by Sarah Sentilles
Published May 2021
I have never wanted children.
I wish this was for admirable reasons – the impending climate catastrophe, some desire to devote my life to a higher cause – but the truth of it is that I’ve just never been interested. I’ve also never been sure why, in the same way that my friends who have always wanted to have children aren’t able to articulate the reasons for their desire – although nobody ever asks them to explain.
I’ve known I don’t want children from a young age, can remember, as an adolescent, even as a child, saying as much, and watching the adults in my life swap bemused and sideways glances. You’ll change your mind, they’d always say. Across my twenties – although she didn’t say this at the time – my mother believed that my disavowal was instead a denial of things I didn’t think that I could ever have, a way of protecting myself from any more hurt and disappointment. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties, and after each of my siblings had two small children of their own, that people finally started to believe me.
I have never wanted children, and this is the longest-held, surest thing I’ve ever known about myself. It’s hard to describe my sense of this; wordless and indefinite (because how can there be a shape for a negative desire, one that does not exist?). But the closest expression I’ve ever come across is in Sheila Heti’s autofiction Motherhood, where the narrator, wrestling with her ambivalence about whether or not to have a child, says this:
…if no one had told me anything about the world, I would have invented boyfriends. I would have invented sex, friendship, art. I would not have invented child-rearing.
When I imagined the adult world, before I inhabited it, I never imagined babies. I never imagined children. I would not have thought to invent them.
I feel it’s fortunate, to have known this so completely and for so long, because I’ve seen how heavily the desire for parenthood can weigh on people who don’t know if or how it ever will be realised, how painful a longing this can be. I’ve seen how complicated a decision it can be for those who are uncertain of where they stand – there’s so much to lose, and so much to gain – but that gain is only ever speculative, reported back second-hand, and it’s not like you can change your mind later on.
In the days before I started reading Stranger Care, I met one of my best friends on her way home from a blood test, yet another, to check for the early markers of pregnancy, over a year into the process of fertility treatment and barely two months after a surgery towards that end. She was anxious, exhausted, brimming with tears, kept talking through all of the possibilities and tentative plans she has been presented with. She wants, and she is afraid.
In the days before I started reading Stranger Care, one of my old housemates visited with her new baby, the baby she has always, always wanted, and she too kept crying because she’s finding it all so unbearably hard. The baby was pink as a peach and wide-eyed; my friend suffused with adoration, but also overwhelmed with the responsibility, the isolation, the complete upheaval of her life. How acutely painful both of these experiences are, for all of the love they contain and how often they occur; I’ve always felt grateful to have been spared.
A similar questioning to Heti’s, to that of so many of those uncertain possible parents in my life, opens Sarah Sentilles’ Stranger Care – except that Sentilles’ wavering isn’t about whether or not she wants children (‘I have always imagined myself a mother,’ she states as her first line) but how to admit to that desire, and how exactly to fulfil it in a way that accords with the ethical principles by which she and her husband strive to live. The admission itself is difficult for two main reasons: firstly, because Sentilles is, she tells us, a person unused to knowing with any clarity or resolve exactly what it is she wants at any given time – recognition of her desires is not something that comes easily to her. (Instead, her habit she describes as happily conceding to other peoples’ decisiveness in a series of small deferrals and accommodations, none of which matter, ‘until they do’.) But the difficulty of the decision is also born of the work that both Sentilles and her husband do: they are both philosophers and theologians, who focus on moral questions around interdependence, empathy and care. For Sentilles, the ways in which people show compassion to each other, and the interconnectedness inherent in a shared humanity are central to her work, and more in keeping with these ideals is caring for a child at risk, rather than for a baby of her own. For Eric, many of these concerns are environmental and ecological, and have become ever more pressing as the climate continues to change; he considers, Sentilles writes, ‘not creating another human’ to be the best ‘gift’ that he can give to the planet.
