I was at one of those scary artsy parties. You know, the kind where everyone is thinner and cooler and surely having more sex than you are. I was surveying the crowd from a safe corner when I overheard one woman say to another, “Oh, no. I’m never having kids. I’m a great aunt and I love my nephews. But motherhood? Count me out! I hardly have enough time to get things done as it is!”
This woman looked exactly like the kind of woman you’d expect to say something like this. She was thin and rocking a great hair style. Her shoes were the kind you see those poor American Idol contestants wobble around on and her body definitely looked like a victim of the gym.
She sounded exactly like I did before I had kids.
In my teens, I imagined a lot of possible futures for myself: veterinarian, physician, actress, novelist, travel writer, potter. Not one of those careers included kids. I was the oldest of four children in my family. When my youngest brother was born, I was twelve and my mom was worn out; it fell to me to do a lot of the babysitting. My mom and I both distinctly remember me saying, “Boy, I am never having kids. They are just too much work.”
My fantasies about the future did not grow less colorful in my twenties. I went to college and graduate school. I studied in Spain and taught school in Mexico. I backpacked through southeast Asia and trekked around Nepal.
Then, quite by accident, I got pregnant at the age of 29. I was certainly old enough to know where babies come from. And I was definitely old enough to know that my choices that didn’t have to include 1) marrying the baby’s father, who I had known just a few months, 2) keeping the baby, or 3) having the baby at all.
Oh yes. I knew my choices. I had a master’s degree, after all. But my body and emotions collectively rebelled against my more rational mind. Every cell in my body had decided that motherhood was now going to be my most immediate future.
Fine. I could have a baby and still live my dreams, I decided. How hard could it be to take care of something that weighed little more than a sack of flour? I had been working full time as a public relations executive for a major school district when I discovered I was pregnant—a job I loved—and I was working on a novel. No matter. I could have the baby and keep doing what I was doing. All of it!
Go ahead and laugh. I know you want to, and you would be right: I was, like every first time parent before me, completely clueless about babies and the work involved. If I had known then what I know now, about the sleepless nights and tired back, about the endless worries and time involved in thinking about immunizations and behavior problems and preschool applications and elementary school music concerts and boyfriend woes and driving lessons and college applications and the money, oh, the money involved in raising children, I would have known, as I do know, that yes, you can have it all, but it won’t ever be the way you thought it would.
Having babies is, by far, the worst best choice a woman can make. The worst, because you will never be alone again, or completely free of anxiety, or totally secure in thinking you’ve made the right choices in caring for someone else, because there are so many mistakes you will make along the way. And, oh yeah, trust me, you will make those mistakes. We all do.
It is the best choice, however, because there is no way you can know yourself, or most of the world, as intimately or profoundly as you do when you must be responsible for another person in the way you must be for your children: selflessly, completely, forever. Yes, your children will become independent (if you’re lucky), but there will be a part of you that will always listen for the phone at night, the same part of you that will wish your child had a better place to live or a different partner or a new job or…name it. You will worry, because you will love that person more than you could ever love yourself.
You will read—especially if you are a woman—that the worst economic risk you can take is to have children. Taking time off work for your maternity leave or taking a few years off with small kids at home can definitely be hazardous to your career. Day care costs more than your firstborn’s hospital expenses. If you go the route of private school or your child goes to college, you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars in the name of educating your offspring. Having this financial burden is a killer on your retirement plans. And, if you get divorced or if your partner dies, you will suffer even more financial worries, indignities, and risks.
But you know what? It’s only money. And none of that compares to what your children will teach you about life, love, betrayal, forgiveness, and hope.
Watching your baby smile or learn to pick up Cheerios, helping your toddler take first steps and your first grader brave the school bus, talking to your teens about relationships and college plans is all as exciting as it is exhausting. You are taking those steps with your child. You are entering another person’s world in a way you couldn’t possibly do it otherwise.
Parenthood is an education unsurpassed by anything else. The newspaper accounts of war and starvation and drone attacks will hit your heart in ways they never could before. As a mother, you will become a fierce protector not only of your own children, but of the world’s, because you know firsthand now what innocence and trust look like. You will become a tireless advocate of safety measures for the environment, for our food, for our country.
As a mother, you will believe that the world can be a better place, because you have to believe that your children will have a future. And that means you will take time off from making art or money to pursue the causes that matter to you, whether those causes are theater productions at the elementary school or a presidential election. Your children will inspire you to move out of your comfort zone.
As I watched that young woman make her brave declarations about avoiding motherhood at all costs, I thought two things: “Good for you, sweetie,” and “What a pity.” Because I can’t say that motherhood is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, or the worst choice, without also saying it is the best.