“As it stands, motherhood is a sort of wilderness through which each woman hacks her way, part martyr, part pioneer; a turn of events from which some women derive feelings of heroism, while others experience a sense of exile from the world they knew.” –Rachel Cusk
I just had one of the strangest conversations of my life.
The woman who cleans our hot tub on Friday nights comes in every week around the beginning of my shift, always looking tired but quick to offer a broad and genuine smile. She is forty, a probation officer, and a mother of two boys. She tells me stories about what “her girls,” as she refers to her charges, have done this week, or about the conversations she’s had with her doctor recently (she’s been fighting a cold for two months now), or about what new trouble her youngest son, who just turned two, is getting into. She also tells me about what her oldest boy, who is now less of a boy and more of a man as he descends upon his twenty-third birthday, is currently doing – a lot of work between school.
Her older son and I graduated from high school together. Until today, she thought I was several years older than he. Upon learning this, she immediately slumped and said, “I’m old.”
She then proceeded to sit in the chair beside mine at my desk and tell me the story about her second pregnancy. Her younger son, let’s refer to him as E, was conceived with her second husband – not her eldest’s father – very shortly after her discontinuing birth control and was born with fluid on his kidneys precisely 10 months later. She was only in labor for two hours. (She told me it was just one hour with her first.) E then underwent a series of ultrasounds and tests over his first year and a half to monitor said fluid to ensure it wouldn’t go septic, and was just pronounced a non-concern about six months ago. The doctors gave her a few things to look out for, the occurrence of which would warrant a return to the hospital, and sent them home.
She told me this because her husband wants to have another baby.
“What do you think I should do?” She asked me. The single most mind-bending question I have ever been asked.
She’s concerned because of the complications in her most recent pregnancy. She’s concerned because, unless she gets pregnant in the next four weeks, she won’t have the same amount of time to take off work as she did last time. (E was born at the end of October, and she was able to take three months off with her combined maternity and personal leave from the end of his birth year through the beginning of the next calendar year.) She’s concerned because of her age. She’s concerned because she’s had some issues with high blood pressure, which could cause her to develop preeclampsia. She’s concerned that she may have a girl, which is something she’s expressed would probably not end well. (She is not very “girly,” and could see butting heads with a child who ended up being anything like herself.) She’s concerned because, frankly, she doesn’t enjoy being pregnant or babies all that much.
She refers to both of her boys as only children, because of their twenty-year age gap, but she also related to me the joy she had of having siblings who were of similar age to her while growing up. She’s not concerned about how E would handle the transition, because, she told me, he loves the babies at his daycare and will often try to help care for them. She’s not concerned about her older son, because he apparently takes having a little brother very well. She’s not concerned about her finances. (She is, however, concerned about the idea of giving up her crafting room.)
She tells me all of this because she wants my advice. Me, a doe-eyed, childless child eighteen years her junior. What advice do I have to offer? None. I tell her, “Mindy, I don’t know.”
There are a lot of things that human evolution got right. One thing it didn’t is reproduction.
The idea of parenthood has always baffled me. To decide one day that you want to create life, and then to follow through with that desire – to literally grow a living, parasitic being inside your own body until your body can no longer bear it and expels it by what is basically the same mechanism that causes vomiting, though in a different organ system – both astounds and disgusts me. To me, that is self-aggrandizement of the highest order. That is playing God.
And after the physical and emotional torture that is pregnancy, to be responsible for this barely-breathing, helpless and defenseless thing – because let’s be real: infants are not human until about six months – has got to be the pinnacle of masochism. (Human infants are born in an earlier stage of development than any other mammal, with the exclusion of marsupials, whose offspring continue to grow inside the mother’s pouch until prepared to face the outside world.) To sacrifice your sleep, energy, and resources, to care for this underdeveloped pseudo-person for years. To feed it, clothe it, house it, prevent it from serious injury or death lest you be wracked with boundless guilt. I do not understand why a rational person would subject themselves to this.
I suppose I am not plagued with the yearning for parenthood that others are. I do not dream of having a perfect little family, or driving carpools, or soccer games, or music lessons. Most of the time I think I would be a bad mother: I can hardly handle managing my own daily needs, let alone those of a growing child. On occasion, though, I think I wouldn’t be bad at the actual “mothering” thing. There are plenty of values I could instill in a child, plenty of lessons I could teach, plenty of experiences I could pass along. If I could start out with a five-year-old, I think I could manage. One who has tastes and can hold a conversation, but who I can still explain the world to. Mentoring, rather than mothering, is probably the term I’m looking for.
Life, invariably and ultimately, is a curse, for all its worth. It is painful and it is traumatic for as much as it is beautiful and worthwhile. I cannot imagine bringing another being into this double-edged sword of an existence. I can only shield, I can only provide training, I can only bandage the wounds.
Perhaps that is enough. Perhaps not.