As the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve, I wasn’t kissing a lover—or even a convenient stranger—or ringing in the new year with friends. Instead, I was a jungle gym, short-order cook, food taster, hairdresser, hairdresser’s client, custodian, bathroom attendant, valet, captive audience, tireless entertainer, human recliner, on-demand cuddler, dictionary (and encyclopedia), reluctant disciplinarian and occasional diplomat negotiating peace between two miniature warring factions. In other words, I was your basic babysitter, otherwise known as “Auntie Mai.”
My niece and nephew are nearly 3 and 5 years old, respectively, and I’ve become accustomed to calling my time spent with them my “what if” weekends. For a few hours or days, I catch a glimpse of what my life might’ve been like had things aligned themselves differently. At a childless and recently single 42, I’m fully aware that parenthood is likely not my destiny. But I’m only now becoming comfortable enough to openly admit that while I always expected to have children, I’m not sure I ever actively wanted to.
I remember being a fresh-out-of-college elementary school teacher and administrator, overwhelmed by the daily demands of interacting with fourth- through eighth-graders. After one especially grueling day, I tearfully called my mother with what I thought would be a heartbreaking confession:
“Mom,” I sniffled, “I don’t think I like kids.”
She burst into laughter, barely catching her breath before she said, “Oh, honey. I don’t like other people’s kids, either. I like my kid.”
It was then I realized that teaching was a calling—or should be. At the very least, it clearly wasn’t my ministry. But at that age, I failed to make the connection that parenthood is a calling, too. Instead, my then-boyfriend and I began to discuss including kids in our five-year plan—because, undoubtedly, I would like my kids ... and having kids was what people did, right?
Thankfully, that plan didn’t work out, because I couldn’t imagine having children with a man who treated their mother the way he treated me. And thankfully, I’ve never had to face the difficult decision to continue or terminate a pregnancy. But in the years since, the conversation has resurfaced in other relationships; and even when I was madly in love with that person, the idea of children has consistently found me ... ambivalent.
As I’ve aged and watched parenthood become a high priority for my peers, my ambivalence has only grown. I love, nurture and spoil the children of my friends and family, but never feel the longing for a child of my own or hear the amplifying ticking of a biological clock—even though my own logic tells me mine is surely winding down at this point.
In my most recent relationship, when discussing the possibility of children, my ex told me he wanted to have them “for legacy.” His statement puzzled me because I’ve never considered my own legacy exclusively tied to giving birth to a child, but to what I’ve already birthed and co-birthed: songs, albums, careers, businesses, advertising campaigns and even this very blog.
Those are indelible imprints I’ll leave behind; tangible evidence that yes, I was here.
I’ve also never qualified my womanhood by my ability to procreate; I never felt that childbearing would make me a “woman”; self-reliance would. And whether it’s a result of that self-reliance or the fact that I’m a child of divorce, I’ve always wanted a partner more than progeny—and to be wanted for myself, first.
Above all else, what I’ve known for sure is that I never wanted children without the right relationship to support them—emotionally and financially. That right one simply hasn’t yet appeared.
But every so often, when I have a little one in my arms, someone notes how natural I am with them—and maybe even dares to ask what I’m waiting for. And for a moment, I consider an alternate reality: What if I’d met Mr. Right much earlier—or had become inextricably linked to any one of so many Mr. Wrongs? What would my life look like? And what else might I not have given birth to had I given birth to children?
“You don’t have to have them, you know,” my father told me once, many years ago. “Not everyone does.”
At the time, it seemed an odd thing for a father to say to his firstborn; I wondered if he thought I was inadequate and would somehow fail to be a good parent. Now I realize he was affirming me exactly as I was, releasing me from any expectations and giving me permission to continue to take the less traveled, nonlinear roads I always have. He wanted me to find myself complete, whenever and wherever I arrived.
And as this new year dawned, and I looked at the sweetly slumbering faces of my niece and nephew—children I couldn’t love more if they were my own—I realized that I had the freedom to release myself from those expectations, too. Because the “what if” never really mattered.
As Morpheus famously said in The Matrix, “What happened, happened, and couldn’t have happened any other way.”
So, in 2018, I’m letting go of “what if” and giving myself permission to fully love what is. It’s time to revel in the reality of the life I created, instead of forcing regret for the ones I didn’t.