We survive every moment until our final one. We hawk our own private clock, the metronome that is our heart, and grow frightened of the day when it ceases to beat. The moment when we fight to keep our eyes open, but they inevitably grow heavy, succumb to the weight of it, and our last breath is cool, quiet. Our lips, chapped. All the years play out like a mix tape, but we have a hard time placing the music. It’s all so fast, we think. We lived this great, sweeping life to then find our final hours reduced to nothing more than a scrubbing down of a body gone cold, a series of arrangements confirmed and boxes ticked, and all the faces you’ve loved, hated and somewhere in between that collect around you, shuddering. Waiting. Watching for that final moment when your last breath will allow all of the moth balls to flutter out.
Two weeks ago someone reminded me of my age, and the fact that I was barren. Recently, I had resigned from a high-profile, stressful job, which I likened to crawling out from the wreckage of a great war. Before I could become accustomed to a life without tending to the great love that was my inbox — he was a demanding lover — this friend told me that I needed to get serious about the business of baby. She had taken the liberty of rewriting my OkCupid profile and even suggested several Ivy-educated gay men who would be delighted to serve as sperm donors. I know you’ve been crazed, so I took the liberty of coming up with a plan, she said. In a lower voice, she said, Because you’ve only got so many good years left.
After inhaling the nearest available bread basket, I said, You do realize I don’t want children, right? You do realize that I’ll be paying off my student loans until I’m six feet under, right? You do realize that I have a CAT? And the words that she said next would be echoed dozens of times in conference rooms, cabs and awkward exchanges over brunch: You say that now, Felicia. But wait until the right man comes along. The right man will change everything.
My mother was my first love and first hurt. She was beautiful and dangerous, and for years all I wanted to do was fold right into her, get lost in the thicket that was her hair. From stomping down Coney Island boardwalks to subway rides into the gloaming, we were runaways, best friends, borough marauders. She had me when she was twenty, and I don’t think my mother knew how to be a mother, perhaps because her mother was such an epic disappointment. Yet in those early years, she tried, gave it everything she could. Yet the lure of being a child was all too great. I remember one afternoon stumbling through a fog of smoke trying to find her. There she was: a tumbler of Bacardi in one hand, a smoke in the other. That day I picked up a bottle of cheap champagne, drank from the bottle, and started to dance. Anything to get my mother’s attention, anything to amuse her, and she and her friends laughed. She said, Look at my little girl. I was five years old. Years later, she would become addicted to cocaine, and I played the role of mother. Holding her up as we walked down the stairs to the car service that would take us to the hospital. Keeping her company when we arrived home turned on the late movie, and she promised to lay off the cigarettes. The lies, disappearances, and rage would continue into my adulthood, and the notion of having to take care of someone else after my childhood had been stolen from me was entirely too much to bear.
If this is what it meant to be a mother, I thought, I want none of it.
Sixteen years later I’d hear my mother’s voice over a telephone line. Clean and sober, she has a new daughter now, and although she seemed as happy as one could be given our past, I told her that I spent a great deal of my adult life mourning the loss that was her. That a chasm had widened between us, and there was no way of closing it. In the midst of this, my mother interrupted me and asked if I had any children of my own. I said, no. To which she responded, You’ll never know what this feels like. To hear your own child tell you she doesn’t love you, won’t forgive you.To lose the child that took up house in a mother’s body. While it’s true that my mother never inhabited that house that is me, she was very much my child, and I spent over a decade trying to let her go.
Since my resignation, I’ve met with dozens of people who keep asking me about “my next move.” One in particular regaled the descriptions of several senior roles within major corporations for which I’d be the perfect fit. With fervor, she prattled on about maternity leaves and children until I stopped her, mid-gush, and told her that I’d made a conscious choice not to have them. She laughed nervously and said, Every woman wants a child. To which I responded, Well then, I must be the grand exception.
Lately, my biological clock has been the hot topic of conversation, and my admission of the choice I’ve made seems to make a great deal of women feel uncomfortable. The men I’ve encountered are fairly ambivalent, but most of the women I know regard me as a problem they desperately need to solve. Many feel the need to “correct” my choice, provide insight that a man will change everything, that I could “have it all” (which is an unrealistic notion that sets women up for failure). I find myself wondering why I’m being forced to consider my identity — the whole of who I am as a woman — through the lens of a man, or, more disturbingly, through the lens of other women’s life choices. And if I choose not to have children, am I somehow incomplete? Do all women need to follow the same path? Is there allowance for, and celebration of, all of our personal choices? Why do these strained conversations bring out our insecurities, make women our worst enemy?
For most of my 16-plus-year career, I’ve made it a point to devote a great deal of my time to mentorship, assembling a motley lot of smart, ambitious women, who ferret me out for advice on everything from internal team conflicts to salary negotiations to feeling confident about their ability and their drive to succeed. Over the years I’ve heard myself labeled as a “den mother,” a lioness protective of her cubs, a strong, sometimes difficult leader, who will always follow a colleague into a conference room and hold them as they cry for twenty minutes straight. Even after I resigned from a social media marketing agency where I served as a managing partner, I still keep in touch with my kids, and I tell them that I can’t wait to witness their inevitable bloom. I tell them that I’m always there if they need me.
This puts me to thinking that there are so many ways one can mother. Much like how I’ve woven together the most unconventional of families, where bloodlines are defined as the enormity of beating hearts rather than lineage, I’m designing a life for myself where the women whom I’ve been privileged to mentor are, in some ways, my children.
Recently I told a friend that I’m content with just having enough, of architecting a life that would truly make me happy. This life includes love, travel, a career that would somehow balance my dueling passions for business and art, and a patchwork of friends who add magic and light to my life each and every day. When yet another friend hinted about a little one running around my home, I smiled and said, I’ve got legions of them running amok across the country, breaking ranks, being brilliant.
In my final hours, this is what I’ll remember. All of my children, blooming.