Guest post: "Watching my mum die in her 30s put me off having children until too late"
Different Shores says that while the idea of being middle-aged and childless once terrified her, her life is by no means the 'barren landscape' she dreaded
Posted on: Tue 17-Jan-17 16:54:59
(17 comments )
I clearly remember playing with dolls when I was small, but I don't recall ever daydreaming about real future babies. Any nascent maternal instincts were extinguished, in any case, between the ages of 14 and 18 as I watched my mum die of breast cancer.
She was quite a battle-axe, so it was disabling to see her cry after soiling her bed, and whimper with pain as her vertebrae crumbled when she moved. I did the only thing that a 1980s teenager without mental health resources could do: I held my breath and pretended it wasn't happening. When she died soon after her 39th birthday, I walked away with only one certainty left: that I would also die in my thirties. It wasn't a fear: it felt like an everyday fact.
Despite all the healthcare professionals that came and went, none of them suggested counselling to me. I spent my 20s paralysed with an irrational terror of HIV, to the point that I suffered stress-induced night sweats and was convinced I was dying. I didn't connect this to watching my mum deteriorate: I just thought our family was marked - why wouldn't I be ill? I saw my life as an egg-timer that would run out when my mum's had.
The net result of all this was that I was adamant I would never have children. I was nihilistic, world-weary - I recoiled from the idea of bringing new life into this world. My dad, deranged, hit the nightclubs shortly after my mum's death and quickly married again, determined to shed his miserable past; we were now estranged. Families were disappointing: parents died young or turned their back on you. I didn't care about any consequences of not having children because I wouldn't see old age.
Culture loves to remind us that childlessness is pitiable. If I could achieve anything from telling my story, I would want women to know that it feels all right to be in my shoes.
Something shifted in my 30s, though. The aggressive cancer that my mum developed at 34 didn't materialise. The numbness morphed into a premature midlife crisis: where was my life going, if it might extend beyond 40? My job was soul-sapping, I didn't have many friends. The years yawned ahead of me unpunctuated, bereft of new chapters. What was the point? I was gripped with breathless existential panic night and day. If I wasn't dead by 37, I needed to have a child. It would be a focus, a distraction. My navel-gazing had denied my partner of children - what if he eventually realised he wanted them and left me, alone in the world?
I convinced myself that no one did it for selfless reasons, and we decided to try for a baby.
37 was too late for me. I had advanced endometriosis and almost no ovarian reserve. I failed IVF and, given a 5% chance of success, didn't pursue further treatment.
I am now in that place that once terrified me: I am middle-aged and childless. I imagined it a lonely stigmatised wasteland, where parents look on in pity between those fabled moments of life-enhancing joy they have with their children.
What has surprised me is that it's fine. The spiralling panic and the shame of failure disappeared when the window of opportunity closed. I am content. I have the best of men. I look forward to things again. I still fret sometimes that I am only one person away from solitude, but I rein this in, thinking of my single friends. I have no intention of spending my 40s and 50s in a fog of depression.
I don't know if my family would look different if my mum hadn't died. Did the impact of her death really destroy my desire for children, or did I never have a maternal instinct? Do other people have children for reasons like mine, or was I just not meant to have any?
Culture loves to remind us that childlessness is pitiable. If I could achieve anything from telling my story, I would want women to know that it feels all right to be in my shoes. I might be the thing that some women fear becoming, but my life is not the barren landscape that people dread. Whether I genuinely wanted children or not still feels clouded by events, but I don't miss them in my life now.
I do know I am tired of looking backwards. I have carried my mum's death around for years and made it the cause of all my woes. But blaming means never letting go, and I want to move on. So goodnight mum, rest easy. I'm fine as I am, and I know you'd say that too, and fiercely.
By Different Shores
That was very interesting, thank you for sharing your insights and experiences.
I am so sorry you and your mum had to go through all that. So so sorry.
Yes, thanks for sharing. Thankfully diagnosis and treatment for breast cancers have improved and are still evolving. Regarding children, you absolutely do not need them to live a rewarding life. Wishing you lots of happiness x
Very sorry about your Mum and your difficult times.
