Today my friend is laboring to bring her daughter into the world. As I imagine her breathing through the contractions, enormous belly compressed and released in an ancient rhythm that every woman’s body knows, I notice that my own body feels remarkably weightless and thin. I am one of those women who never outgrew my 16-year-old form; there’s no mama frame here. Today, as my friend’s voluptuously pregnant body makes itself into a mother, I feel the unmotherly lightness of my own being and realize what I’ve left behind: the desire to give birth.
For the first half of my life, I wanted a brood of kids—thirteen at least, I told my first boyfriend. He was alarmed, but he humored me. I saw us living on wide acreage, children running across the porch of a sprawling house, catching grasshoppers in tall yellow grass. I saw myself showing little replicas of myself how to sow seeds of cucumbers and melons. I saw the smallest girl squatting, splashing in a giant watering can, squealing with glee. I saw piles of children climbing onto our big bed for story time, cherubic and chaotic and crazy-good as a heart gone to seed.
What happened to that dream? I must have dropped it, child by child, in the sterile halls of academia. All the years I spent curled over textbooks, cramming for exams, editing essays until there was no breath left in them—those years must have drained the juice out of my mother instinct, dried up my uterus. I must have discarded the dream in Women’s Studies classes, where I learned the impacts of mothering and working and marriage and divorce on women. I wanted to avoid falling prey to the curse that afflicted my grandmother, my mom, my aunts. They were fantastic mothers who got short shrift when it came to creative expression, job training, and alimony. And when the kids and husbands left the nest, the nest became a poorhouse.
I set aside my vision of a family farmhouse and channeled my lifeblood into writing and art. I created stories, poems, articles, paintings, and the occasional quilt: progeny I could fuss over and present to guests. I poured my soul into two-dimensional offspring, molded them to my will and sent them into the world. I was disappointed when they didn’t live up to my expectations, ecstatic when they were praised.
My Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, has said that whether or not we have children, we each continue in our actions and words. We live on in those who touch and hear us. I see this when I share my writing and find it quoted or shared in wider circles. And I know this when I spend time with my nieces—three adorable girls who run at me for tight hugs and let me hold their petite hands and tickle them and invent stuffed-animal worlds. We pile onto the couch and tell stories; the girls repeat what I say, making it their own, and I see how I will continue. I’m alive in them and in anyone else who takes my words in, or receives my touch, or loves me.
When the unborn mama in me longs for a child whose hair she can brush and braid—when she wonders if her hands and breasts will ever fulfill their true purpose—when she dreams of continuance more wet and visceral than words on paper—I will go and visit my nieces, or my friend who is laboring today, and her new baby girl. I’ll hold the little one for a while, gaze into her face, and rest in the bliss of pure goodness, where all is forgiven, in that place beyond longing and dreams.