Reflections on motherhood and self-fulfillment

I am childless. I love my life and am deeply grateful for the small pleasures that present to me each day.

It was not always so. After years of avoiding unplanned pregnancies, the right circumstance conducive for bringing up a child came to being in my life. Emotionally, I was more mature. Fortuitous events brought me to the wonderful man whom I now share my life with. Naturally, we tried to have a baby, but unnaturally, we failed. Month after month, the dreaded time of the month sucked the life out of me both emotionally and physically. Month after month, the news of yet another person falling pregnant permeated my news feeds or invaded my inbox. Social media is a prison for the mind, both for those ‘sharing’ and for those ‘receiving’.

I do not intend to discuss at length the details of my medical history, other than to ‘share’ that my body was found to be hormonally imbalanced and hence time and treatment was needed to bring the body back to equilibrium. Depression slowly set in. I was feeling physically terrible. At the same time, I began to dread the looming infertile label, which awaited me in the near horizon. After a year of feeling truly battered psychologically, I gathered courage and vowed to cure and bring myself back to health. The fire that drove me towards exploring all avenues to improve my health was fueled by the desperation of wanting to conceive a child as naturally as possible, without the invasiveness of infertility treatments.

Now, two years later, my determination to be healthy paid off and my illness is at bay. My mind is clearer, and my emotions are now more manageable. But, there is no baby in sight. I am left with two options: keep trying naturally, hoping for the best and accept whatever outcome presents itself, or, turn up at the doctors’ office with the hope of conceiving under his or her care, artificially.

I have often read about women who have undergone assisted reproduction and failed, and finally forced to accept childlessness knowing that they have tried everything. I also know of women who have decided to not have children by choice. However, I do not know of anyone, who tried and failed naturally, accepting life as it is, who then reject the gruelling IVF route that so many have walked upon.

Pressure, pressure, pressure

I once confessed to someone about my difficulty conceiving, and confidently, the person quipped that everyone can get pregnant these days with IVF. Herein lies the problem: if you don’t go all out, by all possible means, to get pregnant, then you are either selfish (for denying your parents a continuing legacy) or psychologically disturbed since you are rejecting the possibility of parenthood when you actually strongly desire to have children.

We often talk about medical assisted reproduction as revolutionary, as having brought immense joy to people’s lives. Yet, like all technology, we forget the darker side to this revolution. What seems like an option in time becomes a societal pressure. In the face of all this pressure, a person loses bearing of what he or she truly wants, which somehow becomes muddled with the desires and expectations of everyone else and the society around them.

Years ago, when assisted reproduction was unavailable, being childless was just one aspect of a person’s identity, among many other aspects that were as distinctive, if not even more so in many cases. Many childless creative artists and writers of the early 20th century, such as Frida Kahlo, Anais Nin and Simone de Beauvoir, were defined and respected for their contributions, not whether they have achieved motherhood. In today’s world, motherhood has become the main goal in one’s life, as if one is devoid of other definitions that could go alongside with being a woman. In a world devoid of meaning, motherhood becomes the main and sometimes, the only way for people to find sense in existence.

One of the first questions I am now being asked even by random strangers is my motherhood status. When faced with a negative, some will have the audacity to enquire if one is childless by choice, and if not, why, in order to make sense of the person in front of them according to their internal definitions and judgments. This behaviour is widespread, including in the workplace, where I noticed that childless women were regarded as less of a woman by male colleagues (experienced as conscious or unconscious derogatory remarks), despite the fact that these same childless women were able to contribute more due to fewer family commitments. Close friends, (who have no issues with their fecundity) will, with good intentions, go on to suggest adoption, since the void that comes with a childless life is so frightening that one must immediately fill it up with a child, no matter the circumstance. It seems that the definitions of being a woman has, over the century, paradoxically, regressed, such that, women no longer know themselves outside the definitions of motherhood. This loss of identity is further reinforced by a male dominated society intent on hammering in these narrow definitions that enable them to continue controlling the world we live in.

