by Alice Barden
I am not a mother in the conventional sense. I wanted to be, and am very clear when people assume that, “I didn’t want children”, that I actually did. Very much. Just not enough to have them on my own when I was older and, well, possibly able to. I also never met a man I wanted to father my children. And I really didn’t want to do it on my own. As a child brought up in a highly dysfunctional alcoholic home, and a recovering alcoholic myself, I wanted a partner who had role models of parenting and family that I didn’t have. And, at the very least, I wanted a husband who really wanted to be a partner in parenting – not a man who planned to continue pursuing his career while I stayed home and sidelined mine. Of all the men who wanted to marry me, this was their biggest stumbling block. That I was passionate about my career, and that I believed children were a shared responsibility in every sense of the word.
Who would have believed it? In my wildest dreams I never thought that at fifty-five years of age I would be single and childless. I still can’t believe it, as the years between my last period and today go by. I am a spinster with two cats. (Whom I probably love more than most people love their children, but that’s another story. Love is love…) Something I used to joke about. I mean I had always worked with children as a babysitter, Big Sister, Latchkey counselor, Early Childcare provider, you name it. I had been thrown up on and changed more diapers than any of my friends combined.And I never got to use my female superpower: to give birth and raise cool humans. More specifically, cool human women. I always just assumed I’d have a girl or maybe two. Even my mother did. That may have been a clue to my future.
I was in my senior year at Yale, happy as type-A clam can be, when I first suffered the beginnings of what would be a ten year bout with as-yet-untreatable anxiety and depression. What is now called a M.D.D., or a Major Depressive Disorder, where you basically want to kill yourself and can’t breathe until someone finally invents something called an SSRI. Until such time I leaned on a therapist three times a week, lived in my mother’s one bedroom in S.F., and attended a lot of my friends’ weddings as a bridesmaid (as people whispered about how good I looked for having a “nervous breakdown.”) I did a lot of other miraculous things for someone in that state—-like finishing my degree, faking everyone out, and starting a successful acting career, but there was no way in hell I was starting my “real life” until I felt human again. I had serious boyfriends, I suppose, but you make a lot of compromises when you’re not sure you’re going to survive the day…for ten years. And I would never put a child in that environment. Ever.
When I was thirty-two years old my mother had a panic attack and was given something called Paxil. The next day I took it and was fine. My mother, of course, finally understood what I’d been going through, (no one really does until they have walked in your shoes), but I was off to New York with my best (still single) friend to conquer the world. The career world, I should say, not the maternal one. There was still PLENTY of time for that. Anyone could do that. Right?
It was in New York that I grew up. I finally went to Alanon and AA, wrote a successful one woman show and sold a TV pilot I starred in, among other miraculous, if expensive, things. I also suffered the unbelievable loss of, and buried, my best friend, sold real estate to uncaring millionaires, and got hit by a recession that wiped me out financially. All of this coming in waves until I crested forty. My boyfriends were slowly but surely improving as I worked on my emotional health, dating better and better versions of my slightly narcissistic father, but I ran out of time and money. When I was forty-six I started peri-menopause, revisited Depression-land briefly, and thought about being able to pick up and move to Paris. So cliche, I know, but it helped. I wasn’t going to have a baby, but it would be all right, right? Shortly after my friend died, my brother adopted a beautiful and funny boy I would adore and make sure always knew I had his back. Mostly by sending him weekly cards and presents, but also by telling him the truth and giving him an out when he needed it. Something I had always wanted.
My mother and I are now like sisters, and I am the designated “best” child if not the favorite one. Three years ago I was free to move to California to get an MFA in screenwriting, which I decided to pursue as soon as I realized that as I grew older the acting parts for women were disappearing, and if I wanted to continue acting I had to start writing. In screenwriting school I learned that the inherent sexism in the industry was worse than I thought, and now I am embarking on a directing career as well. Which is really a mother who gets paid a lot, when you think about it. I have also spent a lot more time that I ever thought raising my female self. It’s hard to become a rabid feminist when you’re a successful mother in a happy home. But somebody has to. I had, as it turned out, the opportunity to be out there in the trenches and report from the field. A lot of women give up the rest of their dreams, albeit unknowingly, when they choose to have children. Even if they work. I blame hormones and men being lazy and/or uninformed. And exhaustion. These women need a lot of mothering, and I have the opportunity to do it. You can’t age out of that.
But I do miss my baby girl. Myself and the one I didn’t get to have.