There are few things lonelier than being a childfree woman in a house full of mothers. I tried it once. A weekend away with old friends. Mothers with young children who were not present and yet dictated every conversation. I am, perhaps, intolerant – a trait pushed onto women like me who do not procreate – but it was only on leaving that house, full of women I love, that I could breathe again.
Motherhood, we are told, is the most profound thing a woman can do. I can believe it. It is love, connection, legacy, family. It is Really Big. Women are told from our earliest years: Become a mother if you want to be a proper woman. But don’t, whatever you do, fuck it up. There’s a long way to fall.
We, the childfree, have already leapt – willingly or not – away from safe terrain, the familiar landscape of womanhood as motherhood.
I stepped into the air, and the reasons are complicated. Part choice, part circumstance. Even though motherhood was not something snatched from my grasping hands, as I fell I became wrapped in a quiet grief that didn’t feel speakable, a cloak of loss that was without language. I was mourning the death of a story about myself that had always been told. By others, by me.
I landed eventually in a stand of she-oak trees, on a bed made of their needles, in a salt marsh behind mangroves. No limbs were broken, though my heart still aches intermittently.
ONE OF THE REASONS IT TOOK me so long to find ground is because there were very few stories I could grab onto as I fell. Tales of childfree women who are not deficient and broken and selfish and lonely are on the endangered stories list, if there were one.
Artist and friend Janet Laurence’s words did it. She told me that what people don’t understand is that women who don’t have children have the capacity to spread their attention, and care, across the entire planet; not just towards their immediate family members but to all lives, human and other. Here was a story I could wrap myself in.
Care is my vocation. Paying attention is my practice. However, I had long felt that my care, attention and love for the other-than-human world was not real care. That only mother-to-child care is real care. I was entangled in the bindings of a worldview that reinforced the separateness and superiority of the human species. Through this lens, plants, animals and the more-than-human are bit-players in the Extraordinary Story of Us. Through this lens, care beyond the human is always secondary.
Poet David Whyte once said, ‘The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability … how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance.’
There will always be holes in a life, a world, a culture. Though Whyte is speaking of the personal, becoming intimate with disappearance might well be the story of our times. Inhabiting the gaps in a brave and big-hearted way requires actions grounded in care. Patching holes, tending to what is present, supporting all life. In this context, care, love and attention cannot be framed as primarily applying to our own species, our own offspring.
My partner, the Buddhist, says love is beginning and end, subject and object; that it cycles endlessly through all of us, human and other; and that value judgments about where we direct it – child, tree, parent, river – are problematic. The most important thing, he says, is to keep the tap turned on.
The line between what is lost and what is found is never clear.
I FOUND A GIFT IN THE LEAF LITTER as I lay under the she-oaks. A simple, exuberant word nestled among the fallen constellations of chlorophyll. A way of being described by the late Deborah Bird Rose in an essay published in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene as a ‘beautiful assent to life’. The word: Yes.
‘Let us consider the lush, extravagant beauty, flamboyance, and dazzling seductiveness with which Eucalypts say yes,’ she writes. ‘They burst open sequentially, and when they burst, every branch and twig says, “Yes! More! More buds, more flowers, more color, more scent, more pollen, more nectar!” More and more, and all that can be conjured from within the tree to reach out into the world with this great, vivid, multisensorial call “yes!”’
Yes, humans are exceptional. Yes, cicadas are exceptional. Yes, mycelia are exceptional. Yes and yes and yes.
The tree does not choose which birds or flying foxes or critters feast on their nectar. They do not prefer the sun over the wind. They find a place to grow, and they grow. Yes, trees put all their efforts into exuberance – growing juicy flowers, producing delicious, sweet nectar – to reproduce. Reproduction, in all its forms, is a wondrous thing. I reproduce stories and ideas and love in physical and other ways. I care for others’ lives in physical and other ways, and this is the legacy I choose to leave. A mother’s yes to her child, another’s yes to the glossy black cockatoo – all yeses are equal to the trees.
I GREW UP IN A WORLD that reminded me on a regular basis that to be an intentionally child-free woman was to say no to the things we’re told are important. That there’s something wrong with women who do not choose culturally approved abundance. I subconsciously carried these judgments in my mind. And then I became her.
It has taken me some time to shake off old stories and write new ones. To see other-motherhood as a practice of exclamation – Yes! As a beautiful assent to life, love, kinship and the things I know are important. To understand that falling is not always an action that implies brokenness. It’s bravery, too. Stepping off solid ground and into the air, intentional or not. Saying yes to a landscape we’re not yet intimate with. A place, we know even before we land upon it, that has the capacity to be both hurt and home.
And so I come to ground. I brush the dust from my shoulders, rub the grit from my eyes, pick twigs and spiderwebs from my hair. I scratch around in the leaves, find what has landed with me, and cradle my assent like a jewel. I aspire, in saying yes to all that is around and within, to be no less than a tree.