Here is a sample of my professionally-edited 65,000 word manuscript. This book is my personal journey to answering the question, “Do I want to have kids?” Countless times I was asked in my 30s whether or not I wanted to have children, and struggling to know the answer, I decided to write my way to a conclusion. What started as a simple examination of motherhood and trying to envision myself in that role turned into a deeper exercise of unearthing the childhood experiences that shaped my view of family.
Prologue: The Experiment
When I talk about having children with any woman about my age, or even younger for that matter, it always seems like most women think that there will be a part of life when they will have kids. It’s a done deal, an assumption—and the real question is not whether or not they will, but when and with which guy. As soon as my husband Loren and I got married the baby questions started, and they haven’t stopped since. On one of my first days back in the office of my federal government job after returning from my glorious honeymoon in Sardinia, I went out to lunch with a group of coworkers, primarily female, to celebrate the release of a grant announcement that we had worked on tirelessly for weeks into the wee hours of the morning. We had that kind of lighthearted and not overtly personal conversation you have with coworkers. I was being my talkative self, chatting with everyone about their lives outside work and asking about their kids. Then, all of a sudden, one of the women who has children asked me, “So Donna, are you planning on having kids soon?”
I think it is important for you, reader, to understand how incredibly alien these questions seem to me. All at once an image of me holding a crying baby with a desperate and confused expression on my face crashes through my mind, and I have a stabbing pain just above my right temple. This lightning flash and the resounding crack that emits from the depths of my brain is the sound of worlds colliding in dissonance, of two things that do not relate being forced into the same frame, of a feeling of complete and total discomfort and impossibility.
At the mention of this question, my mind begins to do back-flips, as years of family drama weave their way into my consciousness, and I am stunned into silence. Usually I take a deep breath, which is audible to all who are listening to the conversation, and say, “Well, not yet. I mean, I just don’t know yet when that is going to happen. But definitely not right now. Umm…ha ha . . . ” Then in true me-fashion, I giggle uncomfortably, shrug my shoulders, and take another bite of my goat cheese and beet salad.
My listening audience can sense the fear like a hunting wolf can smell its prey. And then, they pounce. “Well you know, you’re not getting any young-errrr.” They always say “younger” in that high-pitched sing-song voice that sounds straight out of a laundry detergent commercial. The dreaded line, the statement of fact and obviousness so complete and simultaneously so incredibly unnecessary.
I can feel my ovaries groan and my boobs sag a little at this mention, and then the image of my thousands and thousands of eggs dying away and dissolving into my abdominal cavity visits me, and I say with red cheeks, “Well women are having children later and later now.” And then I take another bite.
At this, I am the rat dangling in front of the eagle, talons flashing. They’ve got me right where they want me. I’m cowering in the corner of my cage clamoring for a gate through which to flee. Who knows where this conversation will go next? I want to run, to escape to the ladies’ room, to change the subject, to ask them how they enjoyed raising their children, as a matter of fact, how they are feeling about motherhood. And then, finally, just at the very moment when I am either about to pop out of my chair and run or lunge across the table, I am saved.
One of my coworkers, Susan, a lesbian who had a daughter with her partner a bit later in life than most, interjects, “You know, Donna, you don’t have to have them . . . ”
I hear gongs banging over our table, fear that lightning will strike at any moment, but at the same time sense the sweet relief of a nabbed fish being let off the hook, wounded but given a chance to escape.
She continues, “Kids are hard work, and you don’t need to be in a rush, even if you do decide to have them.”
Susan, all at once, is a shining glimmer in a sea of reproductive mommy-drones. She is a wisp of freshness, just the validation I seek.
This moment at lunch is the culmination of everything this story is about. Do I, despite my knowledge that this is a liberated society where women have fought for decades for the freedom to choose, actually have a choice? Generally speaking, the women I know who do not have children have been the unhappy recipients of years of judgment and questioning. Some people think these women are unfeeling, cold, frigid, selfish, or, dare I say it, barren. But does anyone who knows them ardently respect their choices? Because I do.
I surmise that many of my peers are currently mulling similar questions. Of course, until relatively recently, the answer to the question of whether a woman would have children was usually yes, either because it was expected of her or she didn’t really have a choice or access to birth control. Now as my contemporaries and I are locked in the constant female marathon to “have it all,” this question becomes central to a woman’s professional and familial existence. We must all ask ourselves whether our version of having it all is like everyone else’s. For some of us, the answer isn’t quite so easy to reach.
