Motherhood (Or Lack Thereof) by Maegan Gwaltney

My two small nephews and tiny niece climbed out of the couch cushion fortress on the bedroom floor. As the first sliver of sunlight whispered through the blinds, they jumped around me on the bed, shouting the details of their dreams. I was in my early twenties and loved my older sister’s kids- the weasels as I affectionately called them- with a fierceness I was unprepared for. It’s a testament to that love that I let them turn my bed into a bounce-house at the ass-crack of dawn, gladly trading sleep for the music of their laughter.

“I wish we lived here,” four-year-old Katie said as we sat eating breakfast.

“It wouldn’t be as fun if you lived here all the time,” I answered. “Because I’m your aunt, I don’t get to see you every day. So, when I do, we stay up late, have treasure hunts in the woods, and eat dessert pizza. If I was responsible for you all the time, you’d have homework, bedtimes, and healthy foods.”

“Like a mom,” she said, full mouth dripping milk. “When will you have kids so we can play with them?”

“Chew! You’re gonna choke,” I said.

“Cooousins!” her older brother Lee shouted.

“I don’t think that’s gonna be any time soon,” I said, thinking that no child should be born into the shitstorm that was my relationship with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend.

“Mom says you’ll be forty before you have kids,” Lee smiled.

“What?” I laughed, nearly spraying the table with Cinnamon Life. “I’m going to ask your mom about that.”

Jake sandwiched between Lee and Katie in age, and always one step ahead, was quiet, pondering. As he took a bite of his cereal, I watched the thought arrive.

“Guys! If she has kids, she won’t have time for us!”

Their eyes grew wide.

“That’s not totally true,” I said. “I’ll always make time for you guys. But when I have my own kids, there will be fewer slumber parties.”

Not if. When. A word spent with unquestioning confidence. A safe and far away assumption, believing I’d have my own tribe to follow the paths worn in the woods by those around the table that morning, my first lessons in a love larger than I thought my heart could hold. My only lessons. Forty has come and gone, my empty arms proving my sister’s prediction wrong.

***

When I was 13, 14, 15 as my body began to curve and spread, I’d stand in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom with a wadded-up shirt under the one I was wearing. T-shirt for the first, and second trimester. Sweatshirt for the third. I took the business of making it look realistic very seriously. Sculpting it into a perfect mound. When I was sure it was right, I’d step back from the mirror, discovering who I had become, a calm smile spreading across my face, butterflies releasing in my true tummy. I’d turn sideways and stare at the roundness, the size of it. I’d rub my hands over it, cupping them underneath as if the weight demanded more support. I’d stand there for the longest time, enchanted by my reflection, by how beautiful I felt. Unable to take my eyes off the woman waiting for me.

I had things I wanted to do first, acting, writing. It took me years to stabilize the overwhelming anxiety that limited me for most of my life, later diagnosed as OCD. I just assumed, despite my late start, I’d find the right person, the right time for children. Neither ever happened.

***

I lived in Los Angeles for eight years. I’d moved there to pursue acting, which mostly amounted to selling vitamins to the Rich and Angry in Beverly Hills. The winter before moving home, I had my thyroid removed due to cancer. Both of my sisters flew out to be with me. Two days after surgery, weak and emotional, a bandage over my open wound, I took them sightseeing.

We stood on the stairway of The Kodak Theater in Hollywood, home of the Oscars. I’d watched countless times as actresses climbed those steps, believing the view would one day be mine. That morning, hormones raging in the key of clear-eyed reality, I collapsed into my oldest sister’s arms on those stairs sobbing. This isn’t going to happen for me. I always thought it was. But it isn’t. This same truth finds me now.

My body’s turning the page. Nature, that unrelenting bitch, does not bargain for time.

