For All The Not-Mothers

I read our March and April selections of Kristin Lavransdatter in quick bursts. Weeknight binges before bed. And then I put it away. I didn’t feel like discussing these sections the way I wanted to discuss Kristin’s bucolic childhood or the many problems with Erland.

For a while, this lack of inspiration was a mystery to me.

Then, I was walking my dogs on an afternoon last week and I knew exactly why I don’t want to write about these sections: they are about pregnancy and new motherhood.

Here it is, nearly Mother’s Day. I am the right age to be a mother and every single marketing email in my inbox is about that day. When I see them, I no longer think of my own mother and grandmothers, I think of myself as a not-mother.

I read fast, knowing that Kristin’s fictional child would live. He would be fine. Everyone else I know has managed to have a baby. Kristin is going to raise seven sons, or something, right?

It has been the shock of my adult life, this wanting to be a mother, but not wanting it badly enough to persist past a year of disaster. I never dreamed of being a mother when I was growing up. I dreamed of being a writer and of living near the sea—which is where I am now. I didn’t know how badly I wanted children until my body gave up pregnancy after pregnancy.

That year was hard on my husband and me, and we put our hopes in deep freeze: moved to a new place, navigated a flare of my chronic illness, and tried to salvage our mental health in these coronavirus years. Somehow, six years have passed. And things have shifted—getting our puppies felt like a sign that I was no longer planning around the possibility of a pregnancy within the year.

All the while, I’ve developed this secret narrative of self-pity. When you are the right age to be a mother, and all your friends are mothers, little hurts pile up.

Being asked at the cash register if you are a mother on Mother’s Day.

Hearing a (woman) scientist lecture about marine mammal fertility and identify the animals that don’t give birth every year as “frail”. Sitting in the back row thinking there should be an essay about how horrible this language is but instead saving it for a snarky text message to a sympathetic friend.

Or, this week, getting asked to write Mother’s Day messages for my job. I was about to tuck it away as something I could tease into a journal entry, when instead I found myself speaking up, outing myself as someone who has not been able to have children, and admitting that this was a hard assignment for me. I was immediately met with understanding. I thought talking about it at work would make me feel too vulnerable. But it didn’t. It was a reasonable request to make. And it was a choice against bitterness.

I’ve read enough of Kristin Lavransdatter to know I want to keep reading, even if she does have all those sons. This novel has surprised me at every turn, already. But for now, I’m not going to reread the parts about Kristin’s secret pregnancy and agonizing birth story. I’m going to go forward and see what happens next.

Photo © Daniel Hentz

Hannah Piecuch is a staff science writer at Oceanus magazine and a designer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She holds an MFA in fiction, but has not written a word of fiction since completing it. She enjoys winter ocean swimming, long woods walks with her dogs, and eating oysters in months that contain “r”. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband. 

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