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Essay: 'The Mother Substitute'

Written by Alix Hearn

Here, in the quickening of life, the branches afloat – offering care, wisdom and love. Near to the ground, with clouds and sky abundant, I am the moss, the threshold place, the acorn cup.  I will never be a mother. And yet, I am full of mothering. Will I be an ancestor? To what, or to whom? 

It’s a simple question, really. Who is your emergency contact, your next of kin? It’s a simple question and yet one I dread each time it’s asked. Both my parents are now, sadly, dead, and I have no children. I am partner-less, unmarried, single, child-less, child-free, some might say. I am defined by all the things I am not, nor have. Often, I wonder where I failed, where did I get derailed. This alienating concept of choice. Did I choose this? 

          There is a rather poignant irony in being a child-less (child-free, I never know what to say), child psychotherapist. One of my first supervisors somewhat boldly said to me I was accumulating clients to compensate for not having my own children. Ouch. I think there is still an implied, unspoken assumption that women who do not have children are either a barren womb or Baba Yaga. Or even worse, both. On the contrary, I love children. I am very good with kids, teenagers, on the whole. I am playful, silly, creative. I am empathic. I care and feel deeply. I listen well to others. No chicken legs here. 

          I always imagined I would be a mother. When I was fifteen, I would ask all my classmates at our academic girls’ school what names they would call their children. I recently discovered an old notebook with all the names of my ‘babies’ – Bernadette, Amber, Vanessa, Gabriel, Hal.  And yet, I also questioned what sort of mother I would be. I think I knew from an early age the impact of transgenerational trauma, the throes of attachment. I wish, now, I had asked my own mother more questions about her own becoming, how we found each other in the relational dance of caregiver and infant, what was her reality of mothering. Was she ambivalent, was she scared too, or was there perhaps no other option for her? My mother was the eldest of eight children – I don’t think she ever stopped mothering. Could it be that I am unconsciously rebelling against the long line of Irish women before me that birthed, and grieved many a lost child?  Of ones who had no choice at all. 

          I find the current discourse around this idea of choice, an interesting one. Child-less, child-free, without child. How am I to be defined, and by whom? I struggle to identify with those who have tried for children and not been able to conceive, or have sadly miscarried, or definitely chose not to be a mother and are celebrating how much they love their lives without kids. When did this become so polarised? I am unsure, I am ambivalent, I feel like I haven’t ‘chosen’ to be a mother, but I also haven’t chosen not to be one. In my 20s, I don’t think I really ever thought I would still be child-less in my 40s. And when did people start freezing their eggs? I missed that memo, too. As a therapist, I understand the concept of unconscious choice, yes. A wise woman once said to me that sometimes we ‘choose’ not to become mothers to actually protect our unborn children from inherited patterns of wounding.  Now, as a 44-year-old perimenopausal woman, I can see I would have been a ‘good-enough’ mother. 

          I fully admire those women who want to have a child so much that they follow the path of IVF or other ways of becoming a mother. But I never felt the call in that way. Grieving a dead relative is one thing, but there are so many other unacknowledged and unmourned griefs to swim through. Not only being an un-mother, or not part of any family unit, but the loss of friends and friendships. I wish someone had told me how much this would change the way I relate to other women, to my close girlfriends and their lives. I spent my 20s, and 30s, congratulating friends and colleagues, and associates. I dreaded the next pregnancy announcement. The next wedding invitation. Insidiously, I noticed a subtle estrangement from my friends who now had children. A part of me would aways be estranged. I’m not sure if I cast myself out. Possibly. So the river widens. 

          There are some days when I feel proud of my feral, un-nameable status – I feel a kinship with the wild women before me, those who were healers, those women on the edge of the village. Covid and the subsequent lockdowns provided a stark mirror to many, myself included. I was geographically, and metaphorically, on the edge of the village. Living alone, and not seeing anyone for three months during the first lockdown, I compiled a notebook of useful and emergency information, a ‘just in case’ something happened to me. It might seem rather laughable now, and yet at some point we all need to prepare for death and what will happen to the remains of our lives. As I sift through the debris of my parents’ ‘stuff’ in my childhood family home, I also sift through the scattered footprints of my own. Who I am keeping all these old notebooks for? Who will I pass my mother’s rings on to? In my work, I have spent many years learning about how humans are social animals, how we are wired for connection, how we grow and thrive in human communion, not psychic isolation. Where do I now belong? 

          Having nursed two parents through terminal cancer and palliative pathways, I understand the need and importance of community care, of what it means to be frail, vulnerable and dying. To mother, then, takes on a different meaning, as I found when the roles were reversed and I attended to my parents’ needs. Roles provide definition, a boundary, a constriction too as well as an anchor. However, I am tired of death and grief resting on my shoulder like an old mate.  I want to start birthing – my life cycle is an incomplete gestalt, an imperfect ouroboros.  Where are all the other women, like me? And who is my village? It is in writing, spinning another sentence, I craft more of myself into existence. Sounding into the waters, I am not yet sure what or who will echo back.

About the Author

Alix Hearn is a writer and child psychotherapist. Her poems have appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic, Eye Flash and Coven Poetry. Alix's chapter on ecotherapy with children and young people is being published by Phoenix in September. Alix is particularly interested in the tension between writing non-fiction and psychotherapy. 

Twitter: @lixxyh / 

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