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OTHERHOOD

Oprah never wanted to be a mother, she told Gwyneth Paltrow. That’s why she’s so good at it

By Jenni Avins

In Gwyneth Paltrow’s inaugural weekly podcast for her lifestyle brand, Goop, she interviews Oprah Winfrey in a wide-spanning conversation on the topics one might expect from two media moguls and lifestyle gurus: mindfulness and meditation, the #MeToo movement, how to ignore the haters, and so on.

But the most interesting, intimate, and unexpected piece of the conversation is about mothering.

Winfrey has never had children of her own, while Paltrow has a 13-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. Still, Winfrey drops what Paltrow calls “the most profound” definition of motherhood she’s ever heard—and I’m pretty sure Gwyneth makes Oprah cry.

Throughout the two women’s conversation, Winfrey discusses her choice to refrain from having kids—she just doesn’t like babies all that much. She also explains the rich and varied ways that decision has led her to be a mother beyond the conventional definition, to women ranging from the students at the school she founded in South Africa, to her friend and A Wrinkle in Time director Ava DuVernay—and arguably, her many viewers and fans. She demonstrates how channeling her nurturing instincts toward people other than biological children has made her the dynamo she is today. Her success is based on her ability to relate to others, and make many of us feel that she’s invested in our self-actualization.

Many women will also relate to the experience of being pressured to have babies. And for all of those women, Winfrey delivers a powerful message on Goop’s podcast. She describes the self-awareness required to resist that pressure, even from her best friend, Gayle King, who at one point urged her to get pregnant:

I don’t think I would have been a good mother for baby children, because I need you to talk to me, and I need you to tell me what’s wrong. I can’t just figure it out. And I was always—I knew this about myself. I was always better with kids once they turned two-and-a-half, three, I had a real resonance with them. Gayle was like, “Don’t you love babies?” I was like, “Oh babies are fine.” … It didn’t feel like it was for me.

That’s a feeling many women (and men) are heeding, and choosing not to procreate. But even in 2018, when a growing numbers of women are putting off motherhood until their 30s or 40s—or altogether—the decision not to have children is still deeply fraught. “Shame, for being selfish, unfeminine, or unable to nurture—is one of the hardest emotions to work through for women who are conflicted about having children,” wrote Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist and the author of Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life without Children.

The reasons for abstaining from childbearing are myriad: Some women lack the financial or emotional means to raise kids the way they’d hope to; some are unable to conceive children biologically; and others may feel that in an age of unsustainable population growth amidst global climate change, migration crises, and the impending threat of nuclear apocalypse, it’s simply unethical to have babies. Some women, well, they just don’t want to. 

But that’s not the end of the conversation, Winfrey explains in the podcast. The decision to forgo traditional motherhood was never because of a lack of caring, she says, and her desire to nurture others didn’t recede: “So I was searching even for that: What is the higher ground for me? Where will I be able to find my instinct for nurturing and caring and support for other people? Where will that show up for me, and how will that show up for me?”

One outlet Winfrey found for this instinct is outside Johannesburg, South Africa, where she created the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, a boarding school for young women in grades eight through 12.

She refers to the students there as “my beautiful South African daughters,” and describes a relationship far less fraught than many tied by biological motherhood. “I don’t have that parenting thing of: ‘You gotta do well, cause it makes me look good,'” says Winfrey. “I just have your highest well-being as my only agenda.”

“That, to me, is the ideal characteristic of a mother,” replies Paltrow. “And it’s so difficult … to not project and not see your own shortcomings in your kid and get triggered by it… It’s so funny because you’re technically not a mother—and that is the most profound and insightful sentence about mothering. You just really crystallized something for me there.”

The woman who showed Winfrey this way of mothering—nurturing, inspiring, and encouraging people to become the “the most authentic, truthful version of yourself”—was none other than the writer Maya Angelou.

She was the mother figure for me. You know, my biological mother didn’t have the opportunity to be educated. Being raised in the south, being a domestic worker her whole life, she didn’t have the opportunities that Maya Angelou so fortunately had been exposed to, so my mother couldn’t give me what Maya had. I needed a mother like Maya to mentor me through this whole fame process. And so she was my grounding tool for it all. I mean, I learned my greatest lessons from her. She was my comfort. She was my nurturer. She was my inspiration. She was the person who was saying: “You can do it babe, you can do it.” And she’d say, ‘Take it all the way!” And then she would point to the stars. “Take it all the way! Go all the way. Go all the way.”

Paltrow responds: “When you were talking about Maya Angelou, and what she was to you—without sounding completely cheesy—that’s what you are to so many of us.”

It’s a striking moment. It’s clear that Paltrow is speaking from a personal place—not that she’s putting Winfrey on a pedestal as a societal savior, but that Winfrey has genuinely made the space for Paltrow, and many others, to find something in themselves.

For her part, Winfrey has played many inspiring and revered roles in public life over the decades—a fabulously popular talk show host, a TV and media titan, an Oscar-winning actress, and even lately a much-wished-for presidential candidate—but the idea that so many might see her as a maternal figure seems to catch her unawares.

“I don’t know. I wouldn’t be able to bear that,” Winfrey stammers. Her voice breaks for a second. “I don’t know what that would mean.”

Paltrow presses on: “And you somehow gave us all permission to seek that,” she tells Winfrey.

“Well, that’s good,” Winfrey replies after a pause: “Well, that’s a good life!”

It’s also a good start to Goop’s first foray into podcasting—and a tough act to follow.