CHAPTER ONE: The Spinster Nightmare
It wasn't the bogeyman, monsters under the bed, or even getting a shot at the doctor's office that terrified me most as a child. My biggest fear was that I might grow up to be like my poor aunt Agnes, the one who never married and who never had children.
Aunt Agnes was living proof that there are no guarantees in life and that was what frightened me so. It seemed that all little girls were expected to grow up, get married, and have families; so, to my six-year-old way of thinking, Aunt Agnes was a deviation from all that was normal. She was the only woman I knew who never had a husband or a baby, and that seemed to separate her from all the so-called "normal" people in the world.
No one ever spoke openly about her life circumstances, and I learned at an early age that questions regarding the matter were strictly off-limits. The world seemed to pity Agnes, and there was always an air of tragedy and emptiness about her. From a very young age, I was certain I didn't want my life to turn out like hers.
I was positive -- because everyone had told me so -- that I was going to grow up to marry a wonderful man and have lots of babies with him. Marriage and motherhood were presented to me as the ultimate goal, and I spent many joyful childhood hours preparing for those roles. My best friend and I "played house," vowed to be bridesmaids at each other's weddings, and dreamed of our wedding day as we pushed our toy baby strollers around the block.
Yet, even in the midst of such blissful daydreaming, I do remember some disturbing doubts creeping in about just how joyous a life that might actually be.
Take "Betsy Wetsy," for instance. She was a very popular baby doll when I was growing up in the 1950s. She came complete with a plastic baby bottle that could be filled with water, a hole in her mouth that fit perfectly over the nipple, and a cloth diaper that became wet a moment after she was "fed." While other little girls marveled at this doll's lifelike qualities, it occurred to me what a chore she really was. Being one of seven children myself, I had already fed and diapered my share of real babies. At the tender age of eight, I was beginning to ask questions more appropriate of twenty. What was so fun about this? Why did I need another hungry mouth to feed or another dirty diaper to change? What I found most disturbing of all was that no one seemed to have much of an answer for me, other than this was supposed to be a young girl's idea of entertainment.
Though I wanted to believe that life would be perfect once I found a husband and had a baby, the circumstances that I saw around me didn't always validate that belief. There were times when I delighted in cuddling and playing with my infant siblings, but there were also times when motherhood looked suspiciously like a never-ending chain of chores. Nagging doubts began creeping in, and I began feeling torn between the desire to be a mother and the wish to have a life that included adventure, freedom, and independence. I even wondered if God had made a mistake when he made me and had really intended me to be a boy. Quite honestly, building tree forts looked like a lot more fun than changing Betsy Wetsy's soaked diapers, but, of course, statements like that were frowned upon.
My biggest concern was that if I didn't hold tight to the motherhood dream, I would be cast into a world that would probably eat me alive. Who would protect me? Who would love or care about me? What possible purpose could I serve? Even more frightening, Who would show me the way if my way wasn't motherhood? What else were girls supposed to do? I had no idea. I knew there were women who never married or had children, but it seemed the best they could hope for was mere survival. You never heard of them flourishing or being ecstatically happy. No, spinsterhood was too scary a prospect. Forcing myself to fit in seemed like the only logical answer.
In the end then, I decided to swallow my nagging doubts. After all, my options appeared quite limited. During the 1950s, even if a little girl had her eye on a career, the only ones open to her seemed to be nursing or teaching.
Since I was never very fond of school, I certainly didn't think I wanted to spend my adult life in a classroom, so I chose nursing as my profession. Besides, everyone told me it was only until I got married, right? I guess that somehow explained the notoriously low salaries of nurses and teachers.
I listened carefully to the messages that my Irish, Catholic, conservative world was giving me, and I did all the things I thought were expected of me. I finished high school, graduated college, and most important, kept my eye open for Mr. Right.
Only Mr. Right never showed up. Or maybe I just didn't notice him. By my late twenties, I decided ,that he must have been killed in Vietnam, since so many of my virile young peers had been sent there. For a time, I even thought that probably the federal government should send me some kind of monetary compensation for having killed my husband, even though I hadn't met him. How could I have if they had drafted him to some remote corner of the world, then asked him to die for his country?
Whatever the reason, Mr. Right hadn't shown up, and he was screwing up my plans. How was I supposed to get married and have all those children that were expected of me if he never showed his face?
In my early twenties, I had begun going to a lot of other people's weddings, and I remember overhearing relatives ask my parents, "Joan isn't married yet, is she?" As another decade marched by, I remember hearing the same question, only now it had a slightly more urgent tone to it, "Joan still isn't married, is she?" Later, when I reached forty and had not wed, the question sounded altogether different, "Joan never married, did she?" The first time I heard it put that way, I felt as if someone had kicked me in the stomach. In other words, it was far too late for a normal life.
Somewhat dejectedly, as my twenties rolled on, I watched my sisters, brothers, cousins, and friends marry and start their families, and all I could think was, What is wrong with me? Why can't I find someone to settle down with? To have a baby with? To make my life feel normal?
The relationships I was drawn to at that time in my life were not healthy ones. It seemed the only romantic alliances that attracted me were dramatic, turbulent, and often my affection went unrequited. As desperately as I thought I wanted the commitment of marriage and family, on some level I knew it would be unfair to subject, not myself only, but an innocent baby as well to the emotional roller coaster of the unstable and immature to which I was so consistently drawn.
