On Being No One’s Mother

Teresa K. Miller: “Sometimes, the universe demands we choose.”

In my twenties, long before I understood the gravity of parenthood or had any idea how I would feel, I decided age 37 was my last chance to conceive or forever hold my peace. I also made the most perfectionist bargain I could muster: if I won a major award in my field that no amount of hard work could guarantee, then my life would have meaning enough without being someone’s direct ancestor.

I chose graduate school, not children. Union organizing and environmental activism, not children. Farming in Central America, backpacking around Mt. Rainier, trekking through the largest cave in Vietnam. I learned to graft and prune fruit trees—even moved from downtown Oakland to unincorporated Oregon to start a small orchard—but did not grow a child.

Age 37-and-a-half marked the exact moment I felt all the time in the world give way to the clock running out. Not the proverbial biological clock I’d expected to appear someday—more like Portland’s most blasé bartender intoning Last call, as I realized the night would soon end and I couldn’t even decide what I’d come to do.

I worried a kid would spell the end of pursuing creative projects over tea on quiet mornings, a scene parents might dismiss as self-indulgent but one that makes my life worth living. Though my parent-friends assured me “you get used to” lack of sleep, their faces signaled otherwise. Yet when I imagined being no one’s mother, I felt a rush of failure, guilt, obligation—the full weight of history crushing me.

My father lost his mother to pancreatic cancer when I was 4, which launched him on a relentless genealogical quest before DNA methods and Ancestry.com, when such research required flying to specialized libraries, decoding microfiche images of handwritten census reports, chasing down hunches in dusty self-published books, and scouting out deteriorating headstones. Over the course of almost two decades, while holding down a demanding full-time job, he documented more than 30,000 of my relations and became an information hub for family historians around the world.

His grief unleashed an obsession that became a calling, bringing him genuine pleasure and maybe even a little consolation, but it didn’t heal the wound: it didn’t bring his mother back. And I, in my bedroom across from his study, tossing with insomnia even in early childhood, saw the light spilling out into the hallway as he hunched over his desk, penciling the names of the dead in careful capital letters, and apprehended only more, more, more. We must hold the infinite expanse of our origins in our arms, even though doing so is impossible. We owe these forebearers everything, yet our efforts will never soothe our hearts or be enough.

How many times had I cried for the child I’d never tried to have?

When I was 23, a street-racing teenager intentionally drove onto the bike path where my father was out for his first training ride of the season. He had decided, at my urging, to do the Seattle to Portland long-distance cycling event, a 200-mile course we’d ridden together twice when I was a child. The Ford Thunderbird was going at least 80 miles per hour when it jumped the curb. My father’s head shattered the windshield, and his death shattered my sense of order, safety, justice, belonging.

I could not continue his by-then-arcane research. I would never introduce him to a grandchild. I thought about the baby I might one day name after his maternal grandmother’s line, his research area of specialty. Mostly, I tried to stop time. If I did not move forward, then it would not have been very long since he’d left, and he might come back.

Maybe that’s why—even once I married someone he’d never met, held a job, and bought a house—having a child was always two years out, no matter how many years passed. To accept where life has taken us—and let the past stay in the past—is to be a body untethered in the universe, an agent with some small modicum of influence but no control. To commit one way or the other would have required admitting my bottomless mourning might shift but never resolve, that nothing I did would fill the hole.

I did not want to close the door on parenthood, but I also knew if I walked through it, I could not turn back. I could see and name the anxiety, but it continued to course through my blood. I could not think it away any more than you could will your cholesterol to lower or your platelets to multiply. As the half-orphaned only child of parents who had no nieces or nephews, deciding whether to be the end of my ancestral line filled me with terror.

Whatever I chose seemed poised to hurt me.

*

Age 37-and-a-half arrived as winter wound down. When the orchard flowered and then unfurled a green canopy, I noticed the peach tree I’d planted three years earlier showed alarming signs of fungus. The leaves grew curled and red or tiny and translucent. It could not photosynthesize.

I talked to the tree as I treated each leaf. I’m so sorry. Please live. I care more about you dying than you can possibly know. Agnostic prayers spent, I played out the possibilities. Maybe one day we would foster to adopt—my partner, also an artist on the fence, offered to follow my lead.

For years, I’d periodically lamented my painful indecision to a trusted confidant. One day, she suggested I take several deep breaths and connect with the still, confident place in my center. My heart raced, anticipating her question, well-meaning though it was. “Do you want children?”

I searched for honesty, certainty—clarity. The best I could muster was “Not right now.”

“Okay,” she said. “Maybe in the future, but you know not right now.”

I nodded, sniffling. How many times had I cried for the child I’d never tried to have?

She gave me an appraising look. “Whatever you decide will be the right choice,” she said. And then, “I wonder if some part of you thinks you’re not allowed to say no.”

What did my temporary “no” do to my timeline, as I hurtled toward 38? Was I capitulating to a system that failed to support child-rearing when I should make it work? If I lived in Scandinavia, would I already be a mother? If I’d had a different childhood? If I’d made more adventurous or lucrative use of my twenties? Was having it all still (or ever) a thing?

Some people feel called, from the depths of everything they hold true, to be parents. They can’t not have a child. No fertility treatment is too burdensome, no surrogate arrangement too complicated. I know women who marched, confident and committed, to the sperm bank or a trusted donor, choosing single motherhood before all manner of other pieces fell into place.