Personally, I have focused almost entirely on my education and career up to this point in my life, marriage never top of mind until I fell in love with my husband, who I married because I am completely madly in love with him and I know I always want him to be wherever I am. Not such a modern concept, I realize, and believe me I had a considerably visceral reaction to my first month wearing an engagement ring because of its symbolic significance (more on this later). And I’ve never been much of a joiner and instead endeavor to follow whatever the beat is in my head, not what everyone else is dancing to. And here again I find myself, viewing the “Mommy Club,” as I will call it, with a similar critical eye—and a lack of desire to join the ranks and convert my life into one not of modern individual womanhood, but of motherhood.
Every time I attempt to visualize myself as a mother, all I see is a young woman who is not qualified or ready or interested in playing that role. Really, a child masquerading as an adult, despite all that other adulthood stuff that I can do like cooking actual meals from scratch and paying my bills on time. Throughout my 32 years I’ve asked myself lots of pivotal questions: where to go to college, what to study, what to get a master’s degree in, where to live, who to date, who to sleep with, who to sleep with over a period of more than a few months, who to love, who to marry, how to be a wife. But none has proven to be more perplexing than the current dilemma—do I want to be a mother?
I find myself in a near constant state of debate, weighing the pros and cons of having a baby, and usually coming down on the side of terrified and definitely overwhelmed by the cons. But every now and then I do see a young mother carrying an adorable baby strapped to her chest and wonder, should I just stop taking my birth control pills and see what happens? Maybe I just need to bite the bullet, be spontaneous (which you know is never a good idea when it comes to life commitments), and just go for it? Maybe if I get pregnant that little body growing inside of me and mommy-hormones will transform this terrified, skeptical inner freak-out into a new and fresh inner peace, a completeness, a sense that everything fits. And then maybe I can stop stressing about what I want to do with my life because I have finally committed to something so permanent and time-consuming that the other life angst just fades into the background. Yeah, I don’t know either.
This bearing of my non-procreating soul brings me to the point of this story: I thought maybe if I gave myself license to ask the hard questions and take the inner debate out of my head and write it down, then my true feelings would become clear. Maybe walking with you through this process will somehow spit me out on the other side with a clear understanding of the path ahead. Or, maybe not. But I would guess there are many of you out there who do this same helpless thinking while pushing a shopping cart through the cereal aisle, driving on the highway to work, shampooing your hair, during sex (“Please don’t get pregnant…please don’t get pregnant, or maybe?”), in so many places and times and spaces and ways. Many of us are obsessing about this all-too-important decision and seeing no clarity, only a sea of stroller-walking zombie-mothers who seem to have figured it all out. Or maybe there are more women out there who already had it figured out at age 15, along with what their wedding dress would look like, the colors of their bouquet, and the style of cabinets in their kitchen.
I was not that girl. When I started planning my wedding, I fumbled along without a binder of wedding dreams like Monica on Friends. I was and still am a novice at being a girl. But in a way, my approach to my wedding and the initial planning phase conjured many of the same anxieties I feel now. That I didn’t want my wedding to be like everyone else’s. And I don’t want my life to be either.
This brings us to the start of this journey to put down on paper the machinations of my mind on this topic, if only to find some relief from their swirling about in my head. I hope you find this helpful. And, hey, Donna on the other side of this project, I hope you have your answer by now. Or at least a better understanding of why you don’t.
PART ONE: WHOA, BABY . . .
Chapter 1: Me, a Mom?
Daughter, Girl Scout, student, hip-hop dancer, groupie, girlfriend, grocery bagger, temp, party girl, professional, and now wife: These are the labels I have worn during my 32 years on this planet. I simply accepted and embraced most of these roles over the years without much hesitation, yet the last and most recent nametag pasted to my sweater, “Hello, My Name is WIFE,” still seems to chafe. When I think of a “wife,” I apply this label to women much older than myself. I always tell my husband that I prefer he call me “wifey,” because in my mind this slight nuance conjures an image of a youthful woman in a flowy, short, white negligee holding a spatula for spanking her husband, not the older, more wrinkled woman in flannel pajamas who goes to bed before 9:30pm.
