Why Would Anyone Have Children?
A few weeks ago, a blue-checked member of the Twitteratti, a man named Duncan Jones, posted this on his Twitter feed.
I have 2 kids. 2 1/2 years & 9 months old respectively. I’ll tell you something I never see anyone admit… they are exhausting, frustrating & life-destabilizing. They are rarely fun. Sure, smiles are great, hugs are lovely, but it’s HARD & not obviously a good choice in life.
The comments to his admission were varied. Many were kind and encouraging, some self-righteous, others angry, and others more whole-heartedly in agreement with him, even sheepishly admitting that they thought having children had been a mistake.
Let’s step back for a moment here. First, what Mr. Jones said is patently true. Having children is “HARD and life-destablizing.” It’s not always “obviously a good choice in life.”
Even the most exultant parents, those successful at growing a close and convivial family life will acknowledge this. They’re the type who laugh boisterously at the dinner table, parley with relish about everything from Roman history to Kim Kardashian, and take madcap vacations that spawn years of stories.
“Remember when dad drove the rental car into a ditch and that motorcycle gang had to give us all a ride to a strip joint? It was the only place that had cell coverage!”
Yes, even that family, those parents, have struggled.
Anyone who has ever pursued a dream knows the pitfalls. Dreams require committment, submission to a purpose, and work towards a goal. Not everyone has it in them to go after and realize a dream from start to finish the way they envisioned it. There are huge bumps along the road, detours, strangers who rattle our cages and destroy our sense of well-being. Some dreamers do indeed find the road much too hard. They try short-cuts, workarounds, and do-overs. Maybe change-up their expectations somewhere along the way. There are those who quit altogether.
As a fiction writer, I know this as well as anyone. The process of writing a novel is not all fantasy and glory. It’s a daily challenge; one that requires faith, marketing know-how, and countless hours of toil for no guarantee of the payout we writers all dream about. The adoring fans, the television series, the second home on Lake Como in the Italian Riviera. Preferably right next door to George Clooney.
Most of the time, we fiction writers have to settle for giving talks at conferences, a solid readership, and the joy of doing what we love and feel we were meant to do.
That’s no small thing.
Raising a child is not a whole lot different. And I’m not saying this as some sort of sanctimonious madonna who’s now going to lecture you about the fulfillment that comes with self-sacrifice blah, blah, blah. Not all functioning adults should or are meant to have kids. Some people want to, but can’t. This is all part of the grand tapestry of humanity.
What I am going to do is tell you about my journey as a mother, and let you decide for yourself if you think creating and nurturing brand new humans is something you have any inclination to take on.
I’m endeavoring to be honest here, and I imagine some of what I say will make your heart swell and other things may make you cringe.
But here goes.
I’m the youngest of four children — my brother and I, plus two step-siblings. Until I gave birth to my son, I’d only ever changed one other diaper and that was in a pinch, when my step-sister needed a hand. I was a senior in High School then and literally didn’t touch another diaper until I was almost thirty-three. Mostly, that was by choice. I’d never liked poo, and am not a big fan of it now, even though I’ve wiped it, smeared it, stepped in it and gotten it in my hair at this point. I’m sure I’ve probably even eaten it, although not on purpose.
As I grew into adulthood, I didn’t develop that particular yearning to be a mother. With a shrug of my shoulders, I would say, “maybe some day” whenever the prospect was mentioned. Honestly, I think most people who knew me growing up are not at all surprised that I’ve become a novelist, but are probably scratching their heads a bit about the fact that I’m a happily married mother of three. My own very best friend from High School said to me, “I don’t know if you’ll ever get married, but if you do, you’ll have met him in a cave somewhere in a remote part of the world.”
She wasn’t that far off.
Fact is, I met him in a 400 year-old candlelit pub in Prague. A whiskey-swilling Irish-American boy with an ambition as fierce as mine, you’d think we would have agreed to just live together and put off having a family…maybe indefinitely. We’d make a terrific aunt and uncle team, after all.
But the fact is, my husband wanted to get married and have children. The role of husband and father was an inextricable part of his dream. And he not only wanted kids, but a lot of them. Like five or six. I actually had to sit him down and let him know that just wasn’t going to happen with me as his wife, and that he might plan the lion’s share of his kids with wife number two.
I most definitely still felt that way when our first child, a son, was born. It took a bit of time for me to warm to motherhood and for the first three months or so of his life, I fell into uncontrollable sobs every single day when the sun went down. I can’t quite explain it. My days were good, by and large, and I was getting the hang of this motherhood thing. My son was adorable and nursing him just about made my heart burst. But the moment the sun started to set, it was like there was a full moon outside and I was a werewolf, helpless to stop my wicked transformation from reasonable, competent woman to hot mess.
