Not in the (Motherhood) Club
Guest writer Catherine Rossi writes about being a midlife woman who did not join the Club...of Motherhood.
Note from the editor: Stephanie and I — the co-founders of the HerStories Project and the co-editors of Midstory Magazine — first connected as moms writing about early motherhood over a decade ago. For the first years, the HerStories Project was mainly about stories of motherhood, and our anthologies reflected that focus.
But as I emerged from the intensive, early years of parenting, I grew restless in writing mostly about being a mom. Motherhood was not my sole identity — or even my first. Maybe it’s because I came to motherhood on the later side after my adult identity felt firmly entrenched (almost 37 when my first child was born, 40 my second), but after the years of teething, weaning, preschool decisions, and nap schedules were over, I desperately wanted to write, think, and connect over topics and identities that didn’t only involve motherhood. I looked around and found that many of the most interesting women I knew in my real life and in my writing life were those who never had children, for a variety of reasons.
When we broadened the audience for the HerStories Project to midlife women of all backgrounds, I wanted to make sure that we include the experiences of women who are not mothers and we are a welcoming community for them. As the HerStories Project expanded into writing groups and classes, some of the women from whom I learned the most were not moms.
I’m thrilled to include this powerful essay by Catherine Rossi about her own experience as a midlife woman.
by Catherine Rossi
I didn’t understand the club. I knew it existed, having figured that out over the years, and I knew that I was excluded.
In my twenties, it didn’t matter. I didn’t care. It didn’t hurt. I graduated full of life and energy, and immediately became a star at work. I had a boyfriend. I was on top of the world. I was good. Set. Oblivious. It didn’t matter that there was no ring after 3 years, 5 years, 7 years. I wasn’t worried about more. More would come later.
Things changed in my thirties. With seven-year guy long gone, I struggled to find another. In the meantime, I kept kicking butt at work, kept trying to get ahead, kept trying to be someone, be noticed. Looking to make friends, I joined a women’s group. I imagined sharing the latest coding techniques. Having a lunch group of gal pals. Gossiping over which egotistical male colleagues to avoid. Getting ahead together.
That was when I learned. The women’s group wasn’t what I’d hoped. It was about only one thing.
Losing baby weight. Pumping in the office. Setting up play dates. Swapping babysitters. Potty training. Balancing work and kids. Co-parenting with your ex.
That was when I realized there was a club.
And I was hit full force in the face with the reality that I wasn’t in it.
Anyone not a parent was shoved to the side. Anyone who was still trying to find a someone so they could get to motherhood wasn’t welcome. Anyone whose circumstances didn’t work as they’d hoped wasn’t welcome.
Even when I tried to force a way in, tried to participate, I didn’t fit. I had no war stories to share, no horrors of projectile vomiting. Antics of my nephews, no matter how much I loved them, didn’t count.
It didn’t matter that I was still trying. Still wanting. Still hoping. Wanting didn’t make you a member.
In my forties, I grew more desperate. I watched the dating pool shrink, its few remaining participants carrying baggage too heavy to share.
I wondered if my opportunity had passed me by. Even if I had a guy, was it too late? How old would I be when my child graduated from high school? If I dared verbalize these thoughts out loud, instead of sympathy or understanding, I heard that I was selfish. Selfish for not having children. Selfish for giving up the dream of wanting children. Selfish because children are life. And motherhood is the only thing that can make me fully a woman.
Those women, those mothers, saw me as someone different, an outsider. Because I was unmarried and childless, they hesitated to hand their baby over to me, afraid of what, I don’t know. I saw their concern when I cuddled Baby to my chest. I saw their fear when I dared tickle Baby’s bare belly. I did nothing different than those other women, but they didn’t see me like they saw mothers.
With me, they had red flags, apprehension, nervousness. What was wrong with me, they wondered, that I’m as old as I am and don’t have children? Don’t even have a man? Whatever it is, they don’t want me around. I saw that look, and so I would hand Baby back before I’d had my fill, my turn. I saw the relief in their eyes when Baby went to another mother. And I wondered when I’d get a chance to hold a baby again. I wondered if my arms would ache for the rest of my life for the child that I’d never have.
Those mothers saw me as not really a woman.
Or worse, they didn’t see me at all.
Then I turned 50, and my body agreed. I had to accept that I was too old. It wouldn’t happen. My breasts would never produce milk. My womb closed. My chance gone.
I was forever excluded.
But now. Finally. I get it.
I get it after watching my step-daughter’s body expand over the months. After watching her endure the rigors of pregnancy, the indignities of childbirth, the uncertainty of complications. After seeing the all-consuming task of caring for an infant. After imagining him growing through other stages, knowing she is his primary lifeline.
I get it as I hold my step-grandson. Admire his button nose. Watch his tiny hand grip my finger. Feel the rhythm of his baby breath as he lays on my chest. Hope that rhythm doesn’t freakishly stop on my watch.
I can see now why women who’ve gone through pregnancy and childbirth exclude me, even if unintentionally.
Only someone who has gone through it really knows.
My pain, I know, doesn’t compare to the pain of childbirth, to the pain of watching your children grow, to the pain of constant worry. Nor does it compare to the pain of trying for years unsuccessfully. Or the pain of loss.
But that doesn’t make my pain easier.
I know that I’m lucky. Lucky to have married someone with grown children. Lucky to have a step-grandchild. Others don’t even get that.
But I wonder: How can I call myself a grandmother when I wasn’t a mother? How do I deserve the sweet bliss of grandparenting when I’m not part of the club? A club I understand a little better now, a club I’ve peeked into a little closer. But a club I am not a part of. I feel my outsider status even more intensely.
I am fully a woman. But I’m not in the club. And never will be.
Given that her parents met in a library, it is no surprise that Catherine Rossi owned a library card at age 4. After graduating from the University of Michigan, she had a lengthy tech career, where she wrangled words and people as frequently as code and data. She frequently writes about strong, single women, inspired by decades of bad dates. Read more about her at https://catherinerossi.com.
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