The Quiet Sorrow of Childlessness
A story of a complex father/daughter relationship.
By September 1, 1992 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
My father dreamed of walking me down the aisle, slowly, grandly, to the hum of Mozart or Bach, in a black tuxedo, satin-trimmed, with his upright athletic walk, his graying hair, his authoritative eye, and me in cream-colored lace, pearl-trimmed, radiant with hope, my arm resting on his, lightly.
My father dreamed of walking me down the aisle, slowly, grandly, surrounded by his loving friends and mine, hundreds of faces turned toward us, eyes wide with love, a few wet with tears.
My father dreamed of walking me down the aisle, slowly, grandly, until we reached an altar of flowers, high and full of the colors of spring. My father dreamed of that moment when he would lift my arm and place it on another, lightly, stepping back then, to leave me, his daughter, standing in the next moment as a wife.
My father occasionally stopped at hotels in his travels looking for the ideal wedding site, imagining the aisle walk in every grand hotel lobby, hearing the sounds of music fill the air like flocks of white birds.
My father imagined evening dinners with long tables full of food, hot and fresh, the colors of autumn. His children and his children's children would be laughing and teasing one another, and food would be disappearing amid the raucous sounds of play, the intimate noise of family life.
Family life--an elusive dream just out of reach. Like the butterfly to the young girl's hands, it sits a moment in the angle of vision, then disappears to visit another's imagination.
Family life--to my father, an unrequited love whom he has wooed and cherished, battered and bloodied, always in an effort to shape it to his own idiosyncratic needs, those nooks and crannies that were formed in his soul during a childhood of drought, an era of absence and longing, shame and thirst.
Family life--to me, the unlived life. As wife, mother, grandmother, it's been taken from me, a stolen plum.
And so it's been taken from him, my boisterous, charming, warm-hearted, lovable father, who looks at me now and sees an unmarried childless woman, who looks at me now and sees the end of his line... and wonders what he did wrong.
My first memory of my father is taking a shower with him in a blue-tiled stall. I must have been only six or seven years old. I remember the feeling of his tall, strong body next to me, standing by this great presence under the water, feeling no fear, only safety.
And I remember a special birthday when he alone took me out to dinner. I was in a pink organza dress and we went to a steak restaurant for prime rib and candlelight. I felt like I was his girl, his special date. It seemed to me then that he knew so much about everything. I could ask him any question and, inevitably, he always had lots of answers.
While I attended college in Berkeley, the foundation of my father's opinions began to rattle. As I explored my own sexuality, altered my awareness, and engaged in radical politics, his kingdom was overturned. On the day I called to tell him to stop sending me tuition money, my mutiny was complete.
Archetypally, my father had become the enemy. Even though I knew that he was personally kind and generous to the core, I came to believe that his commitment to the material world and his support of the political status quo were flawed and that they were, in the long run, dangerous to the common good.
I rejected his values wholesale, his reverence for family, his striving for financial security, his faith in the democratic process. I joined ranks with the shadow-heroes of the day.
Following many heartbreaks, I gave up on the dream of political solutions. I turned another corner, this time toward an inner life and a spiritual solution.
When I went to live in a spiritual community, my father commented, "I don't know why you need that teacher. You already have a father." It took me 15 years to see the wisdom in his insight.
My spiritual teacher was a shadow-father, representing for me the opposite values of my Dad: the material world is fleeting and holds no permanent value; attachment to it and to the people in it is fatal; desire and sexuality impede the growth of consciousness, which is the only worthy goal.
Without realizing the full implications of my choices, I had become a nun, a lover of God, a lover of humanity, unable to love individual human beings. My own fear of intimacy was reinforced by a credo that trivialized human love. And while other women my age were finding mates, I was burning with holy longing.
When, after several years, I left this community and reentered the social world, my father welcomed me. For as long as I can remember, he lights up when I walk into the room. Even today, after this long and bumpy journey, he just beams and opens his arms for a hug.
Today, my Dad and I understand that we have been caught in a web of love, that the fibers which connect us have been too tightly wrapped. We have come to see that, even while living many miles apart, even while making very different choices, our love has shaped and molded our souls.
And so we have tried to let each other go, giving up any illusions of one another and letting other loves come first. We find it difficult to care deeply for each other in a way that does not bind. And so our relationship becomes like a spiritual practice: loving and letting go.
As he has released me more and more, I have been left to feel both a child's abandonment and an adult's relief. I have turned toward male lovers with more freedom and more hope, no longer seeking my father's twin or opposite, but simply a man who can give and receive love.
As I write this piece, I am in midlife, sitting by the warm fireplace in my mountain home. I let the music go still. The silence feeds me more these days, opens out into a shapeless, timeless container, a womb in which I feel the restless stirring of growing things.
I add a log to the fire and step back into the soundless container, pen in hand, facing the empty page, feelings of grief and loss welling up into squiggly fines meant to transmit this moment of my very private life to another, an unknown other, perhaps a woman like myself who also has no demands of feeding schedules or dirty diapers, no breasts that fill at the cry of a small one, no babysitters to find or preschool to choose. Another perhaps who is grateful for the absence of these messy interruptions but who wonders, too, in her quiet moments, about small smiles missed, small hands and feet unseen, silky skin untouched, and the first step not taken.
Does she feel as I do that childlessness is a separate state of consciousness from having children, as distinct as waking is from sleeping? Does she feel as I do that she has taken from her father his most precious dream?
To my father, childlessness is a stain on my womanhood, a blemish on my worth, a failure of maturity. Adulthood for a woman means in some profound way to birth and care for young ones, helpless and dependent ones, so that to remain childless means to remain a child.
To remain childless means to avoid fulfilling a female mandate, to betray a biological gift. I refer here to an inner wound, as if we were meant to grow two arms but grow only one--an amputation to our potential as women.
The feminist in me rages at this feeling--I was not born to breed! I am enough as I am. I can live independently--without a child--and I shall.
But as a single woman coming to terms with not having a child, soon to be incapable of having a child, I carry a secret terror of meeting new men, assuming they all seek to impregnate the one they love, they all seek to re-create themselves, they all dream the dream of family life.
And I carry a secret shame that no matter what I could produce or create that would make my father proud, I have utterly failed him because he has no young ones playing at his feet as he grows old.
This is my fate; and so it is his.
And I ask myself in this moment, How do I stop seeing the world through the eyes of a daughter without becoming a mother? How do I become a woman who did not give birth to children--but did give birth to herself?