When I was 26 years old, I made a “40 x 40” list — 40 things I wanted to accomplish by the time I turned 40. I had 14 years to accomplish everything on the list, ranging from “go to California” to “skinny dip (again)” to “learn how to grow tomatoes.” The very last item on the list, “have a child,” gives me pause today. When I made the list, I had no desire to be a mother, but I thought having a child was something I was supposed to do in order to succeed at growing up, and that I wouldn’t be a real adult until that all-important life event was crossed off the list along with travel, gardening, and naked swimming.
I had just gotten married when I made the list. First came love, then came marriage — so it only stood to reason that the baby carriage was going to follow. That’s how adulthood worked, right?
I half-seriously mulled over the idea of parenting many times. I imagined creating a small person who had my eyes and my partner’s laugh and fantasized about holding a small hand in mine, pointing out cloud formations as we walked home from the playground for a snack, a story, and a nap, but it was always just a fleeting fantasy. Whenever I truly thought about my future and the life I wanted to lead, I never saw a child of my own in that landscape. I never felt the rush of excitement that came from reading other items on the list: Finish my Master’s degree (check!), Publish SOMETHING (check!,) Learn to belly dance (check, sort of!). Nevertheless, I assumed I’d grow into wanting a child, and that maybe I did actually have a biological clock which would suddenly start ringing incessantly, not stopping until I finally crossed off that last item.
It never happened. Every time I would make plans to start thinking about having a baby, I’d put off making any decisions because I never felt the same need to be a mother as I felt for learning, writing, dancing, and every other thing on my proverbial list. The older I got, the more I realized that it wasn’t actually something I would grow into after all.
I’m 41 now and I’ve accomplished most of the goals on my 40 x 40 list, including visiting California, growing tomatoes, and skinny dipping — all more than once, as a matter of fact. I did not, however, have a child, nor do I plan to have one. In fact, at some point, I crossed “have a child” off the list — not with a check mark, as I marked the successfully completed tasks, but with a line directly through the center of the words, removing it as a “to do” item entirely.
It’s possible I did this when my now ex-husband and I separated seven years into the list — an event that, unfortunately, allowed me to check off the 39th item on the list: Surprise everyone. Whatever the catalyst, having a child stopped being part of my life plan and it has remained off all of my to-do lists. When I turned 40 and looked back at my list, I didn’t feel any sadness, regret, or shame about not reaching the goal of motherhood I had made 14 years before. Instead, I felt relief about admitting that it didn’t need to be part of my plan at all. Getting older wasn’t about checking off items on a list; it was about reevaluating my life and what I wanted it to look like as I went along. More than anything else, it was about accepting who I am instead of mourning who I thought I was supposed to be.
Despite my decision to remain childless, the expectation of motherhood from much of the rest of the world remains. I have lost track of the number of times someone has replied “Oh, well, not YET!” when I tell them I don’t have kids. My younger sister recently had her second child, and while most well-wishers have left their remarks at “Congratulations, Auntie!” — a few have looked at pictures of me with my nieces in my arms and asked, “Doesn’t that make you want one too?”
Well, no, it turns out that it doesn’t, and I don’t feel like anything is missing from my life. I’ve accomplished everything I’ve wanted. All there is to come is enough for me, and that is such a relief.
There’s no one series of successfully completed tasks that magically grants us the status of “grown up.” Nevertheless, even people who I’ve told many times that I don’t plan to have children continuously check in with me to see if I still feel that way; they still think it’s a phase I’ll grow out of eventually, which is what I thought myself, years ago. I now limit my to-do lists, big and small, to things I have to do and things I want to do, not things I think I’m supposed to do, and I’m happy I finally grew up enough to realize that’s the way it should be.
(Photos via George Marks + Thanasis Zovolis / Getty)