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facts & arguments

STEFANO MORRI/The Globe and Mail

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Small fingers grasped mine. It was a shock to feel this tiny set of bones creeping into my palm, the sensation unfamiliar.

When I looked down to see who belonged to those fingers, four-year-old Caitlin's pale face turned up, framed by dark bangs straight as a waterfall, and a small smile played at the corners of her mouth.

She moved closer and leaned against my leg. A gentle sense of warmth spread through my stomach as I reached down and tucked her closer.

I was with Caitlin that spring day because my phone had rung a few months earlier, just before Christmas. It was Elizabeth, Caitlin's mother.

"I'm so sorry," she said in a very proper British accent, "I'm afraid we can't come to your party. Guy has been killed."

A quaver in her voice belied her calm.

They lived near Vancouver in a water-access community, and her husband had taken out their boat to run a short errand. He had only gone to see a friend who lived in the next bay, just 10 minutes around the point. But it had been snowing hard that night, with visibility almost nil. The searchers had finally found him in the middle of the night, his small metal boat lodged on the rocks.

It was in the frantic aftermath of this father's death that I began to know a mother and her daughters.

Elizabeth and I were the same age, 37, and her girls were only 7, 4 and under 2. Before the accident we didn't know each other very well, but by the following spring I came to realize this family had wrapped their fingers around my life. It wasn't a particularly overwhelming moment of realization, more a moment of recognition.

You see, I chose not to have children. I couldn't imagine doing the mother thing.

Parenting is complicated and an enormous responsibility. A child needs – and has a right to – constant care and nurturing. Their right is to have parents who are glad they exist, who don't wish they had made another choice.

Over the years I had watched friends breed happily, only to complain later, "I love Davie (or Jenny) dearly, but if I had to do it over again I wouldn't."

Practicalities also figured in my decision to forgo motherhood. I had watched my parents die slow deaths from cancer and heart disease, and they were both gone before I was 25.

When my partner was only a baby, his dad had died from a brain aneurysm, and when we met his mother was in her late 70s. We are the youngest in our families, and our older siblings, many with grown families of their own, are spread across the country.

Factor in a middling income, a shortage of experience with kids, and a surplus of possible disasters, and you have a child-rearing deficit I figured couldn't be balanced by any amount of undying love.

But one Saturday in the spring, a surprise came.

I was taking care of the girls on my own so Elizabeth could go shopping in town. It was a heavy-duty day for a parenting amateur like me. I was amazed at how challenging all the food-making, dish washing, picking up, cuddling, refereeing, entertaining, dressing, tooth brushing and face washing could be.

I made breakfast, cleaned up, dressed kids (did I remember to have a shower?), made beds and read books out loud.

Lunchtime came and I refereed a disagreement. We trooped outside to collect flowers for pressing (were they all wearing sweaters?), and then it was time to clean up and have some quiet time (I read a paragraph of a novel).

In the afternoon we had tea and snacks, painted pictures, and I checked a cat scratch and dried some tears. Once, I even said no without feeling guilty.

Elizabeth returned and I gratefully handed over responsibility.

"Can I have a cookie?" Meg said.

"You'll have to ask your mom," I replied.

Meg looked confused. After all, I had been rationing cookies all day, why not now? I could see her two-year-old mind turning as she headed into the living room.

"Mommy, can I have a cookie?"

"Certainly, darling," Elizabeth replied. "Ask Christy to get it for you."

Meg stumped back to me, an exasperated expression on her face.

We all got through dinner without arguing, read more stories, and then it was time for bed. Elizabeth paraded the children to their room and all three demanded to be kissed goodnight by me as well.

I felt a prickling at the corners of my eyes and a strange sense of pride bloomed in my chest. I kissed Alex of the Flaming Hair, Megan the Stubborn, and Caitlin of the Smile.

Four-year-old Caitlin looked me in the eye, her small fingers tickling my palm.

"Christy," she began. "Um. Have you ever thought of having your own children?"

Then I realized what I had been doing all day. I had been doing the mother thing.

It is still a surprise when I look back to see what fate taught me. I didn't choose to mother. I didn't choose to love these children whose lives had been fractured in a moment. I just did.

Christy Costello lives in Vancouver.