***

Motherhood, or lack thereof, was never a choice I made. I suppose, in some way, it was a series of micro-decisions, so imperceptibly small that I barely noticed I was choosing one path by not choosing another. Still, there’s no moment in the road behind me that I look to and say I should’ve done it here or that man should’ve been the one. Perhaps it would be different if I were a woman who mapped her life instead of trusting the compass in her gut. But I’m a woman who wakes in the night, panicked by some tiny mistake, my mind punishing me for something that will be meaningless next month. So, I’m grateful not having children can’t be distilled down to one moment or choice because that’s a one-way ticket down a rabbit hole I can’t afford. I cling to the hope that there was a knowing in me, greater than the sum of my regret looking back, a wisdom in trusting the compass that led me here.

***

I always believed I’d have a son. His image was born with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend. I could see this little boy clearly in my mind’s eye, dark hair and deep hazel eyes, a gentle, curious soul with a tiny smile that lit up his face, sitting on the kitchen counter as he asked me a question, reaching for my hand as we walk or melting his weight into my chest, the constant thrum of my heart his lullaby, as I carried him in my arms.  Everything about him felt familiar, this little loved one I hadn’t met waiting in the future, certain though far away.

The name came almost as sudden as the image, unique and beautiful, like music running through my mind. Though I sang it inside my head, practicing for Some Day, for a long time I wouldn’t say it out loud. I felt some strange superstition as if it were a magic spell I’d cast on my future, whose certainty lived in silence, a wish that if spoken wouldn’t come true. Over the years, the mythical fathers changed like a revolving cast of characters, but two things remained, belonging only to me, this sweet boy and his beautiful name. I’d search for it in baby books, excited to find it, annoyed when it was listed for girls and not boys. I’d judge the different spellings and never remember the meaning until I’d see it in print, discovering it again every time. Mighty warrior.

***

I meet my friend at a bar for wine and writing, which we both know will only ever turn into wine. She has notes for this essay.

“No writing advice, but you should definitely get knocked up,” she says refilling my glass.

I laugh at her certainty, knowing how simple it seems from the outside. With my obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, the chaos in my head seems louder with each passing year. I’ve used every tool I have to fight my way to solid ground: therapy, medication, yoga, meditation. I need a certain amount of rest and peace to keep myself on an even keel. How fair would it be to add a child to that?

“You’re making excuses,” she says. “This sounds like something you really want, have always wanted. Life is short.”

In the week after that conversation, I sing the notes of his name in my mind. I lay down words in my laptop and discover the truth of what she’s said, somehow surprised by the depth and length of this want that’s been with me for so long. I visit the feeling of him, the weight and rhythm of his deep sleep breathing against my chest. I ask myself questions.

What is the difference between an excuse and a reason? Would a child give me incentive beyond myself, beyond my family to keep fighting the darkness in my mind? Or would it make it harder, swallowing, not only me but my innocent child? Is that just my OCD demanding the certainty of some perfect outcome before committing? Or is it logic, raising her voice above want?

want?

***

I rush onto the train grabbing a seat, swinging my backpack onto my lap. A small voice floats over rows of winter hats to find me.

“What kind is this one, with the pointies?”

A father is reading a book about dinosaurs to his daughter, who is maybe five years old. I turn my head and watch them. I do this a lot lately, studying parents and children as if I’ve just landed on this planet, which in a way I have. I find myself staring at the way they interact, fascinated by this intimate verbal shorthand I will never speak. A language I knew once, years ago, but whose fluency has faded with lack of use.

***

“They are as much yours as mine,” my sister, Shannon, says of her children. She calls them Ours. A beautiful gift and powerful salve housed in this tiny word.

She keeps reminding me that it’s not too late for me to be a mother. Shannon had two kids by the time she was 20, her whole life built around these beautiful, needy creatures, shaped to fit their care before she’d run grooves of habit and preference into the surface of her life. I stand at the other end of this spectrum, a lifetime on my own, wondering when the grooves got so deep.

