On a recent afternoon talk show, which I’m ashamed to admit I had on in the background while grading essays, the hosts were discussing an interview that had just come out in which Oprah Winfrey proclaimed she never regretted not having children or not marrying her longtime partner Stedman Graham.
Having recently published a book based on my difficult decision to opt out of motherhood, I’d been dreaming of the day I could have a conversation with Oprah about it. Isn’t that what we all want, really? Oprah’s support and feedback? I joke, but in all honesty, I have looked to her, along with Ellen DeGeneres, as rare examples of female celebrities who never seemed to doubt their decision to be childless and who have lived apparently fruitful lives.
So, as I was typing a comment about proper citation format for a student, my ears perked up when I heard the TV people mention Oprah’s lack of regret. I got up and moved to the living room sofa. The “GMA 3” hosts ― Michael Strahan, Sara Haines and Keke Palmer ― politely acknowledged “to each his own,” and yet went on to voice their struggle to fathom being OK with not having kids.
Strahan questioned, rhetorically, whether there was any other way to get a certain kind of “ultimate love.” He then shared that having children is like an awakening to how the world really works because you begin to think of the world more than just in terms of yourself.
That sounded so ridiculous, I laughed out loud.
Maybe some people need to have their own offspring to suddenly realize the world is not all about them. It seems to me, though, that many already intuitively understand this and live accordingly.
It’s often that very understanding that leads them to wonder whether having their own children is necessary, or even responsible. In fact, rather than devote one’s love, selflessness and nurturing instinct directly and intensely to their own biological children, a childless person may have more internal and external resources to devote to all of the life around them.
To an extent, my husband Nathan and I are a simple testing ground for the hypothesis that “ultimate love” only exists in the form of a parent’s love for a child. (I think it’s interesting that nobody ever seems to speak of a child’s love for her or his parents as “ultimate.”)
Nathan has a 23-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. I, a 40-year-old woman, have no children. Yes, Nathan’s love for his daughter is unspeakably deep and unique. There’s rarely a moment when she’s not on his mind. He can only rest easy when he knows she’s safe. And all the times he couldn’t protect her have been like hot irons directly searing his heart, leaving scars he may forever carry. He would be the first to tell you, though, that he feels love that is equally boundless for a few others in his life, and in a less tangible way, for the entire planet.
I’m guessing he’d also be the first to tell you about the ways he’s witnessed my capacity to love loyally and fiercely: love my partner, my friends I’ve had for a lifetime, my family, and, of course, the animals in the family. Nathan doesn’t mourn for me that I’m missing out on the supposed only true love there is by not being a mother. We both realize, with some wistfulness, that I would be a damn good mom ... but that doesn’t mean I have to experience that particular kind of unconditional love for my life — or our life together — to be abundant, meaningful and beautiful.
I realize some people would scoff at the notion that what someone feels for animals could be compared to what a parent feels. I do not. I’m so full to the brim with gratitude, concern and empathy for my dog and two cats, I don’t feel like I’m missing out. What is love if not a physical, chemical response along with a willful decision to care and a willingness to sacrifice in order to do so? I can’t remember a day I haven’t been teeming with that.
When we adopted our cat Stoney, we knew we were giving him a chance to live as he wouldn’t have otherwise. He came to us a timid, tiny, gray and white kitten with a chronic eye virus, hungry for affection and safety. Typically, I’m a multi-tasker and get antsy if I sit for more than 10 minutes unless I’m engaged in conversation. But to help Stoney get acclimated, I sat for hours at a time, on an uncomfortable fold-out chair in the garage, with nothing else to do but be with him, and it didn’t bother me for a minute. Watching him stretch out happily in the sunshine fills me with peace — comparable only to the peace I feel when our dog Cayenne is breathing quietly near me. When a car drives down the street too fast, I panic and feel the urge to post signs to slow down for cats. I have nightmares about not being able to protect my dog and cats, and the upsetting images stay with me for days.
Just as my husband’s concern for our planet (which I share and fully respect) sometimes makes it hard for him to breathe when he thinks about what we’re doing to it, I have always felt a visceral love and concern for animals in general. Just as parents can’t stomach the thought of something bad happening to their children, I am sickened by the thought of an animal’s suffering to the point that it’s hard to breathe.
Many of my friends, male and female, married and single, are people in their 40s and 50s who don’t have kids. Most made a conscious decision not to; some aren’t able to. What we all have in common is our inclination to analyze, our desire to soak up whatever goodness in life we’re blessed with in our individual situations, and to talk everything out. We ask a lot of questions ― of each other and ourselves. And in all that question-asking, no one has ever landed on the answer that they feel empty or lacking for not having kids. Feeling some sadness or wondering from time to time ... sure. Many parents I know also feel some sadness or wondering about what life would’ve been like had they chosen differently. As Eeyore says, “We can’t all, and some don’t.”
Still, these omnipresent TV voices can get to me. Right after the segment about Oprah and the opinions about whether it’s OK not to marry or have children, I called Sarah. She’s been my best friend for 35 years, and she now has a one-year-old son. Because of that, it took 24 hours of phone tag to finally connect: She can really only talk when he’s deep in a nap; all other minutes of the day require all of her hands, eyes, ears and attention for baby care and monitoring. One of the most genuine people I know, Sarah was sure to give me a thoughtful and candid response. I asked her, “A year in, do you feel like the love you have for David is greater than any other love you’ve felt? Is it an ultimate love you’d never experienced until motherhood?”
She thought for a moment. “No, not at all. I’ve loved other people and animals as much as David. I love Sebastian [her dog] and David the same amount.” She went on to explain the only different feeling about her son is her Mama Bear instinct with him. She would do absolutely anything to protect him. We went on to discuss those parents out there who talk publicly about this pure and magical love and purpose that only having a child made them feel. “I don’t know ... maybe something is broken in me, but that’s not my experience,” Sarah said, laughing.
Knowing full well she is not broken, we went on. Her sense of purpose is fulfilled by her work as a therapist, connecting with and helping clients. Her conclusion: “I’ve felt all kinds of equal but different love in my life: spiritual, service, family, romantic, motherly; and there has been no more ultimate love than the feeling of communing with the divine in every human on this planet.”
I thanked Sarah and let her get off the phone — her 15 minutes of freedom were up. I thanked her because hearing her truth confirmed two things. First, I should turn off the damn television and opt for instrumental music when I want background noise while I work. Second, there is not one universally grand and ultimate way to experience love. For some, parenting may awaken in them some new kind of love, something beautiful and transformative. For others, that love is alive and well whether or not they reproduce or adopt human children of their own.
I wonder if anyone would dare say Mother Teresa missed out on love by not being an actual “mother.” More important is what she would say about it, given that it was her life, her heart. I can venture a guess by turning to her words.
Memorable quotes spoken or written by her abound. When I scrolled through them, one stood out: “Intense love does not measure. It just gives.” I thought to myself, maybe we could let go of measuring love itself. Rather than compare and contrast, quantify or judge, maybe we can just be grateful for the capacity to love that resides within ― and for the immeasurable ways we can share it.
Ashley Brown is a freelance writer and editor, and she teaches remotely for the University of Oklahoma. She and her husband, author Nathan Brown, live in Wimberley, Texas, with their cattle dog and two cats. Her first book, “Letters to the Daughter I’ll Never Have”, was a runner-up in the San Francisco Book Festival Awards, a finalist in the Foreword INDIES Book Awards, and received an honorable mention from the New York Book Festival.
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