The journalist leaned towards me over the cafe table, compassion in her eyes, a dagger on her tongue.
“You don’t have children,” she smiled, tilting her head sympathetically, “so when you hear someone like Cate Blanchett say that you really can’t understand what love is until you have a child of your own, how does that make you feel?”
All the long walk to this interview about the new ABC TV Breakfast program I had been asked to anchor, I had fretted about being asked this question.
I knew it was coming. It seemed you simply can’t sit down with a childless woman over 40 and not ask her why she had none. What had gone wrong? Did she not want them? Had she been trying? Did she regret not having a family?
And then — the one blow all those little slashes had been leading to: could you even feel like a real woman without a child of your own?
I knew it was coming. I just didn’t expect it in the form of Queen Cate.
What if I had gone through cancer and chemo? What if I’d miscarried – once or over and over? What if I didn’t want children? What if I was fostering, happy in the understanding that the child would return to functioning parents? What if it was all none of her damn business?
There were of course a dozen answers I could have given this soft-eyed sadist but none I could offer honestly or with conviction.
I was in what felt like year 75 of a never-ending war against infertility, and I was losing. Her needling went to the heart of the longing I nursed. I couldn’t answer her for fear of the pain that would pour out.
‘I should have been furious’
The assumption in her question was breathtaking. I should have been furious. Instead, I stumbled some sort of answer and dragged myself home — hollowed-out, chastened. Childless.
Closing the door behind me at home, my step-son Tim asked me how the interview went and I told him about the deathless question.
He blinked at me: “Why didn’t you just say you had us?”
It’s Mother’s Day on Sunday, and while it’s always important to recall that this day has become just another calculated retail opportunity, that doesn’t soften its capacity to sting.
It is a hard day for so many women. Women without children who wanted or lost children; women without their mothers; women who care for children but aren’t admitted into the pantheon of motherhood, which is now realised in the impossibly perfect Instagram ideal of beautiful cherubs heaped around happy mums.
The construction of that perfect female ideal had even got to me. Tim was right. I had been lucky enough to have the three wonderful children of my husband in my life for years before our son came along, and yet somehow those precious relationships were never enough to silence the questions I had been fending off from others for all that time: why don’t you have children of your own. As if they were the only kind who mattered.
The right to claim these young people as my own children never really felt like one I had the privilege to make. Until Tim’s beautiful question allowed me to see that I could.
There are a thousand ways to be a mother
I know women who mother with their every phone call, card, or message to the child of someone they love, with their every visit, every special trip to the cinema, every shoulder they offer to someone to cry on, every wise bit of hard-learned advice they share.
There are a thousand ways to mother, a thousand kinds of mother and they don’t all look like the ones in your Facebook feed.
So — to all the women who provide love and care and support for children: the aunts and the best friends, the neighbours and the kindergarten teachers, the co-workers and the carers, those with, without or around children, tomorrow is a day for you too.
You are all the mothers of the kids of the world. Happy Mother’s Day.