Oh hello there, I'm writing to you from my couch, in mismatched pajamas and slathered in retinol cream, surrounded by papers, bottle caps, half-full notebooks and a Lily's chocolate bar that I'm willing myself not to eat. There's dog hair all over my floors and laundry piled in various places around my house that have been sitting around for so long that I can't remember which clumps of clothes are clean and which are dirty. Wes and I had Tostitos and salsa for dinner because we don't have edible food in our fridge and we were too tired to go out and too hungry to order in.
My workout bag has been packed and ready to go to the gym all week, yet I've left it sitting by the door because I couldn't muster the energy to even carry it to work (much less hit the treadmill). I just paid $305 to the City of Chicago for two unpaid parking tickets that had final determination notices and I don't even remember getting the first ones. Don’t even get me started on what our recycling situation looks like or how many piles of mail we have yet to address. Our bed is unmade, probably also covered in dog hair. There's also a list of half-finished or yet-to-be-started house projects in my notebook, including things like "change the air filters" and "fix doorbell." You know, those basic things that help you breathe and not miss the FedEx delivery man there to drop off the replacement credit card you lost at the airport. Or maybe Starbucks. Or maybe in your couch, now that you're thinking about it.
Why I'm scared to have children
Wes and I can't feed ourselves, process our mail, or keep up with the sheer amount of Amazon boxes we need to carry out to the recycling bins. (Walking into our garage is treacherous.) We turn into Todd and Margot from Christmas Vacation the moment something goes missing, or the moment one of us discovers a mystery spill on the kitchen floor, or the moment my Audible subscription that I cancelled at least three years ago auto-renews again. The reason I'm telling you all of this is because it is important for you to understand that the life Wes and I have built is in disarray 10 out of every 13 days* and there is absolutely no logical reason for it considering how much help we have (dog walker, cleaning lady, handyman, etc.) and how easy and uncomplicated our lives should be all things considered. So if we're this much of a mess between the two of us, the thought of placing a miniature human being in our exclusive care is terrifying.**
TERRIFYING! So terrifying, in fact, that I believe I am high-risk for postpartum depression driven not from the baby but from the sheer lack of sleep, my husband's inability to organize himself, the uncontrollable disarray compounded by bottles and boppies (whatever these are) and the 129,746 accessories that one needs to keep a baby alive, my inability to control my irritation under duress, the loss of the ability to escape on a whim, and my innate selfishness that I try hard to suppress*** but will certainly rear its ugly head when an innocent, helpless baby is crying at two in the morning and my auto-response will be to put in my earplugs and ignore it.
And because my husband and I are both intense, passionate and opinionated, our typical sparring and head butting will be pushed over the edge. We'll become exhausted, survivalist versions of ourselves prone to implode under any additional pressure such as getting a parking ticket or recycling what one of us thought was junk mail but was actually our baby's social security number. Oh, and our baby, so joyful and full of zest for life, will slowly develop emotional problems over the years and start a global support group for children of high-strung parents and later write a New York Times bestselling novel about how we ruined her life.
And I'll read it alone in my detested-yet-practical Honda Odyssey, contemplating how differently things would have turned out if I'd followed through on my threat to call off my engagement to her father that one time we got in a fight on the Ile de la Cite in Paris. It was triggered by my need for sleep, Wes's need to be at the Musee d'Orsay no later than 6 o'clock in the morning, hours of waiting in line because he was right, miles of walking in boots I hadn't fully broken in, and a disturbing discovery of our fundamental differences in vacation preferences. I'd stopped to rest my Band Aid-covered feet and have a café au lait and pain au chocolat, and Wes questioned whether we'd make it to the top of the Notre Dame cathedral if I continued chewing at an escargot pace. At my wit's end, I dramatically threw my partially eaten croissant in the trash, stormed out of the café, and considered for a few minutes whether to book a flight home to prove how seriously ticked I was at his rudeness. We cooled off for an hour, then made up on a park bench. Wes apologized for his Germanic efficiency in viewing as many monuments in one day as humanly possible, I apologized for my Iack of urgency while eating croissants, we vowed to never go sightseeing together again, bought some vin chaud, held hands the rest of the day, and proceeded with our engagement as planned albeit with eyes wide open to the balancing act that would ensue in our marriage.
Wes and I have learned that marriage is hard. Very hard. We love each other deeply, and occasionally have homicidal thoughts about each other, too. My suspicion is that marriage with babies is harder, if only based on observations from my childhood. Which involved six children, separated by a mere nine years. Just so we're on the same page about those observations, here's a brief synopsis of my mom's life:
My frame of reference for what life is like as a mother
Mary Lou woke up every day at Lord knows what time, dressed her children and likely her husband, curled each of her daughter's hair, made breakfast, cleaned wayward Cheerios off the floor and smashed bananas off of our faces and prevented at least one child per day from eating Chapstick or putting a finger into an electrical socket. She'd make sure our homework and lunches were packed, walk some of us to school, get others to the bus stop and drop my dad at the train, all before 8:30a. Then she'd spent the rest of the day using her master's degree tutoring children with special needs and somehow also dust, vacuum, bleach toilets, Windex windows, and wipe down every surface in our home only to have all of her children tumble back in at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, drop their belongings all over her freshly mopped floors, smudge the countertops with peanut butter, and leave trails of graham crackers behind them. My mom would literally clean up behind us, shuttle us to soccer practice, swim lessons, and the library, then come home to make dinner, oversee homework and negotiate conflicts. Finally, she'd round us all back up for one more outing around 7p. to pick my dad up from the train, serve dinner, clean the whole thing up, bathe us and read to us and pray with us, put us to bed, and repeat the entire thing the next day.