It’s interesting that the word “mother” does not also come to mind when I envision that tired wife. But for me, “wife” isn’t listed in my mental thesaurus as a synonym for “mother.” When I consider the word “mother,” I imagine a very different woman—a woman warrior trekking across the savannah with her newborn charge strapped to her back in a woven baby carrier that she crafted herself, a basket of vegetables effortlessly balanced on her head, barefoot; or an earth mother figure shielding her poetic brood with her infinite embrace, amidst a swirl of turquoise ocean waves and electric green grassy hills. I admire this enigma of “mother,” this otherworldly being who strides through life, scooping up babies from the ground and hoisting them onto her back as though weightless, unaffected by worry or doubt. She struts forward looking straight ahead, her skirts trailing behind in the breeze. This image of a “mother” is so far from my image of myself as I struggle to get ready for work on time every morning and think of my cat as my baby. I struggle to imagine me standing in the mythological space this woman gracefully occupies.
Of course the other, more acceptable image that comes to my mind at the mention of the word “mother” is a picture of my own dear mother, whose face I always picture suspended in a wide smile, emitting laughter and bestowing compliments on everyone around her. As one of my closest friends likes to say, “Your mother is magnetic because she is madly in love with you and Amy!” And he’s right. The level of enthusiasm with which my mother expresses her love is boundless, evidenced by hundreds of care packages sent throughout our college years, twenties, and now thirties, and e-mails and phone calls packed with words of concern if we haven’t called in two days, always with the endearing sign off, “I love and miss you, Honey.” The contents of her care packages have evolved from snacks and soup while I was broke in college, to cough drops and Robitussin during my working too hard/partying too hard twenties, and now newspaper clippings about marriages, deaths, and engagements accompanied by holiday socks and sweet cards with $20 in cash for brunch with my husband. I swear that until I got married my mother was convinced I was perpetually exhausted and ill, but now for some reason, with my husband here to take care of me, she is less concerned about what she envisions is my constantly declining health. And now that she does sometimes hopefully inquire about the possibility of future grandchildren, I can only pray she doesn’t start sending me care packages filled with issues of Parents magazine and pregnancy tests. Because once I pull the trigger on that, she won’t run out of opinions to share on my parenting choices.
As I contemplate the meaning of motherhood, I decide to consult the experts: Google. Of course, the expected definition appears first: “the state of being a mother.” But lower down on the list appears a much more appropriate definition:
“A mother is a biological and/or social female parent of an offspring. Because of the complexity and differences of a mother’s social, cultural, and religious definitions and roles, it is challenging to define a mother to suit a universally accepted definition.”
Aha, perhaps herein lies one possible root of my problem.
There are numerous incarnations of mothers in the world, but they all have at least one thing in common: They are responsible for the life of a child (and in many cases, adult). Even mothers who didn’t physically squeeze a baby through the smallest opening in the universe (in my opinion), but who adopted their children, are still mothers in a practical and spiritual sense. Some mothers shouldn’t actually be allowed to have children, (also in my opinion)—those mothers from Toddlers and Tiaras, for example. I know for a fact that if all the mothers in the world were ranked, and I were a mother on that list (this assumes I end up having kids, obviously), I could at least beat out some of the lowest performers. But even my extreme competitive nature doesn’t find this prospect encouraging.
In addition to the noun “motherhood,” I also think about “parenthood,” a word that for many of my generation most likely reminds them of the Steve Martin movie where his son likes to head-butt things with a bucket covering his eyes and where the teenage drop-out daughter of his sister gets pregnant with the baby of her car-racing boyfriend played by the ever-engrossing Keanu Reeves. This very American imagining of parenting doesn’t make the case any more appealing to me. It only repeats what were some of the downfalls of my own childhood, complete with my father’s infidelity, my parents’ inevitable divorce shortly thereafter, and a lot of self-loathing in high school. It seems to imply that anyone who has kids is bound to the same fate and will struggle as all parents do, trying desperately not to mess up their kids beyond repair., a big fear of mine. But somehow by the end of the film, even in this comedic depiction of American childrearing, the characters find it all worthwhile, as though having children was still the best decision they ever made.
Anyone who lives on this planet is always surrounded by mothers. They walk among us, knowing and understanding an entirely separate world replete with dirty diapers and scraped knees, and they speak baby talk. They are a secret society with an incredibly painful hazing tradition. My office is crawling with them. My boss has two kids, as does her boss, even though both had theirs a bit later in life than many others. These women pepper the cubicles and endeavor every day to achieve work and family balance. There is one particular mother in my office, Lisa, whose experience is likely the closest to what mine would be at this point in my life. She had her first child about a year ago and is currently struggling to balance our frenetic workplace with that of being a mother to a demanding daughter who struggles endlessly with ear infections and frequent midnight scream-fests. Lisa, in particular, shares sometimes daily updates on her daughter’s and her own struggles to keep it together.
