I never thought I’d have to write a book to justify my choice not to have children
Claudia Mazzilli, author of Io sono Medea (Nulla Die, 2021), tells the genesis of her debut novel and her personal story as a literature teacher, writer and childfree woman.
I never thought I’d have to justify myself for not having children. Nor did I imagine that I had to devote a few years of my life to this apologetic exercise, every single day. It was around the age of 40, a little before and a little after: 38, 39, 40, 41, 42 … The biological clock didn’t just tick, but it took the shape of a simple and naive question: “Claudia, what are you waiting for? You must make a baby! ” Casual acquaintances, relatives, friends (with or without children), co-workers, passers-by, the whole lot: greengrocers, pharmacists, doctors, jewellers, butchers, just about everybody.
Before the pandemic, every time I was out of the house, I would find myself being referred to as a “non-mother”, just about anywhere: at work, out shopping, taking the rubbish out, or queueing at my Council’s tax office. Whether I was just going for a walk, on a trip to another city or even travelling abroad – it was the same old story. Wherever you went, you could find yourself subjected to a hasty questioning, followed by a speedy trial with abbreviated procedure – not too harsh, that much is true – but omnipresent, pervasive, unrelenting. On the threshold of the elevator, in that twilight zone where the photocells cannot spot if you are there or not, risking each time to have your leg amputated; standing on a crowded bus, trying to reach that magical flexible balance as to not crash on the lap of the person sitting next to you; in front of a shop window while admiring the new spring-summer collection; in the silence of the cinema, during that very tense moment before the ending of a movie; in the midst of the final exams assessment (I am a teacher): that is when – out of the blue – someone could come up and ask you: “When is the stork coming?”, “Any baby on the way?”, “What about a son?”, “And what about an heir?”. And it could be the headmaster, the janitor, the store cashier, an absolute stranger, a friend you wouldn’t expect to ask such a question because you thought she knew you well enough. It could even be your anarchist friend, companion of many social battles, as he asks you with his libertarian badge on.
And there you are: the defendant. You fall silent. Or you get convicted in absentia, if they talk about you when you’re not around. Or you attempt a totally inadequate and ineffective self-defence, which does not go beyond the third sentence, out of laziness. The very same laziness that prevents you from having children, from being a mother.
Your biological clock takes the form of a soft but well-organized inquisition: one question a day, one microscopic collective censorship, one thorn. Much worse than the sterile rhythm of your premenstrual syndrome, of your calendar hanging on the wall, with the sheets torn off month after month, and thrown into the bin for recycling. Recycling. Menstrual cycle. Cycle of the seasons, rotations and revolutions of the planets, menstrual cycle and cycle of life: grandmothers, mothers, daughters, grandchildren. And me daring to interrupt a whole system of perfect orbits. Me: the wheel that jams the gear.
No, I didn’t feel sad for not having children. That is (eliminating negations, as one eliminates negative signs in mathematical expressions): I was happy to remain as I was, without offspring. I got a taste for it a little at a time, I must admit. My story is very simple: I have never found a man who, beyond the statement of principles, could guarantee the redistribution of childcare duties, according to the principles of equality between men and women proclaimed in words. I have always been very suspicious of the men I’ve met – and rightly so. You know, I too have some thousand years old prejudice towards that part of humanity who always held power, and I could not trust their beautiful promises. I could guess straight away who would end up clearing the table, and who would get up to place the dirty cup of coffee in the sink, just for the sake of looking emancipated. I could spot – naughty me – who could “answer back” and who had to “answer kindly”. I even sensed, being “the teacher”, that I would be the lucky one responsible for the academic achievement of future children, the daily review of their homework, the parent-teacher meetings with my “colleagues”. The little ones would depend on me for their nourishment first, and then the daughters for their sense of modesty, and the sons for their dignity and honour.
I didn’t fuel any arguments. Only, to be on the safe side, I refrained from doing it. It’s not that I didn’t want to be a mother at all, but I didn’t want to sacrifice my whole life for this. For me it was a relative goal, to be achieved only under certain conditions and subject to other aspirations, harmoniously collaborating with another adult. I did not aspire to a particular career (enough with this story that women who are not mothers are either careerists or workaholic and anaffective). I simply did not want to be crushed by a weight, a burden which I did not feel equally shared between the parts.
Everything happened quite smoothly, and my parents never influenced me (among other things, both my father’s and my mother’s families have been wiped out by premature deaths. Funerals of very young people were a merciless déjà-vu in my family history. I suspect that neither my mother nor my father were ever under the delusion that children are hope, future, fruitfulness and continuity…). I then met the partner with whom I still share my life project: a writer who is not interested in starting a family.
