Thursday, February 5, 2009

I was already here

So I think we all, in our own way, have to negotiate a peace with babies, other people's children, the whole mother-ness thing, while we're stuck here in limbo, not knowing whether the future will bring octuplets or ten foster kids or a life of unanchored travel in foreign lands and trying strange food and dying young of some rare tropical illness.

For my part, I started out single and clamoring to hold babies. Then I got married and for a little while I stayed on the clamoring track, since I figured I would have my own just around the corner and I could say things like, "I can't wait till our kids can play together." So that was fine. Then I realized that we were not so much talking about the next corner and that if I was asking to hold babies it gave people too easy a conversational opening, and anyway, it made me look pathetic and sad. So I stopped. Then after that I realized that my husband was holding all the babies and that looked sort of sadder - look at this poisonous dried-up old goat he married, she hates babies. So I started an actual, conscientious project to hold other people's babies, not to a shrieking and begging degree, but, you know, letting the mom know, "If you decide you'd like to be able to get some dinner or something, I'll take that off your hands."

Anyway. So at this point, though, the position I negotiate with the world over the "motherly" part is that I'm, obviously, not a mother. I don't get to negotiate that. So when I hold very small babies, people say, with evident surprise, "You're really good with children." Because, you know, I don't drop them. I happen to have siblings who were born when I was twenty and twenty-three, so, actually, I can change diapers and everything. Even though I don't have children of my own! So other people are motherly, because they have kids - even those who are not specially maternal. But I'm not. I'm a career woman (they've decided), because I don't have kids, and I'm working. Therefore, that just became my personality.

But the other day I was thinking. That's not actually my natural temperament. You can see this if you go back to the time when everyone was on the same plane - before any of us had kids. When I was in college and everybody was young and single, large numbers of my friends literally called me "the mom." My freshman year, long after everyone had stopped trying to be super-friendly to their neighbors and bond with new people, I knocked on every door, every night, to make sure that nobody would eat dinner alone unless they wanted to. My sophomore year we took a trip to Washington. There were a couple of sophomores and eight freshmen, and the freshmen were just sort of starry-eyed, enjoying everything, and really not keeping track of themselves very well. Since I had signed out the college vans and it had been impressed upon me that I needed to make sure to bring all the students back, I counted them. About every three minutes. Every time I reached ten, I felt better. Some of our friends' mothers whom we encountered remarked bemusedly that I was a "den mother." I was just trying to keep track of them.

I kept doing the family togetherness thing throughout college - trying, on my good days, to keep the misfits included, make sure people got along and everyone had someone to eat their meals with, nagging people who needed to be nagged in order to behave or be nice or make sensible decisions about their studies or whatever it was. It seemed the thing to do. When I scolded people, I used their middle names (I really did). And they really listened. Of course, this all made sense - I'm an oldest child from a badly broken home. I was sort of taking over my mother's role and keeping things together from about age six onward. I was never all that young or frivolous, ever; I'm an old soul. Of course I was mothering my college classmates. I mothered my siblings.

But I'm taking a while to get to my point. Which is this. I've allowed myself in the past few years to be forced into a pigeonhole without even really noticing. I was involved and took care of people and maternal, before I was even twenty, and I became - in other people's eyes first, probably, and eventually in mine - withdrawn and self-focused and career-oriented and tough. People have said - more to my husband than to me - that it's not a big deal that you guys don't have kids, because your wife, she's so smart, she'll do good things with her career. It's fine.

And I won't accept it. I'm not a materialistic career-oriented equality-driven post-modern feminist. I'm not the trendy (hah!) skinny girl who doesn't need to buy maternity suits and shouldn't hold your kid 'cause the little darling might spit up on her scarf. I refuse. I don't want it. Thank you for making excuses for what's happened to me, crafting me new priorities that make the suffering I live with seem like a choice. It isn't. I'm not "better off." And I don't want a dog. I'm not hard-hearted and lonely hoping that a baby will awaken some undiscovered side of my personality. I was a "mommy" before the rest of you people, when that meant helping my siblings to dress themselves or find food to eat or stand up to my parents. And I don't need a baby seat in the car or anybody's permission to be just who I'm supposed to be.


  1. What an interesting meditation on how outside circumstances can appear to change us. I think you're spot on that they don't really change our underlying personality. I followed a similar path and changed from the babysitter/sunday school teacher/baby holder to someone who avoided new moms and babies but just because I acted differently it didn't change who I was underneath. I was just tired of people pitying me. I hope you're able to make the changes you want to make and act like yourself again. (((Hugs)))

  2. A good friend of mine in Russia said something I'd like pass along to you. She looked at me one day, as we were sitting drinking tea in her little kitchen, and said, "In my eyes, you're already a mother. You just haven't found your child yet."

    While others will not understand this, you can hold this truth in your heart.