(While I’m writing this, “Despicable Me” is playing just beyond my laptop screen, and my almost 4-year old son is attempting to tell me exactly how to sit on the bed, while munching dry cereal and crumbing the place up, kicking the bedclothes around and repeatedly interrupting my work to tell me he’s hungry, or thirsty, or asking me if I remember peanut butter.)
I always thought the whole “biological clock” thing was a myth created by the man to keep women down. Like our lives were just a trifle, a craft project if you will, until the REAL purpose kicked in and we started being useful members of society by popping out kids and ignoring our own needs until we became exhausted wallpaper—or that lady who speaks up only to tell somebody to put on a jacket and be back by suppertime. Maybe growing up Catholic had jaded me; I’d seen so many women, ferociously reproducing from the time they were able until it seemed like they were just having kids out of boredom, or because there was one last chore no one else liked to do.
Or maybe, because I was the youngest of two and didn’t have any little brothers or sisters, I had no interest in or experience with babies or children much younger than me. As a teen I had only one brief recurring babysitting gig, and apart from watching a younger cousin along with my brother from time to time, didn’t like kids enough to seek out more jobs. By the time I was a young adult, I could confidently say “I don’t like kids.” They were sticky, smelly, loud and obnoxious, rude, self-centered tyrants made of id and energy and rogue body fluids, who couldn’t hold an intelligent conversation, and around whom spicy food and spicy language both had to be made bland as the crap they ate out of squat little jars and squeezable packets.
In my twenties, they became something worse: life-ruiners. As people I knew began having kids, they became less available and no fun. It began with our best friend. When my husband and I first met and became close, our mutual best friend was always with us, almost at times making us feel like a 3-person couple. When we all moved into an apartment together in a Minneapolis suburb, we had visions of staying up until 4am every night downing beers, watching movies and playing video games—and it was like that for a while, until our buddy’s erstwhile girlfriend got pregnant. Our initial response to him, although facetious, was to point out how useless producing offspring was, because “babies don’t drink.” It became a running joke with us; a reminder of how absurd it was, and a way to laugh through the disappointment.
Our buddy began disappearing every weekend to be with his preggers ball-and-chain, and when she was there with us, they engaged in quiet whisper-fests on our sofa while my husband and I rolled our eyes at each other, mourning the loss of fun. Soon, we would move to Michigan and our 3-musketeer act would enjoy a once-a-year comeback. When our buddy insisted we should have kids, we figured he wanted somebody to share his misery with.
(My son is now “reading” my pocket thesaurus. He says it’s called “balloons.” On the TV screen, Gru is covered in scorched mud. He asks me “Is that chocolate?” when I say no, his next question is, “Is that poop?”)
Later, as we sped through our twenties and into our thirties, we knew more couples with kids. They couldn’t stay out late, they were often distracted and anxious or had just morphed into well, parents, and not people. The other parents I knew were single moms, struggling with money and their own sanity on an hour-to-hour basis.
All the while, I was glad we didn’t have that kind of baggage—that’s what kids represented to me. If we wanted to get up and move, we didn’t have to worry about kids changing schools or feeling displaced. We could take a vacation, go to a concert, stay up all night and sleep into the following afternoon. We could, as we had been trying to for years, get accepted into a Japanese teaching exchange program and more overseas and live out our lives riding the bullet train into Tokyo in the daytime, and drinking sake and gazing into Zen gardens at night. I had zero maternal feelings, and looked forward to someday having a dog, because everybody knows pets are superior to children, and basically told my parents to never expect grandkids, because they were yucky and boring and I was too smart to ruin my life like that. I told them to expect puppies, if anything. I carried almost a smug pride in not knowing “nothing ‘bout birthin’ babies.”
Part of our decision to be childless was money—my job had good benefits but didn’t pay much; my husband’s job had neither good pay nor benefits. There were other factors: He had school to finish. We might want to move again. We both had to work full-time to make ends meet, and knew we couldn’t afford daycare. It would have been outright dumb to have a kid. I was glad we didn’t.
(My son is asking for Chex. He has already plowed his way through a bowl of Rice Krispies and two plates full of dry Cheerios. On the TV, Pharrell is singing, “Fun, fun, fun.” I tap my fingers on the keys, along to the music. I’m lost in the song for a moment, until my son reminds me, “I want more Chex, Mama.” I oblige. This will be the fourth time in half an hour I’ve put my computer down and ran downstairs to fetch him something. When I come back up, he giggles and slams the bedroom door in my face.)
I can’t explain what changed. I knew it was a “bad idea,” but there was always a tiny seed of desire, deep within me, to have a child, because the very idea that two humans could do something as easy and enjoyable as “baby-making,” and all that genetic and biological stuff I know nothing about would swirl around in the microcosm of blood and guts and SHAZAM, a whole new human being, with attributes of both the mother and father, and then some all their own that came from who knows where, would emerge into the world and experience things in a completely different way from anyone else on Earth, yet in a similar way to everyone else on Earth, and I could not only watch it happen but be the guide for this brand new person as they encountered everything anew, as I once had, and been guided by my own parents, people who loved me as I would now love another brand new human being that we had effectively made ourselves. I mean, how cool is that? How could I look that opportunity in my eye and say, “no thanks, I’ll pass?”
