Single and Childless: Can We Just Move On?

A generation ago, women who did not marry and/or have children by age 40 grieved and moved on. But today, with the advancement of assisted reproductive technology, women are no longer given permission to move on.
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A young woman walks alone on a beach, just her feet and legs showing
A young woman walks alone on a beach, just her feet and legs showing

With only a few moments' notice, the television camera light was on and so was I. I hadn't known when I went to meet some of the lovely people behind a new daytime talk show that I would be taped for an on-air "man on the street"-style clip. But there I was, prepped only minutes before on the question I'd be asked.

Before I knew it, the adorable and affable host was pointing the mic at me, asking what I thought I'd never do in my lifetime and actually did. I offered that I had started my own business, always wanting but never knowing that I would one day actually become an entrepreneur. I had managed to answer the question while unabashedly giving my business a little plug. Good job, I thought to myself, satisfied with my response and relieved I had spent a little more time on my hair and makeup that morning.

But the host wasn't done. There was one more question, a question I wasn't expecting: "And what would you never say "never" to doing?"

Pregnant pause.

It was just two days after my latest post here and I was still actively receiving comments, messages and emails on my pronouncement to choose to wait for love over choosing single motherhood -- even if that meant not becoming a mother. Most responses were supportive. But one was still stinging: "There is no such thing as Prince Charming!" a friend emailed me after reading the piece, "If you want children, then have them... Women today who REALLY want children, have children!" (Emphasis hers)

The email caught me by surprise. I seldom complain about not having children, if ever. The only women I discuss it with are my friends in similar circumstances. It's not like I'm a 'woe-is-me' kind of gal. In fact, my brand is about celebrating aunts by relation, aunts by choice, godmothers and other women who love children-not-their-own. I'm very much focused on the positive.

As I've written here, while I had always expected and wanted to be a mom, I never wanted to have a baby on my own, should a husband not arrive. At 43, I can look back at my decision with no regrets, although I do wish I had had marriage and children in my twenties or thirties. But some suppose I am miserable for my choices. Some expect me to be deeply unhappy. Some warn me of great future regret. And as all of these thoughts were weighing on me heavily and with the mic pointed in my direction and the milliseconds ticking... I couldn't belabor how to respond any longer:

"I'd never say never to having a baby on my own!" I said with a big smile and well-played confidence. But I immediately felt like a fraud.

There are those who won't let me let go of my grief for not becoming a mother, and I feel a need to vow to keep the idea open. "Never say never," they say with a charmed and hopeful smile.

As women approach the end of our fertility, unwed and uninterested in solo-motherhood-by-choice, we are not allowed to move on. Natalie Garfield, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist and author of The Sense Connection, revealed when I interviewed her for my book that it used to be, even just a generation ago, that women who did not marry and/or have children by age 40 grieved and moved on. But today, with the advancement of assisted reproductive technology (ART), women are no longer given permission to move on. If there's hope after age 40, more so if there's a will, there's a way! But while for many of us who remain single and childless, there is a strong will to be a mother, there is no way we want to do it on our own. Somehow, this translates to some to mean we never actually wanted to be mothers.

Every sleepless night yearning, every tear, every guy we gave a few more dates to hoping he might be the one if only we felt something more, was for naught. And every time another woman gives birth at late age: "There's still hope!" And for us, there is no exit.

Garfield told me that ART made it so that there is no longer an end-point to our time in late-fertility grief. We're expected to keep being sad; we're not allowed to give up. And when we show evidence of being happy with our lives, then our sincerity for having wanted to be mothers is no longer valued: "You obviously chose to be a career woman," they say. "My career never stopped me from wanting to find love and marriage, nor to having a baby," I respond.

"You never wanted children, right?" they assume. "I very much wanted children," I contend. "But I have no father for those babies."

"Did you [insert all the things one can do to have a baby on one's own]?" they ask. "I have not," I answer. "For example, egg freezing was not a scientifically viable option for women until I was 40, too late to invest the $10,000 it would cost to freeze my eggs for the low chance they were viable."

And finally, the ultimate question: "Have you tried Match or JDate?" as if I haven't been dating for upwards of 20 years and do not know my dating options. It's implied I'm not trying hard enough. I am choosing childlessness by not doing enough to find love. Oh but how I've tried. How I've tried.

I realize I live in a world where moms are queens, no matter how self-deprecating or ambivalent some can be about motherhood. The proof that they wanted to be mothers is their children. I cannot prove I wanted to be a mother unless I go ahead and have a baby on my own, or at the very least, show constant evidence of grief and regret for being childless. I will not be pressured into either.

If I spend my life feeling less-than for being childless, then I have wasted a good part of my life; I am somewhat life-less.

I have moved on. Do I still yearn to be a mother? Not as much as I used to; I have grieved and gotten to the other side. But yes, I have moments. I have moments of wanting to know what it feels like to be pregnant, of wanting to hold my newborn on my chest, of wanting to look at the love of my life and feel so grateful we have a child together. So I give myself permission to live those moments for a minute or two. Then I move on. I move on. All I need from those who care about me is for them to let me move on, too.

Do I still have hope I'll fall in love and, because we both desire to have children together, have a baby with that man? Yes, absolutely. As they say: "Never say never."

Melanie Notkin is the national bestselling author of Savvy Auntie: The Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers and All Women Who Love Kids (Morrow/HarperCollins)
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