Lincoln, Nebraska, 1989
I am three and a half years old and my baby cousin is born. She looks like a cherub. Blonde curls, caramel-colored skin, and dancing, mischievous eyes. Her sense of humor, her whole sweet, goofy personality, was present even when she was a baby.
I am a toddler, but I adore her and dream of the day I can have my own baby.
From that moment on, I have a category of mind where I put baby names, fantasies of motherhood, and information about child development and parenting. To put it differently, from that moment on, I see now that I began reserving energy for my future child.
Now, I am a 32-year-old woman with a 50-year-old woman partner. We have been together ten years. Last year we moved from Oakland, California, where we had made our home together for our entire relationship, to my home town of Lincoln, Nebraska, where we have a big community of loving friends and family, but had to essentially start over in terms of both our careers.
It took Cait nine months to re-license and then open her community acupuncture clinic. The clinic is doing well, but has only been open two months, as of this writing, so is (of course) not yet able to cover our personal costs of living. Meanwhile, I went from having a fully-sustaining private practice in Oakland, offering Ayurvedic health consultations and bodywork, to having an existential crisis where I came to question all I had learned and done and participated in, in terms of that work. I desperately needed to take a break from the healing arts and “wellness industry”, so got a job working part-time in a commercial kitchen to help pay the bills while I figured my shit out. Then I quit that job and started riding a bicycle taxi instead. Over this year, I have begun to see what my path is, what my work is. I began writing a book about Ayurveda in the West and shifting the focus of my healing work to slowly becoming a bioregional herbalist and painter of plants. But I was and still am back in a state of potential instead of actualization, much like I was in my early twenties, as I see before me the creative work, activist work, and plant medicine work, which now so clearly feels like my path.
Obviously, we have had very little money this year, and after blowing through our savings and racking up some credit card debt, we have only been able to sustain ourselves through the continuous generosity of my father. He is quite a caretaker by nature, and a frugal older person who grew up in a time and in a country where the material abundance of today was utterly unknown. So though growing up I know my parents struggled to make ends meet, my dad now finds himself in his retirement, in a good enough place financially to support us as we recreate our lives anew.
Some Lesbian “Herstory” and Being Queer Now
Years ago now, as Cait and I found our passionate summer romance transforming into something more solid, an ex lent me a book, which I read, called “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A history of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America”, by Lillian Faderman.
One of the things I learned from that book was that in the mid to late 1800s, some middle-class-skewing-to-wealthy women, primarily white, started attending university and then instead of marrying and having children, they….didn’t.
If they had the inherited money that allowed them the freedom to 1.) Not need to rely on a husband’s income, or 2.) Labor in factories, fields, or as domestic servants to earn their bread, they instead chose to write books, paint pictures, garden, travel, sometimes teach school - and often make their home with another woman. From correspondences and diary entries which survive to the present day, it is clear that some of these women who lived with women were what we would now call lesbians or queer women, although it appears that their neighbors and families thought they were best-friend-spinsters.
The shear number and variety of these stories amazed me at the time, and filled up some very hungry part of my soul which longed for history, meaning, and identity.
I have always felt old-fashioned, from another time: Violets, dresses, rosewater, fountain pens, needlework, water colors, mustard plasters and blackberry cordial sort of old-fashioned, and I didn’t know how to fit that with my obviously queer identity, until I read that book.
Then it all made sense to me. Though I was not independently wealthy, in this time and place I could have a career and live a life with another woman that was quite similar to those “best friend spinsters” of 150 years ago, and feel more grounded in the truths of this nearly-invisible but-not-erased queer history.
It is worth mentioning that those women of 150 years ago were not having children together. Indeed, that was one of the primary things they were rejecting about married life with a man!
Now, same-sex couples have children together all the time and it is a normal thing. And some "straight" couples don't. But, the thought never occurred to me to not have children. Remember, I had been storing energy away for my future child since I was three and a half, and I continued to do so, Cait and I talking often about the child we intended to have one day.
Over the years with Cait, as the idea of having this hypothetical child became more real - after we were both finished with school, and moving much closer to what turned out to be a temporary bout of financial stability - a lot of sadness arose for me about the simple fact that in order to create that child, we needed to bring in a third party in some form.
The idea of getting semen from a man, whether a random sperm donor or a friend, and putting it inside myself, made me want to vomit. And the idea of doing it the old-fashioned way, having condomless sex with a guy friend or acquaintance, sounded potentially fun, potentially erotic, also potentially AWKWARD - and really, the idea of that being the act that brought a child into my womb which Cait and I would raise together just seemed bizarre. It brought tears to my eyes many times as I thought how much I wanted the person I had that erotic encounter with to be Cait, to be My Love, not a somewhat random guy. The fact that it couldn’t be her felt almost unbearable. I felt great envy of opposite-sex couples who could have sex with each other and produce a child that way, just the two of them, on a normal date night.