What made me uncomfortable, at one point, was the perception that people saw me as a failure because I had no children. I was and still am the one who had no luck with nature and with her own ovaries. Or the poor woman who has not found the right person, who has been wounded by selfish, immature companions and so on (because for women, having children would be a natural desire). Only for a few I am the eccentric one who did not want to have them.
I am the one who then invested in surrogates: social and political commitment, study and writing. This is how cause and effect are reversed: why is it so difficult to accept that in order to continue doing all this, I have given up having children? All second-class fillers, not first-rate ones, for them. I had a lot of spare time. Something had to be done about it. Fillers of a non-pregnant belly, of an empty cradle, of a children’s room with an extra bed, on which I place books and newspapers instead of babies to whom I can sing lullabies.
I have been tagged – by people who did not even know me – as the one needing to unleash “women’s innate maternal vocation” in an alternative way. Here is something else that at first seems beautiful, but which then arouses further suspicions in me: women mayors, women professors, women doctors, women ministers, women scientists who are “mothers of an idea”, “mothers of a project”, “mothers of a community”. But why isn’t it possible to move on from this outdated language? Yes, outdated! Not ancient (and coming from me – holding a degree in Classical Studies!). Do we still have to oppose Cybele and the Great Mother Earth to the male Olympian gods? Are we sure that there isn’t some kind of misunderstanding with this antinomy that keeps opposing masculine and feminine values? Are for men these activities an exercise of noble fatherhood? If anything, they remind me of words I don’t like (paternalism, patriarchal …). For instance, when we use this kind of language, are we sure that we are not confining women to the fence of roles in which self-denial and sacrifice matter more than the promotion of skills?
Wouldn’t it be simpler and more beautiful to say that it’s not a natural maternal instinct, but rather a sense of humanity as a whole (of men and women in general, with their broad range of emotional / social / supportive attitudes, partly inborn, partly improvable with education) that should guide each and everyone in our everyday relationships? … Be it private or public in a broader sense.
I’ll be honest: in my opinion, the boundaries between being a mother and not being a mother are not that clear. That border is not a wall, but it is often a verb: to want. A fluid and volatile word because it can be conjugated in all ways and in all tenses, and in all three singular or plural persons inhabiting thousands of stories. And I might as well have been a good mother in another story. Or maybe not. “Does it matter?” Now I’m here: this is me, without children. I didn’t want to have children, not because I am prejudiced about it, but because of the narration in which I happened to find myself. At each crossroad in life, motherhood was not compatible with an ever growing awareness I had of the kind of autobiography that I wanted to write. I did not want it to be written by someone else’s pen, that’s all. Maybe, inside another plot, I would have been a mother. Turn your attention towards something else, dear occasional acquaintances, relatives, friends (with or without children), co-workers, passers-by, everyone: greengrocers, pharmacists, doctors, jewellers, butchers, everybody. Read good books. Study a foreign language. Do a crossword puzzle. Help the needy or, if you prefer, think only of yourself; either take a nap or smoke a cigarette, but don’t ask childfree women why they are not mothers. We should be the ones asking you: why on earth, being born not out of your own will, you now think it’s your turn to have children? Is it selfless love? Or is it to secure a walking stick for your old age? Or to fight the ageing of the population? Or to counter your own country’s demographic decline, without looking at the global bigger picture and at our planet’s resources? Although many of your supporting arguments as fathers and mothers may be embraced, many others are controversial.
From feeling uncomfortable to the challenge of writing. Writing a novel about motherhood and non-motherhood. Not an essay (I’ve read a lot of them: luckily enough social sciences help fight gender stereotypes, but I don’t have the skills to write an essay). So I think of a novel that delves into the problem in terms of narration. I was starting to jot down some notes on the story of two friends (a mother and a childfree woman), but I realized that I wanted to tell more than the story of two opposite lives. I wanted to write something about all the things I don’t like in this world, and which had also contributed to my giving up on motherhood. Even before I started writing it, the story – set in the present – seemed a bit rhetorical to me, nothing more than a cast of reality: an insignificant tale. So I considered the possibility of modernising and reworking some Greek myths, and I often thought of Medea, for her complicated relationship with motherhood. Medea is the mother who becomes an infanticide out of revenge, when Jason repudiates her out of opportunism and chooses Glauce, the daughter of the king of Corinth. I was increasingly convinced that the story to be told had to start from there, and that the two protagonists should be called Medea and Glauce and swap sides: Medea would have been abandoned by Jason before having children, or even precisely because she didn’t want them; Glauce instead would have been the mother who aspires to be perfect (needless to say, she will not succeed). Furthermore, the myth of Medea would have given me the opportunity to speak also about migrants, setting the story on a global framework and not just narrating a provincial small universe. Medea, after all, is the princess who takes in the stranger Jason, she is the one who helps him win the Golden Fleece (symbol of natural resources), in a world that cannot abandon colonial logics, and still depending on hoarding, robbery and usurpation. I would have made Medea a volunteer with a social cooperative, thus exploring also the world of volunteering in fiction, distancing it from the mistaken interpretation of being an exercise of surrogate and makeshift motherhood. Medea, following Jason to Greece, becomes herself an exile from Colchis, a refugee, a foreigner. How many times have I felt a foreigner, not only because I have often moved from one city to another, but also because I took no part in the circle of mammal caring? How many times have I felt exiled because of the rules that perpetrate familism and nationalisms, through the hereditary transmission of social positions and privileges?
