When Motherhood Never HappensS

Cameron Diaz, one of the many castmembers in What To Expect When You're Expecting, is 39 years old, unmarried, and childless. No kids. She didn't know it was going to be this way.

"I thought I was going to be married and have two children by the time I was 21," Diaz explains in the new June issue of Redbook. "I think I felt I had to model my life after my mother's." But Diaz feels fairly confident about her decision to go in a different direction:

My career was starting to take off and there were still so many things I wanted to do… So that dream [of motherhood] for me was shattered early on. After that I never put another time line on anything in my life.

She's one of many women who, at a young age, think about having children "someday"... Only to grow older and find that that day never comes. It's perhaps exacerbated by the fact that more and more, we're "younger" longer — vibrant, sneaker-wearing, concert-going grownups of 25 and 45 seem the same. Except if you're a woman, your biology at 45 is vastly different from that at 25. Fertility is a window that closes.

In a piece published in the Motherlode section of The New York Times this weekend, Eve Lederman writes: "I've found myself in my mid-40s, minus a partner, and with seven billion people on the planet furiously chanting, 'Bay-bee, bay-bee…' Not because I want a child, and not because I don't. It's more that I don't not want one…"

Ambivalence. Indecision. Fear.

Lederman puts it this way:

I'm afraid of undertaking motherhood alone, in a tiny apartment with a three-flight walk up and little savings. I'm equally scared of the drone of doing so with a husband and a good job in a nice home. And what I fear the most is missing the indescribably deep connection with a child that yields a lifetime of stories.

Of course, eventually, not making a decision is the decision.

And if a woman decides not to have children, she often feels forced to explain.

Says Diaz:

I'm sure a lot of people would expect that I would have had a child by my age. But it's not what I've wanted out of my life thus far. We still live in a largely chauvinistic world. There's a box people put themselves in, and when you [live] outside of it, that makes them uncomfortable — they have to look at themselves and question their own choices.

On the Redbook website, this quote is accompanied by a photograph of Diaz and her castmates wearing heels and little white dresses. Diaz is pushing a baby carriage. And laughing.

Still, there is a difference between choosing to be childless and just waking up realizing it's happening to you. Some women know, for sure: I don't want children. Other women work, love, live, only to discover that they've crossed an unmarked border into new territory, where everything looks exactly the same, only now you're that woman who never had kids.

Even though Lederman reports that 46 percent of American women are childless through age 44, those statistics actually refer to women aged 15 to 44. If you look at women aged 40-44, only 18% are childless. No wonder it can be unsettling, feel strange, to realize what's happened. To acknowledge what you are. A woman who is not a mother.

(I am in the very final year of my 30s, single, no kids, facing the very real possibility that I may never have any.)

Ambivalence. Indecision. Fear.

As friends and colleagues get hitched and have babies, sometimes I start to feel like a straggler at a party. Everyone's gone home, what am I still doing here?

In the comments of Lederman's Times piece, a "childless, relationship-less" 46-year-old woman who calls herself Janis describes her experience on the other side of the invisible line.

It's a strange thing. I do feel a sense of isolation, but it's sort of the reverse of what most people assume it is. Much to the chagrin of many people I've known over the years, I don't wish I were "normal," with a husband and kids. I've never been overwhelmingly feminine or "normal" by any stretch in my life, even as a child. But I do wish that there were more people on my side of the fence. I do feel the sense of vague homelessness of not having an "own kind," but I don't want to be their kind. I'd just like to live in a world for once that was not 100% calibrated to the satisfaction of appetites that I don't seem to share. I've often felt like a member of a species that reproduces by fission that was born on this planet by mistake, metaphorically speaking. I don't want to be one of the types that seem to comprise the rest of my species, but I would like to HAVE a species at least.

Feeling isolated, like a freak, socially pressured, is definitely part of the problem. Women are flooded with mommy propaganda, whether it be celebrity-oriented Unsolicited Uterus Updates and "baby weight" progress stories or Facebook feeds filled with ultrasounds, baby bumps, infant photos, toddler videos and report cards. The Jennifer Aniston tabloid narrative — in which she is not a person but a character, a woman smiling and fit and happy yet apparently deeply sad that she's unmarried and childless — is a haunting reminder that if you're not doing what's expected of you — pairing up, mating, reproducing — you must be doing something wrong. Actually: There must be something wrong with you.

(Ambivalence. Indecision. Fear.)

If you really really want something, you go for it. That much we know. But if you don't? If you're unsure? If there are extenuating circumstances? What if the money, time, physical/mental health and partner aren't there? How does one press on? What keeps childless women from staring out of a window day in, day out, weeping at the confusing injustice and senselessness of it all? In a perfect world, it wouldn't even be an issue, it would be like, hey, you do you, I do me, everything's cool, la la la. Whatever. But this world is baffling: You're meant to make something of yourself, work hard, contribute to society in a meaningful way. And once you fight tooth and nail to establish yourself with not just a job but a career, you're chastised: What, no kids?

Not having kids, having kids, letting life make the decision for you, regret, desire, the fucking Aniston headlines, it's a lot. They say the unexamined life is not worth living. I'd argue that on the other hand, the over-analyzed life is a suffocating wet blanket. Sometimes you have to just be.

And maybe instead of picturing myself as the straggler at the party, it's important to see beyond all the baby mama drama, recognize that on this side of the fence, there's plenty of love, good times, late nights, late mornings, travel, shopping, joy, indulgence, pleasure, accomplishment. It might not be celebrated, revered, fetishized on TV and in magazines the way the motherhood narrative is, but it's there. It exists. If I end up staying at this party instead of heading to the other party, it's still a party, and if we're not praised, we should praise ourselves. We congratulate women when they get pregnant; why don't we congratulate women who do not? Louisa in Eureka writes:

I am 60, no children, two step-children. As a woman who chose not to have kids, I was fortunate, compared to others I know: I received no pressure from family, and I did find my tribe, though I understand what Janis means when she says she felt "homeless" sometimes.

Still, no one ever said to me, "Thank you. Thank you for giving the biggest possible gift to the planet by not having a child—bigger than any other act— not owning a car or not flying." No one ever gives people without children any credit.

Helping the planet was not my reason for not having children, of course; that wasn't on my radar or the culture's radar 30-odd years ago. But it was the end result. And I resent the fact that no one ever acknowledges that.

Cameron Diaz: I Thought I'd Be Married With 2 Kids by Age 21 [Redbook]
It's Not That I Don't Want Children. Exactly. [NYT]