Sentilles does not know how, that is, to reconcile her desire for a child –a biological child, she realises – with her carefully considered ethical position in the world, nor with her husband’s opposing inclination against biological parenthood. In her tussling with these questions – of family, biology, kinship and care – she looks outward, to the natural world, and to images of mothers and children, iconography of holy mothers and saints. (A careful examination of imagery was, of course, central to her 2017 breakthrough book Draw Your Weapons, and partly responsible for the electrifying energy of that work.) And she looks inward, to dreams and meditations, as well as counselling sessions. She thinks about ‘mother trees’, which prioritise their offspring when sharing resources, through their intricate and interconnected fungal root systems, but cooperate with other seedlings, including those of other species, especially when such resources are scarce. She thinks about female hornbills, which moult their wing feathers when incubating eggs, and so become entirely dependent on their mate; about early Christian iconography of breast milk; about dying rhinos in a wildlife park; and news footage of children in war zones. She dreams about breastfeeding, and being visited by her much older, prophetising self, who speaks of a child who will ‘come when you least expect it’ and for whom she must ‘open [her] heart’. And much as she is trying to figure out what she should do she is trying to understand her own desire, and how deeply it is seated within her.
Adoption is the middle ground that Sentilles and her husband settle on, even as Sentilles admits that she does this, at least in part, because she knows it is ‘the only way Eric would agree to become a parent’. And they do this through the foster care system, which in the US, allows foster parents to adopt their wards in certain circumstances and after a set period of time, and which they imagine will match them with a child in genuine need. Adoption is a compromise and a concession, and an uneasy position for them both – but it is also a principled decision, one that is in keeping with both partners’ ideals and ethical codes, the moral imperatives by which they try to live.
It is a decision, that is, as admirable as it is flawed. Flawed, because for all of its logic, and all of the philosophical training and consideration that sits behind it, the decision fails to account for the vagaries of human emotion and desire, the complexity and ambiguity of people and systems and relationships that will complicate the attempt to accord with these ethical codes. So much of Stranger Care is animated by this tension – the attempt to live in keeping with abstract but honourable ethics and ideals, and the messy and irrational human and worldly forces that make this, in practice, incredibly challenging, if it is even possible at all. It is in this sense that Stranger Care is in conversation with its predecessor Draw Your Weapons – so many of the subjects and questions that were explored theoretically, historically, and through other people in the latter are, in Stranger Care, now at play in Sentilles’ own life. These questions – about human connectedness and what we owe to one another, about where the limits of our empathy lie and how we might expand or overcome these – are suddenly very present for Sentilles, material and urgent. Above all else, they are now personal, and the fact that Sentilles struggles to act and feel in the way she has previously theorised, in the manner in which she believes, is no small part of her distress.
There’s a telling conversation Sentilles recounts later in the book, where she talks with a therapist about how difficult she and Eric are finding navigating the fostering system, and the love they have for the baby in their care, which must always be precariously balanced against the very real possibility that she might be returned to her biological mother. The conversation ends with Sentilles asking, full of despair, ‘why are we doing this?’ and then answering herself, almost immediately, ‘because I want to live in a world where we take care of each other.’ Sentilles’ attempts to make a family, here, are also an attempt to re-make the world. That the world might prove intractable, and her own capacity for care be compromised does not yet cross her mind.
Stranger care, as a term, is introduced to the reader in the book’s prologue, which describes Sentilles’ and Eric’s first training workshop with the Department of Human Services, the agency responsible for foster care in the United States. In this workshop, a mandatory part of the certification process for foster parents, Sentilles and Eric are revealed to be the only people present unrelated to a child already in care – the only people who are not seeking accreditation in order to formally look after their own grandchild or niece or nephew. Everyone else in the room, the Department official explains, are the kind of carers officially called ‘relative care providers’. What people like Sentilles and Eric provide, in contrast, is called ‘stranger care.’
All parents, I think, first meet their children as strangers, regardless of whether or not those children are newly born, whether or not they are blood. It is always for a stranger that they must suddenly and always care.
