Essays, Essays Archive

Counterbalance: An Essay on Not Mothering

A question never has one answer. The simplest answer is to say I chose. The complicated answer is to say, I wanted to keep choosing.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked why I don’t have children. By strangers, by friends, by family members, by co-workers, by anyone and everyone. It’s been years since I’ve stopped correcting people when they wish me a Happy Mother’s Day. At this point, due to the grey in my hair, strangers ask after my grandchildren. It takes entirely too long to answer the questions that follow. If I answer with the truth and say it’s what I chose, this unleashes a series of plaintive why’s that never ends. It’s as if they don’t understand this was a choice it was possible to make. I’ve learned it’s best to look very sad and serious and say, “No children, no grandchildren.” And yes, I don’t have as many casual conversations with strangers as I used to.

I don’t know how old my maternal grandmother was when she died. I have only one picture of her. In her forties or fifties, her hair drawn back in a loose bun, a look in her eyes that is anxious and uncomfortable. Her husband died when my mother was two years old. She never remarried and raised five children on her own. She died of diabetic complications shortly before I was born. My mother was 35 years old. Since my mother was her youngest child, my guess is that my grandmother was in her early sixties when she died.

My mother was 61 when she died of colon cancer. I was 26. Interestingly, my mother never asked if I planned to have children. Or get married. Or for confirmation of my being interested in men or women or both. In this way, I think my mother understood me best. I would only ever do what I chose to do or what I had to do. Doing what I should do or what others expected me to do has never been on my list of priorities.

In other families, perhaps, the having children is seen as an inevitable part of life. Especially for a Latina. A Mexican-American woman born to illiterate, working class parents. The idea of ‘choice’ doesn’t seem possible.

I come from short-lived people. The running joke for years was that I was trying to live a longer life. That I wanted to follow the example of my mother’s great-aunts and great-uncles—who all lived to be almost a hundred, who all enjoyed independent lives, who never married or had children. The family had lost their money in the Depression, my mother said, and that had made them reluctant to believe in wealth or accumulation.  Instead, they lived life simply and followed their interests.

It was an odd moment. When the doctor told me menopause had arrived. It wasn’t that I regretted not having children. It was realizing that choosing differently was no longer in my hands. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like with kids. How many times I would have chosen differently. How different my possible choices would have been. My imagination doesn’t look at it as an alternate reality but as someone else’s life—because if I’d been a mother, I would have become a different person.

I have friends who desperately wanted to be mothers and weren’t able to. Friends who had to go to extraordinary lengths to have children. Friends who had children they hadn’t planned on. Friends who raised those unplanned children and friends who didn’t. Friends who were financially stable and not, friends with good health and not—who did or didn’t have children. I’ve had friends who lost their children.

When my mother was on her deathbed, we found out my step-niece at 15 was pregnant. While the family was in an uproar, I had a short conversation with her. Maybe the only time we ever had a one on one conversation. I was shocked to realized that she though motherhood was inevitable. Married or not. Adult or not. Financially ready or not. That had been her mother’s life, the life of her mother’s friends.

That wasn’t true on our side of the family. My oldest sister, 17 years older than me, never married or had children. My second oldest sister had an abortion at 19 and was disowned by my father for many, many years. My youngest brother and I, the queer artistic black sheep of the family, also never married or had children. My four other siblings produced a grand total of 8 grandchildren. I think my father found this incomprehensible. He’d come from a family of 8, and his parents had more than 50 grandchildren.

There was always the idea of a choice. As well as the idea of a price. A price for having children. A price for not having children.

A few years ago, a young Mexican woman working in the cafeteria of the courthouse where I worked, ended up raising her voice at me in bewilderment. She’d asked after my kids. When I told her I didn’t have any and hadn’t wanted any, she kept yelling, “But who’s going to take care of you? Who, señora, who?” Which I thought was an interesting question to insist on. An interesting assumption to base your whole life on. No one is guaranteed children as caretakers. No one is guaranteed children as security.