And that seed? I don’t know. It split open and grew into a tree of longing. Ripe, green leaves unfurling and pushing into every part of my being. I suddenly wanted a child more than anything. A clock, a tree, whatever metaphor one wants to use—it went off, it sprouted, it happened to me. I don’t know why. I know it doesn’t happen to everyone—and sometimes it does happen to someone who can’t do a thing about it, and that makes me sad. I am very lucky. I know that.
(My son is burrowing his head into my arm and saying he’s cold. I’m going to get him a sweater. He says, “I love you so much.” He wants to go downstairs now.)
I was 35 years old when I brought this up to my husband. If we were going to do it, we’d have to do it soon. He was less than lukewarm to the idea. There were so many reasons not to. I knew them too, but I persisted. We talked. I wrote him a letter. I’ve always been better on paper. We talked some more. During all this talking and thinking, my father-in-law became terminally ill and passed away. My husband revisited his own childhood in his mind, his love for his Papa. We reflected on our aging and dwindling families. And, during this time, I became increasingly sick of myself. My own problems. My obsessions with my weight and my attempts at writing, my penchant for ruining shoes with my wide feet and drinking alone on the weekends and blathering on about old bands that nobody cared about. I was so sick of living with myself and having no one’s well-being to worry about but my own. I wanted to nurture something besides my own introversion and forays into existential dread. I was ready for my life to be about something other than me.
So we decided to start trying to conceive in the spring.
5 months of hope and subsequent disappointment went by. I had turned 36 and figured it was too late. We stopped thinking about it. We took a trip to Toronto that August. We stayed in a posh hotel, experienced the Caribana festival parade, went to an outdoor concert, and visited the Royal Ontario Museum. This was also the trip where I managed to get the worst sunburn of my life and spent most of the vacation sick and in pain. Still, I look back at that trip with nostalgia and warmth, because it was the last vacation my husband and I took as a childless couple.
The following October I found myself standing at the kitchen sink one morning, halfway through a round of dirty dishes, with a positive pregnancy test in my hand. I woke my husband up and told him. I’m not sure how we felt. It’s hard for me to remember even now. How do you describe a feeling you’ve never had before and haven’t had since? It’s like if someone walked through your door and handed you a penguin. Unless that’s happened to you, you might be at a loss for words.
(My son now wants to go back upstairs. I literally just sat down. I haven’t had breakfast yet, and am still in my pajamas. I can feel the crabby coming on. He’s spinning in a circle in the living room with a graham cracker in his hand. When he stops spinning, I look up from my writing to make sure he doesn’t crash his dizzy ass into the TV stand. I follow him back upstairs to watch “Peter Pan,” with my laptop in one hand and a cup of rapidly cooling coffee in the other, and at the top of the stairs, he slams the door in my face again. I suppress a swear word.)
My pregnancy was mostly easy except for the vomiting nine times a day. During my second trimester, I was so sick that I couldn’t eat anything but Gatorade, cold mashed potatoes, and popsicles. I craved spinach, walnuts, and lemons, but buying them and eating them seemed like too much work. The thought of frozen pizza and beer—a combo that used to be my favorite—set me to dry-heaving until I’d broken blood vessels in my face and looked like I’d broken out in chicken-pox. I couldn’t bear the sight of boxed food at Target; Thanksgiving was drawing near and the rows of boxed stuffing mix was absolute poison.
The sickness became so bad that I called my doctor at 2am, worried that I couldn’t nourish a growing baby if all I was doing was barfing. I turned down the offer to come in and have fluids pumped in intravenously, but did accept a prescription for Zofran, which helped a little but mostly made bowel movements feel like something akin to trying to pass a concrete elephant. I ate ginger candies and drank ginger ale for the nausea, and that was effective in nothing but making me hate ginger forever. At the same time this was going on, Duchess Kate Middleton was pregnant with Prince George and diagnosed with Hyperemesis Gravidarum, and I couldn’t help but envy her for having what I imagined was a round-the-clock crew of popsicle-administers and barf-bucket busboys.
During my entire pregnancy, I gained a total of only 17 pounds; nearly 7 of which was baby. After my son was born and I began nursing, I lost the remaining 10 pounds and then an additional 10. I can honestly say becoming pregnant was the most successful weight-loss program I’ve ever undertaken.
Aside from the morning sickness, my long-forgotten old friend sciatica came marching back, demanding the money I owed it. I couldn’t stand up for more than a few minutes at a time. My ever-present acid reflux decided it was serious this time and I spent weeks at a time with an acrid taste in my mouth, constantly chewing on Rolaids from an economy-sized bottle in my desk drawer at work. And I always felt like I had to pee, even right after I peed. I was convinced my baby was moshing on my bladder.