It is two years since I first met the two small children, my girlfriend’s sons, the strangers who are now part of my life. Our first encounter was at their Saturday-morning swimming class – I’d spent the night at my girlfriend’s house, and accepted her probably-not-quite-thought-through invitation to tag along (adamantly refusing, for my part, to allow myself to think about what it might involve). We dashed past my house on our way to the pool so I could grab my swimming costume; and it wasn’t until after we arrived and changed, when we walked out along the cold concrete bleachers and through the warm chemical fug rising off the water, that I realised that nothing quite marks you as a stranger – as not a parent – as wearing a bikini in such circumstances (it is the only swimsuit that I own).
I don’t remember much in detail from that morning, I was so awkward and anxious, so uncertain, that the haze of this has clouded almost everything. I know we paddled about in the shallow end, the boys alternately launching themselves from my girlfriend’s chest and clinging to her neck in a way that looked like strangulation; that all of us were cautious in the changeroom; that there was some kind of squabble over ice cream from which I steered myself right away. What I do remember clearly is the walk home, and the way the younger of the boys, the one I know now to be the more unrufflable, reached out without warning to hold my hand. It was an action that seemed portentous, momentous, so full of frightening and possible and complicated meanings for me, yet was completely unburdened, unselfconscious for him. The older of the pair, gentler, more thoughtful, took some months longer to warm to me, but it is because of this that his affection has always felt properly earned.
There are small details of my life now that I never imagined: a row of glitter-studded stickers underneath the back window of my car, a huge box of mechanical Lego on my living room floor. A Nintendo next to a TV (I haven’t owned a TV for a decade), which I not-very-secretly love. I’m still struck, and often, by how unexpected this is, how impossible. I still don’t understand it, especially in terms of how I’m supposed to be, what I’m supposed to do, what kind of responsibility this asks. I still don’t know how I feel. My dad jokes are spectacular.
I never imagined this. This isn’t something that I chose. But I do know that it feels a special privilege to be able to love these strangers, who were already fully-formed people when I met them; to love, as Sentilles puts it, what isn’t mine. It feels like a singular, and specific kind of honour to be trusted by these children because they’ve chosen to trust me, rather than because I’ve always been around; to have been befriended. And I am also always aware of just how much this is contingent, accidental – both because of the sheer improbability of our ever having met in the first place, and because there are, and will always be, decisions made for them and about them, that aren’t mine either.
If this feels like foreshadowing, that’s because it is: Stranger Care is full of such prefiguration; and this is what propels its narrative, in ways that feel inexorable, especially in its later sections. Sentilles’ description of that first workshop, at the very opening of the book, is followed immediately by her alluding to ‘the heartbreak, the helplessness’ that is to come, to a grief that can’t be lifted from her, to pain. From the very outset, and long before a child comes into Sentilles’ life, the reader is aware of how fragile her family and her joy will be, of the fact that anything gained will also be lost, and this is wrenching in its effect – I don’t think I’ve ever cried quite so much while reading – if also relentless, almost brutal. That inevitable grief is always palpable across the book; a thick suffusion. At times it’s hard to breathe.
After Sentilles and Eric decide to adopt, Sentilles turns her questioning towards the very idea of family: exactly why it is that we have such a narrow definition of kin, what other models have and do exist, how else we might imagine the connections and networks of care-taking that bind people together. Sometimes the models she offers are anthropological – taken from tribes and groups of people who determine kinship by passing on to newborns the names of the newly deceased, or by eating ‘food grown on the same land’, being born on the same day, sharing clothing or migratory history, surviving the same disaster. Sometimes they’re ecological, drawing on metaphors of grafted fruit trees, generations of robins returning to help raise new broods, elephants communicating at long distance with their kind. There are also veins of sociological and theological investigation, especially where ideas of kin and of the stranger – which are especially important in the Christian tradition in which Sentilles once trained – sit side-by-side. It’s this kind of searching, wide-ranging exploration that Sentilles does best: each idea or anecdote is distilled, with few of the fragments more than a single page long, and their recombination and exchange is fast-paced and exciting. In this instance too, the assembly of very disparate fields also builds up a grand sense of interconnectedness that feels particularly fitting to the subject at hand. Biological connection, Sentilles is arguing, is a poor definition of a family, especially given how many other intricate models of kinship surround us in the world.