That would never be me. In high school, I said I didn’t want kids, which felt more like feminist rebellion than absolute truth—but I later wondered if my younger self knew something I lost sight of. At my bridal shower, I carefully untied the bow on each gift, until my mom said, “C’mon, break at least one,” every snapped ribbon portending a baby. She was joking/not joking, but I couldn’t do it.

Yet there were also pangs: watching my friends cradle their newborns and dance with their toddlers, seeing kids’ unbridled affection as they clumsily hugged their parents’ knees. In college, I babysat a little boy who, right before I graduated, chose me as his guest for “grandparents and special friends day” at his kindergarten, which felt like the highest honor I could ever receive. I still remember his class bear-walking across the gym floor—and the first time I met him, when we invented an impromptu game of baseball in the living room with a couch cushion and a rolled-up pair of socks. These glimpses into the untraveled life, however fleeting, made me believe friends who said they never cared about other people’s kids but fiercely loved their own.

*

The peach tree’s leaves turned brown and brittle, then fell off, along with the barely started fruit. Certain the tree was dead, I fertilized it anyway and asked it to hang on. Sustained protests erupted, but racist killings continued. Every night, the news reported how many tens of thousands of people had contracted a tenacious new disease. A longtime colleague admitted misconduct, snapping a creative lifeline I’d clung to in the absence of achieving my impossible award goal. I had a calling once, to commune with language and the natural world, but they yielded nothing except disappointment and despair. I told my partner I didn’t think I could do it anymore. We were talking about writing, but bleaker thoughts crept in. Death all around us, nothing being born.

Do you have kids? I’ve fielded that question from friends of friends, strangers in the grocery store line, professors, bosses, dental assistants. They’ve met my “no” with blank stares or “Not yet, huh?”

I cried all those years not because I ached for motherhood but because I feared regret.

I’ve always tried to leave open as many doors as possible and also, in the wake of debilitating loss, have myriad contingency plans. I would be the accomplished artist who saved up a retirement fund. A responsible free spirit. Someone who lived in the moment but also researched and planned far ahead, to reach the best possible result and avert remorse. I would have a focused life of the mind and see the world but also do what my family and society expected of me.

And then, sometimes, the universe demands we choose.

When my dad taught me to ride a bike, I was charging up the hill in front of our house, repeating, “Don’t let go!” to which he replied, “It’s okay—you’re doing great! I’ve still got you.” Only when I turned and saw he was not holding on to my seat but rather encouraging me from out of reach did I tip over into a neighbor’s unforgiving driveway. I wanted to need him. He knew I could manage on my own, that grasping and overthinking thwart the natural momentum.

*

I turned 38. My partner suggested we go canoeing. I mapped the route to a lake, but an hour later the coordinates left us at a trailhead by a farm, no water in sight. A hiker setting out told us about a launch he’d used before. We drove there and found dozens of boats coming on and off the choppy Columbia River, while from the same parking lot, we could see a placid system of tree-lined lakes we’d have to ourselves. We chose the lakes. It was lovely.

The next evening, I drank backyard birthday cocktails with a few friends. None of us have children—we chatted uninterrupted well past dark, no one to tend to, no babysitters to rush home to. My phone buzzed with an unfamiliar number, and I sent it to voicemail. When they left, I listened to the message: a former California poet laureate calling to tell me I’d won the big award I’d been working toward for fourteen years of quiet mornings over tea.

For decades, women I hardly knew told me, unbidden, that you’re never really ready, that you don’t know what love is until you have a child, that I would make a great mother—as if I hadn’t given the subject any thought, didn’t torture myself regularly. A couple of them seemed to mean it. Many radiated resentment or misery. They said I should “remove the goalie” or take the plunge.

I cried all those years not because I ached for motherhood but because I feared regret. That fear and suffering taught me to exercise care with the questions I ask others. I also had all manner of adventures assisted by my childlessness: writing books, traveling and trekking, changing careers, collaborating with trees. If I’d deeply wanted a child, I would have made that adventure work, too. Should I slog through the vast, uncertain land between no and yes to arrive, however late, at motherhood, there will be a way.

I’m no stranger to leaps of faith. One brought us from California by the freeway to our current home. I planted a peach that took root, almost died during a plague, and then, like Lazarus, sent out new, green shoots and kept growing.

That leap to Oregon is how, a week after my birthday, I happened to be wielding a chainsaw, cutting limbs from a cedar that had succumbed to climate change while I’d nursed the peach. My mind drifted to an ex who’d tried to pressure me to get pregnant when I was only 24, the horrific constraint of that alternate path.

And then a little kickback from the saw, my grip too loose, and the quickest bite of the blade through my glove and into my left index finger. I ran into the house and yelled for my partner, who drove me to the emergency room as I cursed myself.

We came home to two bottles of sparkling wine on the porch, a gift from friends to celebrate the award. We split one and watched the Democratic presidential nominee give his acceptance speech, looked up and saw rain on the skylight, the first in months. It was not enough to save the cedar tree or spare my wound, but it was something.

__________________________________

Borderline Fortune

Borderline Fortune by Teresa K. Miller is available via Penguin Books.

Teresa K. Miller
Teresa K. Miller
Teresa K. Miller’s second full-length collection, Borderline Fortune, won the National Poetry Series and was published by Penguin on October 5, 2021. A graduate of Barnard College and the Mills College MFA program, she is the author of sped (Sidebrow) and Forever No Lo (Tarpaulin Sky) as well as co-editor of Food First: Selected Writings from 40 Years of Movement Building (Food First Books). Originally from Seattle, she tends a mini orchard near Portland, Oregon.





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