I am Not a Mother
I am not a mother. I stand midstream in my life’s river, up to my hips in menopause, and I see the rarity in my choice of rivers, this barren tributary. Did I recognize the direction of my first blithe wading, or was I gazing the gravid way even as I came this way? Did I feel underfoot the pebbles slick and shifting like the years? I do not remember.
I am not a mother. So, what am I? What identifies me if no child has grown in my womb, if I have not given half of me to float along in my current, to keep floating when I stop, to carry on my life after my life is gone? Who am I, if not a mother?
Two decades ago, I cradled my newborn nephew and he felt massive and alien. There was so much to him, and even as I held his neonatal life in my arms, the enormity of responsibility for and to him and who he was and is and would be sent a bolt of anxiety sizzling through me. His weight hung in my arms; I looked down at his fists, clenched into balls, boxing the air. I held him in his first hours of life, and my cradling arm felt like a hard, naked tree branch that holds a hawk.
Karen Donley-Hayes’s work has appeared in Blue Lyra Review, the Quotable, the Healing Muse, Pulse—Voices from the Heart of Medicine, the Saturday Evening Post online, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. Her essays “Hens on a Porch” and “Under Cover” received Pushcart Prize nominations in 2013 from Blue Lyra Review and the Quotable, respectively. She has an MA in interdisciplinary studies and an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Ohio with her husband, a menagerie of geriatric cats, four hens, a German shepherd, and one horse.
When he was three, I woke this nephew on a September morning, watched him as he sat up in his cocoon of covers and blinked away the night, and told him he had a sister.
“Mommy had her baby,” I said, bracing for his reaction to his first morning waking without his parents, his first morning no longer an only child. “It’s a girl. You have a sister.”
He squinted up at me then mashed the backs of his hands into his face for a moment before he climbed, wordless, from his bed and crawled to his toy trucks on the floor. I looked down at the light curls on his head and his meaty little fists as he drove his trucks on the hardwood floor’s linear roads until the rigs pulled into the truck-stop he had told me was run by Ginger.
“Auntie Karen,” he said without looking up, “We thought it was going to be a boy.” Another truck pulled into Ginger’s.
I laughed. “We did?” He just nodded, looked at me for a moment, then returned to his trucks.
I cradled my newborn niece in my arms as I had her older brother, my nephew, a few years earlier; her back stretched across my forearm and her head filled the curve of my elbow, as easy and perfect as a full moon, and I felt wrapped around her like husks over golden kernels, tender and new and perfect. I gulped no fear of responsibility as I held her, felt nothing but a maternal attachment so natural it draped over us like a cashmere throw.
I wonder if bypassed tributaries in my own life’s river those mornings when I held my nephew and was terrified and when I held my niece and was not. Was I aware of chances to leave my chosen course, to try floating down a different channel? Did I deliberately reject the detours, or was I simply oblivious?
Now, I stand in this endless current, midstream in the river of my choosing. I feel largely alone; it seems not many others have chosen this river, to come to its end barren and empty-armed. Too late now to thrash back upstream and slip into the flow of parenthood, even if that became my desire. In the cool wash of irrevocability, lines of Frost ripple around me: Two roads diverge in a wood, and I – I took the road less traveled by. Has that made all the difference?
I am not a mother. Who am I then?
Let me tell you. I am a daughter, a grand-daughter, a sister, a sister-in-law, an aunt, a niece, a wife, a cousin. I am a teacher, a reader, a writer, a rider, a provider, a sympathetic shoulder, a confidant, medic, nurturer, and advisor. I am not a “childless woman”; I am a woman who has no children and few regrets.
and yet, and yet, forever.