She had no help (sorry, Dad). None. Nor did she escape via yoga or Pinot Noir.**** My mother is a saint with a bottomless well of patience. She also routinely talks to herself and can have an entire conversation with you where she appears engaged and offers appropriate follow up questions but will have no memory of the conversation a few hours later. We think she developed this as a survival skill against her horde of children constantly competing for her attention, and her husband's bad jokes.
Considering the sharp contrast between my life (easy yet in utter disarray) and my mom's (miraculously together despite every reason for her to throw in the towel and run off without speaking to any of us again) helped me to better understand the roots of my fears related to having children. In short, it's an enormous amount of work, requires an unbelievable amount of selflessness, sacrifice and patience, and is a milestone that poses the most significant, permanent, life-altering changes you'll ever experience. Not to mention it produces a human being that could potentially embody all of the most irritating qualities of your spouse and drive you batty for the rest of your days.
We're in a unique place in history where children and marriage are truly a choice, life milestones that are culturally encouraged but ultimately 100% optional. Our first world societies have advanced to a place where the physiological and safety drivers that incentivized the traditional family structure in hunter-gatherer and farming communities (brawn, iron, field hands) are no longer relevant, and the psychological and fulfillment drivers have expanded to include an endless array of options beyond settling down and having a family.***** Nod to the suffragettes, trailblazers, and feminists who paved the way for me to consider the quite viable alternative life option spent independently wealthy, alone and entirely fulfilled in a Parisian apartment filled with books for the rest of my days - a vision that bubbles up in direct proportion to the number and volume of laundry piles in my home.
Given that children are a ton of work, and entirely optional, let's get back to the question of why we give up our single, commitment-free lives and choose to have them in the first place.
The basic reasons we choose to have children
Here's the rationale from my personal point of view: we know that this life is bigger than us, and children give our lives purpose. They're our legacy. We're pretty sure we'd regret it if we didn't. It's instinctual. They're adorable. Our friends are having them and it's getting harder to relate to each other's lives without them. When we're old and crotchety and want to say whatever we damn well please, we need a captive audience who loves us and will be willing to spoon-feed us Jell-O in our nursing home rocking chairs. It gets boring sometimes, just the two of us, eating a civilized dinner of Tostitos and salsa at our white lacquer kitchen table. We're obsessed with our niece and nephew. We have a nagging sense that we're supposed to be doing more with our time, our talents, our resources and our love.
And yet despite all these valid reasons, I'm still sitting here writing this, terrified: of what would happen to our relationship if we tried and succeeded, or if we tried and failed. Of what would happen to my priorities, my mindset, my friendships, my time, my body. My body! That I know so well, that I work so hard to keep in shape, that defines a part of my identity that I cannot describe and would unpredictably and permanently change. Of the gamble that is genetics, and knowing the mental and physical deficiencies that run in my family. Of the tradeoff that is choosing to have your own versus fostering or adopting, and what it means to the children who could have been. Of the absolute permanence of the commitment that is creating or taking responsibility for another human life. Of the endless crying, pumping, feeding, burping, soothing and sudden, ever-present impulse to give everything of yourself. Of the perpetual pressure (self-induced or not) to be the selfless mother on top of being the loving wife, effective homemaker, accomplished career woman, and amazing friend. Of the fear of losing yourself in the mix, setting aside the things that have defined you up until this point in life to be shuffled and reevaluated in light of the fresh, hot, breathing little body now entirely dependent on your support. Of what it would mean if I decided to walk away from my lucrative career to prioritize spending more time raising my child, and how my relationship and power dynamic with my husband would change. Of what it would mean if I decided to stay put and continued to advance in my career, and entrust that time spent caring for my child to someone else.
