I was struck by the comments Jennifer Aniston made to Allure magazine this week about the badgering she gets on a topic that she finds painful: her lack of children. She tells the magazine: “I don’t like [the pressure] that people put on me, on women – that you’ve failed yourself as a female because you haven’t procreated. I don’t think it’s fair. You may not have a child come out of your vagina, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t mothering -- dogs, friends, friends’ children.” For Aniston, 45, the topic is fraught with emotion. “Even saying it gets me a little tight in my throat,” she said.
I thought about Aniston’s comments—what many women in their early 40s without children are forced to feel—and then I thought about my own life. In some respects I’m Aniston’s exact opposite: I’m a 41-year-old mother of two who spent my entire adult life telling myself that children were my destiny. I did what society and my family expected, never questioning the choice. But sometimes I wonder how much of the blueprint of my life was drawn by me, and how much was sketched by experiences I had when I was way too young to be the architect of my own destiny.
For all intents and purposes, my mother was a single parent. My father left when I was twelve, but long before then my mother had taken over the head of the household role. She worked full-time as a waitress while my father flitted between different construction jobs. There always seemed to be an injury or a reason he wasn't able to work. The image of him lying on our living room floor in front of our television is burned on my brain. He was there so much -- diagonally and on his side with his head perched upon on his hand--I actually thought it was odd when I went to friends' houses and their fathers weren't in that prone position. I also found it odd that my friends' parents shared a bedroom. My dad had taken up residence on the couch for so long, it seemed normal.
It was the obviously unhappy marriage that birthed the mantra my mother would repeat to me throughout my young life: “Do not depend on a man for anything.” That was followed closely by: “You and your sister are the best things I've ever done.” My mother made it clear that we were her reason for living. There was never a time I didn't feel loved by my mother. But there was also a latent message that became clear after my father left: I am not alone because I have children. If it weren't for you two I would be falling apart.
Before I hit adolescence, I decided that children were the only things that could fulfill me when I grew older.
"I've always wanted kids." I don't think I could possibly count the number of times in my life I have uttered those words. But, the same enthusiasm never escaped my lips when talking about marriage. I was never that girl who fantasized about her wedding day. So I skipped the marriage part, feeling like a renegade who was bucking the patriarchal confines of society.
It took five years for my partner and me to have a pregnancy that didn't end in loss. After the third miscarriage, I began to panic: what if I really couldn't have children? What would my life become? I was a bartender at the time that we were trying and my partner was a musician -- we were in no way financially prepared for children. But the panic and fear that the narrative I had chosen for myself so many years earlier was not going to play out made me a woman consumed.
For five years we spent month after month trying for a child. The obsession I had with ovulation calendars and pregnancy tests only paused when a test came back positive, then the obsession switched to worrying about whether the pregnancy was going to last. I gave birth to a healthy baby boy in 2010, when I was thirty-eight. I was finally a mom.
My life changed -- but only the daily tasks. I was still working full-time. Once we added a baby, the only difference was we now had no downtime. I was not a new person. I was the woman I had always been, I just added another label to my list of identifiers: friend, photographer, bartender, girlfriend, writer, mother. I reached the endgame, and nothing about myself had changed -- save my ability to multitask.
My assumption that I was destined to be maternal made me never consider the idea that maybe I wasn’t. The possibility that I wasn’t actually hard-wired to mother never occurred to me until I looked into my child’s eyes for the first time and didn’t feel that thunderbolt everyone talks so much about. Those overwhelming feelings of love arrived eventually, but they certainly weren’t automatic.
Had we continued having infertility issues and not been able to conceive, I am certain that I would have felt that there was something “missing” from my life. But only because I believed the narrative my mother sold -- that children bring fulfillment. Since I’ve become a mother and seen that the essence of what makes me who I am has not changed, I’ve learned that nothing outside of you can fulfill you. Fulfillment is all about how you perceive the fullness or emptiness of your life. But how can a woman feel fulfilled if she’s constantly being told her life is empty without children? How can she ever feel certain she’s made the right decision if society is second-guessing her constantly?
There is nothing wrong or incomplete about building a life with a partner or alone, unburdened by the added stress of keeping another human being alive. This is something that men have always been allowed – women, not so much. A woman is constantly reminded of the ticking time bomb that is her biological clock. We don’t believe that a life without children is something a woman could possibly want. It’s why successful, wealthy women like Aniston are still asked the baby question every single time they sit down for an interview. Everyone is always looking for the latent sadness, the regret. What if it’s not there?
It's been 40 years since the women's liberation movement told us that just because we have a uterus, doesn’t mean we have to use it. We still don't believe it. Whether we realize it or not, the necessity to tap into our maternal side is so wired into our being that we can't escape it. If we could, there wouldn't be debates about whether women could "have it all" or whether we were turning against our nature if we decide not to procreate.
I never questioned my desire to have children, because I didn’t have to; I took the well-traveled road. That desire is expected of me – it’s expected of all women. It took me decades to realize that the maternal drive I carried with me my entire adult life, the one that led me to try for five years to have children, may not have been a biological imperative at all. It may just have been a program that was placed into my psyche by the repeated mantras of a woman who was let down by a man and comforted by her children. That's okay. I love my children and I'm happy about the experiences I’ve had and the paths that have led me to this place. But if this isn’t your place—whether you’re a famous movie star or not-- you didn't take a wrong turn.