When I was 28 years old, the first of my university friends gave birth. We marvelled over her baby, but her tone changed when I started to talk about my future because, well, “Was I planning …?” and: “Wasn’t I thinking about …?” and: “Didn’t I want to have children?”
Until that moment, I had not asked myself the question. I thought it was no longer something that had to be asked, or answered; this was the 00s, not the 50s. Women no longer ran their lives by the internalised tick-list of husband, house and baby. But in the following decade, the world began to look and sound as if it was full of timeless, retrograde anxieties and paranoias over fertility windows and body clocks.
The myth of motherhood runs deep, and the lie that, secretly, all women want children is still so potent that it felt like biological gaslighting. Why did I not feel this elemental hunger? Was there something wrong with me? And finally, what was wrong with me?
I went to my mother, who had never hidden the fact that she regarded motherhood as a burden. I told her I was thinking about adoption because it was least preoccupied with DNA and bloodlines and my beautiful baby, born of my womb. To my surprise, she liked the idea and started talking about the tradition among some Pakistani women to pledge their next pregnancy to a family member. As an unborn baby, she had been promised to a cousin who was desperate for a child, until my grandmother changed her mind. For a while, we hatched the plan to adopt a girl and raise her between us in our own mini matriarchy. It never happened, but if I were to become a mother in a second life, this is how I envisage it happening.
As I got older, I began meeting men and women, some with partners, some without, some gay, some straight, who had either not wanted kids or just not had them. The tyrannical tick-list of husband, house and baby, in that order, became just what it was: a capitalism of the body and mind that packaged up maternal instinct and sold it back to me.
Now, as a 49-year-old, I have not experienced biological motherhood, but I have felt connected to my womb and its cyclical ebbs and swellings. It is a reminder that my body is not a static entity but a transforming thing, multitudinous in its possibilities. I have also seen the physicality of motherhood through friends and family. Pregnancy and childbirth is wondrous in what it achieves. That I have not experienced it is of no loss to me; I have experienced other wonders.
Just like the universalising of fear around the biological clock that I was confronted with more than a decade ago, there is an apocalyptic ring to many of the stories I hear of menopause now, as my body creeps closer to the prospect of brain fog and hot flushes. I hear of all the ways it needs to be controlled and medicalised. Once again, my ovaries and uterus are sites of anxiety and fear. I discuss this with a British Pakistani friend and tell her how a menopausal woman in my spinning class said she would get so hot in restaurants that she would begin tearing off her clothes in heated delirium.
“She should try coming to Karachi for the afternoon,” said my friend, half in jest, but it pointed to a bigger truth – there is not one definitive experience of menopause – perhaps we embody what we are taught to expect, culturally.
I still do not know how to answer the questions my friend asked me at the age of 28. It is the framing that is the problem. I have not become a mother just as I have not become an acrobat or a brain surgeon. It might have been one kind of life and this is another: meaningful, rewarding, joyous.
Arifa Akbar is the Guardian’s chief theatre critic