Sig Other is a chivalrous man. And so, when a reader of my blog made a comment to him that I wrote as a woman who clearly had never birthed children of her own, he took offense on my behalf. It was very sweet of him. The statement was made, as I recall, as an observation about a certain lack of warmth that this reader equated with an unused uterus (or at least unused as far as reproductivity is concerned). And Sig Other took offense because the statement felt like an insult.
But whether it was meant to be or not, I take no such offense at the comment made by a woman who doesn’t know me. It is true that my uterus is not well used. And it is true that I am sometimes warm and sometimes not. But I have never thought to equate warmth (mine or any one else’s really) with motherliness. I know some women who have birthed quite a few of their own young and are still quite chilly. And likewise, there are women I’ve known with no biological issue who are warm and cozy. I consider myself a member of neither category. I consider myself a person who loves the children in her life and doesn’t give much consideration one way or other to their origin.
Perhaps this is tradition in my family. I had two great aunts – one from my mother’s side and one from my father’s – who were childless. One, I would say, was tragically so. The other, not at all. Both were diminutive and both had careers far more successful than most women of their generation. And both were well loved.
First there was Great Aunt Henny. Henny was a seamstress and worked for Bob Mackie at the height of his career. She would fly to Vegas and onto movie sets to fit glittery dresses onto the svelte figures of Cher, Diana Ross and Carol Burnett. She was married to Uncle Max. I loved Max because Max had a little poodle named Shoo Shoo and because he would bring us pepper beef and pastrami and because he was generally a delightful great uncle. But I was a little, little girl. And what I didn’t know is that Max was an alcoholic. And a cheater. And a louse. Max was also sterile (the least offensive of his negative attributes). And he failed to share this fact with Henny until just before their wedding night. She was stunned and devastated and called my grandmother (her sister) who told her it wasn’t too late to call it off. But Henny was ashamed and embarrassed and worried she’d never find another man. And in the end, Henny decided that she was better off with a cheating drunk than with no man at all. She had no children but treated her two nieces and grandchildren as her own. She sewed for us and doted on us and worried about us. And asked nothing in return. I remember going to visit her in the hospital as she lay dying. She was 68 pounds – a frail bag of skin and bones – and she had no real idea who was in the room with her. I was there with my sister and my aunt and two cousins. And though she couldn’t tell you any of our names, still she knew she was surrounded by family. Finally, at the very end, she seemed at peace.
And then there’s Rose. Rose is still alive and in her 90s and sort of fabulous. Rose never had children. And Rose never married. Rose was one of the first female vice presidents in the advertising business and every time I watch Mad Men I imagine her as a prettier, less awkward (and certainly less Catholic) version of Peggy – ahead of her time, navigating the waters of abject chauvinism and ballsy feminism. Rose was also little (although never fragile) and a natural redhead until well into her 70s when she lied about her age so she would not be forced into retirement. Rose took a class at Hunter (her alma mater) every semester and a trip somewhere interesting in the world once a year. She went to the opera, the symphony and the theater every chance she got and took a bus to every single destination. She now lives in a retirement home in the countryside where she is looked after by my cousin who lives nearby. But I remember almost a decade ago having lunch with Rose in a little bistro around the corner from her New York apartment. It was fall and she was wearing her jaunty beret. She told me that the only real downside of getting older was that she had to find new friends – all of hers had died. And so now she was cultivating a new group of pals – much younger – all in their seventies. And she told me if she had it to do all over again she would have had children.
Two childless women on either side of my family. Both terribly influential in my life. Both for entirely different reasons. Rose because I admire her – admire her energy and her lust for life. Henny more as a cautionary tale – she was so kind and so generous and so deeply insecure that she could never get out from under her own self image. But both women with deep connections to children in their lives. Both women who I would think of as warm first and childless last.
I guess my point is this – it sort of depends on what you think of as childless. Rose and Henny were childless by any traditional definition of the word. They had not bourn children of their own. They did not adopt babies and raise them in their homes. But they were influential forces to us and, I imagine, to many who did not share their blood. And they were warm.
In a world where warmth and kindness are scarce enough commodities, I’m not sure that fertility and gestation should be the final arbiters of what makes a mother. Nor am I sure that being “childless” is any kind of insult at all. I am not bothered by a comment made by a woman I don’t know. I’m not bothered by whether I seem like a person who has birthed her own young. And I’m not sure we should live in a society that judges the value or warmth of a woman by the yield (or lack thereof) of her reproductive organs.