If I had to don the hat of armchair psychologist, I’d say I was mourning my old self. The one who could go for a walk — alone — any old time. I think the hardest adjustment for me when it came to becoming a parent is the fact that I’m by nature a very interior person who’s quite accustomed to solitude. From the moment my son was born, my alone-time went down a good ninety-five percent. Any parent reading this knows that’s not an exaggeration.
As I muddled through this period of self-mourning, I went out of my way to read to my son, feed him, let him know he was loved — even when I wasn’t feeling it. I knew from my experience as a wife, sister, friend, daughter, and basic human that behavior is a powerful catalyst. Indeed, behaving like a good mother fomented an attachment between me and my son that was downright atomic in power, even if not always obvious to me in my day-to-day slog.
I wasn’t perpetually basking in the savage love I felt for my baby the way it’s portrayed in Hallmark movies, for instance. That realization came in spurts. Like when I almost dropped him down a flight of stairs and felt a fear so primal that it literally took my breath away. I actually sat down and wept. And not just the few, lone tears that well up when you get a bit of shock. I’m talking the kind of keening that had me shaking and gasping for breath. Partly because of the horror of what could have happened, but also because of the sheer awe that visited me; the depth of feeling that I’d only ever heard about. The emotional equivalent of the kind of orgasm that’s chronicled in trashy novels.
Parenthood is a journey of intense emotions. And those emotions aren’t always the good kind. Intense joy — yes. But also intense fury, exasperation, dread, and bewilderment. A parent can find herself in a stupor of violent feelings that are at once breathtaking and hair-raising. There simply isn’t anything else like it in the human experience. And it’s not for everyone. And yet anyone can do it.
How many things can you say that about?
Sometimes, against all indications to the contrary, parenthood brings out the best in a person who most people think should have never even considered reproducing in the first place. The drop-out, the juvenile delinquent, that girl with a suicide attempt under her belt who lives on a diet of coffee and anti-depressants, that guy who could never seem to keep his pants zipped, or keep a job.
Other times, becoming a parent drops a two-ton brick of misadventure upon a perfect life that seemed destined for the kinds of Facebook posts that make the more regular of us want to hire a goon to take Mark Zuckerburg out once and for all. Being a mom or dad can be as erratic as Mother Nature herself.
This has certainly been my experience. Utterly different with each child. Equally magnificent and harrowing depending on the day, the hour, the minute.
When my second baby, a daughter was born, my only moment of mourning was the initial loss of our intimate family of three. The fact that I couldn’t quite imagine how I was going to love a child as much as I had grown to love my son. And it was a struggle at first. For me and my little boy. He wasn’t at all happy about the new addition to the household and asked if he could just stay at preschool indefinitely after it was established that his new sister wasn’t going back to wherever she was from. Preschool was the one place where nothing had changed for him, and his request damn near broke my heart.
Except that I was far too thunderstruck by the kind of bliss we all hear about on morning talk shows to give it too much thought.
The second time around, I savored every minute of motherhood, and not because I loved my daughter even one iota more than my son. It’s because I’d already gone down the rabbit hole of learning to love someone more than I loved myself and there was no going back. Furthermore, I didn’t want to go back.
In fact, when a spot opened up at a day care that we’d put our names in for, I literally sobbed every time I dropped my little girl off. My husband and I had a business together at the time and he needed my help. I couldn’t let us down. And in one of those odd twists in life, I ended up crying every morning, not because I’d become a mother, but because I actually was one. And wanted to be one more than I wanted to go to work — even to a job I loved with a man I adored.
That, in and of itself, blew my mind. My grandmother had worked full-time. My mother had worked full time, too. It never even occurred to me that I would struggle with my decision to do the same.
But I did, and terribly. Maybe there are lots of women who feel a sense of peace and total harmony with either being a working parent or stay at home mom, but I’ve never met one. That unicorn is somewhere out there playing with dragons, eating all she wants and never getting fat.
Despite the mental schizoidness that motherhood wrought upon me, I ended up settling into being a content mama of two by the time our second child hit her one-year birthday. This meant that some days had me ready to set myself on fire. Others had me walking through the world with a sense of purpose that felt superhuman. I was a mother, dammit! The swell of pride that comes with the awesome responsibility of nurturing two wildly different souls who might grow up to be Nobel Prize winners, musicians, inventors, international spies, porn stars, or serial killers was mind-blowing.
