Elizabeth Nickson
          Saltspring Island, British Columbia

Getting off the mommy train

Posted December 16, 2006
Nobody's Mother: Life Without Kids
Edited by Lynne Van Luven,
TouchWood Editions, 226 pages, $19.95

Childless women have a lot to answer for these days, chiefly the end of Western civilization. And then there are our friends in the Middle East. First thing any (entirely male) Islamist government does is shroud women in heavy fabric, take away tools of trade, books and pens, and set them to breeding more cannon fodder for the holy war. Our women -- educated, strong, independent, childless -- could be argued to be the chief sin, the greatest wrong of our civilization to those who have declared themselves our enemy.

I was 15 before I knew that such a life was even possible, and I remember discussing with my friends the case of a woman the same age as our mothers who was dating a widower in our village. This new creature had a job in Montreal, no children and, not only that, no husband. Try as we might, we could not see this life as anything but bleak. Just a few decades ago, even the most privileged young women in our culture could not envision a happy life for themselves that did not include at least three children.

That's changed. This is the demographic stat that changed the world: Never before in human history has there been such an enormous cohort of women who escaped the noose of motherhood. What have they done with that freedom? From the evidence of Nobody's Mother, a collection of essays by 21 childless Canadian women, they have chosen to educate themselves extensively, and travel to the farthest reaches of the planet with their husbands, or alone. They have negotiated native rights, thrown themselves into charitable pursuits and community building, owned every morning on CBC Radio, married once, several times or not at all, step-parented, foster-parented, taught, written poems, books, monographs and studies, left stifling relationships to live exactly as they please, and influenced the course of events like no other generation in human history.

Nobody's Mother is more than instructive, it should be essential reading for holy warriors, right-wing demographical hysterics such as Pat Buchanan, and any young girl considering what she might do with the 70 years or so that stretch in front of her. Guilt and sorrow, almost without exception, have plagued these women and shadowed at least a few years. All laboriously list the many children and adults to whom they have related in a maternal way. Some source their refusal in too much responsibility too young, through the death or fecklessness of parents.

Some are defiant. Jennifer Wise, a theatre professor at the University of Victoria, delivers a bracing proto-Marxist lecture, leaning on Shaw, asking who on Earth would spend their life in the nursery, fussing over babies, instead of doing "more intellectually absorbing and more socially useful things?" The honesty expressed is searing, saddening and, finally, redemptive. From these women, I suspect, we can learn just why motherhood is such a burden (yes, yes, great joy, too), how that might change and, of course, subsequently save Western civilization.

Despite their accomplishments, there is a persistent feeling here of being sidelined, left out of the great major chord story that most of us still play. Travel writer Maria Coffey writes about how she is seen by the Third World women in the farthest-flung corners through which she and her husband, Dag, paddle. They pity her and think her barren, that starkest of words.

Dianne Moir, a James Bay Cree, shows how her childlessness has allowed her social activism in aboriginal communities. And Sadhna Datta writes with tenderness about how anomalous she is in immigrant culture in Vancouver. Many worry how they will age without children to ease that passage, though most recount that they have constructed strong families that will see them through.

Hannah Main van der Kamp, a poet and writer who lives up in British Columbia's Slocan Valley, faces barren dead on. She has chosen to act as spiritual mentor for the young people who flood through her life. She is an exemplar of slowness, of the contemplative life, "an indicator that another way of life is possible. . . . Could I have escaped the frantic busyness of an urban middle-class lifestyle, if I had children?" she asks. "I think not." Her role as quirky aunt "encourages me to dwell on and heighten 'peak' experiences, both my own and others'. There is a communal amnesia in families, religious congregations, schools and work places. When something Really Big Happens, it registers as a thrill, but there is a simultaneous converse pressure to erase the big experience quickly, disavow, ignore and bury it. Get on with sameness routines."

Van der Kamp tries to amplify the powerful occurrences in the lives of her friends, and in this perhaps, we see the true contribution the childless make. Uniformity, says Van der Kamp, distrusts ecstasy and terror. The childless can take bigger risks, they can paddle into nothingness; they can mortgage their future to attempt some great task, they do not have to be hostages to fortune.

While spinster women have always been the glue in any human culture, with this book, we can start to give them their due respect. One caveat: Nobody's Mother's women are brilliant and privileged because of their brilliance; it would be useful to understand what the condition means to those less starry, with less fascinating work.

2006 Elizabeth Nickson
The material at this website is available only for personal non-commercial
purposes, and it may not be reproduced without permission.