because it has meaning and I feel deeply fed.

I don't know if I'll have children. I haven’t decided if I want them, but I’m no longer terrified of ending up in a meaningless life if I don't have them. Life is already oozing with meaning. I let my wild woman lead the way and I’m still marvelling at where she’s taken me.


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