This is Unfolding Inheritance, a column by Kristen Gentry exploring mother-daughter relationships, the impact of parental addiction, and the journey of finding and loving yourself through it all.
While thrift shopping with my mother, I found a sweatshirt. Faded red with white block text blaring, “Childless.”
What? I was startled to confusion though the message was clear. The wearer of said sweatshirt had no children. I’m so used to finding t-shirts boasting “Mama Bear” and “Tough as a Mother” that it shocked me to discover this deviation from mommy merch.
I showed the shirt to Mama. “What do you think?”
Her face shifted through the initial confusion I’d experienced.
“It’s a nice sweatshirt,” she finally said, running her hand down a sleeve. “Heavy. Will you wear it?” she asked.
“I think so.” I knew her question was more than an inquiry about cost per wear.
I prefer the term “childfree” with its highlight of freedom, lightness, the giving of bougie auntie, I-might-watch-your-kids-while-you-have-a-night-out-or-I-might-not-cuz-you-made-the-choice- to-have-kids-sis-not-me vibes. But “childfree” and “childless” aren’t synonyms. Childlessness is about wanting but not having. It gives lack, loss, sadness, and is, unfortunately, my truth.
My mother, who has never been on a plane, wants me to see the world. She never wanted me to have kids. She celebrated with me during a recent visit to New York City when I made a solo subway trip from lower Manhattan to Brooklyn without getting lost or mugged.
“I’m so proud of you!” she said from her kitchen table back in Louisville, Kentucky. “I don’t know where you learned to be so brave.”
She spends many of the quiet days of her retirement tending to tasks in the yard surrounding the house in the suburbs where she lives alone.
Mama once had an adoring husband, a well-paying job as a registered nurse, and a house sitting on acres of farmland. With me, my little brother, and our dog, her life was complete with 2.5 kids. All the boxes for a good life were checked. But depression, which my mother has struggled with all of her life, gives no fucks about what looks good on paper or behind a white picket fence. It is rarely appeased by these offerings.
“I should’ve been happy,” Mama has told me, “but it always felt like something–what? I didn’t know–was missing. I kept thinking the next accomplishment or nice thing I bought would fix it.”
Her nights were sleepless in spite of busy days. Her search for a solution to insomnia led to an opioid addiction that stretched long and destructive as a serpent over the course of fifteen years. I was twelve and watched my mother shut herself away from the world, away from me, with no plausible explanation. She spent days locked in her room.
I knew of Mama’s depression but didn’t understand it. Aside from the dark clouds in The Neverending Story, I couldn’t fathom a powerful Nothing that consumes without will or warning. I wondered what happened and searched myself for the wrong I’d done, my sin that had sung to the serpent. I worked hard to be good. I excelled at school, spoke quietly, tried not to ask for too much. I saw ensuring my mother’s happiness and sobriety as my personal responsibilities.
I flattened myself under the weight of a burden that wasn’t mine to tow.
I’ve always wanted kids and thought I’d be a mom by twenty-four. A decade off-schedule, I was finally in a relationship with a man I was excited to procreate with, but he told me, “I don’t think I can have kids.” He explained that he’d had no formal testing, but he and his ex hadn’t used birth control over the course of their ten year-relationship and she’d never gotten pregnant.
I was alarmed, though not dismayed. I went off birth control pills and hoped, I’m ashamed to admit, that the problem was hers. A year later, I was slowly, sadly, beginning to believe him and wondered if karma was serving a swift return and the problem could, in fact, be mine.
A visit to the gynecologist led to another visit for an ultrasound. Lying on the table watching the sonographer apply the cold gel to my flat stomach and scan the black screen of my womb, empty of a baby but full of polyps, almost made me cry. The scene was so far from the joyous moments I’d seen in movies and imagined for myself. I was, indeed, part of the problem.
I had a hysteroscopy and allowed myself to hope again in the years following the procedure only to receive the same disappointing results.
The year the pandemic hit, I turned forty. My biological window for having children was closing, and, for the first time, I wasn’t really mad at it. I looked at the dumpster fire of the world and questioned whether I really wanted to bring a child into this clusterfuck of racism, abysmal political leadership, mass shootings, and climate change.
We considered fertility treatment but weren’t willing to spend ourselves into debt producing another mouth to feed. We spoke about adoption, but these conversations weren’t unlike our musings about winning the lottery; we were pretty confident it wouldn’t happen. The process was intimidating, and I was already overwhelmed with work. My job as an associate professor, along with my administrative role as Director of Creative Writing, gobbled my time in and out of the classroom.
Although I wanted a baby, conceiving wasn’t a concerted effort. I didn’t track my ovulation or schedule sex at optimum points in my cycle. I was perpetually exhausted in all the ways that one can feel exhausted and spent evenings splayed on the couch with my dog in my lap, grateful that she had no homework I had to help her learn, no dinner she needed me to cook. I looked at my colleagues with young children and wondered how they maintained energy, equilibrium.
Under Rochester’s endless gray sky, I walked my dog and assessed my life. I had a partner who absolutely adored me, a well-paying job. No house yet, but I was saving and renting a duplex apartment with a garden in the backyard. I was on my way to checking the boxes. Although the absence of children was clear, I knew like Mama, that something else I couldn’t identify was missing. I stared at the dark clouds. The Nothing was hovering. And I was grateful I couldn’t bring a child into it.
I stood before a mirror posing my “Childless” self to see how the sweatshirt fit.
That word on my chest made me feel exposed, vulnerable, like Roberta Flack when that guy was singing and killing her softly. It stung like that.
I’d love to rep that childfree life. My truth is hard to admit, but I believe being unable to conceive was a blessing for me and my unborn. I know Mama never meant for me to carry the burdens I did, but I did, and I wouldn’t want my children to do the same for me. Maybe I would have been open with my kids, spoken to them about depression, and made it clear that what I’m feeling is not their fault. Maybe that wouldn’t have been enough. Who knows. Nature has made the choice for me and I’m accepting it.
I bought the sweatshirt.