Some people may find this real-life chronicle of parenting tiresome, but I listen rapt to her accounts of family life as though watching a National Geographic documentary. A few days ago in the office, as I was gossiping in my friend Sarah’s cubicle about her new love interest (an office romance no less!), Lisa walked over and said, “Okay, so, the pediatrician says Emily’s ears are clear! I know, I can’t believe it either! But she still isn’t sleeping. I mean, did everyone tell me about this not sleeping thing when they were going through it with their babies, and was I just not listening? Because this is hell. I mean, I love my daughter, but come on. I got up four times last night. I seriously need to go close my office door and sleep it off.” And then she went slogging back to her desk.
So, as we know, motherhood isn’t just about the performance of child-bearing and rearing, but also everything else that fills up the spaces in between: shopping, child care, poop, Halloween costumes and Christmas outfits, managing a marriage, relationships with in-laws, and somewhere in there, for many women these days, a full-time job. To be a mother, one must have to be an incredible multi-tasker. I think the prevailing wisdom is that being a mother is a gargantuan job that isn’t to be minimized. But I often wonder if non-mothers can ever really understand how hard it truly is.
I asked another mother-friend of mine if there were good things about having children, an honest and necessary question given all of the negative reports I receive from coworkers and friends. This friend and I had made plans to have lunch while she was on maternity leave since she lived very close to my office. So I asked her this very question one day when she had her boob out in Chipotle, trying to quiet her screaming three-month-old who was suffering from acid reflux, while she herself attempted to eat her now-mutilated burrito with a fork in her left hand, the suckling babe in her right.
“Yes,” she said. “Lots of things! They’re wonderful, just not very easy when they are this little,” she said as she adjusted her top to hide her exposed breast.
It was all I could do to try to finish my own burrito, delicious as it was, the tortilla seeming a bit fleshy in my hand. My mind leapt to her discussions of her other son, two years old, and his issues with sleeping, eating, and so on, and other images of inevitable teenage ire when they are older, and I wondered if she was being truthful. Though there must be something to this, or why would so many women want to subject themselves to this kind of daily struggle for survival?
Just as so many brides forever held a clear vision of the gown they would wear on their magical day, so many women seem to be solidly decided on motherhood as one thing in life that is a given. Of course they will get married, “settle down,” and have children, right? This is the life they always imagined. Even to so many of the young professional women I know, this decision doesn’t cause them any angst. Sure they think child care will be drastically unaffordable and that they need to reach a certain point in their careers before it makes sense to give birth. But they still want to do it. Last night Loren came home from a night of sharing beers with his ex-roommates at a bar down the street, plopped down next to me on the couch with a big glass of water and said, “Hey so get this. Meg is pregnant. Already? I mean wow,” he said, reaching down to take off his shoes. These are two friends of ours who got married right around the time we got engaged.
“Wow, that was fast,” I said, raising my eyebrows.
“Yeah, Tom said she’d only been off the pill for a month!”
Who are these incredibly fertile, wide-hipped peers of mine who see so crystal-clearly their path forward into motherhood? And what the heck is wrong with me that I don’t?
I guess the fundamental issue I see is my complete inability to imagine myself as a mother and engaging in the act of motherhood. I simply don’t identify with the role. Like any little girl growing up, I had baby dolls. One doll in particular had anatomical features including an open mouth and the ability to go to the bathroom. She came with four packets of dehydrated “food” that transformed into bright red goo when you added water. Using the included spoon, I fed her and waited for her to pee in her diaper. And to my innocent little-girl heart came a shocking fright when in her special diaper appeared bright red blood. Traumatized, I went back to my less complicated, unrealistic dolls.
Despite my own lack of identification with the state of being a mother, I know it holds immense appeal for so many other women. Perhaps religion is what steers some of them down this path—a drive to procreate and to fulfill the will of the creator, that sexual intercourse should lead to conception (except, of course, in the case of Jesus. I’ve always thought that was a bit curious . . . ). Or for others maybe it is the lure of family, of creating a familial unit, and sharing in the successes and failures and all the other little bumps in the road that make life what it is. I’ve asked many women this question: “Why do you want to have kids?” And the answers, I’m sorry to say, are unhelpful. Most of the time the answer is just, “I don’t know, I just do.”