Cait felt similarly sad about those facts of life, and we also found ourselves also concerned about the very real lack of money and support for raising a child. Or I did anyway. This was also something that brought tears to my eyes, the lack of social support, the raising children in relative isolation compared to our ancestors who lived in close-knit villages - and going further back still, tribal culture where children were/are often raised more collectively. Additionally, it brought up great sadness around the death of my own mom when I was 23, and the death of both my grandmothers, the fact that Cait’s mom is an aging alcoholic 1500 miles away and would be no support, and the fact that many of my closest friends who have children live out of state, and we couldn’t really raise our kids together. Though I tried to avoid these facts, to not dwell on them, they tended to creep up on me, bringing hot tears of grief and anger to roll down my cheeks once again.
Is it enough to have cats? (I often ask myself this question.)
It isn’t. Because, though cats offer great affection and companionship, and they are about the same size as a human baby, they do not outlive us or carry on our stories and our memories. We do not raise them to independence and see them off into the world on their own.
And the whole real reason I want to have children is to raise them to independence, to see them off into the world, to be a portal and a nest and the ground of being to a sweet soul, to an old soul born into a new body, here to live out their wild and sacred embodied life. That is the real reason I want to be a mother, not because babies like my cousin are so damn cute. That part is just a bonus.
. . . . .
Fort Collins, May 14, 2018
On the way to Durango, Colorado to attend the Good Medicine Confluence last week, I had the pleasure to spend Mother’s Day and the following day with an old friend who lives in Fort Collins and has two young children. I was so excited to see them, and happy it worked out that I got to be there for her to help her celebrate Mother’s Day when her husband was incidentally out of town for work.
Then two unwanted, unexpected things occurred on Monday: One was that I became incapacitated with what we think was altitude sickness, and the other is that her childcare called in sick too. So what would have been a normal work day for my friend (she has a full-time job), she actually spent taking care of her one-year-old while I lounged listlessly on the couch, drifting in and out of sleep and trying not to move or even turn my head.
I apologized that I was of so little help, and she shrugged, “It’s okay, I kinda signed up for this.”
Dear God, I thought. She really did. What a thing to sign up for...
Spending those two days and three nights with her and the girls, without her husband being there and her childcare falling through, was actually fine for me as a guest - I had fun with her and with both kids - but it gave me a deeper look into parenthood than I had before. Despite all the other times I spend with my friends and their kids, I hadn’t had a view quite this deep before.
The understanding of parenthood - and, let’s be real, especially motherhood - being a 24-hour/7-day a week commitment, and being oftentimes inconvenient, had been more of a conceptual understanding for me than a practical one.
Ditto the understanding of what “separation anxiety” in one-year-olds is, and how intense it is. And, how sweetly kids treat their cool, grown-up friends like me, compared to their parents, whom they continually attempt to manipulate and extort favors and treats from by any means they can find.
And so over the following two days, the understanding rose in me for the first time in my life that I do not want to be a parent. Or...I do a bit, but that I choose something else. And that saying “No” to parenthood is saying “Yes” to the things my soul desires most.
All the things that felt like obstacles - the lack of support, the lack of money, the fact that Cait and I would need a sperm donor in order to have a child - now felt no longer like obstacles but instead simply the facts of my life, which were as irrefutable as they were unproblematic. Because though having a child is objectively a blessing, even in less than ideal circumstances, I believe, the truth is that me wanting to have a child in this lifetime was like wanting to grow an orange tree in my yard here in Nebraska. And before I planted it worrying and wringing my hands about the winter snow and zero degree weather. There is nothing wrong with the orange tree or with the cold climate. They just don't go together.
I want to hang out with my friends’ kids and be a refuge to them when they need it! I want to play with them for hours, and then be off duty. I want to sing them to sleep with old folk songs, but not be there for all the nap boycotting and teething, day after day after day. I want to bring them gifts and treats, not be there for the daily treat extortions. As they grow older, I want to be available for them to ask me questions they would never ask their folks, but I do not want to find myself waiting up all night for them to come home, when they are teenagers and they snuck out/stayed out past curfew/stole the car/all the things teenagers do, and I don’t know where they are and wonder if they are dead. I don’t want that at all. I don’t want the heartache and I don’t want the sleep deprivation.
. . . . .