***

My dreams are haunted by the ghosts of Potential Father’s past, like some surreal Lifetime movie starring all the guys I’ve dated. My Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend. The Good Guy, whose heart I dragged through the shitstorm relationship with my Sort-of-Ex-Boyfriend, like a selfish child clutching at both. The Republican, who I loved but wasn’t in love with, The Wine Guy, who followed me across the country to chase a dream that wasn’t his. In the dark chaos of these dreams, they are always leaving. I am on the outside, alone, soaked in sadness for what is no longer mine, unsure if my decision was the right one. One by one, night after night, they knock on the door of my subconscious, as if to ask, “Are you positive I wasn’t the one?” I wake disoriented and filled with the grief of being left behind. Still, the answer to their question is always yes.

***

I am a teacher’s assistant in a classroom of children with special needs. Before Covid remote learning, my heart would swell as I walked down the hallway, tiny bodies rushing past, loud, untamed, and excited. Everything about me vibrated to the frequency of their laughter.

I possess a strange confidence in working with kids, one I rarely allow myself elsewhere. I’m good at connecting with them, all the Auntie mojo in me finally being used again. I thought that this job was a beautiful solution, outsmarting the loss, filling the place in me that felt empty. But I slowly began realizing how wrong I was.

There was no distance to protect me. Jealousy tightened in my chest when my coworkers coddled my favorites. I’d push it down, but guilt flooded in to replace it. I interrogated my reactions. What’s wrong with me? In the halls where small bodies stampede, I felt joy lined with sadness. None of these little beings would ever be mine to build forts with or have treasure hunts. This was my job. I loved it, and I wanted that to be enough. But the place I hoped to fill only echoed louder with emptiness.

***

I spent eight years in Los Angeles torn between the future I imagined acting and the family I adored in Illinois. I always thought the decision to walk away would come to me suddenly, an undeniable mandate spoken in the deep voice of the gods. I never suspected it would bubble up from inside me, slowly melting my beliefs like ice, one quiet idea at a time.

When I think of motherhood, settling into the silence beneath thought, I feel a quiet certainty, rising up from a bone-tired body that has survived so much: autoimmune disease, thyroid cancer, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder. It whispers a truth that weighs more than words: I cannot do it alone.

Maybe the compass in my gut has been broken all along. But I’m choosing to listen to my body.

***

My nephew Jake, the little boy who sat in the kitchen so many years ago, took his own life at 22. In the months following, I’d look at babies, feeling a pull in the deepest part of my belly, some never-was umbilical cord tugging me towards a tiny soul I hoped to meet. Maybe it was the life force raging in me, or the echo of my best memories, longing to start again.

In sharing the devastating loss, I discovered something in the eyes of strangers, a sort of silent calculation of the amount of grief I was allowed, some strange hierarchy of mourning.

Who were you to him again?

I was his aunt. I am his aunt.

As I silently debate the correct tense for dead loved ones, the softness in their faces fades a fraction, relieved to not have to comfort his mother, sister, or wife. At least that’s how I interpret it, perhaps filtered through my own insecurity. Just the aunt. I wanted to download a lifetime of memories shared, to prove I’d earned the intensity of what I was feeling.

People forget that mother is not only a noun but a powerful verb, lifting trucks off babies, laying down lives to save them. I’m not a mother. I will never claim that noun. But I’ve mothered. A verb woven in my bones, called to life the first time I met my nephew’s eyes. If you say it’s not the same, you’re right. But my version of this verb, the only action I’ve ever been certain of, is no less real or fierce, or natural.

Ask the children. Search their eyes. Scan the molecules of their brightest moments. You’ll find me there, slowly arriving at a place where I understand how this verb shaped my life. Learning to let go of the noun that will never be mine, by recognizing the children who somehow still are.  

Ours.

***

It’s not a perfect process. I inch closer to acceptance by focusing on all I’ve been given. But the truth is, I’m still floating in an ocean of ambivalence, the waves changing every day.

When I ache for the little voices that will never wake me for breakfast, I’m comforted by the ones that did so long ago, when I believed being an aunt was meant to prepare me for motherhood. It turns out, this was the journey I was built for, the privilege of watching these amazing beings change, their lives expanding, the root of our love reaching deeper than I thought possible. No longer the children who ran into my arms, they are still the core of everything I am, saving me from myself with every call, visit, text or memory.

