Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, 67, clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings: “I have encountered two of women’s greatest fears: I’ve been single all my life, and I’ve had Crohn’s disease [a chronic inflammatory bowel disease] for the past 51 years. I always wanted to be a mother. I was one of the girls who played with dolls until I was 12 or 13 years old. I had the names of all my children picked out. Having a family was a major life dream. When I was diagnosed at age 15, it became clear that dream might not play out. Then as the clock ticked down toward 40, it was even more clear I probably wasn’t going to be a mother. Because of my illness, it was very difficult for me to maintain a relationship. Men of my generation were looking for someone to take care of them, and I needed someone to take care of me.
“I hear women say, ‘If it doesn’t turn out the way I planned, what then?’ Life is basically full of broken eggs. The whole art of this thing is finding your own recipe for making sponge cake. My mother’s final words were ‘I am satisfied.’ How do we live so that at the end of our lives we can say those words? I have done that. I have learned that I can be a mother in many different ways. The people who are unhappy are the people who get stuck in one way of doing it. You have to have a sense of possibility. Of course it’s a remarkable, life-altering experience to have your own biological children. As a former pediatrician, I’ve seen people transformed by this profound experience. But you can still grow people, even if they don’t come from your own body. There are so many who haven’t had parenting. You can be a mother to them. For the thousands of medical students I’ve worked with, I have done that.”
Sharon Salzberg, 52, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts, and author of Lovingkindness and Faith: “I don’t have children, and my whole family of origin was so fractured—my mother died when I was young, and my father was gone. So I’ve re-created a sense of family among my friends. Creating these kinds of connections is something we all have to do, whether we have children or not. Yes, some parents have close relationships with their children. Others don’t. An adult child might get a job and move to the other side of the world. None of it is in our control. Because of the way my life unfolded when I was young, I learned the truth about change, the uncertainty of life. My meditation practice has helped me peel away my assumptions about how much control I have.”
Rachel Naomi Remen: “I have to laugh. My life experience is that people with children are often alone in old age. Having children is not a safety hedge. I have friends with three or four kids who live around the country. These friends end up with a couple of phone calls a week, if that. They’re often alone in the same way that women who are married might still feel alone. The fact is that everything is impermanent. I think the people who have connected only to their families may be more vulnerable than those who connect more broadly. We need to learn how to be alone. You do that by developing depth within yourself, interests that are yours, a connection to something larger than yourself. You develop your own sense of the meaning of life. Having children is no insurance policy.”
Florence Falk: “The fear of becoming a bag lady represents the fear of becoming marginalized. To be a bag lady is a metaphor for being cast out—and women have always been cast out of society unless they’ve made it a point not to be. I had this fear, What if I can’t depend on myself? The sense of dependency is deeply conditioned in us culturally. That’s why it’s terrifying to think that you might not be able to take care of yourself. Others can look at you and think, Why is she still single? And men might feel threatened by a woman who’s comfortable in herself. The world beckons men to be independent. Not true for women. That’s changing, but it’s a very slow turnaround. Women don’t realize how bound they are to these cultural ideas.”