I am frequently asked if I have children– I don’t ask people why they ask me that question. Is it because I am a woman of a certain age and it’s a “natural” assumption to believe that women over 25 should have children? Is it because I’m not obviously a hyper-masculine bull-dyke and I wear Mary-Janes with quirky socks that coordinate with my clothes that are straight out of an L.L. Bean catalogue? Is it because my behavior codes as maternal, in my brusque & busybody kind of way? Is it because I work in a “helping” job and am usually the one with the common sense and resources/information to untangle people’s messes for them? How do these qualities come to be associated with maternal/”do you have kids?” rather than just “oh my God, you people are idiots, step aside and let me fix this,” which is sometimes what my inner narrator feels like a lot of the time? I try not to let that uncharitable & condescending sentiment show outside my head if I can. Is it just that we live in a society where asking about children is part of trying to get to know who someone is? (Why is that?)
I don’t regret not having children. I enjoy them, enjoyed my nephew-in-law when I could spend time with him, love the heck out of my niece, but something in me despite silly early 20s loneliness masquerading as babylust said to me– no, that’s not right for you. Whether it was some instinct in me said my husband wouldn’t have been a great father, I wouldn’t have been a great mother, because I didn’t want to genetically pass on my crazy, or socially pass on the pathologies my own (not-)nurture upbringing instilled in me, the fact is, I don’t look at babies and toddlers and think “oh, God, I need one.” Mostly, I see toddlers having tantrums and skirt the borderline between “poor thing” (both the parent and the child) and “thank goodness I escaped that.”
I have lots of friends who are wonderful parents. Some of them still manage to make time for single adult friends like me, and it’s great to spend time both with them alone & with them and their kids. I don’t pretend to understand how hard it is to juggle all the demands of parenthood & having a job & maintaining a marriage & just getting out of bed every day/adulting, much less make time to socialize with people who do not have kids– generally, I try not to be too bitter about the friendships that have lapsed because I can’t compete against dance lessons or fertility treatments of playdates or distance or all of those things. (Try is the operative word. Sometimes I’m bitter. But I let the friendships lapse rather than holler about it because disinterest isn’t worth yelling about and at the end of the day if they were interested, they’d return the efforts to make time, get together. It takes me a while, but I do eventually realize when I can’t compete. I get the message.) I don’t understand or sympathize with the parents whose children are their entire world, and they have no interest in anything else, from their spouse to their former friends, but I’ve never understood the need to exclude everything else in your world down to one thing– I’ve always thought that was a pathological symptom of some Diagnostic & Statistical Manual disorder I can’t be bothered to read more about because– ugh. There’s being lonely & introverted & sometimes, damaged, and then there’s cutting yourself off from the world.
But I do care about people. And I don’t like seeing people upset or hurting or making dumb mistakes they could avoid if they just had the right information. Is it “maternal” to want to be the person who says “cut that shit out before you fuck your life up, trust me, I’ve been there,” and to be the person who listens when someone makes dumb mistakes and tries to offer some options to make the situation less black? I don’t like people making mistakes I made if I can be there to warn them. There’s a quote floating around on Tumblr: “Be the person you needed when you were younger.” It’s hard to remember that the flip side of being the person to warn & advise is the fact of agency– I didn’t have a lot of people who cared enough/were capable enough to really listen, to get to know who I was, to not interrupt me after a few minutes to continue on with their desperate/narcissistic story, but the fact is– even if I do manage by way of my perceived maternalness to get the warning out, people still get to choose not to listen, to make their own mistakes.
I bought the La Lupa pendant when I was in Siena because it appealed to me. I don’t think I was thinking at all about gendered norms of maternity– what I like about the myth was the idea of the ferocious (female) being who is nothing at all the like these strange, helpless beings she finds, but she decides for reasons not entirely known to herself (how concrete are a mythological she-wolf’s thought processes?) to make sure they survive, giving them milk, enlisting a woodpecker to get them more food, eventually handing them over to a human shepherd and his wife to foster– all unlikely allies to Lupa, and yet, she still does it because it means these strange children will live, even if they make mistakes later she’d have shaken them by the ruff for if she could have. (Killing a littermate, probably something frowned on in wolf society, I would imagine, but I anthropomorphize.) The fact was, though, without La Lupa, they wouldn’t have made it past the first crisis, there on the banks of the river. I look at La Lupa and I see the helping instinct, what I define as humane– not maternal. I guess that’s why I feel not just perplexed but confused and almost insulted when people compliment me on my job (and conversely, so hurt when people criticize, especially without any context or knowledge)– because to me, it’s just what people should do.
I don’t feel maternal. I don’t want kids of my own. But I do have 300+ humans who come looking for help and most of the time I am happy to give it, even as I’m often confused how the heck some of these folks got into this pickle in the first place. I suppose the answer is they didn’t have the person they needed when they were younger, and they’re only getting it now– through me.
Maybe that’s the way forward. They aren’t my children, and I’m going to pass them on to the rest of the world, but I can snarl at the predators, for the moment, while they get the information & resources they need.
And the next time someone asks if I have children, I’ll say, “No, why do you ask?” Maybe I’ll even be kind of ready to hear the answer.