But one person, actually a man, did make an interesting argument over beers at a recent work happy hour. “Well the way I see it is, you have kids because you want to take care of someone, that spending your life taking care of someone else is the most important and selfless way to live,” he said as he watched the Redskins game on the screen above the bar.
“Right,” I said, “But you could always take care of someone else’s children as a foster parent or you could take care of adults, the homeless. Why not spend your scarce resources sharing with others who need help, rather than introducing another human onto this already over-crowded planet?” I asked.
“Well, it just seems like the most logical way to get there is to have kids. But I guess you have a point.” A very male thing to say in my experience.
It seems that the dictionary and Google are just not adequate to summarize the meaning of the word “motherhood,” and they won’t provide much insight into my current dilemma. There are so many complicated stories, experiences, rules, and meanings of this word and everything that it represents. Overall, however, motherhood is a state of being and one that I’m not sure I can step inside. I may be forever an outsider, watching other people disembark from the “Adulthood” train and cross the platform to board the “Motherhood” train. With so many women in the world already experiencing what this word truly means, is it necessary for me to step into that mix? It looks like that train is pretty full already and there are hardly any seats. You know I hate standing in the aisles.
Chapter 2: What Would It Mean if I Didn’t?
In an episode of Grey’s Anatomy (yes, I still watch this show) when Owen and Yang are arguing because she chose to have an abortion rather than have his child despite their being married (she chooses to be a surgeon rather than a mother), he says, “Who doesn’t want to have children? Everyone wants to have children.” I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea. And Yang is dumbfounded and says very directly, “Well, I don’t,” shrugging her shoulders. Owen is shocked that a woman might actually want to choose whether or not to be a mother because, to him, it is a simple equation. As a result of her feelings about motherhood, Yang chooses to have an abortion, and just like that, her marriage is over. Of course the plot was a bit more complicated than my summary and such a problem is obviously even more complicated in real life. But in the undercurrent beneath American society lurks the pervasive assumption that all women want to become mothers at some point in their lives, and if they don’t, society or the people in their lives might not accept their choices.
To me, the most ubiquitous question about having children, which I think subconsciously underpins any woman’s decision on this matter, is what would it mean if I didn’t? This calculation actually may be working through many women’s minds when they make this decision, but they may not even recognize it is part of the equation. What other people think is more important to me than I’d like to admit, and I can’t help but picture my mother’s face falling in deep disappointment if I were to tell her I don’t want to have kids. This is one of the most important decisions to a woman herself, and she has to make it amidst a swarm of opinions, expectations, and social norms. I’m sure many women, maybe even most, never had any doubt in their minds they would be mothers one day, and they have spent most of their child-bearing years searching for a mate to facilitate this very destiny. But I keep coming back to this question because its meaning to me and to the people I love the most is inescapable. In this environment, how could I ever be understood if my answer is no or even that I’m unsure?
A year ago, my very dear friend Rachel met a man, Chris, and engaged in a romantic New Year’s fling in Panama—you know, the kind of flash tryst all single people secretly dream will come to pass on vacation but never does. They shared passionate kisses on the beach at sunset and frolicked joyfully in the waves. Thinking it was only a passing flame, he living in San Francisco, she in Washington, DC, they flew home to their respective cities simply pleased that they had shared some sweet time together. Unexpectedly, an e-mail here and e-mail there rolled into flying across the country to see each other. Like the miles speeding beneath their crisscrossing flights, they fell swiftly and effortlessly for each other. Despite the hours that kept them apart, they invented creative ways to see each other, meeting in Puerto Rico for a weekend or adding days to business trips to spend weekends together. Both in their early 30s, they each had successful careers in their respective cities, one owning a condo and the other speedily climbing the ladder at a technology company. But when their relationship grew more serious, and as some of us were tittering about the possibility of an upcoming engagement, the moment arrived—as it does in any long distance relationship—when they had to decide which one of them was going to uproot his or her life to live with the other. I believe the correct term for this is the “shit or get off the pot” moment.
Over the few times they talked about who would move where, the subject of having a family was hard to avoid. In previous conversations they had skirted the issue, but they reached an impasse where the only road forward required them to have the talk. Rachel, like many women, in the back of her mind had always assumed she might have kids one day but would figure it out when the time came, and her sister and other family members and friends were popping them out every couple of months it seemed. Wedding save the dates and baby announcements peppered her refrigerator door, and she always shipped off a thoughtful gift when someone in her circle added to her brood.