Your dark clouds of anxiety and depression from your mums death are so palpable from your post. It makes me worry why I seem to identify with it so much despite having a very normal and uncomplicated upbringing. I'm hoping it's just well written!
I have been blessed with children, although I wouldn't be without them, having them is just a different life to the one I would have had without them, if that makes sense?
Children grow and will leave, there's no garentee of companionship in old age with them, and it would be unfair to expect it of them.
I hope you fine a new beginning and the fruitfulness in life you deserve.
Very sorry for your loss and difficult journey.
It goes to show, there's no right way to live and be happy.
Thank you for sharing with us.
Thank you for such a life-affirming piece.
This has struck a bit of a chord with me as I have a similar experience currently...
I'm in my late 20's and lost my younger sister just over 5 years ago. She was 19. Ever since I've been terrified of the idea of having my own children and have refused to allow it to happen. All I can see/think of are the bad things that could happen.
I am aware that this behaviour is quite self-destructive. It is nice to know that you have found not having children to be okay - I never imagined it not to be. But I would like to hear from other people in a similar situation, did you have a similar experience yet still have your own family? Did you have kids despite never thinking you would? Did you refuse to have them and later regret it?
My partner wants kids and part of me tells me that I would enjoy it. But then I think about what could go wrong and I'm just back to square one again.
Sorry about your mum and thank you for sharing your story.
Fantastic post, thank you. I still fret sometimes that I am only one person away from solitude
I lost my mum and dad as a young adult and I am very aware of my own mortality as a result. I see other people who fortunately haven't been affected by the loss of a loved one and they seem so naive and innocent. It changes everything. I feel destined to replay my mum's illness and honestly don't expect to reach old age.
I do have children and I think the sadness I feel when I imagine their life without me is just a different kind of fear. It's almost like I'm doing their mourning for them in advance because I know how they will feel! We all have our struggles and make the best of life as it is. It's lovely to read a positive perspective from such sad circumstances.
Really great post. My mum died in her 20s and I was so shocked to make it to age 30 myself (and beyond obvs).
Her younger sisters were all very strongly affected and didn't have children until they were relatively older. Spiderwebbed they all tell me know they were glad they had children when they did. They had grieved for their sister a long time first and I think they are all very well balanced.
Sorry for all the loss on here
Your post has really hit a nerve with me. I had a very similar experience, but my father did not remarry, he just disappeared to the pub.
I too didn't think I'd see 40. I'm adopted and both my birth mother and adoptive mother died young, I felt I may be some kind of curse, or cursed.
I did go on to have children, but at nearly 40. There are times I wish I could go back to change. Looking back my life seems to have been lived through the lens of disease, death and abandonment. I felt a hundred years older than my peers, I'd seen a different side to life (death). I was cold and aloof, I shut down completely.
I'm glad you've found some peace. I can't believe that in the 1980s we were just expected to 'deal with it'. I'm sure some grief counselling (or even just talking about it) could have saved me from MH issues down line. But who knows? We play the cards we are dealt.
Thank you for sharing
Very brave post. Thank you and best wishes to you
Thank you for sharing your story. I'm sure it struck a nerve for many people. I have my own demons from family experience, namely mental health problems. I didn't realise how plagued our family were with awful MH until I'd had children. Now I feel like I'm a ticking time bomb and my children are doomed to experience the loss of a proper mum whilst still having someone in their life they're responsible for and call mum but who isn't recognisable anymore. That is what I now experience and I'm petrified that is their future or that they will have inherited poor MH themselves.
I'm so sorry you never had counselling or proper professional support through your loss. You sound like you have developed into a considerate and balanced person given what you have gone through.
Wishing everyone strength to get through what life throws at them
Very moved by this. Thank you for sharing. Inspiring.
I am super late as have only just created a profile on Mumsnet today! ... but I wanted to say thank you to the people who left the messages above - I found these comments poignant and touching, and helpful and comforting to hear others' experiences.
Different Shores x