I am a product of this gorgeous couple. Look at them. See their happiness? Their readiness to take on the world? You can read their optimism, their hope, on their shining faces. There was no stopping the two of them. They are the embodiment of American Dream, with 2.5 kids (we turned out to be 3), and a sweet love story to boot. Why wouldn’t I want to follow in their parenting footsteps?
Still, I had no idea that I was going to be a mother. No–strike that. I had no idea I wanted to be a mother. Or maybe I just assumed that I would someday be a mother. That I would not not be a mother. That sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it? It wasn’t much of a plan, and it contained a lot of assumptions. But in fact, it’s pretty much the way I have lived my life–with a kinda sorta plan, and an assumption that, whatever happened, life would go on until I finally died. (I definitely got my parents’ optimism genes.) I can’t say that I wouldn’t have been disappointed, even heartbroken, if I found I couldn’t have children. If there is something that I finally decide that I want, I’m pretty tenacious about going after it. Mostly because I feel so overwhelmed everyday with the choices of just existing that, once I settle on something, I’m very invested in it. But I’m not going to go down the what-if-I-hadn’t-had-kids path, because it isn’t mine, and I could never truly know it anymore than I could know being a different race, or not having the use of my eyes, or being raised in a family that had millions of dollars in the bank.
I am thankful that I didn’t have children until my third marriage. Oh, it wasn’t that it couldn’t have happened before then. It wasn’t like I was working hard to prevent it. It just didn’t happen. That’s been my story for a long time, but now I wonder if I didn’t subconsciously make it work out that way. I read an article recently that says that there’s no such thing as intuition. That our brains continually make subtle calculations even when we think we’re going with gut reactions. That we don’t make a move without minutely weighing every possible outcome. It always involves knowledge of prior experience, and perceived risk. Managing risk is so important. Think about the most impulsive things that you’ve done…In hindsight, you can map out the risks that you knew you were taking. And even if they looked like madness at the time, if you’re still here to reflect on them, then you managed the risks reasonably well.
Children are risks in the flesh. Sometimes I ask myself, how in the hell did you think you could handle them? Because, seriously. Parents just don’t have that much control. In a child’s earliest days, weeks, months–heck, years–they have zero experience navigating the world and are terrible at judging risks. When my son was five, I watched him blithely jump off of a diving board sideways and nearly take half of his face off on the side of the pool. I didn’t read about that in the 1990s editions of the What To Expect When You’re Expecting books. My daughter had been much more cautious about the world. She did, in fact, narrate nearly everything she did. It was charming. Nora is walking down the stairs. Nora is eating breakfast. Nora is reading books, now. There was no toddling off the edge of the back deck or pulling dishes off the table onto her head. She usually gave us some warning. (Though she could empty a kitchen cabinet drawer of its pots and pans in seconds flat. She probably narrated that, too, but we just didn’t hear it for the noise.)
Most of parenting has been a long series of terrors for me. Sometimes all I see is risk. Always. Everywhere. With their births came an innate sense that, as I’d obviously made some decision to bring them into the world, I would always and forever be responsible for them. I’m only just now realizing that isn’t so. (Therapy helps.) I’ve probably thoroughly messed them up with all my caution, but I’ve done the best I could with the information I’ve had. (Okay–some of that information may not have been actual information, but a foggy bit of paranoia that involved serial killers, potential bullies, and imaginary drug dealers.) Watching them walk out the door and into the world alone–whether it was to nursery school or a soccer game or grad school–has always felt significant to me. It’s a constant process of letting go. Letting them learn how to measure the risks, to make decisions that will add up to making their lives.
If you had asked me thirty years ago what I thought it would be like to have kids, I couldn’t have told you. I might have said that it would be a little scary, but fun, too, because babies are so cute, and they smell good. I would’ve been completely clueless. Sure, I had hung out with other people’s kids. In my early teenage years, I babysat a lot. I was a pretty terrible babysitter–perhaps that’s why I never liked to leave mine alone with anyone. Oh, no one was ever injured on my watch. But I yelled at my sisters a lot because I didn’t really understand what my responsibilities were. And I often had friends over when I was babysitting at other people’s houses–though I never let them in the house. I didn’t really care about getting the kids in bed on time, and I let them eat whatever they wanted. I might, just might, have borrowed a joint out of a baggie I found on top of someone’s refrigerator. Yes, I was that babysitter. So as an adult without kids, I didn’t really think about bedtimes, or discipline, or trips to the emergency room, or not having a date with my husband for six months, or how much laundry babies make. Personally, I think that if any of us really understood what it would be like ahead of time, the human race would’ve died out long before now.
The thing that really surprised me, and continues to surprise me, is the patience that showed up when my children were born. It was like I had this secret reserve that I didn’t know I had. I won’t pretend that I am endlessly patient, but I’m way more patient that I ever thought I could be. I could carry a crying, colicky baby until it passed out from exhaustion. I could read the same book out loud over and over and over again. I can listen to my kids talk for hours about stuff I honestly would never think about, or care about, if it were someone else talking. Dirty diapers and spit-up never fazed me. They just happened. I’ll never forget when my daughter was two and had a virus and she threw up all over the front of my shirt, and all I thought was, weird, that feels so warm.
No, I couldn’t have anticipated that. I couldn’t have anticipated that the terror I continually feel is dwarfed by the joy I have when I look at my kids. It’s a calm kind of joy. A permanent joy.
I could never have guessed that I would love being a mother. Though it’s something more than love, I think. It is a state of being.