Not All Women Are Meant to Be Mothers

by Jill Gleeson

I don’t talk much about the pregnancies I lost, the children who might have been but never were. No one but my family and my best, oldest friends know about them. There were three of them. Three. But it was a long time ago, several lifetimes it feels like, and I don’t think about it much anymore.

I’m 50 now and I won’t be having children. My life has gone another way. I accept that, even embrace it. I tell myself if I were meant to have kids my body would have protected them, nurtured them, let them blossom within me. If I were meant to have children I would have been their safe harbor.

When you’ve had three miscarriages you go on with your life. Sometimes, though, thoughts and memories and “what ifs” and “should have beens” pop up, nudged into your consciousness by an event, or a few casual words.

I remember a time a few years ago-not long after I’d moved in with my last love, the one who broke my heart so badly-we were sitting on the couch, cuddling and talking. He’d been married once, long ago like me, and had never had children, either. He didn’t want them. He said something flip, joking, about it was a shame we’d never have kids because think of how long their legs would have been-he’s tall like me-and how smart, too.

I burst into tears, yelled at him. Told him how incredibly insensitive he was to make a remark like that. I think my response surprised me as much as it did him. It occurred to me then that maybe I wasn’t quite as okay with my now-probably-permanent childlessness as I’d thought I was. Or maybe what upset me so much was that my boyfriend wasn’t at all bothered by the idea we’d never have kids together. To me, having children with someone represented the ultimate act of love, of commitment.

I had my first miscarriage young. I was 22, in a new relationship, and madly in love with the man who would become my husband. I got pregnant by accident, though there was never a moment we considered not having the baby. I was more nervous than he was, actually, seeing my future laid out before me, decided.

It died at about 12 weeks. I had to have it surgically removed from my womb, which wouldn’t expel the little ball of tissue that in six months would have been my baby. Even though it was without life, my rebelling body wanted to hold on to it.

My soon-to-be-husband was as heartbroken as I was; for years he kept the tiny note the women’s clinic had given me tucked in his wallet-the one that looked exactly like a fortune you might find folded inside a cookie at a Chinese restaurant. “You’re pregnant,” that piece of paper had announced, flatly, without fanfare. But he’d kept it.

Sean, my ex-husband, has nine kids with his second wife.

I had two more miscarriages, one right after another, during the relationship I had following my marriage. He was not a good man, not a good man at all, and I told myself maybe the way things had turned out was for the best. These are the kinds of things you might tell yourself after a miscarriage, and what friends and family might tell you, too, if they say anything at all.

I remember at the time I wished more people would have simply said, “I’m sorry.” But I’ve never forgotten the ultrasound given to me during the second pregnancy, the cold jelly that was rubbed over my only slightly swollen abdomen. The two heartbeats they’d discovered. Twins, the doctor had said.

I never got pregnant again. That’s okay. I’m not a woman who thinks all women should be mothers. Some of us simply aren’t meant to give birth, or perhaps even to adopt, an option I never seriously considered. We women without offspring create in other ways.

For me, it’s with words. The book I will write someday soon will be my child. I nurture my parents, my friends, my little pug dog. My life has been full and in many ways I’ve been lucky. I’ve traveled the world, from the Ecuadorian Galapagos Islands, to the Dead Sea of Israel. I’ve loved greatly and been loved greatly, and though currently single I fully intend to love greatly and be loved greatly again.

But, sometimes, when I’m around children I start to ache a bit, to feel a pinch deep inside me. I look at them with their parents, laughing or crying, holding hands or hugging, and I think, “That was almost me.

That could have been me.” I think about the children that never were, especially about that first one, conceived with my truest love. We would have named the baby Sullivan- Sully, for short-no matter if it been a boy or girl. The perfect name: unique, but not silly. A good Irish name, too, to honor my heritage, and Sean’s.

Sully would be 28 today. A writer like me, or an artist like his dad, I imagine. Or maybe a strong, independent woman, bold and tough, someone who travels the world, the way I do now. A doctor. A farmer. Anything at all, that child that never was could have been.

It’s a strange thing, for your body to know pregnancy without producing a child. I know morning sickness; I can still smell Chicago’s swampy summer air, the scents I endured while pregnant with Sullivan-who-might-have-been. I used to pinch my nose shut as I walked past dumpsters, desperate to stem the surging nausea.

I know tender breasts and mood swings. I know hunger continuing far past the point I once would have been satiated. And I know what it was like to caress my belly, amazed that I was growing a human there.

I know what it’s like to see spots of blood on panties where there should be none. To hear a doctor say, “I’m sorry. There’s no heartbeat.”

My brother, my only sibling, died almost three years ago without having had children. I’ve never talked to my parents about whether they miss having grandkids, or if they think about my children who might have been but never were. My mom and dad have always been iconoclasts, travelers themselves, not especially big on babies except their own.

They never pressured me to try for a child again after that first miscarriage. But my cousin has a daughter, Olivia, a lovely, whip-smart girl, now 17. She and my dad are close, and she visits him often. Sometimes when I watch them together something inside me cracks a little, like ice in a glass. He would have loved having grandchildren. My mom, too, I know.

They’re getting older now, my parents. My dad’s 84. My mom, who was just diagnosed with dementia, is 79. When they’re gone I’ll be alone. I have no more immediate family. I’m the last of us. Who will care for me in dotage, I’ve wondered, as I care for my parents? It’s crossed my mind, for the first time in my life, that I might like to fall for a man with kids.

I picture big meals at holidays, laughing crowds around a giant dining room table. Of course, at this stage of my life the children of any partner of mine would probably be grown. That’s okay. I just like to think that maybe, even at this late age, I’ve still got a chance at a family, even if it’s not born, but borrowed.

Because I lost my pregnancies at a time when no one ever talked about miscarriage, I’ve often wondered how other women who’ve experienced this loss responded. How did you go on? What if you weren’t ever able to have kids, as I couldn’t? What I want to know more than anything is: Have you made peace with it? If you’d like to continue the conversation on social media, please be sure to use the hashtag #ThisWomansDay.


This wonderful piece by writer Jill Gleeson first appeared on Woman’s Day.

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