A good friend called me in tears yesterday. At age 36 and on her third husband, she is still not sure she should have children. She wanted advice from me on whether you can be a good mother and not lose who you are. I had to call her back from my stew of irony; Benjamin had just exploded an entire bottle of orange juice all over the floor of the Harris Teeter diaper aisle.
It was flattering that she called me, because she thinks I’m independent and a feminist and open minded and still a good mom. But oh, the things she asked. Are you still writing? (No) Do you and Simons do all the things you used to? (No) Do you still travel as much? (Definitely not)
I heard her say, “Our lives are so full now, that I just don’t know if we should change.” It’s funny to hear her, because I think I was still asking these same questions up until the doctor was demanding that I do the extremely unlikely task of pushing Benjamin out into this world and yelling, “It’s a boy!” So I tried to be as honest as I could. Simons and I had a really strong, fun marriage. We moved away, we had adventures, we camped and fished and ran races and drank fancy wine and learned as much as we could about who we were. We debated really hard about having children. Would having a baby make things even better? Would we be sad when we grew old and had never had any? What it came down to, I think, was asking: What would we most look forward to about having children; and what would we most look forward to by not having any? And the list with children just seemed incredibly fun and rich. I couldn’t wait to show a child nesting sea turtles and how the water glows with phosphorescence during the summer. I would teach him to diagram sentences and the appropriate grammatical use of “myself!” My husband is already scratching to buy the baby his first surfboard. Camping trips! Puppies! Baking pies! These things filled us with baby lust, and we went for it.
But, I think if we had chosen not to and really committed to that choice, we wouldn’t have regretted it. It’s not a selfish thing to decide. I think you have to reconcile yourself either way. Really, a life that is purely your own seems so very delicious, doesn’t it: a lifetime of breakfast in bed, firm thighs, and self-fulfillment? Your savings are your own. Your failures or successes or risks affect no one but yourself. You have years of being able to watch the news, instead of weeping over reports of child abduction and praying tearfully for the poor mommas all over the world.
And so many people have children for the wrong reasons, and I’m not just talking about government checks here. A writer friend of mine had written an article on what your Facebook photo says about you — cute dog, clutching at husband, scantily clad, or worst, pictures of your children instead of you. One irate reader had mocked this childless writer, saying, “Obviously you are not in the know because you don’t have any, but you become your children.” I remember thinking that it must be much harder to ignore the screams coming from the cellar if you actually are your children; but in all seriousness, doesn’t it just seem so unfair to them to tie your whole ego up in their little lives? Flunking out of college is hard enough without dragging your mother’s psyche into it.
Not that it’s all Zen and hugs and unicorns all the time for me either. My mantra used to be, “No regrets!” or “Run hard!” or something else with an emphatic exclamation point. Now it has become, “I’m so tired.” Like I want to trade places with my husband for five minutes so he can know what real tired feels like. Like sometimes I want to take a vacation by myself, just so I can sleep. And I’m really tired of being soâ€¦.tired.
I listened to this friend sob and question and worry about all the what-if’s, and I feelâ€¦well, it’s not exactly envy, but if you have children, do you remember that time before you had them, when there wasn’t that weight? When you could wake up in the morning and just have coffee? Or when it was Friday, and you looked zestily at your significant other and decided what marvelous adventures you wanted to have that weekend? You weren’t just this tiny moon revolving around someone else’s planet of needs, loves, hopes, potential, and naptimes.
I think underneath the eye bags and mom jeans, I am still myself, but now I know what love really is. I was a person who loved my parents and my family. I loved and still love my husband. I loved my dog so much, I thought I’d explode. But this love for Benjamin is so different and so much bigger, and you know what the difference is? I am now a person who can lose. And it’s ridiculous to think that won’t change you. Even when that tiny baby starts sleeping through the night, you can’t, because you wake up four times to make sure he is breathing. You lie awake thinking about books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and wondering how you will take care of your baby in a post-apocalyptic society without organic vegetables. You writhe around all night fretting about zombie vampires and serial killers and cyber molesters and creepy soccer coaches, and the adrenaline surges through your mommy body, while your partner sleeps blissfully next to you, worried only about blasĂ© thingsâ€¦like affording taxes and education. It isn’t something you can really explain, or maybe, should even talk about within hearing of mental health professionals.
And it’s so hard, isn’t it? The hardest thing I’ve ever done. In everything I’ve ever attempted, I’ve always held back a part of myself, for fear that I would fail or that it wouldn’t turn out like I had dreamed, or maybe just out of laziness. Having a child, you just can’t hold back. It wouldn’t be fair. So this is the first thing I’ve ever really given my everything. And yes, sometimes I fail. Sometimes I give him a timeout for throwing his food on the floor, when I should just laugh and try again. Sometimes I play Mah Jong on my phone while I nurse him instead of cherishing the moment. Sometimes he eats grits and eggs for dinner, because I forgot to start his brown rice 55 minutes before suppertime (why does it take so LONG?). But mostly, I’m more patient than I knew. I’m kinder than I knew. I can pay attention to a tiny, non-English-speaking person all day long, and spend an hour doing 40 laps on the sliding board, and think his laughter is the most fun ever.
While I listened to my poor angst-ridden friend, I had Benjamin galloping on his sturdy little legs, from one end of the porch to the other, cackling and waving and tossing himself on me while I simultaneously cooked his supper, put the groceries away, and wiped grubby handprints off of hand-me-down Little People animals. Yes, I’ve changed. But knowing what I do now, that my son will clap gleefully when I blow the fuzz off a dandelion; that he sings to himself in his crib in this high-pitched warble; that you could store winter clothes in his lower lip when he pouts; these things are like the stars I never knew were there. Motherhood is like a galaxy of little joys, and you’re either on the spaceship or you’re not. But if you’re not, then, well, do you miss something you’ve never seen? I’d say no, but I have known this friend through two of her marriages. I have seen how much she loves her dogs and how passionate she is about art and nature and life. I know her excitement in the sheer act of wandering. If she’s been looking longingly at this strange milky way of motherhood for so long, maybe that is really her answer.