Despite my terror and obvious over-analysis, I am fortunate enough to have a network of mothers among my family, my friends, my colleagues and my connections through this blog. This network crosses the spectrum of "mother-types," from stay-at-home to CEOs, from what seems like every relationship status, from women whose maternal instincts kicked in at 22 and couldn't wait to pop one out, to those who bit the bullet and had a baby so they wouldn’t regret it down the road. And I asked them, every single one of them, to share with me one thing they wish someone had told them before they went down the road of having a baby. The responses covered everything from things to keep in mind before you get to the hospital to give birth, to how you'll feel when your child goes away to college. And it was effing beautiful, so beautiful that I cried weird happy tears as I tried to synthesize all the advice into this post. In a nutshell, here's what they said:
On pregnancy and childbirth:
- That you shouldn’t listen to advice - there is no right or wrong, and you need to do what's right for you (Kate) and if you can handle labor, you can handle anything motherhood throws at you (Lou)
- That you should continue to eat well and exercise during pregnancy, because it will help you get back to your pre-baby body - and if you're home with the baby, do something each day to get out of the house (Wear This Like This)
- That you should seriously consider pelvic floor therapy - you'll be grateful you did down the road (Claudia)
- That you may want to consider placenta pills to ward off postpartum depression and read The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff (Jill)
- That the first few hours in the hospital you will be poked and prodded like a science experiment (Jennifer)
On the first few months:
- That you MUST ACCEPT HELP, and limit visitors to 30 minutes at a time for the first few months (Julie)
- That those first few weeks are incredibly hard, and your body feels foreign, but eventually it all falls into place (Kellianne) usually after the first 6 weeks - and the first smile helps tremendously! (Jillian)
- That the postpartum can be more painful than the pregnancy and delivery, made worse because no one talks about it (Sheila)
- That the level of HARD and TIRED is beyond words, but the level of LOVE is so unimaginable (Bridget)
- That babies are quite easy - aside from sleep, food and diaper changes, they mostly just want love (Melissa)
- That you really do need to sleep when the baby sleeps, and remember that not everyone instantly falls in love with their baby the moment they see them - sometimes, the bond grows over time (Red Shiny Lips)
- That you should trust your instincts: if something doesn’t feel right, it isn't (Little French Beds)
- That it's completely normal to worry, but to remember that everything will be OK and you've got it (Wendy)
- That you need to take things one day at a time (Ilene) and enjoy every moment, because it goes too quickly (Lynn, Golden Girl Gruss)
- That you need to define your own family dynamic, talk to your child every day, figure out what makes your child "tick" and adjust accordingly, learn to tell your child "no" and teach them to work hard for what they want in life (Tara)
On identity change:
- That your child will be the only thing that completes the circle of your life, that they'll make you crazy, but they'll return your love in spades (Sartorial Choices)
- That you'll never stop worrying, even when your child is in college (Nicky)
- That your heart - and life - will change in ways you cannot imagine (Lulu, Theresa) and cannot contain the love you feel for your child (Kellianne)
- That you need to find a healthy balance between not wanting a baby to change any part of your life versus turning everything upside down (Aunt Honey's Estate)
- That you'll learn what it means to be selfless and will do anything for your child (Stephanie)
On lifestyle change:
- That it's totally awesome and exciting to see this little person grow and it doesn't feel like work - it may take more intense scheduling, but you'll continue to do everything you want and feel like a total badass for handling it all (Claudia)
- That you'll never use the bathroom alone, at least for a decade or so - and childcare is SUPER expensive (Tatjana)
- That school becomes more stressful than when you were in it yourself, and the good days will carry you far (Katie)
- That you may be tired forever, even if your child is a great sleeper (Laura)
- That it IS scary - but the cliches are true, and being a parent is amazing (This Is Mom Jeans)
The one underlying theme, shared across the board, is that you will never regret it, because it is worth it one billion times over. Honestly, I've talked to literally hundreds of mothers and cannot find even ONE who has regretted her choice to have a child. And observing my sister and friends become mothers has been especially inspiring, almost as inspiring as watching the tiny beings they've brought into the world develop personalities, learn to express themselves and grow into dynamic, lovable little people that never would have existed without the decision to create them in the first place.
So here I am, still terrified but with a strengthened resolve that, like marriage, children are an incredible amount of work that pay dividends in joy. And while I know that it's a highly personal choice, and that one can live a fulfilling life that is also devoid of children (and spouses, for that matter), my personal perspective is that I'd be remiss to not try, if only because I'd be missing out on the 25 well-organized bullet points of life experience detailed in the above list (go ahead, count them).
After considering the perspectives of those who have been there, the questions I am left with are how and when: whether we'll have our own, or foster, or adopt, and determining our timeline. And Mom, if you're reading this, I know you're thinking "Why not now?!" and I acknowledge the widely held opinion that there is never a right time, but I am someone that needs time to process, to hold ideas in my mind, turn them over and over and over, and come out on the other side having made a decision, confident that I am going in eyes wide open and prepared as much as I possibly can be for the kind of experience and responsibility that is bringing a life into the world.
If you're still with me, congratulations on making it to the end of this post and through the inner workings of my neurotic brain. Would absolutely love to hear your thoughts on this post, especially if you have additional thoughts or perspectives to share on the journey of motherhood. Please let me know in the comments!
*My house is cleaned biweekly, and the clean, serene orderliness lasts for exactly two days.
**This doesn't even touch on our shared fear of managing through nine months of pregnancy, which will probably involve lots of tears, negotiating with myself about whether to have that glass of wine, and blaming Wes for every possible discomfort I experience.
***OK, I don't try that hard.
****She did Richard Simmons videos in our living room and enjoyed Celestial Seasonings as her evening beverage of choice. Her only real escape came with her frequent migraines, which triggered long, Imitrex-induced naps.
*****Despite these advancements in human society, we haven't evolved to the point where nosy relatives are extinct - I'm pretty sure family gatherings 100 years from now will continue to be forums for probing questions into our dating lives and unsolicited opinions on our aging eggs.