When Rachel and Chris were about to tread into this discussion, she thought it would all be fine. In the past he had hinted that he wasn’t crazy about the idea of having kids, but she thought he’d get over it or compromise, like so many men do once they are married. Over glasses of wine in her upmarket condo in DC, she laid it all out on her Crate & Barrel coffee table and told him that, yes, she did think that eventually she might want to have kids. But that she wasn’t sure. When Chris heard Rachel say she thought she wanted to have kids, instead of deciding to talk things through, he heard an absolute. And just like that he told her he did not feel the same and they could no longer be together, because having kids was a “deal breaker.” And in that moment, Rachel heard earth-shattering crashing lightning and gong blasts.
When I visited her to have dinner at her condo a few weeks ago, she smiled bravely about the break-up, but the more she talked, the harder it grew for her to hold back the tears that were pushing their way out from behind her eyes. When Adele came on the iPod, she fumbled for the remote and sniffled, wiping away her tears while careful not to smear juice in her eyes from the onion she had just chopped. Finally, she let go and told me everything.
“He didn’t even give me a chance to tell him that I’m really not sure about the whole kids thing. I mean, I’m 31 years old, and maybe it’s more important to me to spend my life with someone I truly love and can see myself being with for the long haul rather than having kids that I’m not even sure I want,” she said, sniffling again and throwing her hands in the air, splashing chopped garlic around the kitchen. “I just feel like he assumed it was a deal breaker for me, but I’m not sure that it is. He didn’t even give me a choice. It sucks that people just assume that if you think you might want them then you absolutely do, and there’s no gray area. But there is a gray area!”
I walked over and hugged her and told her it would be okay, and I sent a message to the universe that I really hoped they could talk again so she could tell him everything she was thinking. Because there is a vast gray area where visibility is severely limited, like deep fog settled into a dark valley that stands between your current age and 40, and women need to be given a chance to explore it. Maybe to Rachel, the meaning of not having kids was being with the man she loved, and that is a choice she wanted to be able to make.
I often wonder if all of this pressure to settle down and have a family was removed, would so many women actually choose motherhood? Or maybe they’ve been unconsciously led down this path by the barrage of cultural expectations, images, and education they have experienced since school started showing those period videos to the fifth grade girls, while the boys were watching cartoons or sports in the next room. Of course, we are all hopeless products of our environments.
Just this week I had my annual exam at the gynecologist, and I lamented about my stalled out libido and wondered if it could be my birth control pills that have killed it. Yes, my doctor said, it probably is my pills, and that I should consider getting an IUD. In my experience, most people, including women I know and other doctors, have said that IUDs are only appropriate for women who have already had children, not those who may in the future, because they were never tested on women who were still planning to start having children. However, I do have one girlfriend, a particularly empowered feminist who uses a “keeper” instead of tampons, who also swears by her IUD. But she is a clear exception to the rule. My doctor assured me that, no, that may have been true of IUDs 20 years ago, but nowadays they only say that because IUDs have only been clinically tested on women who have already had children, so the companies that make them only “recommend” them for post-childbearing women.
And so I found myself in my gynecologist’s office and then on my way back to work contemplating how forward-thinking I could really be, and whether I was willing to ignore these warnings from others and get an IUD. And of course I should – taking hormone therapy since I was 17 hasn’t exactly felt good or made me comfortable about what I am doing to my body. There is a part of me that finds this choice incredibly empowering—the fact that I do have a choice, even of what method I use to prevent pregnancy. And I don’t need to be afraid of this small chance that something could go wrong. But even I have a tiny little voice inside saying maybe I shouldn’t risk it. Is the “what if” stronger than the benefits of the present? Because what would it mean if I screwed it up for myself? Am I truly above the fear of judgment that I preach other women should be?
I talked to a good friend of mine from graduate school a few days ago, Michelle, who is on the brink of delivery, just two weeks from her due date, about her decision to have children. As we sat at a wine bar, me sipping on an icy $11 glass of rosé, her nursing a lukewarm lime water, I snuck glances at her bulging belly, fearing that at any moment it may spontaneously pop and ooze embryonic fluid, and listened to her true and honest musings on impending motherhood. She is a woman I would consider my intellectual and professional peer, sharing a master’s degree and a full two-year academic experience with her, and also a considerable stint as a Federal employee. We had planned drinks so many times before, but for this reason or that—work, husbands, work, and more work, mostly of the legislative or governmental and extremely unpredictable schedule variety—we hadn’t met up in over a year.