When I talk about my girlfriend and her children and their other mother, people often ask me whose kids they are, exactly. And my answer, always, is both.
They say, I mean, whose are they biologically? The answer here is likewise, both, but also that it wouldn’t matter even if that weren’t the case.
But this rarely seems to satisfy – these people want some kind of schematic, some way to fit my girlfriend and her children and their other mother to the family structure that they understand, even if only as a departure point. If I’m feeling generous, I might relent a little, give the details and disclosures that I know they’re looking for, even as I know I’ll see a series of rapid judgements and re-evaluations flash across their faces – it’s always visible, especially when they try to hide it. If I’m not – and I guess, today I’m not – I just leave them to their confusion and hope that it feels instructive.
I mention this here because I couldn’t help but notice, in Sentilles’ discussion of kinship beyond genetic inheritance, of community and care, how few of the alternative models and perspectives that she draws upon are queer. Only one, a quote taken from Elizabeth Freeman’s essay ‘Queer Belongings’, is overtly identified as such. This isn’t a gap that feels important for any ethical or political reason, or in terms of representation – that’s not Sentilles’ project here – and it’s obviously an omission that I’m particularly alert to. But here’s the thing: queer people have been thinking about, and living by, different and more flexible ideas of family for a very long time, and they have done so, by and large, because they’ve had no other choice.
This is an effect of otherness, of being the kind of stranger so many of Sentilles’ sources across the book discuss – the person unfathomable, unalike, disliked even. So many queer people, especially historically, have been cast out of their families of birth or made to feel different within them, have been unable to rely on social protections and care – and so have had to find and build community and kinship of their own, in order to safeguard themselves and each other where no one else will. Of the terms for this that I hear most often in the queer community, ‘chosen family’ is most common, although my favourite by far is ‘logical family,’ because of how beautifully distinct is stands from ‘biological family’. Sentilles’ argument – that family isn’t genetics, and we relate to more than just those to whom we are related – these are tenets that the queer community has held to for as long as it has existed. Our strangeness has forced us to care.
‘Stranger care’ is also a beautifully resonant and wonderfully ambiguous term, a gift of a phrase for a writer. Its real importance for Sentilles is for the way in which it speaks to the work of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, which was a touchstone too in Draw Your Weapons. Levinas’ ‘ethical system’ posits that it is when we are in the presence of a stranger, when we feel confronted by their otherness, are afraid and unable to understand – it is then that we are ‘in the presence of god’. And as such, we are required to care for that divine stranger, to extend our empathy to them – because empathy is at its most sincere, its staunchest, when it is something that we have to work for.
Initially, Sentilles imagines this difficult, godly stranger, the person she is called upon to care for, as Coco, the baby that she and Eric eventually foster when she is three days old and so premature as to be frighteningly tiny. Much later, though, she realises that this is how she must conceive of Evelyn, her child’s ‘bio-mum’ (as the Department workers always call her), the woman who also loves Coco, and whose biological claim will always trump Sentilles’ own – that this is her true test of empathy and care. Evelyn is a stranger to Sentilles because her wishes and desires – to have her child returned to her custody – stand in direct opposition to Sentilles’, and Sentilles knows that the only way that she will get to ‘keep’ Coco, that her own desires will be fulfilled, is if ‘harm’ comes to Evelyn in some form, and she struggles with this idea immensely (‘We don’t want to hope for something bad to happen to someone else so we can get what we want,’ her therapist often reminds her.)
But Evelyn is also a stranger to Sentilles because her life and circumstances (‘education and family and social class and addiction and diet and politics and housing and employment,’ Sentilles lists) are so different from Sentilles’ to be almost incomprehensible. This is best encapsulated for her in a moment, months into their relationship, where Sentilles asks by way of small talk if Evelyn fills her long drives for visitation by listening to podcasts. ‘What’s a podcast?’ Evelyn asks in response, and the chasm between these two women, these strangers, is suddenly strikingly clear.