Being a whole human being is the key to emancipation

What I have learnt in these last few years of emotional turmoil and deep reflection, is that, we cannot find meaning, with or without a child, if one does not first, become as complete a human being as possible. Perhaps being completely self-sufficient is not realistic, given that we humans are social creatures and somehow evolved to depend on one another. However, my observations suggest that we are, as a generation, extremely dependent on external validation, with motherhood being, among the easiest ways of being immediately validated as a woman (the other being postings on social media). Instead, we require society to direct us towards a choice that gives some meaning to our lives, such as careers and/or parenthood.

Being both jobless and childless has ripped all pre-defined layers from my external self, leaving me raw on the sidelines of society. From this vantage point, I inevitably observed the invisible forces in society that played with the lives of the good people around me. At first, I felt deeply lonely. Slowly, however, it forced me to question all the assumptions I had made about how my life should be. Most importantly, it forced me to look for meaning in the mundane. Meaning in nature. Meaning in creativity. Meaning in philosophy. Meaning in spirituality. Meaning in endless quiet walks alone. Meaning in just existing day to day without an imminent goal to achieve. Through this solitude, I realized that meaning was for my own making. I began to feel complete over time and empowered to create the life I wanted, like a blank canvas, awaiting to be painted each waking day.

One of the hardest tests experienced by any couple is the realization of a possible childless future and thereafter the gruelling treatments to prevent that future from coming true. It is in these moments that many require intense validation from their partners, in order to feel loved and (still) desired. Yet, it is this need to be externally validated that feeds a vicious cycle, contributing to the deterioration of many relationships in these trying moments.

Although supportive to the extent that he could be, my partner bore the burden of my constant reminders of how depressed I felt with the situation, to the point that he too, requested to take a step back from thinking about parenthood. Many of us require the unconditional support of our partners in these times, but being so focused in fulfilling our needs via another, we end up draining the little precious energy left in our partners that could have been used to create light whilst going through the darkness. Indeed, we often consider support to be in the form of a shoulder to cry on, often unconsciously demanding our partners to be sad in solidarity with us in order to demonstrate empathy. No one can deny that empathy is important, but when we demand another to lower their energies in order to support our lowered energies, without realizing it, we are doing ourselves a disservice. The best support a partner could provide, in my experience, is for them to continue being their complete selves, whilst demonstrating compassion in crucial moments. In order to do this however, both we, and our partners need to be as complete to the extent that we can be, as individuals. It was through his strength in remaining his complete self, coupled with his insistence to continue to live life fully, that I was able to climb out of my descent into sadness, eventually to resurface to find a more whole version of myself. Our relationship has only flourished, despite the notable absence of a child’s laughter in our lives.

The road from here

The key out of this mental prison is to acknowledge that we are dependent on the external world for the maintenance of our self-worth. This is not intended to blame, but to identify the source of our pain and suffering. For me, realizing this fact alone was the biggest step towards emancipation. In time, one will notice and even stop one’s self in the act of acquiring external validation, thus halting the downward spiral in its tracks. Only once we realize this can we begin to find ways to validate ourselves internally, based on our own definitions, and not by those that have been socially constructed for us. We can then create meaning in our lives, because truly, we are free to construct who we want to be, despite being pressured into thinking otherwise.

Whether one chooses to go full out on a fertility treatment path or chooses to let go and accept what comes becomes insignificant at this point, as both choices are equally valid, when made by you, without being coloured by the expectations of others around you. This, for me, was a crucial step towards choosing the path right for me, since I now realize that my earlier desperation was driven by the desires of others camouflaging as my own. Knowing my true wishes suddenly lifted the burden on my decision making process, and allowed me alone, to take full responsibility for the outcome, for the better or the worse. This was, a milestone moment in my life, when the invisible burden of expectations was lifted permanently off my shoulders.

Looking back, I would not have arrived to this point in my self-understanding, had I not been pushed through the gateways of infertility, with all the suffering that this journey entailed. I know now that life, in all its nuances, is filled with meaning that I infuse it with, and that, at the end of this life, it is me alone who will be the judge of my self-fulfillment, with or without a child to call my own.