This fall, Angela Ashurst-McGee, a 45-year-old West Jordan Mormon mother, noticed she was negotiating mixed feelings, alternatively feeling free and then let down. As her sixth child entered first grade, Ashurst-McGee began exploring what it meant to be at the end of her childbearing years.
For Julie Rowse, a single Mormon writer who lives in Nebraska, she found herself experiencing her own set of complicated feelings after her last lengthy negotiation with herself over having a baby.
At 18, when she started college, Rowse was planning to have six. When she was engaged to a man “who wasn’t very kind to me,” she rounded that number down to four. When she returned from her LDS mission in her mid-20s, she decided she wanted three kids.
“And when I finished graduate school, unmarried and childless at 35, I decided to grieve,” Rowse writes in an essay, “Disenfranchised Grief.” She didn’t talk to her friends about her grief, says Rowse, a high school teacher and author of the 2015 memoir “Lies Jane Austen Told Me,” because she didn’t want to be faced with their hopefulness in her behalf.
Ashurst-McGee and Rowse’s poignant experiences — as well as other vulnerable essays exploring infertility, early menopause, miscarriages, complicated marital decisions and personal revelation or the lack of it — are some of the issues explored in the End of the Childbearing Years, a new online series published by The Mormon Women Project at www.mormonwomen.com.
The series includes more than 80 essays about, well, family planning, written by Mormon women living in 23 states and 8 countries, including 28 stories written by Utah women.
For all of the feminist literature examining the role of motherhood, considering the complicated emotional passage on the other side of the physical equation remains seemingly unexplored, says Margaret Toscano, director of graduate studies in the world languages and cultures department at the University of Utah.
Marybeth Raynes, a Salt Lake City psychologist and family therapist, says she often hears women talking about the empty nest syndrome, but less often about what it feels like to have an empty lap.
Many of the essays explore themes that might be addressed in mother groups anywhere, but The End series also explores topics of personal revelation unique to Mormon cultural beliefs.
“I just know that no one is talking about patriarchal blessings or childbearing in the eternities or premortal assignments” in other groups, says Meredith Marshall Nelson, the series’ editor.
And for all the discussions of how a sexualized culture renders women-of-a-certain age to be invisible, some Mormon writers explored a different kind of invisibility. In a patriarchal culture that idealizes motherhood, women can feel overlooked when they are no longer actively bearing children or young mothers, says Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a Salt Lake City therapist who founded and runs Wasatch Family Therapy.
“So what does it mean when that capacity is no longer available?” Hanks says. “I see a lot of women holding onto mothering, being too embedded into their older children’s lives.”
Reading the range of topics in the series was eye-opening, Rowse says. “It was humbling to me to read all of them,” she says. “As a mid-40s, single, childless Mormon woman, I realized I probably have the same problem with stereotyping that married women have of single women.”
Every story was different, and yet the writers were experiencing similar issues and feelings, says Eva Witesman, 40, an associate professor of management at Brigham Young University.
“I was surprised as I read other women’s essays, how different it felt not to be alone in my thoughts,” she says of her essay, “To End With Gratitude,” about the difficult decision during a physically draining pregnancy to not plan to have more children. “Reading other people’s stories helped me understand there isn’t just one narrative.”
Visit mormonwomen.com/end-childbearing-years to read End of the Childbearing Years essays. Editors request only nonjudgmental comments due to the sensitive nature of this topic.
Clarification: Correction: Essays by writers from eight countries were published in the series. An earlier version of the story misstated that number.