Of course, there was always the option of just having a baby anyway, without the added complication of marriage, but I had to honestly ask myself at my motivation for this was. The answer was not pretty. Put simply, I was just plain lonely. And maybe a little bored as well. Neither was a good reason to have a baby, as far as I could see. In spite of having been socialized to believe that motherhood would fill me with an enormous sense of satisfaction and that raising children was the ultimate feminine fulfillment, I also began to wonder why, if this were so, were so many foster homes filled to overflowing? As usual, I found people evaded answering my question.
Whenever I mentioned it to others, I consistently received the same answer, "You'll feel empty and lonely later in life if you never have children." That didn't really scare me because I was feeling empty and lonely anyway. The next question that kept creeping into my mind was, Why are the people who are telling me this, all people who are married with children? How can they possibly know about something they have never experienced and why am I listening to them? In fact, Is there anyone else out there who's in my position? It sure didn't feel as though I had many peers, but then, among the people I knew, no one really talked much about women like me. It wasn't polite.
I decided that I had too much reverence and respect for children to use them as a remedy for my own sense of emptiness and loneliness. I would get a pet if the loneliness ever became that unbearable. By my late twenties, I realized I didn't even want that much responsibility, since there were plenty of things I still wanted to do, like travel and write and run a marathon. If I wasn't even ready for a pet in my life, what made me think I was ready for a child? Besides, I still had time.
I decided to take my chances and put my life in the hands of fate. I would just accept life the way it happened to me, and there would be no more trying to force a square peg into a round hole. No more trying to be like everyone else, just for the sake of fitting in. I decided to be very brave and trust in the order of the universe and in myself, trust that whatever was meant to be would be. I realized that the route to motherhood, though filled with its own perils, was a well-traveled one with lots of company and signposts along the way. The offbeat direction that I was headed in was largely unknown to me and, for all I knew, might very well lead to the same place, but I was prepared to take my chances.
I didn't know it then, but I was heading toward the land of women who never marry or have children, and mercifully perhaps, I had no idea what lay ahead.
As I tiptoed into my early thirties, I tried to remain calm while I stripped my psyche of all those traditional expectations. I traveled and advanced in my career as a nurse. I published a few articles and even ran a marathon. Not surprisingly, those industrious years flew by in a blur of activity, and suddenly I was thirty-five, a milestone that I'd heard made you officially middle-aged. Now, more and more often, the unmistakable yearnings for a child returned. Was it because I longed for the happiness and fulfillment a child is supposed to bring? Or was I just afraid of losing my options? I honestly didn't know. But the longings were so strong at times, they were actually a physical ache in my arms, my belly, and my heart. There were moments when I was so filled with maternal love I thought I might explode if I didn't have someone upon which to bestow it.
By my late thirties, the prospect of finding a suitable marriage partner looked pretty grim, but all of my earlier ambivalence about motherhood suddenly was gone. I desperately yearned for a child now. I knew I had an enormous amount of love, devotion, and talent to share with a daughter or a son, and I considered my childlessness a great injustice and a terrible tragedy. Why was it so difficult to find a partner to share the fulfillment of these longings? Where was that other half of me that everyone promised would show up in my life?
I still wasn't willing to have child without a capable and devoted mate. Not that it couldn't be done alone, I supposed, but I wanted to give my child every advantage. I felt I had a responsibility to provide my offspring with a stable home life, one that included two parents -- one to caretake and one to provide. I was willing to play either role, but not both. Like the female of almost every species, I carefully watched for an appropriate mate and father for my unborn children. When Mr. Wonderful didn't show up, I did my best to ignore or squelch those aching maternal urges. I tried to bury them under a career and to numb them with food and sometimes with alcohol, but always they bubbled to the surface of my consciousness and demanded my attention.
Panic set in as forty loomed near, and I began thinking a lot about my poor spinster aunt Agnes. How did she know when she had had her last date? Had she had any clue the last time someone kissed her good-night on a date that that was it for the rest of her life? Had I had my last date and I just didn't know it yet?
When I saw people who had been divorced or widowed and who had then remarried and started their "second" families, I felt very cheated indeed. I hadn't even found one eligible partner, while so many people had found two or more. The hardest part of all, though, was when friends and acquaintances commented that they had always assumed I simply didn't want to have children or else, certainly, someone as stubborn and independent as me would have had them. Even more painful, they sometimes assumed that I simply didn't like children.
They had no idea.
When my dreaded fortieth birthday became a reality, I found myself magnetized by those talk shows where couples struggling with infertility told their tearful stories. I suppose I felt they were the closest thing I had to peers, since they were the only people I knew who appeared to be hurting as much as I was. I truly understood the longing and the frustration they were feeling, and I ached for them. I was like a giant sponge that absorbed other people's tears in those days, then wrung out some of my own in the process. I listened to teenage girls, on the same talk shows, who insisted on becoming mothers while they were still in high school. Because of my own acute loneliness, I realized that often these girls wanted so desperately to be loved by someone that they had decided to create that someone, a baby, to love them. The idea was not foreign to me, and though I couldn't condone voluntary teenage pregnancy, I fully empathized with them.
By this time, bridal showers had become uncomfortable at best, and baby showers had become pure torture. No one but another woman who longs for a child can even begin to grasp the degree of heartache I felt at these outwardly joyous events. I continued to attend all of them, out of a sense of obligation to be gracious, but all the while I was consumed with what felt like my own very personal brand of pain.
I watched my nieces and nephews and the children of my friends growing up, and that, too, had become almost unbearable. Everything seemed to be a reminder that time was marching on relentlessly and that there was no returning to my sugarcoated girlhood dream of motherhood. It wasn't until I noticed that no one ever asked about my own plans for marriage and family anymore that I realized my worst nightmare had come true.
I had become my aunt Agnes.
Copyright © 1998 by Joan Brady