Durango, May 16, 2018
I lie down in my little dorm room bed I have rented for the duration of the Confluence, to take a midday rest. I am really tired. I have what is maybe a head cold or could be severe allergies, and am still recovering from what was maybe altitude sickness - basically I feel like dog shit - but I cannot sleep. I have not been able to speak with Cait yet, but based on our myriad conversations over the years, I know she is happy to have children or not have children. She has made that clear many times. So I know it’s my choice, and I lay there in my little dorm bed and I try on this wild, new identity. I keep thinking, I am not going to be a mother. I am not going to be a mother! I am choosing not to have children. I am going to remain intentionally childless. Intentionally childless, what an idea! I will never give birth, I will never breast feed. I will not see my children grow up and move away. A whole spectrum of deep human experience is closing to me, because I choose this.
This line of thinking brings on great, convulsing sobs. I am not normally one to say “No” to an experience. I want to experience everything! But as I sob, I also feel a joy bubbling up inside of me. Memories come to me:
The psychic who told me she saw children around me - they weren’t mine. They were not my own children, but those of my friends. I see this now.
My mom telling me many times, just to be mean, that I am too selfish to ever have children - and now realizing it is indeed true, exactly in the way she meant it: I want quiet and solitude far beyond what parenthood could ever allow. And that is a good thing, a beautiful thing, not reason for insult or hurt.
I feel these truths in my body, and laugh/cry even harder. Ugly crying, snot running down my face mixing with my tears.
I feel for the first time how I had been reserving energy for my future child. I feel it for the first time because it had been there since I was three and a half, and I knew no other way of being, and only now as I release that energy can I feel it, feel the space it occupied in me, now empty.
As I release that energy, in full clarity and knowing, I grieve the child I energetically carried inside my heart since age three and a half, I release her to take embodiment elsewhere. I talk to her, I feel the sadness and significance of what I am saying “No” to - and I also feel bliss.
There is no other way to say it, I feel absolute bliss! I feel light-hearted and free. Physically, I feel it in my womb itself and in my chest. My lower belly feels lit up with golden light, feels empty in the best way possible. Gleeful laughter interrupts my sobs. I have never felt so light and free. My womb empty, but it’s good, and my heart tender and cracked open.
Those physical sensations stayed with me for hours, then they faded. Yet all throughout the Confluence, I felt more tender, and the sweet intensity of life felt sharper.
. . . . .
I see now that I had been trying to do and be too many things. I wanted to devote myself fully to my plant healing work and my creative practices and grow those things into a career in time, and I wanted to be a lover and friend to my partner, and I wanted also to be a mother and devote myself fully to my children. Someone could do all of those things I believe, in their own way, but I see now that I cannot, not in the ways I really want to. I had to make a choice.
When I finally was able to get on the phone and talk with Cait about this, I was still in Durango and it was dusk. We talked as I walked along a dry, dusty ridge trail lined with sagebrush, the sunlight fading, the sky slowly turning to a velvety black as the stars came out, and I sobbed and laughed all over again. It still felt so raw and so tender.
We recalled some of our old neighbors, another lesbian couple who had two young kids. One of them, we often saw pushing a stroller with a baby in it and a young girl walking alongside, and oh man, that lesbian mom always looked miserable. Not just tired or grouchy, but absolutely in misery. Every. Single. Time.
As we spoke, I saw an image of Cait cleaning the crumbs out of the grubby creases of a child’s car seat. I saw an image of myself looking in the kitchen cupboard, intending to prepare a nice dinner and finding only boxes of Annie’s mac & cheese.
Do we have anything to drink around here?
Um, well, we have juice boxes. Want a juice box, babe? Grape or cherry?
How did this happen? I thought it would be different than this. I love our kid, but DAMN.
I know queer people and same sex couples have kids all the time, especially now, but I now see I am an old-fashioned queer. The 150-years-ago sort.
So, I will wear cotton dresses and sun hats, and walk out to the fields to paint watercolors of violets and crabgrass. Maybe I will take apprentices, young people as well as older people who want to work with plants. I will delight to spend time with my friends’ kids, and if I am lucky, they will ask me questions they cannot ask their parents, and they will look forward to our time together, and then maybe they will tell funny or sweet stories about me sometimes, once my spirit has long moved on and my bones are buried under an apple tree.
I will continue to make country wines and herbal potions. I will write letters to my friends with my fountain pen and I will write books and poems. I will make love with my dear, and the energy we raise will go toward creative and healing work.
We are not barren.
Now I feel energy zipping through my empty womb like I’ve never felt before. Our lovemaking just makes something else. And instead of creating human children, we give birth to ourselves and raise ourselves up. And possibly, maybe, my paintings and my writing will outlive me and be my children, in the way my cats never could.