Is it possible to do something more meaningful than mothering? In her new book, theologian Erin S. Lane overturns dominant narratives about motherhood and inspires women to write their own stories. In the following excerpt from Someone Other Than a Mother: Flipping the Scripts on a Woman’s Purpose and Making Meaning Beyond Motherhood, Lane interrogates the script “Your Biological Clock is Ticking,” and rewrites it to “The Sound of Your Genuine Is Calling.”
There is in every person something that waits
and listens for the sound of the genuine in herself.
— Howard Thurman, “The Sound of the Genuine” (speech), Atlanta, GA, May 4, 1980
Deep in the heat of 2018, I am in my home in Raleigh, North Carolina, sitting at the dining room table, interrogating one of my best friends about mothering. Or, in her case, not mothering. I’m hoping she can help me make sense of something strange.
It’s been a little over a year since I legally became a parent after decades of being childfree. This isn’t even the strangest part, although I’m having a terrible time trying to explain myself to myself. The strangest part about becoming a parent has been the reaction from my community. Elation. Relief. Recognition. One friend expressed shock—“Holy shit. Okay then.”— when I shared the news, but nearly everyone else responded as if motherhood was not only the most exciting thing I’d ever done but also inevitable. “I knew you’d come around to having children,” my aunt confessed, “even if you had to do it unconventionally.”
It’s possible that a large part of the fervor was precisely because Rush and I had come to parenting unconventionally. Our people, which is to say White, Christian, American people, do love a good adoption story. We are nothing if not optimistic about the salvific power of family. Still, while it may be highly praised, it is not highly practiced. “Bless you,” the church ladies would say to me in one breath, followed by, “I could never do what you did,” in the next.
White, Christian, American people … are nothing if not optimistic about the salvific power of family.
To be fair to all our enthusiasts, most women do end their childbearing years with children of some kind. But I have not “come around” to being one of them. I can still hardly call myself a mom, though I do understand that this is a widely agreed-upon word for a female parent. There are good reasons for my resistance. One, the girls already have a woman whom they call Mami, and neither they nor I are interested in replacing her. Two, I never really intended on becoming a mom, so while I’ve been researching the role for some years, I’ve had scant time to make it my own. (That I want to make it my own—as precious and unique as an individual snowflake—is, I’ll give you, a very modern dilemma.) And three, I am keen to believe that a woman doesn’t have to be a mom in order to be Someone.
It must be said, or people will worry, that I care deeply for the three small Someones— hereafter referred to as Oldest, Middle, and Youngest— under my roof. I care deeply that they are safe and supported and capable of penning a handwritten thank-you note when the occasion calls for it. Hours of my life are given to scheming what helps each of them to be a human person. Is it a beautiful book? A sewing class? A different parenting strategy? Giving up on the strategies entirely for a while? There is little I like more than sitting shoulder to shoulder with a child while we order personal hygiene products from Target.
I thought I was doing this work, albeit with different people, before I became a mother.
So, I am doing the work of loving and living for more than myself, even if I, like many parents, do not enjoy it half the time. This is not my main trouble with motherhood. My main trouble is that I thought I was doing this work, albeit with different people, before I became a mother, and I do not fully get why people are so galvanized by my life now. Or what was so uninspiring about my life before.
A life before motherhood has historically and stereotypically been cast as a prepubescent version of what it could be. Nothing wrong with it, in theory, but to try and stay there forever would be to enact, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “a perpetual springtime.” It would be small- minded, underdeveloped, and not just a little bit narcissistic. A perpetual springtime would also be highly unnatural anywhere but San Francisco.
And so, I’ve taken it upon myself to start sitting down with friends, especially friends not mothering, or not mothering traditionally, and grabbing them by the proverbial hands to say, “Motherhood is not inevitable. Finding your purpose in motherhood is not inevitable. You are not inevitable.” In other words, I want to tell them what I wish someone had told me.
More to the point, I want to know how I might embrace my life as a parent without dismissing my life as a nonparent. Contentment, I’ve gathered, can be a good look. Contentment with conviction.
Hence, I’ve set off in the doldrums of a Southern summer to begin, and I know exactly the woman I want to begin with.
Janell looks resplendent in the sunlight streaming through my book-lined dining room. Her blue eyes are wide and unflinching. A topknot of long brown hair sits fat and happy on her head. Every so often, I swear her nose ring actually twinkles. Mind you, the afternoon light is also highlighting a week’s worth of kid crumbs ground into our thick, wool rug.
The truth is the trappings of my life, my home, have changed some since I first met Janell. Rush and I were living in a different house, just twenty miles up the highway in Durham, when she arrived on our patio carrying a bottle of molasses whiskey and a grin almost as big. We fell fast for one another. The second time we met, she spent the night in our guest room. It was still a guest room then, outfitted in Ikea white. The drapes were white. The dresser was white. The carpet was mostly white. There was no place to put a suitcase.
Was that barely five years ago?
Janell has arrived with no suitcase today. Although she’s lived in Denver, Colorado, for most of our friendship, she travels through town often for her work as a trained facilitator. We’re both trained facilitators, actually. (Is it so very hard to make an agenda? she texts me. No, it is not, I text back.) She leads suicide prevention programs for middle and high school students. When I’m not writing, I lead retreats for people exploring questions of purpose. Questions of purpose are the best kinds of questions in our professional opinion and yet they often go unasked, assumed.
Finding your purpose in motherhood is not inevitable.
This is especially true of life paths that are culturally prized. A woman has a vision for a wedding and the frothy tulle dress, without asking if she wants a marriage. A woman has a vision for a pregnancy, now with the clever announcements and gender reveals and nurseries painted in trendy tricorn black, without asking if she wants a child. We get hung up on the trappings of a life and miss the deep desire of a life.
Which is why I’m staring Janell down across my dining room table now. She is skilled at attending to her life, and I am confused about mine, or is it others who are confused? This is my point. I don’t know. To some observers, our lives have diverged.
She is a single woman without children. I am a married parent of three. She describes herself as a person with “child- freedom”; I have started referring to my life as “childfull.”
So, Janell and I are different. I know that. In some ways her life is the one I used to have, and I want the record to show that it was a good one. But I also want to recover something of my purpose now. How does one do this? What gets in the way? This is what I intend to find out.
Reprinted with permission from Someone Other Than a Mother by Erin Lane, copyright © 2022 Pengiun Random House.
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