When I had seen Michelle at the alumni networking night a week back, I stared at amazement at her bulbous pregnant belly, the unmistakable glow on her cheeks, and the exhaustion and anxiety in her eyes. I had previously had no idea that she was pregnant since we hadn’t seen each other in so many months, but now you couldn’t miss it. After chatting for an hour, we decided, with another classmate of ours, that drinks—and in Michelle’s case “drinks”—were in order.
We met up at a swank wine bar on a Thursday night, me arriving characteristically late because I got hung up at work. Not more than 30 minutes in, Michelle knew I wanted to informally interview her. A prime subject, so soon facing the mystery of delivery and the space launch into motherhood, I was determined to capture on paper her “before” moment. What did it feel like to be standing on the precipice looking over the hump (no pun intended) to the great beyond of what happens after you squeeze that baby out,? That state of being that those of us on this side of the great divide know nothing about. Like death—what happens when you cross over?
This friend, in particular, I feel a unique similarity to—a slightly cynical type, a straight shooter, a dry sense of humor, a practical viewpoint on career, marriage, and whatever comes next—the kind of person I know I would be much better friends with if we could find more time to spend together. I knew her outlook on this whole mommy thing, without even asking her, would be instructive and make me feel better. So I asked her, mid bite of cheese platter, over my glass of rosé that I savor with every sip after the day of work I have had, exasperated, “What made you decide to have children after all? What was the conversation, the outcome, the moment of clarity (if it occurred)?”
Sipping her water, Michelle began, “Well, you know Ben and I weighed the options, you know, that we’re both 34 and we’re not kids ourselves anymore. We bought the new house and we’re finally in a position to start having a family. It wasn’t an easy decision, but we decided that the risk of not doing it and regretting it was higher than the risk of doing it. As calculated as that sounds, I think we really did think about a cost-benefit analysis,” she said, laughing.
Looking me straight in the eye as she nearly teetered on her bar stool, she bluntly told me in a voice that echoed through my chest because it rang so true, “this (her hand on her belly, pointing at her unborn baby), my friend, is my insurance policy against regret.” The truth that she so bravely let spring from her lips hung in the air, along with the steam rising from the dishwasher behind the bar. Then she looked down at her bump and said in a sweet, calming voice to her baby, “But don’t worry, Honey. Mommy loves you. I wish I could cover his ears. You won’t quote me on that will you? So embarrassing, and it sounds awful!”
But of course, I’m quoting her because in that one sentence she magically summed up a complicated delicate argument for having kids that I think for many women is the nucleus of the decision. We will never know if we want them until we have them. And if we don’t have them, we may regret the decision for the rest of our lives.
Michelle sat there, the baby so close to being there with us, practically cooing and sitting on her lap. “You know, I hate to admit this but I still wonder if I made the right decision. I mean, I’m committed at this point obviously,” she said laughing and pointing at her tummy. “But here I am so close to the end and I’m not sure that I’m even ready for him to come.” She stroked her tummy and told her soon-to-be son to not worry, she loved him, she was excited to see him. Her answers were so honest. She was terrified; she had leapt head first into this chain of events, had knowingly taken this step, but had also known that she was not quite ready, and that she was just going for it. She was scared and uncertain, comfortable with the idea of labor, she said, but so unsure of what came next that it was too huge to even think about. In her infinite pregnant wisdom she said, “But you know, if you wait until you’re ready, you may never get there, and then you’re left with no children and a decision that has impacted you forever. So you take that chance.” I’m not sure if she even said these words, but that is what I heard her say.
As I sipped my wine, I scrawled in my notebook and nodded until my neck grew sore. Never before had I talked with a friend who so honestly recited my own secret feelings about motherhood—that the risk of not having kids is the frightening truth at the epicenter of my cyclone of debate. Because if I don’t and years pass, as all my friends are watching their children collect diplomas and open college acceptance letters, I may realize that I made the ultimate mistake. That I should have gone for it back then when I had the chance. Maybe I would have learned I couldn’t have them, but at least I would have tried. And then it would just be my husband and me forever, with no progeny, no way to pass along the love that makes up our family of two. I’m sure our life together would be utterly amazing and busting with happiness, but in our eyes, and the eyes of everyone around us, that might not be enough.