Tagged on the fence about motherhood

Fearmongering on the Couch: Things My Therapist Told Me About Motherhood (That Maybe Weren’t So Helpful)

I’m sitting on a couch the color of hot dog mustard, three floors up in West Hollywood, glaring at my therapist’s toe cleavage. I’m trying to keep myself from storming out of the office. I’m not a bailer; I’m not a quitter; I haven’t ditched anything since senior year of high school. Well, false—that’s why I’m fighting the impulse to flee my session. I’m toying with bailing on a belief I’ve held my entire life: the ardent belief that I-don’t-want-kids, that I’ll never be a mother.

Like much ardency, my ambivalence about children was nurtured by example. My mother had put a career as a court reporter on hold to raise me and my siblings. “I never saw myself as someone with kids,” she told me recently. But she had had them, three of them. She’d attempted to give us everything and, since everything is unattainable, of course she’d fallen short.

I didn’t want to set myself up for failure, I thought subconsciously, and, consciously I thought I didn’t want to sacrifice my body, and aspirationally I thought I didn’t want to compromise my career and finally I thought I just didn’t really care. Soon, having kids was like deciding what to make for dinner: alternately of monumental importance or so pesky I’d just as well eat popcorn.

Still, I know others—especially medical professionals—aren’t so cavalier about the conception question. That’s why I’m surprised my therapist is so instantly down on the prospect when I broach it in our latest session. Somehow, this topic is so anathema, she’s stringing together more words than she has in any of our previous conversations.

“People don’t think about the possibilities,” she says. “They think it’s going to be this sweet, healthy baby, and you have to prepare yourself. What if you have a baby with autism? What if you have a blind baby?”

I nod, mouth tight. I revisit what I’ve told her so far:

  • My husband for-sure wants a kid; I think I could be happy with a kid.
  • My husband and I believe our lives would be conducive to raising a kid. We’re lucky. We have flexible schedules. Zero debt. A nearby campus where either of us could escape to write.
  • My husband and I do wonder, though, how anyone knows when the time is right. How to study the tea leaves of life and decide to decide …

That’s what I asked her, I think, as she shakes her head: how do people know?

“Would you have child care?” she drills. “Live in or drop off? Would you be able to afford it? Who would take care of the kid if they got sick?”

“We’ve talked about a lot of these things,” I say, frustrated—and concerned. Her business card says she does marriage counseling. What kind of blazes is this woman dragging couples into and how irreversibly burnt do they come out?

I try another tack: optimism and blunt honesty. “I’m afraid about losing my time to write, but I think, realistically, that wouldn’t happen.”

“Well you have to spend some time with the kid,” my therapist says, perhaps operating under the misconception that people without kids don’t think through that hypothetical alternate reality. (I’m sure there are people who’ve never imagined a crib in their living room, but that’s not me.) “Even if it’s with a nanny all day, you’ll see that kid every day, every night, and they’re going to know if you resent them. They’ll be able to tell. And then they’re going to grow up and hate your guts. And your husband’s going to resent you for ruining your relationship with your child.”

Of course I don’t want that, I tell her, but inside I begin to worry. Maybe I’m too demanding a patient, I consider. I want to be furnished with advice, not doomsaying. There’s a worse possibility, too, one that terrifies me: maybe I’m so unfit to be a parent that this scree is my therapist’s not-subtle attempt to communicate BAD IDEA TURN AROUND ABORT MISSION.

“I mean, of course,” I say, when she asks if this is an issue I want to work on. I hear myself flail. “I could see having a family being really nice when the kid is an adult. When we’re older and, you know, we want a connection to youth.”

The noise-machine in the next office burbles quiet.

“What do you think?” I say, finally. “Am I wrong to be considering this?”

“You sound very selfish and cold,” she says flatly. “I don’t think these are reasons to start a family, so yes, I would say you’re wrong. It doesn’t sound like you want to start a family out of love. This just sounds like a cold, calculated decision. We’ve got one more minute.”

I leave the office and postpone my usual call to my husband, the one where I ask if he wants me to bring anything home. I feel riled up and slightly haunted, like I’m dragging around—and selfishly neglecting—the ghost of the baby I could potentially bring into this world. As I head to my car, I glance in the Thai nail salon, where a pregnant woman roosts in a leather pedicure throne. I see two men pushing a stroller. There’s the rest of life, too, shop windows for a marijuana dispensary and an adult bookshop and an oyster bar, but I keep expecting to see my reflection augmented, me plus that ignored ghost infant.

I drive home, very carefully, very slowly, as though there’s human cargo and not dry cleaning in the backseat.

It takes me two hours to tell my husband what I’ve heard from my therapist. We’re at the kitchen table.

“Your therapist hardly knows you,” my husband says, when I’m too upset to eat dinner. When I say I’m too selfish to deserve to live; that I just want to quit life.

“She’s a professional,” I say. “She’s using her objective judgment.” I don’t really believe her, but I’ve been obsessing about her judgment—YOU ARE SELFISH. Maybe this is how it would feel to truly want a child, I think, to move from minute to minute thinking BABY BABY BABY. I wonder if there will ever be a time when I brood over sweet potato fries thinking, YOU ARE A MOTHER.

“Isn’t she supposed to be supportive?” he says. “Why isn’t she pointing out all the ways that having a family could improve your life? It’s not just a chore, you know. Plenty of people will tell you that their children bring them unquantifiable joy.”

I concede. I think about how my therapist would read this situation: she’d think my husband is trying to get me to change my mind definitively about having kids. Wrong. She’s wrong, too, about what it means to critically examine all aspects of a choice as life-changing as whether or not to begin a family. It’s difficult enough to move beyond ambivalence—no one needs a megaphone for their self-doubt. But I see that the dangerous thing about an ardent belief or a conviction is how it locks you into a position; it forces you to become a quitter instead of someone who evolves.

The next day, I call my therapist’s office and cancel all future appointments. I would’ve done the same thing, my mother says when I tell her. Sure, I’m no more decided about children than I was twenty-four hours ago, but one thing is certain: I am ready to embrace the thrills and mysteries of what it might mean to be a quitter.

JoAnna Novak is the author of I Must Have You, a novel, and Noirmania, a book-length poem, forthcoming in 2018. Her creative nonfiction has appeared widely, in publications including The New York Times, Salon, Runner’s World, Lit Hub, Catapult, and The Rumpus. She is a founding editor of Tammy, an independent chapbook press and literary journal. 

 

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Playing Mom

From the Editors: In this essay, recent college graduate SJ Enloe reflects on how a 19-year age difference between her and her little brother causes her to think carefully about motherhood.

“Mom, can I have some chocolate milk?”

I stare at Isaac, who looks puzzled for a moment then giggles.

“Sarah, can I have some chocolate milk?” I nod and grab the Ovaltine.

“I called you mom,” he snickers.

It’s not uncommon for my brother to call me mom. After a few years of trying, my mom discovered she was pregnant a month shy of her 40th birthday. I was 18-years-old and just finishing my first year of college. My sister and I had no idea our mom and step-dad had been trying to have a baby, so her pregnancy came as a complete shock.

We tagged along for her 18-week ultrasound so the whole family could be there to find out his gender. Soon after, one of my aunts suggested that I throw my mom’s baby shower. I spent that summer driving around buying favors, decorations, and the like, all the while telling my mom I was going out with friends or just buying new clothes. I organized family members and friends to help out and surprise my mom, and it all came together perfectly.

My brother was born on November 14, 2012, a little more than a month after my 19th birthday. I was there to witness his birth (as much as I tried to look away) and cut his umbilical cord. I like to think it was that moment that my brother and I became inseparable.
Before my brother was born, I spent most of my time in my room, barely seeing my family – despite living under the same roof. Now I’m almost always playing with toy cars or sitting with him watching whichever Peanuts DVD is his favorite that week.

Though I sometimes find myself forgetting I’m not his parent, I also frequently forget my age. Playing board games and going along with the latest game he’s made up are my favorite past-times. Sometimes, if the TV has been left on, I’ll sit alone watching Curious George or Sesame Street.

We often look at toddlers crying over silly little things and laugh, but taking a little time to play along with my brother helps to show me that my problems are just as silly and laughable.

In those moments when I feel like I’m his mother, I contemplate whether or not I actually want to be a mother. My fiancé and I talk about it fairly often, and we’re both on the fence. Until the last few months, he’s never really wanted kids. For much of my life, I operated under the assumption that I was supposed to be a mother. I knew it was my choice, but became afraid to explore that choice. It’s a huge decision to make and there’s so much that goes into it, and I’m afraid of making the wrong choice. My brother, however, forces me to have that discussion with myself.

In moments when my brother is bratty and acting up, I immediately push the thought of motherhood from my mind. On several occasions I’ve texted my mom, “your son’s being a terror, and I’m never having children.” Then there are moments when we’re cuddled on the couch, and he’s being sweet as can be, giving lots of hugs and kisses and being much better behaved than usual, and I think “this isn’t so bad.”

I have some time before I make any decision on the subject, but I’m glad I have some first-hand experience in mothering to help me make a more informed decision. Until then I’ll continue making chocolate milk and playing mom.

Enloe headshotS.J. Enloe is a recent graduate of Westfield State University, who enjoys writing and walking into walls;  she can’t avoid it, so she’s learned to live with it. You can read more from her on her website or at The So-Called Right Track.

 

Choosing My Choices and Stuff

From the editors: in this week’s essay, adventurer Ada Kenney takes a humorous look at pregnancy loss and being on the fence about motherhood.

“Everything happens for a reason,” say stupid people, in a world where there are starving orphans, kicked puppies, and Justin Bieber. I usually respond to their cliche with my own: “I’m sure you mean well.” Reasons are innate, but lessons are created as they are learned, so instead of looking for the reason implanted in traumatic and unnecessary events, I try to draw a lesson. At least that way I’m in charge.

It was Wednesday, and I was working. While struggling with a free downloadable worksheet that refused to be downloaded, saved, printed, or copied and pasted, the thought sprang into my mind that I was supposed to have gotten my period around Christmas. I remembered packing for my pilgrimage to my parents’ house and noting that I’d have to buy tampons when I got there. In all the holiday cheer, I had forgotten to note that I hadn’t needed them. I’m pretty sure the clock in my classroom slowed to a halt as I waited for dismissal.

I had never bought a pregnancy test before. Usually a comparison shopper to the point of neurosis, I immediately chose a two-pack of the only brand whose commercials I hadn’t hated. When I took it to the register, along with an Arizona Iced Tea, the cashier told me, “Be well.” I stared at her, trying to divine her intent, and then left, confused, panicking. What could she mean by this? It was weeks before I found out that it was a corporate slogan she was required to say to every customer.

In the bathroom, waiting: not me. Not this. Not now. And not with him.

But it was. Faint but positive.

He texted while I was on the phone with my best friend, numbly saying all the same things as all the other women who’ve gotten this same surprise. He suggested dinner at our favorite restaurant. I accepted, always having been one to get things over with. The sooner he arrived at my house, the sooner I could tell him and not be alone with it.

Divorced, he already had three kids, not a single one planned. As a veteran of this conversation, he reacted with impressive stoicism until I confessed that this was the last thing I wanted. We both assured each other that this wouldn’t change anything between us, that this was nothing, it was a blip. On the way to the restaurant, relief bubbled between us until we were positively buoyant over the kebabs.

The next morning at 5:45, I took the other test. I knew, the way that you know these things in your thirties, that pregnancy tests are more accurate first thing in the morning. All of your friends are trying to get pregnant now, so you know this without ever having tried to find out, just like you know about perineal massage and meconium and diaper blowouts. The test was positive. Strongly, solidly positive.

At work, I asked a coworker to watch my classroom so I could run to the ladies’ room between first and second period. And there was blood. I gasped out loud. “This is some prank, uterus!” I felt like yelling. “Way to scare me!” I shook my fist at it. In response, it cramped.

Back in my classroom, the cramps intensified. I’ve always been kind of a jerk about period pain. I go running during my period, I would say to other women. I go snowboarding. I go to the beach. You can’t just give in and lie down. Go kick biology’s ass! In karmic retribution, biology kicked mine. My momentary elation in the bathroom became ridiculous. Of course this was no period. This was a miscarriage.

Somehow I survived the teaching portion of my day, white-knuckling the desks as I bent over to inspect student work, leaning against the bookcase as I addressed the room. The students left and I collapsed on the carpet of my classroom. Sweating through my teacherly cardigan, I made a desperate phone call to my primary care provider, whose receptionist told me to call 911. Even in my haze of panic and pain, I knew I couldn’t afford to pay for an ambulance ride, so I called the only person possible.

Romantic comedies will have informed you that nothing is more clarifying to a relationship’s status than a positive pregnancy test. They are wrong. It is the emergency room visit that is the true test. In the waiting room, he told me about the kidney stones he had once, so that I would know that he knew what this was like. We sat without touching or looking at each other. When they called my name, he escorted me to the desk, and then stayed in the waiting room.

It’s a frightening thing to be a confident, adventurous person and suddenly be completely at the mercy of strangers in scrubs. Although they gave me some pregnancy-safe painkillers and the pain began to abate, I was still helpless as only fear can make a person. Was it ectopic? Was I going to die? Was I going to be able to pay this bill? I once moved to a foreign country where I didn’t speak a word of the language, and went to a coed public bath; here I was unable to bear being seen by a student nurse because he was a man. I went camping alone, even after seeing that movie where James Franco cuts off his arm, and here I was cringing at the sight of blood. Enduring a catheter, a blood draw, a transvaginal ultrasound, and worst of all, the kindhearted congratulations and comfort of every staff member I encountered, all for the sake of a baby I didn’t want, I lost the shape of my self and became a whimpering blob.

After five hours, I hobbled, bloblike, to the waiting area, where he was reading NBA.com on his phone on the hospital’s free wifi. He looked up. “Let’s go,” I said, and walked away.

In the car, I explained what the nurse practitioner had told me. Blood and urine tests had been positive for pregnancy. But there had been nothing on the ultrasound, although it could be too early to see yet. I didn’t mention what I had seen just before the ultrasound. In the toilet. It would be kindest to call it “tissue.” I would have to go back for another blood test in three days’ time.

“So we just spent five hours there to find that out?”

Like I said, clarity.

Coworkers called and emailed to ask how I was, and I ducked them. What do you say? “Well, I might still be pregnant, or maybe not. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess!”

Three days of couch and Netflix later, I wasn’t. I returned to work with a brisk none-of-your-business tone to my “thank you for your concern”.

Voice mail has never been my forte. Speaking into a void and knowing I’m being recorded is apparently my kryptonite. At the beep, I turn into a babbling moron with no awareness of social niceties or normal human speech patterns. But no message I’ve ever left has been more awkward than, “Hello, Planned Parenthood, I will not be needing my appointment on the 29th because I have had a miscarriage.” It’s like the setup of a sick joke. But worst of all, it robbed me of the chance to choose whether I would go through with it. I wasn’t a proud, bold feminist choosing her choice and keeping the government out of her body, but I wasn’t a proud, bold New Woman discovering the glory and power of motherhood either. I was just empty. I hadn’t even known I was a vessel.

Everything happens for a reason, idiots say. Find your lesson, I say. But what could I learn from this? I could live in fear of my body and its functions, building a impregnable castle of mistrust around myself. But hermitage isn’t for me, and risk is far too attractive. I could decide not to have sex again until marriage, but then I would have to find and marry a man who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, and they all seem to be really interested in the word “dominion.”

I never planned to have children, but I never planned not to. I figured it would happen if it happened, and if it wasn’t meant to be, it wouldn’t. As it turns out, this is like going to the grocery store, hungry, without a list. You grab whatever looks good, thinking that in this way, you’ll be fulfilling your desires and really living, instead of what is sustaining, what is vital, what could possibly be your last meal. You overspend and end up with junk food and random luxuries, because YOLO! But since you do, in fact, only live once, maybe a list would’ve been better. It may be as risky to admit you want to find love as it is to move to a country where you don’t speak the language, and it may be as daring to admit you feel joy listening to a baby giggle as it is to snowboard your cramps away.

And if you can’t find everything on your list, that’s okay. At least you looked.
AdaAda Kenney is the pseudonym of a lonely liberal in the Bible Belt. She enjoys the great outdoors, microbrews, creativity, and anonymity. She still hasn’t decided about motherhood; maybe she’ll adopt from the next big trendy country.

 

 

 

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