Typically, all my concerns about Wednesday were exaggerated. I got to work later than I planned, so I had to leave later, so we didn't show up until about 7:30. Apparently the bedtime routine more or less consumes the time between 7:00 and 8:00, so I saw one of the kids (child #3) for about ten seconds. That leaves only the four-month-old whom I have not met, but they don't usually have much to say at that age anyway. We ordered some nice food. We had a chat.
But the downside - which has left me sadder than I would have been at the Parade of the Children I was dreading - is that I feel like I waved at them across an airport on a dead sprint for my gate. We probably spent two hours the whole time, and my girlfriend went to bed early because she wasn't feeling well and the baby was going to be up soon. (That's right - they do that.) I guess my DH and I talk too much, maybe, but he wasn't trying to lecture them about North Korea; we both expected they would respond. Our other friend raised some thoughts about Pope Francis and his liturgical bent. I responded. The two friends said nothing. (They're very serious about their faith, and I'm sure they have some thoughts on this subject.) They were mostly silent.
After my girlfriend went to bed, I realized I hadn't asked whether she were still working one day a week for a non-profit, as she was after kid #1 and #2. I don't know whether their lives are more stressful now or less; whether they're planning on having another eight kids; what constitutes a normal day for them. And my DH bragged about my home remodeling projects until I made him stop, but other than that, they don't know anything about what I'm doing (of course, you could argue that that's all I'm doing). And they know a smidge about my DH's job. I did ask them some questions, and they answered...briefly.
Part of me wants to take the fifth friend aside and say, "What did we do wrong? Should we not have talked? Were they more exhausted than they seemed? Did we offend them?" But honestly, I hate getting that kind of third-degree routine from other people, and don't admire the temptation in myself. Be yourself. Be kind. Don't analyze later. Of course, the exception is when someone really has been offensive or handled a situation badly; then, it's for the best if he offers you an opportunity to tell him (gently), so you don't have to bring it up first.
I could send an email and say, "OK, here's all the things I didn't get a chance to ask you," but the fact is that my efforts to stay in touch over email have failed (he's much too brief and she doesn't respond at all), and this was supposed to be the solution.
And I am realizing that the obstacle is much more formidable than I had thought. Like me, my girlfriend got married at 23 (though a year after me, since she is younger). She turned 30 this year (so does her husband). They have four kids. Biology and odds being what they are, they seem likely to have about another 5-6, with her having the last one around 40. (Of course, I know mothers who had kid #15 at the age of 48, too.) At that rate the last child will start preschool in 14 years, when I am 45. Said child will start high school (thus, all her kids will be comparatively independent, old enough to stay home without a babysitter, etc.) in 24 years, when I am 55. Presumably, that is the earliest I will have a serious conversation with her again. When I graduated from college, I was 21 (she graduated a year later).
It would be fair to say that I am horrified by this reflection. I'm not angry, of course. I don't think she's done anything wrong at all, or that I'm being unfairly neglected. (Well. Clearly I am being unfairly neglected. But she's not being unfair. It's just sort of cosmically unfair.) More to the point, she's living very close to the life I planned to lead. I was hoping for a honeymoon baby (she may have taken a month or two longer than that, but that's it). I was planning to work, at most, part-time, from home. I wanted to have seven kids; if things went unreasonably well, twelve. I loved craft projects and cooking and baking, even at 23. (I don't know whether she likes to cook. She might. She wasn't specially interested when we were in college; I was even then.) I sew; she doesn't. I even crochet. I started a quilt - I stopped working on it after I started my first real legal job. I literally wanted to be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen for my best years. She never did. She wanted kids - but wasn't sure she wanted them right away. She turned down a great job that she'd really wanted because her husband's company asked him to work abroad for a year. Then she started a degree program where they were living, but had to quit when her first child was born. Unlike me, she was comfortable wearing a suit right off the bat. She got up early enough in the morning to wear makeup to work. (I still don't.) She fit naturally into the professional world. She gets her hair cut regularly; I'm approaching sister-wife territory and my split ends are scary. I'm always a little frayed around the edges.
You could be philosophical and say that each of us has learned some things that we would not have if we had gone the way we already felt most comfortable. But I'm not interested in platitudes. I want to get down to brass tacks: thirty years of life. Thirty years in which she'll be largely lost to her friends. Thirty years in which her body and her health won't be her own, she'll have practically no career opportunities (and, let's face it, by the time those thirty years are gone, there generally are not so many career opportunities left), and no chance to further her education.
And then there's my thirty years. Thirty years on the outside of the dominant paradigm of life for everyone my age. Thirty years during which even my theoretical fertility will come to an absolute end, and I'll have to accept (if I haven't already) that I will never have a child or a grandchild; that everything I've ever bought will have to be sold or thrown out because no one in my family will want it. (I've already started thinking about whether I should write down my recipes. I'm only just learning to cook well, but there's no one watching me. When I'm gone, my best ideas will be gone forever.) Thirty years during which I'll use up most of the physical strength I'll have for my whole lifetime, and at the end of which I will start on a period of deteriorating health and strength, with no one coming after me to help me or take care of me.
Of course, that last paragraph isn't interesting. Because I think about that all the time, or have done thinking about it and am getting on with my life. But I practically never think about how most every hour I spend, everything I do with my precious, never-enough time, would not be happening if I had four kids. The friends I spend time with, I wouldn't even know. The skills I've learned and the hobbies I enjoy would never have happened. I would never have seen what a legal career actually looks like. Most of the things I do, and most of the things I love, I would not do. And I wouldn't even know, and I probably wouldn't even miss it.
That's what I know and don't know, what I would have known and not known. But what about the objective? Have my opportunities and experiences been worth enough not to give them up for children? If I had had a bunch of kids and thought I was living the best possible life, would I have been, not just ignorant, but mistaken? Or is my vision twisted when I look with alarm at all that I might not have had? Should I see that all the things I'm passionate about are merely a waste of time?
I just can't look away from my friend, and the specter of thirty lost years.