By Paula Coston
I’m 60 now, and over those six decades I have mapped out in my mind an entire web of paths untaken. Would’ve, should’ve, could’ve. And for that reason, Chapter 7 of Jody Day’s book Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Life without Children chimes with me. (Jody is the founder of Gateway Women, a British-based website for women childless by circumstance.)
The chapter’s first two sections are headed “The shadow of the life unlived” and “The dark side of daydreams.” She shares her own experience with searing frankness:
“For many years I’d been living two lives: one in which I was hoping for a baby and making the best of things till then, the other in which I had succeeded and had become a mother….
“At no point in that time… did I fully and completely embrace the life I was actually living—that of a childless woman….
“I think of the ‘shadow life’ as the life you dreamt about while your ‘real’ life was happening and … which … depleted the life you were actually living.”
We all have our path forks. A few of mine happened when:
– Somewhere in my childhood, I believed my family was encouraging me in the single, career-driven life, not a life of love and family.
– Over the years a couple of men proposed to me, both in fun. Friends laughed too, hearing about it.
– It became clear to me that one special lover had serious issues about parenthood, so when the option came up for us, I knew I had to forgo it.
– Neighbors and colleagues at work became grandmothers, and, like a photograph gradually developing, I soon saw that I never would.
Slowly, I’m coming to terms with these losses. These days, what fascinates me more is the way we persist in tracing and re-tracing these ghosts of roads untaken.
I wonder whether, once we surmount the pain, their rehearsal can bring us comfort. Why not trust that we’re living our shadow lives somewhere else close by, if it helps? Maybe the psyche is instinctively drawn to the idea of alternative realities. And if you’re a writer—like me—well, it’s unavoidable.
In 1964, a TV soap, Another World, started on NBC, set in the fictional town of Bay City. It was so popular that it ran till 1999! The co-creator Irna Phillips explained the idea behind it: “We do not live in this world alone, but in a thousand other worlds.” Bay City and its happenings represented to her the difference between “the world of events we live in, and the world of feelings and dreams that we strive for.”
In recent years, my best therapy has been to struggle with, and beat, writing a novel. On the Far Side, There’s a Boy tells the tale of a woman who doesn’t know that she even contemplates having children until she begins to dream—of one particular boy in Sri Lanka, whom she has known only through letters, so only half-known—and to see that he is what she wanted: even, what she may still want. It’s a kind of fantasy experience, parallel to her real life.
Aptly, her story echoes much that has happened to me. So these days, I’m learning to live with my shadow lives, to let them be and wend their ways, sometimes even to enjoy them.
I think I’ll term myself an AMo. Meaning “I love” in Latin, it also suggests that I’m a kind of Alternative Mother, somehow living both lives, the one I have and the one I didn’t, in harmony.