I wrote a poem in 2008. It’s other people’s hands down favorite poem in my first book, furia, “i come from women illiterate and rough-skinned.” In it, I write about my mother’s efforts to add beauty to every aspect of her life and ours. And I wrote also about all the art she never made, the stories she never told, the things she was never able to do. About what it is to be the child of a silent mother, burning with the desire to be free and to speak.

I decided no children at 24. And I remember giving four reasons. 1) I had no faith that this world would treat my children gently. 2) I refused to pass down a family history of depression, diabetes, cancer, addiction, etc. 3) I didn’t want to prioritize my life around what I would have to do to create a family—find a partner, prepare financially, etc. Writing this, it turns out I don’t remember reason #4 anymore.

On a daytrip in 2017 with my writer friend Barbara, I realized something I’d never known before. I’d always said that I felt I couldn’t be both a writer and a mother. Not because the two are not reconcilable—I know an astonishing number of amazing women who are both mothers and artist, some of them would even say that motherhood made them stronger and more effective. I said this because I felt I wouldn’t have been able to strike any kind of balances. That I would have poured myself into being a mother and then been filled with resentment. Not that motherhood would have taken away my choices—it’s that it would have changed my choices. What I realized on that road trip was that it wasn’t until a couple years ago that I loved myself enough to be a good mother. I’d never known that I’d most needed to mother myself. And that’s what I had been choosing along. To mother myself until I loved myself. Until I could let go of all my resentments.

Legally, I’m someone’s mother now. In 2017, I adopted my brother after his amputation and adjustment to life in a wheelchair. He’s lived with me and been my dependent since 2003, though it wasn’t till 2010 that his mobility was severely curtailed. Now that I’ve adopted him, I can apply for Family Medical Leave Act coverage so that I can protect my job while I handle his medical care as well as mine.

I’ve never understood the insistence of having it “all.” I don’t think any life or any person can have everything in it. I’ve only wanted choices and the right to choose. Even if my life looks lopsided to others, 26 years of working for the state and county before retirement, my heart spent on taking care of my mother till she died, crisis months taking care of my father, decades spent caring for my brother, more time and energy spent on my own chronically ill body. I left college after my junior year and stopped trying to go back after my mother died. I have been alone more years than anyone would care to admit. Described this way, yes, my life is unbalanced and lopsided. But it’s the one I chose to have. The one I carved out of the choices I could make. I wanted to heal myself. I wanted to write. I still want to heal myself, and I still want to write. My body and my mind and my heart are all poised like this, balanced on one wingtip and one toe. My entire life is the counterbalance to what others thought my life was supposed to be.

What I wanted was to hold open a space. To live out a story I hadn’t seen anyone else live out. I wanted my own mistakes. I wanted my own road. There was more than enough of my life that came with no choices. I wanted some silence. I wanted some stillness. I wanted something else, even if that something else was an absence. I wanted space to see what I might do, what I might become. I wanted to be the unexpected. Without knowing they’d come, I wanted the years I’m living now. Wanted to have to fight for my own definitions. Wanted these solitary spaces. Wanted what’s to come. Wanted all the things I still don’t know.

I came here to create. And to choose what I created. This is all I know.

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Filed under: Essays, Essays Archive


ire’ne lara silva is the author of two poetry collections, furia (Mouthfeel Press, 2010) and Blood Sugar Canto (Saddle Road Press, 2016), which were both finalists for the International Latino Book Award in Poetry, an e-chapbook, Enduring Azucares, (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015), as well as a short story collection, flesh to bone (Aunt Lute Books, 2013) which won the Premio Aztlán. She and poet Dan Vera are also the co-editors of Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands, (Aunt Lute Books, 2017), a collection of poetry and essays. ire’ne is the recipient of a 2017 NALAC Fund for the Arts Grant, the final recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, and the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldúa Milagro Award. ire'ne is currently working on her first novel, Naci.  Her latest collection of poetry, CUICACALLI/House of Song, will be published by Saddle Road in April 2019. Website: