If you’d asked me twenty years ago, whether or not I’d have children, the answer would have been an emphatic of course! From as far back as I can remember, I knew that I wanted to have children. Not just one or two, either– I wanted eight of them, preferably all boys. I inherited my love of children from my mom, who never missed an opportunity to hold a baby, squeeze those little sausage legs, or play peek-a-boo while waiting in the check-out line at the grocery store. She was one of 18 children, from a big Italian family, and I always knew I wanted a big family of my own one day.
To say that I love children is like saying fish love the ocean. As a teen, I spent most of my spare time helping out on the play-yard with the kindergarteners, volunteering at the Y teaching children with special needs how to swim, babysitting on weekends (often without pay), and working as a camp counselor. In college, I taught preschool and babysat on weekends. After finishing my BA, I went to grad school to study child development, got my teaching credential, then taught Kindergarten for two years. Children were a part of every facet of my life.
When I was almost thirty, my husband and I decided to have children. We’d been married for three years. We came to this decision with much intention, partly because he was a programmer, and always considered all the consequences before he entered into anything. Some of the factors we considered were: whether we were financially stable, what we could offer children, whether we could afford to have me stay home until they were in Kindergarten. As much as I thought we were making a well-informed decision, I realize now that we hadn’t considered what should have been the most obvious question: would we still want to have children if we had to go it alone?
We are conditioned from early childhood to imagine the perfect family scenario– mom, dad, 2.2 kids, a dog, a white-picket fence. My version of this was that I’d be a stay-at-home mom , my husband would be involved and attentive to our family, and we’d have my doting Italian mother (Nonna to my kids) only two miles away. I’d had fantasies about pregnancy, too– that glow, that gorgeous round belly, people helping with my groceries. It wasn’t long, though, before reality caught up to fantasy in a dark alley and gave it the good beating it deserved.
The disillusionment began somewhere around the sixth week of pregnancy. I came to understand the misnomer of morning sickness, which was not relegated merely to mornings. No– it lasted all day, every day; and whereas for most people, morning sickness subsided after the first trimester, for me lasted five long months. I managed to gain 60 lbs with my first pregnancy and 58 lbs with the next. And that pregnant glow? Ha! What I experienced was more a putrid shade of green. Looking back, I suppose this was the first indication that perhaps having children was not going to be what I had imagined. But I got through the pregnancy, and after nine months of feeling like a bloated cow, I gave birth to a beautiful and healthy baby girl.
Those first few days were as magical as everyone says; all I wanted to do was gaze into my baby’s eyes and hold her close. Then a couple of weeks in, those magical days were replaced by anxious nights, filled with completely irrational thoughts. I was convinced that my precious daughter would get into drugs or have unprotected sex. Even after those initial anxieties subsided, I could never have anticipated all the worries that would accompany having children. In the rolodex of my mind, I filled card after card with every new worry inherent to parenting. But, despite the worries, I enjoyed being a mom. For me, the benefits far outweighed the costs.
I was fortunate enough to have been able to stay home until my daughters were six and four. I’d planned to stay home until they were both in school, but as it turned out, my husband was not happy being married. I think marriage and parenting took a tremendous toll on him. In February of 2006, when divorce was imminent, I took a job as a preschool director in a small school that offered a lot of flexibility. By December, the girls and I found ourselves in our new house without their father, a maze of boxes looming in the living room. Over time, and with my mom’s help, we settled into our new life.
My mom, who lived only two miles away, was a tremendous help. She watched the girls if I needed to run to the store or if I had a meeting. She’d make sure my freezer was stocked with minestrone and sauce. In many ways, having my mom was better than having a husband; she was more helpful and I never felt I had to walk on eggshells with her. But less than two years into my divorce, we learned that my mom had Stage IV colon cancer. The oncologist gave her 6-12 months. The surgeons performed an aggressive resection of her colon and liver. She came to stay with me for a few months while she recovered. The surgeon felt confident that he’d gotten all the cancer, and for a couple of years, it looked as if she might defy the odds. Then, after almost two years of being cancer free, she got the news that her cancer had come back. It was, hands down, the hardest time in my life. On top of being a single mom, I took on the job of being her caretaker. She stayed with us while she recovered from an aggressive surgery, and again at the end when she was housebound and on a morphine drip. I wouldn’t have traded that time with her, but it added another element of challenge to parenting. Somehow, though, I made it through.
If you asked me today if I had to do it all again, would I have kids, there would be no definitive response, rather a long, uncomfortable pause followed by an incredibly uncertain I’m not sure. I have to stop here and qualify this by saying that I have two of the best kids I’ve ever known. If they were not my own kids and I met them at a gathering, I’d be instantly drawn to each of them, and would seek them out as friends. But, here’s the thing– if I had to do it again, what I would change is the mindset I had going into having children. I genuinely thought I was making an informed decision, but the questions I considered barely scratched the surface. I couldn’t possibly have planned for the curveballs that life throws, nor could I have fully appreciated the fact that mothering is relentless. Sleep is scarce, and not just in the early years. As I write, it’s 3:30am. My 14-year-old daughter woke me because she has a fever. Even when I feel I have nothing left to give, somehow I find a way to give some more. And I don’t begrudge doing any of it for my children.
No doubt, I was naive in imagining a perfect little family. In my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined what it would mean to put my own life and creative pursuits on hold for a good ten to twelve years, let alone to do so selflessly, without harboring resentment. When my husband and I thought about having children, despite the fact that we were well aware that roughly 50% of marriages end in divorce, we didn’t consider the real possibility that we might end up divorced, and we most certainly didn’t consider the scenario of parenting without a partner. This was an oversight with consequential repercussions, for us as parents, as well as for our children. Even with the most thoughtful consideration and planning, there are always unforeseen circumstances. I know this to be true with just about everything in life. So why did I think parenting would be any different? I guess it goes back to the house, the white picket fence, the American dream, that mythical perfect family. I wanted it so badly. I tried so hard to create it, to shield my children from every pain and hardship. It took a long while for me to realize that the pain and hardship are essential to developing compassion.
I guess if I could impart a bit of advice to someone on the fence about having children, it would be to ask yourself, in complete honesty: Are you willing and able to parent your children alone, and still live a happy and fulfilled life? The answer does not have to be yes.
Anna DiMartino is a writer, artist, teacher, and mother. Her writing has appeared in Whale Road Review, Silver Birch Press: Learning to Ride, Atlanta Review (Spring, 2016), The Cancer Poetry Project 2; A Year in Ink, Volume 6 (San Diego Writers, Ink Anthology); Serving House Journal: Issues 8, 10 and 12, Steve Kowit: This Unspeakably Marvelous Life, and is forthcoming in Lake Effect. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University and leads a read and critique group for Writer’s Ink. Visit her website at www.annaodimartino.com.
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