Blah blah blah, I had a baby. Really, that’s about the way it went. One morning in early June as I lifted my foot in bed to put a sock on my cold foot, my water broke. I called the hospital, took a shower, and drove into Marquette at 5am. I was in labor for 27 hours and finally gave birth through Cesarean Section, after my body decided that it didn’t want to allow a baby to come out of it the normal way. I guess it preferred to kill both of us? I often wonder how many women died during childbirth before this type of surgery was invented or perfected, and think how lucky I am to be living in a time when it’s as normal and frequent as a root canal.
My son was born at 9:13 am on a Sunday, June 9th, 2013. He weighed 6 pounds and 15 ounces. First name Rowan; a name that came to my attention through Rowan Atkinson, star of my favorite British comedy, “Blackadder,” though most Americans know him as Mr. Bean. Middle name Jasper, after the nickname my husband’s father gave my husband as a little boy. And we just happened to find our first house, when I was 7 months pregnant, on Jasper Street. It seemed “meant to be.”
(During the time it’s taken me to write the last few paragraphs, I’ve brought my son back downstairs, situated him on the potty, made him a peanut butter sandwich, put Pocoyo on the TV, helped him off the potty, listened to him whine inaudibly about various things over and over, dumped and rinsed his potty, threw away a breadcrust he didn’t want, glanced at the absolute mess on the living room rug, and began making my own lunch, which is probably burning.)
So here we are with this kid. What are we doing with him? Most days we don’t know. And I can tell you that all those things I thought about children before I had one? They’re all true. Children are sticky, smelly, demanding, self-centered, exhausting, walking contradictions and disasters waiting to happen. But they’re also something else. They’re innocent.
I’ve heard childless women describe children as “little brats,” “snots,” and even “monsters.” It’s entirely possible I may have used those words in the past, too.
But it’s very easy to watch a child act out in public and think, alternately, “that kid is a spoiled brat,” or “those parents are failing big-time.” While I do think it’s possible for a kid to be a spoiled brat, and I do think parents fail all the time, I think those failings are not the same ones childless people perceive. I think you can fail your child by not loving them, protecting them, nurturing them, or treating them not like people but like extensions of your own personality or status. But if you do love, nurture, and respect your children, they will still act out in public, they will still cause an embarrassing scene, they will still suck your time and energy, simply because they’re children, and that’s what they do, and that’s what you did to your parents too. You can sit there and say, “I was a perfect kid, I never cried,” blah blah, and maybe you were a good kid—I know I was for the most part, but it doesn’t mean your parents didn’t go through agony at times trying to teach you right from wrong, trying to be good parents without smothering you, trying to let you find your independence without neglecting you…there’s so much potential for things to go awry with kids, but so much of that is borne of pressure we put on ourselves, pressure from other parents, pressure from non-parents. The whole world is watching us parent and despite appearances, none of us know what we’re doing, and while there might be right and wrong in a universal sense, in the finer details, there is only the way I do it, the way you do it, the way the mom or dad down the street does it. Just as our children are all individuals, so are we as parents.
I often think every move I make is going to be replayed in my son’s head someday as he sits in a therapist’s office. That’s just stupid. It won’t be every move. Maybe one in ten, tops.
Sure, there are tons of instruction manuals out there. And some of them have good tips, I’m sure. But ultimately, as I stand here and think about who I am and how my parents, as young 20-somethings with very little money and only a little practice with my older brother, raised me, and think about how some things will be the same and some will be different, I know I’m doing it right because my child is alive and relatively happy and healthy and so far has no addictions to speak of, unless you can count peanut butter. I have no idea how the rest of his life will pan out, and I know that in time I’ll have less and less control over that, but while my control, advice, input and help may be limited, my love is boundless and unconditional, so that ought to account for something.
I often hear people say, “I could never be a parent. I don’t have the patience, the calm,” whatever. “I know nothing about children.” Or “I can barely take care of a houseplant.” Well, I suck at houseplants too. I forget to water them. I don’t bother to find out what they are, how much sunlight they need, how to trim or re-pot them, etc. I buy them, stick them in the house, and hope they don’t die. But with kids, you become a parent because you don’t have a choice. If someone dumped a kid on you and said, “this is your baby,” unless you’re evil, you wouldn’t stick it in a closet and say, “I don’t have the patience for children, I don’t know anything about them,” and let them die. So when people say, “I don’t know how you do it,” my first thought is, “well….I HAVE to!”
And it’s not terrible. Believe it or not, kids are amazing. Oh, you already knew that because parents toss that kind of crap at you all day? Yeah, I know. But it’s true. So, sorry, not sorry.
So, I’m a mom. I never thought I would be, at least for the first 35 years of my life. I thought, “that stuff is for suckers.”
And it is. Parenting is for suckers. I’m a sucker. I’m a sucker for my family, who have come into existence by me doing nothing more than loving my husband, vomiting my guts out for months, having my belly sliced open and stitched back together, and now losing my mind on a daily basis. But when I’m not hating it, I absolutely love it.
But I don’t recommend it.
But I sort of do.
And for the record, I know plenty of self-centered, childish, demanding adults who are also sometimes sticky and smelly. I am one of them.