Being an aunt changed me. It’s a love that hums in my blood, sewn into my soul, unchanged by time, space, and even death.  But there is an emptiness in me that sometimes aches for more, a loss no one else can see.

I’ve learned to mourn the past, the lives and seasons that altered and defined mine. But how do you grieve for something that never was? How much space is this invisible loss allowed? It’s a familiar hymn on the lips of so many people reaching this season of their lives, the sun setting on Someday, the Far Away Future suddenly tomorrow, then yesterday, then out of reach.

  We can make space for that. Or we can run from it. With alcohol, sex, drama, or drugs, tangling ourselves in regret, missing chances to change the moment we’re living. I’ve done a lot of running in my life. Now I’m searching for the courage to be still and level my face at the reflection of the life I’ve created.

***

Lately, I stand in front of the mirror, staring at the naked length of myself, changed by time, gravity, cellulite, and weight. I rub my hands over my belly, a place never occupied, smooth and unstretched. My eyes follow the gentle curve of my hips, unwidened by birth. I don’t know one mother who’d trade her child for the stretch marks they caused. Still, I cling to this bikini season consolation prize, my shallow insurance against regret.

As I take in the naked truth of who I’ve become, this body home to the choices I’ve made, I search for her, beyond the shape I thought she’d carry. Meeting her eyes, I offer a soft smile, opening my empty arms to this woman waiting for me.

***

Digging through closets on a recent visit to my mom’s, I discovered a baby name book I bought years ago. The blue eyes of the plump diapered boy on the cover tucked safely away through all my moves. I turned the pages, landing quickly on the one with the corner bent, marked by my younger self as if I might need a map to find my way back. In the middle of the page, the spelling I chose for him glows bright highlighter yellow. It’s meaning below, new again. Mighty warrior.

I hear the music of his name in my head, then softly say it out loud.

Kaelan.

I would’ve named him Kaelan.

***

The story behind the story:

Inspiration for this essay: I was working on my memoir in progress when the memory of being in front of the mirror pretending to be pregnant as a teenager flashed in my mind. It was like a thread that once pulled unraveled so many thoughts and feelings about motherhood I’d not only never put words on but wasn’t fully aware of. The essay began pouring out of me. At first, I didn’t think it belonged in a memoir about losing my nephews to suicide and my own mental health. but when I submitted it for workshopping in my memoir class my classmate pointed out that this was really what the memoir was, grieving not the lives of those we lose but the lives we thought we’d live.

About the process of writing this essay: I was several drafts in with this piece when I met my friend for wine and notes. She said it felt as though I was searching for silver linings, determined to end on a happy note. She challenged me to dig deeper into the regret and doubt I was glossing over. She gave me a practical example, referencing an episode of one of my favorite shows (Bo Jack Horseman) where a character’s voiceover about a vacation seems light and adventurous. But in the final moment, the character reveals the hard truth of her travels. She wanted that level of intimacy and disclosure. I went home with a belly full of wine and rewatched the episode, sure I had nothing more to disclose. But I felt the final moment of the episode land in my body. I knew what was missing, a truth I hadn’t let myself think about, let alone speak, for years. I started writing about the name I’d kept like a secret I’d hoped would come true. I let Kaelen fully enter the essay, encouraged by another friend who told me he was as much a character in this story as I was. I let myself grieve him and that changed everything. The piece suddenly felt more vulnerable and true. Once I let myself sit with the weight of the grief, the ending came easy, organically. It felt like equal parts gut punch and quiet acceptance, not a woman talking herself into sliver linings.

BIO: Maegan Gwaltney is a Chicago writer and storyteller. Her essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Rumpus. She performs at live-lit venues all around Chicago and is (still!) working on a memoir. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @MaeG765

“Motherhood (Or Lack Thereof)” was first published in The Manifest-Station.

Header Photo by Charlotte Hamrick

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