Phantom Child: Mourning Motherhood

My uncle urged me to write a novel. His suggestion was an attempt to help me conquer a recent, brief episode of depression. He meant well, but as I explained to him, I have a narrow literary skill set that does not include creating fiction. I rarely feel depressed, so we were both at a loss as to how I should deal with my current emotions. The last time I'd been this blue had been after my father's placement in an assisted living facility for worsening Alzheimer's disease.

The most recent depression came on suddenly after completing a year of whirlwind activity centered around publicizing my first book, followed immediately by six months of revising my second one. I took only a few days off from these ventures. With the second book edited, suddenly my literary life didn't require as much focus. Old issues came bubbling to the surface-- primarily, the dwindling down of my family, with no children of my own to fill the void.

I decided not to have children twenty years ago after becoming acutely ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, now called Systemic Exertional Intolerance Disease. I'd longed to be a mother since my teens. After two years of dating my future husband, I broke up with him for nine months because he didn't want a child. We resumed our romance only after he changed his mind. I'd been sick since I was nineteen. Until my mid-thirties, I managed my health problems without major disruption to my life. But by the end of the first year of marriage, my health had taken a serious downturn, and I wasn't improving. I missed weeks of work and could barely function at home.

I will always be grateful to my former husband for keeping his word about having a child and allowing me to make the decision to give up this dream. Quietly and repeatedly, he asked how I could raise a child when I struggled to take care of myself. Eventually I realized he was right.

Once I made the decision, I knew immediately it was the correct thing to do--not just for us, but also for our phantom offspring, the one I'd imagined for two decades. Many disabled and chronically ill people choose to raise children and do it well. But I would not have been one of those people. I was too ill. I knew my husband wouldn't be able to make up for my deficits, nor did I have local family who could assist or adequate financial resources to pay for help with housework or emergency childcare. I'd fantasized about a child for twenty years and was attached to my imaginary offspring. I didn't want to bring a baby into the world knowing I couldn't give her or him what they needed. So my phantom child remained just that--a phantom, a wish, and an unborn spirit.

At twenty-four I thought my birth control had failed me. Although pro-choice, I never considered having an abortion. In 1984 you couldn't pee on a stick to find out if you were pregnant. It took two weeks to learn I'd had a false alarm. I felt neither relief nor happiness at the news. That was the closest I ever came to having a child. I often imagine how old that person would be now had the results been different, and I wonder what kind of life he or she might have led.

As my friend's children leave for college or start their post-college lives, I miss having a child more than I thought I would. I naively believed that the decision I made twenty years ago would be less painful with time. Instead the loss has its own life, just as a child might have. I feel the absence more and more as my father slowly declines, and whenever I am not kept busy with my literary life. I realize now this feeling will probably wax and wane for the rest of my life. And as I grow older, I'll have to continue to learn how to be at peace with it. I feel the approbation of my phantom child, thanking me for making such a sad, hard choice.