Not Having Kids Means I Get To Support My Friends Who Do

Looking back, I would not want to have been my mother. But I would want to be her friend.

by Ashley C. Ford
The Aunties Issue

My husband, Kelly, jumped a little when I squealed at my phone, eyes wide, grinning with all of my teeth. I noticed but didn’t acknowledge him, so focused on responding to my friend Stevi’s text quickly and coolly. Her preteen daughter, G, wanted to invite me to attend Special Person Day at her school, she informed me, so if I wanted to, I’d pick her up for school, and we’d spend the morning together meeting her classmates and teachers. I definitely wanted to. Even when I found out the pickup time was 7:25 a.m.

I typed out “Absolutely! I would be honored!” and hit send. Kelly nudged me, “What is it? What happened?” and I think I told him in one breath. I told everyone I saw that day. When a colleague asked if I was excited to do more things like this when I had children, I only hesitated for half a second before I said no.

Parenting isn’t for me, which doesn’t mean that kids and parents aren’t important to me. I’m the oldest of my mother’s four children, and I know the gaps my siblings and I fell through from time to time can seem unavoidable. But were they?

My mother was a single parent and, in some ways, isolated by fear. She did not want to become an object of disdain by needing help or asking for assistance. My mother didn’t trust that her requests would not be used to tar her image. She was suspicious that any adult who seemed significant in her children’s lives was watching her or judging her, and deeply suspicious of anyone who was kind to her. Of course, my mom’s shame didn’t stop us from needing any of that support; it just became an obstacle to getting it.

My excitement about that text, and the invitation, wasn’t so much about being chosen by G, though it truly made me feel special. It was more so about being trusted by her mother, my friend, to show up in this part of her life.

“Does it feel like anyone’s missing from your family?”

For years, I went back and forth. It’s difficult to explain how much I enjoy children, how delighted I am by them, and how that still doesn’t mean I want to have kids of my own. It was hard to explain to myself. First, I claimed to be waiting for Kelly to say he was ready. Then he did. And it took me another year to say I was too. Then I took it back. I took it back after one negative pregnancy test and an ensuing wave of relief.

Kelly, for his part, was fine with waiting. He told me, “The family I want to have is with you, even if it’s only me and you.” I believed him, truly, but I didn’t feel solid or clear about my own desire. For a while, I spoke to every parent I knew about how they made the decision to become a parent. Then I asked people who had decided not to have children how they came to that conclusion. I even made a podcast about it, interviewing friends, mentors, and others about what had become a fraught personal choice. Some told me to give it a shot; some told me to wait as long as I could; all of them empathized with certain tortuous aspects of processing feelings about parenthood. All of them loved their children or their life without them. But that was them, and I was still me.

What I kept coming back to from those interviews, what rolled around in my heart and head, wasn’t any one opinion on which path I should take but a question from a fellow author, who asked, “Does it feel like anyone’s missing from your family?” At the moment when she’d asked the question, mid-recording, I didn’t have a clear answer. No wonder: I was concentrating on asking my questions, listening to my producers, and focusing on not coughing into the mic. It wasn’t until later, half-asleep and in the dark, that I felt my body consider who was missing from my family, if anyone. I couldn’t find or feel them. Where I hoped to find longing, I found nothing at all. Well, that’s not true. I found an answer to my question.

I knew that if I could go back, I would not want to have been my mother, but I would want to be her friend.

For most of my life, I’d assumed that parenthood was an inevitability. There were so many ways to become a parent, and it seemed to be such an important milestone on the journey of life. But when I thought about my childhood, I remembered how much I resented being someone else’s milestone, someone else’s miracle, and someone else’s proxy for maintaining an image of control. My mother’s version of love was making sure no one thought of us as “in need” while we were all in need. She thought she was protecting us by denying herself friendship, assistance, and care. When I saw some of my friends who were becoming parents following a similar path — not reaching out, suffering in silence — I saw an opportunity to be useful in a way that finally felt right.

I didn’t want to have a child in an attempt to replace what was lacking in my own childhood or to show the world that I could mother better than my own mother. I knew that if I could go back, if I could change what had already come to pass, I would not want to have been my mother, but I would want to be her friend. A friend who got through to her, a friend who made her feel special on special days. A friend who sent her flowers on her birthday or a card, or bought her a drink in a bar. I would want to fill her Christmas stocking for Christmas morning. I would speak life and encouragement into her, and she would not have been so severely disappointed by life, for so long, that she could no longer find the will to hear or believe me.

Even though I would be approaching parenthood in completely different circumstances, with options my mother never had, the truth was I wanted something else. There were already children and parents in my life whom I’d watched and helped grow. I loved them and they loved me. I was significant in their lives, and that felt like enough. I sent my parent friends flowers for their birthdays and checked their Christmas stockings. I congratulated them on promotions, and personal wins, and accomplishments that had nothing to do with their children. Because the best thing I can do for the children in my life, the children I care for the most, is be a really good friend to their parents. I can show up for them in ways their friends who have children can’t.

In pursuing the life I actually wanted, the one where parenting was a choice, not an expectation, I ended up with a life that fits perfectly into the gaps of family, parenthood, and community. I didn’t feel the need to add anyone to our family, because we were all already here. No one is missing.

Ashley C. Ford is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, published by Flatiron Books. She currently lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with her husband, poet and fiction writer Kelly Stacy, and their chocolate lab Astro Renegade Ford-Stacy.