Sentilles does build a friendship, of sorts, with Evelyn, bound as they both are by their love of the same child (and their shared frustration with the Department, its harried, often careless workers, and endless bureaucratic procedures). Our girl, they take to calling Coco in their text message exchanges: the girl who is yours as well as mine, or not-mine and mine simultaneously.
One of my girlfriend’s children, the smaller, is young enough still to understand the world in categories, to want to define systematically the things and people in his life, simply and unambiguously. Recently he asked me about my surname, and whether it was the same as my girlfriend’s or as their other mother’s. I didn’t quite understand what he was getting at, not until he told me, a few weeks later, that I should change my name to match the one that he and his brother share. It was then that I realised what he had actually been asking was this: I know you fit into my family, but where?
Months earlier, he had announced to his friend’s bemused parent at the school gates (I never imagined frequenting school gates) that he has two and a half mums; and when my girlfriend started explaining, awkwardly and gently, that you don’t need to be related in order to be family, he’d replied, all but rolling his eyes, I know, but Fi’s only half a grown-up because she’s small.
This latter anecdote I love for all of the obvious reasons: the way that children often circumvent the assumptions that adults presume they must be making, their wild (and almost-correct) logic that can make the kind of leaps that associate height with adulthood, the obvious and unaffected way it includes me in this family. But I also hold it close because, of all the ways of thinking about my role in these boys’ lives, being half a parent (mine and also not-mine) has been the one that’s felt most comfortable to me. It’s less heavy a mantle to wear, I think, and less of an adjustment for that childless self that I have always known myself to be. And it feels like an acknowledgement of my limitations, which are real and unavoidable: I tire easily, and my physical stamina is all but exhausted after only a few hours in the children’s company; I’m sensitive to noise and made anxious by unpredictability, and the whole house seems to thrum with both of these whenever they’re inside it; my sense of social appropriateness, which is nebulous at the best of times, seems to disappear entirely when faced with (or egged on by) their own childish bluntness and inhibition. I do know that there are things I’m good at: silly things, like the games of imagination and escalation that we play; but important ones too, like taking seriously their frustrations and emotions, because I so hated when this didn’t happen when I was a child. And my dad jokes, frequent and spectacular.
I know you fit into my family, but where: before being given the idea of half a parent, I know I thought of myself as the boys’ eccentric aunt, a role I’ve inhabited for my four nieces for a decade now, and that I love. Both of these are roles that are intimate, but necessarily a bit distant, that sit on the fringes of responsibility and yet are full of love and care (and play). It was here where I was most comfortable. But recently, and incrementally, I know that I’ve been moving from this place, and what has nudged me further from it is each small but sincere kindness or unabashed display of love each of the boys has shown me. Not-mine isn’t something that they recognise or care for. I never imagined this, and it’s certainly not conventional, but this is where I find myself: all wonder and bewilderment, alongside these two small strangers, chosen as their kin.
The other major player always present in Stranger Care is the Department of Human Services, the government agency that is ultimately responsible for Coco’s care, and to which both Sentilles and Evelyn are answerable, even subjected, in their own ways. What narrative exists in the book is focussed here – on the attempts of Sentilles and Eric to navigate the system, and their experiences within it: the workshops and preparation, the process of placement, the court dates and visitations that punctuate their time with Coco. It is a frustrating and painful process, full of waiting, irresolution and changing information, and one that is more complex and nuanced than Sentilles had initially believed. Foster care, she writes, she had originally imagined as ‘somehow ethically cleaner’ than other models of adoption and care, but she rapidly becomes aware of the disparities that are baked into the system, and her own complicity within them. Most obvious here are the ways in which certain kinds of families and houses and lives are deemed to be ‘better’ or ‘safer’ than others, how often class and race affect the decisions the Department makes.
