Sunday, January 25, 2009

Feeling half a woman

Jan 25, 2009

Am I less of a woman because I am not a mother and a wife? I sometimes feel that way

By Sumiko Tan

I always feel a bit awkward when I bump into friends with their children in tow.

I don't quite know how to behave with the kids. I tend to either overdo the 'oh what a cute/handsome/pretty

son/daughter you have' routine or swing the other way and ignore the child completely.

I was at a mall one Sunday when I was struck by a handsome little boy walking towards me. He was about eight and had brown hair and startlingly light-blue eyes.

I glanced to his side and discovered that I knew the woman who was with him. It was a friend from way back whom I'd lost touch with.

We chatted a bit, all the while with me marvelling at how cute her son was.

In this instance, he really is an exceptionally good-looking boy so I wasn't lying or exaggerating, but I wonder how much of my gushy chatter was also due to a bit of nerves.

I've realised that I don't really know how to behave around children.

As someone who has never been a mother and with the only children in my life (my niece and nephew) living in another country, I am unfamiliar with young people and so find myself acting unnaturally in their presence. I lack the instincts that parenthood brings.

To use an analogy which I hope won't offend animal-hating parents: Because I love dogs and have had so many, I'm at home with them.

Whenever I see a dog, I am drawn to it and know what to do - when to pat it and when not to, how it likes to be tickled a certain way, and I'll think nothing of flicking away the bits of eye dirt on the face of a stranger's dog.

It's a different matter with children.

No, this is not another column about feeling broody and wishing I had children. I'm so over that.

But it occurred to me that because I've never given birth - and never ever will - my life experiences have been very different from those of the majority of women who are mothers.

And because I have also never been a wife - and probably never would - I have not experienced the things that 'normal' women go through.

Am I less of a woman because of that? I sometimes feel so.

Take the friend I saw at the mall. The last time we met a decade ago, she was single, like me. In the interim, she had not only got married but had also begotten several children.

My mind boggles at how eventful her life must have been in the past 10 years - meeting her life partner, preparing to get married, setting up a home, adapting to being a wife, going through pregnancy and then coping with motherhood.

While all this is alien to me, it's what 'normal' women go through; marriage and parenthood are part of the natural circle of life.

My life, on the other hand, has been unnaturally arrested.

The cares and concerns I faced in my 30s were not that much different from those when I was in my 20s, and now that I'm in my 40s, not that much has changed either.

I'm not complaining. As I've often said, there are loads of things to cheer about in being single.

But as age beckons and maybe because I'm no longer so footloose and fancy free, I'm also beginning to wonder if I've missed out on the experiences that most women go through, and if I am less complete as a person because of it.

I feel a twinge of this when my sister regales me with tales of her children.

She has an especially good connection with her son, who's five, and was raving to me recently about how chivalrous he is.

They were out on a nature walk and the boy took it upon himself to clear the path for her; he ran ahead to lift the brambles so that she could walk along unobstructed. Ever so often he'd also stop and shout: 'Mama, are you okay?'

How sweet, I told my sister, and thought to myself that, well, that's something I'll never get to experience, the unconditional love of a boy.

It's not that I envy her - or any parent - their children, no, not at all. But in my idle moments I am curious: What would my life have been like had I been one too? More fulfilled? Less self-centred? Frazzled?

It's the same with not being a wife.

Again, it's not that I look on enviously at couples. I really don't. I'm happy with my life.

But once in a while, it hits me that maybe there's something wrong with me.

It doesn't matter how I love my single life. It doesn't matter that I have all the personal space in the world. It doesn't matter what I've achieved in my career.

It doesn't matter how I know it's better to be alone than to be alone in a marriage. It doesn't matter that I've seen how marriage isn't a binding contract or a guarantee of a happy-ever-after.

It doesn't matter how many boyfriends I've had or might have. It doesn't matter if there are men who care for my well-being.

The fact remains that I am not married, and I say this not in a self-pitying way but as an acknowledgment of a, to me, puzzling fact.

And the fact remains that no one has been mad enough about me - and I for him - for us to embark on a journey together.

The fact remains that no matter how fun singlehood is, there are nights when I lie in my nice big bed all by my lonesome self (well, actually my dog sleeps with me), and think: Is there something wrong with me? Is this all there is to life?

Why aren't I married? Am I not good enough? Am I not lovable enough? Am I not capable of loving deeply and permanently? Have I been too fussy? Do I have bad karma? Don't I deserve more? My mother was married, my sister is married, Michelle Obama is married, the woman who cleans the office pantry is married, so many 'normal' women are married, why not me?

Have I failed as a woman? Am I inadequate? Have I become nothing more than a 'singles' statistic?

But, ah well, these feelings come but mostly these feelings go. If this is meant to be the script of my life, then why bother trying to rewrite it?

It is often said that life is what you make of it, so I shall be thankful for what I have rather than what it could have, should have, would have been. The alternative could in fact have been worse.

[One thing she's right. Her problems and concerns have not changed. She's still as angsty as a teenage girl. Her protestations that she is over all that rings as "protests too much". Is she convincing us, or trying to convince herself? Can anyone be stuck in such angsty limbo and hold a job as editor?

Conspiracy theory time: What if she is the old maid, "anti-role model" the govt wants to bogeyman the rest of us (or at least the single graduate successful career woman) into getting married? What if her primary mission is to write all this angsty crap? Be the voice of insecurity of single women everywhere (or at least in Singapore)? 20 - 25 years ago, Lee Kuan Yew opened the Great Marriage Debate and focused on the single graduate woman, and here, 25 years later is the epitome of that subject writing about the lost years. Coincidence or conspiracy. As Oogway said (in Kung Fu Panda), there are no accidents. :-)]

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