And I’ll be honest, I wasn’t jazzed about bringing a third child into this brew. My heart was full and I was already looking forward to getting a bit of me back now that I my kids were potty trained and all. It was my husband, ever the wishful father, who cajoled me into finally agreeing to another little babe; one he hoped would be the third of four (or five). Out of a combination of love and a gambling heart, I knuckled under to his dream.
When nearly a year later, the little pink line finally revealed to me that I would indeed be having a third child, I was torn. Months of trying for this baby had produced nothing, when getting pregnant before had been easier than catching a cold sore. In the meantime, my husband had accepted a job in India, of all places, and I’d already started making a slew of other plans in my head. I was going to write books and start a radio show. We were going to travel and our school-age kids would learn new languages and make friends from all over the world. Yet now, once again, I was going back to stage one.
But the journey of parenthood offers nothing if not a surprise behind every door.
About half way through my pregnancy, we found out our child had a tumor and her birth was going to be highly precarious. She was, in fact, born seven weeks premature and with the worst case scenario — an aggressively cancerous tumor that would have her fighting for her life, and starting chemo before she was even supposed to have been born.
You may think that at this point I was regretting having ever agreed to a third child. That I mooned about what our lives would have been like if I’d told my husband to go to hell with his big family dreams and we’d boarded a jet plane and set off for exotic Mumbai! The truth is, sometimes I did feel that way.
Our peace of mind had been shattered. We were, all of us, on the brink. From that day on, we would be faced with the prospect of always having to look over our shoulders, and wonder if our daughter’s one in a million illness would revisit her.
On the day I was supposed to hold my new infant for the first time, I called my husband at work, pretty much out of my mind. Our daughter was already three weeks old and had endured major surgeries and other life-saving measures. It had taken that long just to stabilize her, get her to the point where she could be held without inflicting more trauma on her. And now she was about to enter a whole other round of travails with her cancer treatments. I was afraid to love her because she might die, and I told my husband that. I didn’t even want to touch her.
“You need to put the phone down right now and go hold her,” he said.
This was no easy feat. And not just because of my own fragile emotional state. Our daughter wasn’t breathing on her own yet and had tubes all over the place. Her torso and back side had been all sliced up and stitched back together and she didn’t appear to appreciate being handled very much. On top of that, she was tiny and looked like something between a raisin and newborn hamster.
As the nurse began lifting her up from the bin, I said stop right there. Our baby had the most frightful look of anguish on her face.
“She doesn’t want this,” I protested.
The nurse told me it was going to be ok. Kangaroo Care, as they called it — having the mother hold the baby as soon as such a move could be tolerated — was hospital procedure.
“But she’s in so much pain,” I said.
“I promise you,” the nurse told me. “The research on this is so clear. No matter how difficult this seems, babies who are held do much, much better than babies who aren’t.”
I took a very deep breath and reached out, taking my daughter from her nurse’s arms. I unbuttoned my shirt and put the baby right up to my skin, letting her hear my steady breath and heart beat. We sat that way for about fifteen minutes, until she started scrunching up her face again. She needed to be put back into her bed and given a dose of morphine to ease her discomfort.
“One thing at a time,” the nurse said. “Don’t look too far into the future, you don’t know what that holds. Just do what you need to do today and you’ll be fine.”
“Dad, are you mad?”
My youngest. The one who was born sick and truly wreaked havoc on all of our future plans, posed a question to me not long after Duncan Jones’s tweet made its way into my Twitter feed. She said, “What would you do if you had only one day left to live?”
“I’d spend it at home with you guys,” I told her.
“You wouldn’t go to an amusement park or sit down to do your writing stuff?”
Clichéd as it is, when such quandaries are presented, you often realize just how fleeting life’s pleasures are — even the ones that deliver awards, diversions and delights, that hit of personal gratification and glory. Because when the rubber hits the road, all you want to do is hold the ones you love. Even the ones who drive you crazy and have proved themselves to be certified life-destablizers. After all, I was one of those, too, once.
Just ask my mom. A political prisoner from communist Czechoslovakia, she set out across a heavily armed border with my seven year-old brother in tow and the dream of a new baby (me). She brought us all to the United States for a much better life. I’m quite sure that was hard. I know it was not obviously a good choice at the time. She could have been shot or found herself in prison again. It would have certainly been much easier to do without us.
And yet, here we are.
Which brings us to the conundrum that faces anyone who has ever endeavored to do any heartfelt, pie in the sky thing requiring a gobsmacking, monstrous committment. One that ties us in knots — morally, spiritually, physically, financially. The white-hot ardor we grow to feel for such ventures doesn’t evolve and flourish in spite of our hardships, but because of them.