Sentilles threads her exploration of these issues across the book alongside several implicitly related series of fragments. One of these examines the disproportionate numbers of Black and Indigenous children that are taken by the state into foster care, alongside the questions Department workers ask about ‘racial preference’ and the prejudicial statements other foster parents in the workshops say. Another examines slavery and its legacies, especially in terms of the deliberate and routine breaking-up of Black families under the guise of custodial care. Yet another thread discusses the separation of children from their families at the US border at the time of the book’s writing – a policy that both she and Eric actively protest. Twice she mentions the main slogan used by activists in their campaigns against this policy, ‘Families Belong Together’ – a phrase which has, awfully, taken on new shades of meaning in the context of Sentilles’ involvement in the foster care system, and her own desire to cling to the child whom she loves, even as Evelyn fights to build for herself the kind of life that would see Coco returned to her custody.
The balance between these more theoretical threads – drawn here from history, photography, sociology, politics and visual art – and Sentilles’ personal narrative of encounters with Department workers and policies and her developing relationships with Evelyn and Coco, is a difficult one to maintain, and they don’t always weave easily together. There’s something rough-edged or jagged about Stranger Care – it does not have the technical seamlessness that makes Draw Your Weapons such a startling book – but this feels fitting, even integral, given the raw, painful emotion that permeates the text, its great heart, always liable to break.
To return to that foreshadowing: my girlfriend’s children are moving interstate this month, to a different city where their other mother has found new work. It’s the right thing for all of them and will be good for everyone involved, which makes it feel all the more difficult, I think. My girlfriend is grieving already, much as she tries to keep the boys’ imminent departure from her mind. I can’t even come close to understanding what it is that I feel, apart from a slow, sick dread, a fear that has more to do with our ability to cope than with the circumstances in and of themselves. I know I’ll miss them; I know my life has changed so much and so quickly since they first came into it that their absence might well feel like a breath of my old reality once again; I’m ashamed for even thinking of that as a relief. Each time I try to understand this I realise I’m unable to imagine what it will look like, what it will mean. How to conceive of a loss of something that I only sort-of, only half, have, and that I never would have chosen in the first place.
Instead, whenever I try to imagine this future, my mind turns backwards: I keep thinking of the careful, patient way the older boy tried to teach me how to use his skateboard, or of his growing indignation with my dog who interrupts his backyard soccer practice with her own ball, the increasingly clever little pranks he plays on me. Of the message the younger one left in my character’s letterbox in one of the Nintendo games: you stingck; the times I’ve found him singing to himself when he’s been engrossed in some activity on his own, how frequently his wonderfully eccentric thoughts and too-adult vocabulary have made me laugh out loud.
‘Any child we bring into our lives will be ours’, Sentilles writes, and ‘all children – whether we give birth to them or find them some other way – are also not ours.’ They are strangers, all of them, ‘mysterious beings’ whose inner lives we can only guess at, extrapolating from experiences we only half-remember. But even more importantly, their presence in our lives, regardless of our circumstance, is only ever temporary, much as we try to forget that cold fact, if we’re even able to acknowledge it in the first place. ‘[E]very time we choose to love another mortal being,’ Sentilles writes, we always, eventually, ‘have to give them back’.
The difference here is that for Sentilles, this handing back is physical and not just metaphysical: it takes place in a carpark and is entirely without ceremony. But before this, when she is wrestling with her fear and her anticipatory grief at the prospect of having to give Coco back, what solace she does find is in the stories of those of her friends who have lost, or almost lost, children of their own.
There’s Emily, whose infant son died slowly of a rare, progressive disease; and Katie, whose terribly premature daughter was in intensive care for months, and deemed unlikely to survive. Emily has a tough, dark sense of humour, an inability to suffer platitudes, and her pragmatism and patient tenacity are a balm for Sentilles.
For her part, Katie tells Sentilles about her realisation that regardless of whether her baby ‘was with her forever or just for a few days’ she needed to love her whole-heartedly, to give her what she calls ‘full-on in-loveness’.
And these models of love and loss – and survival – are also offset by a number of adults that Sentilles encounters who were once children in the foster care system, and who all profess that their carers – the strangers who raised them – made all the difference in their lives. Both of these are what it means to care: to offer succour and support, and to be vulnerable to loss, to grief. And both of these are always present, utterly intertwined, whenever we choose to love.