I had every chapter of the work in my head, but I couldn’t make up my mind to put pen on paper. It seemed to me that I was distorting the myth too much: did it make sense to give a “non-mother” such a strong name, Medea? The name of the mother who kills her own children for revenge, or even for repentance, or for any other reason that makes Medea a character investigated by poets, writers, critics and scholars from different backgrounds, who have studied her from each and every angle, often with an interdisciplinary approach, sometimes reaching conflicting conclusions! How could I dare? Could the name of Medea also represent the refusal to procreating of the “non-mother”? Wouldn’t I be stretching it a bit too far, making it unacceptable for philology, anthropology, psychology and psychoanalysis? Did I want to put myself at odds with all these men and women of culture and science? Didn’t I feel already overwhelmed by the blame from casual acquaintances, relatives, friends (with or without children), co-workers, passers-by, greengrocers, pharmacists, doctors, jewellers, butchers and all the others? Did I also want to charge Medea with this further hermeneutic implication? She who is already the foreigner, the exile, the abandoned woman, the intellectual (being a sorceress…). Could Medea endure this too?
And then one fine day I reread the ending of Seneca’s Medea (I teach Latin and Greek, as you might have guessed). In verses 920-922 Medea says: “Would that mine enemy had children by his paramour!“. And in verses 1212-1213: “If in my womb there still lurk any pledge of thee, I’ll search my very vitals with the sword and hale it forth.“. A writer (man) from two thousand years ago puts another possible plot in Medea’s mouth, in which Medea imagines herself as a non-mother and Glauce, on the other hand, gives birth to Jason’s children (in the myth instead Glauce dies from a poisoned gift from vengeful Medea, before she could get married). Five minutes later I had already started writing (with Seneca’s blessing).
Because, as I said before, the distinction between mother and non-mother is not clear, it depends on the plot that we inhabit. And in the middle, between being a mother and not being a mother, there is the verb “to want”, that we women are called to conjugate in an active way. Wanting to be mothers. Or not wanting it. Never “to be wanted” as mothers by others, in a narration of us created by a pen that is not in our hand. Wanting to be mothers or not wanting it. This also means reflecting on the right to abortion (wearing away more and more, in many parts of the world, because unfortunately women’s rights and human rights in general have been sucked into a regressive spiral…). Also on this, Seneca offers us an opening (” If in my womb there still lurk any pledge of thee, I’ll search my very vitals with the sword and hale it forth. “). Certainly using a gory language, that of tragedy, but which remains current even after two thousand years, and unfortunately just as brutal in reality, every time the right to conscious motherhood is threatened, every time we push women back to clandestine, dangerous abortion practices, disrespectful of human dignity.
Wanting to be mothers. Or not wanting it. Never “to be wanted” as mothers by others. It also means that one can get tired of it, and no longer liking it: one can regret being a mother without becoming an infanticide, even without betraying or giving up the love for her own children. Regretting, among other things, of having taken on a role that does not know any truce, days off, holidays or retirements, and that it is not shared with anyone else, because being a father is not like being a mother. This is what Glauce will say to Medea, bitterly, in the middle of my novel. Here I want to explicitly mention Orna Donath and the essay Regretting motherhood: a specialized study that was to circulate among professionals only, but which instead gained a very large audience, all over the world, which is not only made by casual acquaintances, relatives, friends (with or without children), co-workers, passers-by, greengrocers, pharmacists, doctors, jewellers, butchers and all the others who point the finger.
Dear lunàdigas, this novel is for you, although I did not know you yet when I wrote it. Finding you and identifying myself in the definition of lunàdiga was the most fortunate occurrence of this writing. But I am Medea was also much appreciated by mothers, tired of lying still, hieratic and composed inside the two-dimensional silhouette of a Madonna with a child on a golden background, as in the Byzantine icons that in my novel – in this melting-pot and globalized, classical, orthodox and ottoman Greece – Medea observes with foreign eyes.
Claudia Mazzilli teaches Classical Literature in an Apulian high school. She has published numerous contributions on philology and classical culture in the academic journals Aufidus and Argos; she is involved in various associations to protect the values of formal and substantial equality guaranteed by the Italian Constitution; Io sono Medea (Nulla Die, 2021) is her first novel.