Meditations on Childlessness

Instead of adopting, I began to teach, a career that nurtures more children than parenting does, if not as profoundly. Between stints of writing and traveling, I taught in libraries, settlement houses, a private high school, a prison, a detention home. For a while I taught truant children of drug-addicted parents–a volunteer gig. For years I have taught middle-class college students at the University of Wyoming.

As a professor of writing–a discipline that cracks secrets open like eggs–I have learned that many children are abused by parents who would have no more dreamed of not having children than a rabbit would. Although a surprising number of my university students unveil stories of physical or sexual abuse, I gather from what they don’t confess that more were sabotaged by material in-dulgence and benign neglect.

Their parents, often divorced, overburdened, struggling emotionally, battling guilt, loved their children so much, but lacked the time, skill, and persistent energy to teach them to imagine, or to instill the ethic their children would need to produce imaginative work. Stuck in front of TVs, expensive stereos, and computer games, sent to play sports, to indifferent classrooms, to church, they are fettered by a dearth of personal recognition. They can’t construct the words to a dream. Yet, with self-protective wisdom, they realize that art can bulk out inner lives, which is why, I am sure, so many nonreaders sign up for writing courses.

It is no accident that teaching was once deemed a proper career for spinsters. At first my students respond angrily, then with touching, submissive gratitude to the childless professor, who doesn’t love them, but has the emotional space to pay attention, insist that they fulfill her demands–and their real desires–for creative energy and discipline. My offerings have few personal expectations attached; the students take what they want, but because I am paid by an institution, they owe me not. I nurture these deprived strangers in the only way I can, then watch them pass on, leaving me behind like a stone washed clean in the riverbed, to be replaced by other strangers, perhaps more able to carry away what I know.

From Bearing Life: Women’s Writing on Childlessness (Feminist Press, 2000).

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