You have every reason to pause. The movies show frazzle-haired, postpartum women moody on hormones and sobbing with sore nipples. They show dads elbow-deep in poop, wrestling with diaper tape. Also everyone, it seems, is stepping on the porcupine-like stabbings of small toys. (Always, always stepping on toys.) And I’m not even here to tell you that the movies are wrong. I’m pretty sure my husband’s elbows have never known the consistency of poop (unless he’s got a story from high school that I don’t know about), and I for one escaped the postpartum emotional roller coaster (or, at the very least, my normal state of being is already so moody that postpartum made little difference). But what those cartoonish movie-depictions are trying to get at is a profound sense of upheaval. Of life as you know it, turned upside down.
And that’s because when you have a kid, the center spoke around which your whole life once turned—your self—is now replaced by something else—your child.
And I’m not going to lie. Despite the romantic picture above, this can be painful. Painful in the way that sucked-raw nipples and gashed feet might only metaphorically capture.
So yes, this could be a reason not to have kids. For decades, you’ve been the center of your world. And not in a bad way. In a perfectly reasonable and good way. You’ve woken up in the morning and thought, “Gee, after work, maybe I’ll hit the gym. Or the grocery store. And this weekend, maybe I’ll visit an ashram and try to realize enlightenment. Or watch a reality TV marathon.” Whatever. Sure you had limits. You had bills to pay and maybe family dramas to handle. Grandparents died, maybe parents fell ill. You struggled in college, or graduate school, or you never felt like you truly belonged. I’m not saying your life has been a cake-walk, or that you never had to think about others.
I’m saying that, when you woke, your first thought was probably about your own needs. Whether you had to pee. How many times you could hit the snooze before getting up for work. Stuff like that. And beyond that, you might have even thought about your wants. I certainly did.
When my daughter was born, I was woken up every two hours by the nurse on duty, and told to try to feed my baby. She was a writhing 4-pounder, with a mouth the size of a quarter, and I was to offer her my breast, which she screamed at like deep inside it she saw the prophecies of an approaching apocalypse. I forced her face to my boob and she wailed. She would not “latch,” as they say.
So the nurse then wheeled a breast pump to the bedside, a machine with clear tubes that attached to clear funnels that I then held to my breasts for twenty minutes, as they sucked and sucked like vicious, very unromantic, very bad and very plastic lovers. It was midnight, or it was 2:30 am, or it was 5 am, and I had just squeezed a person out of my vagina, and before that had endured … oh hell, I won’t be the kind of woman who goes into the exact pitch and pain of labor, because this is not about the pain of labor, which is painful yes, but not the point. So there I sat, having just endured labor, having not slept more than two hours straight, with my nipples being sucked through the funnels of the breast pump, watching a whole lotta nothing and then a few specks of yellow fluid drip pathetically into the bottles, while a nurse snuggled my newborn in a hospital chair and fed her formula from a bottle.
What did I need? I needed sleep. I needed, probably, another ice pack. I could have used a glass of water. I needed sleep I needed sleep I needed sleep. Instead, I was tied to a machine which attempted to suck from me the nutrients that someone else needed.
My point: the center of my universe was shifting. I didn’t even know her well. My love for my baby was a fuzzy thing I sensed like one of those uber-soft polyester blankets had been cast around the two of us. But my love hadn’t yet manifested in the physical things, like it has now—the sweet smell of her all clean and newly diapered, the honey brown swirl of her cowlick, the dazzled smile when I dance to MIA. These things did not exist. What existed was a weight and a length and a head circumference (all of which, if you read previous blog posts, you know was dire and concerning for doctors), and a name and a certain kitten-like cry, demanding. She needed, she needed, she needed. I barely knew her, and she demanded all of me. And more. More than I knew I had.
It was brutal. I do not mean to say that I lost it, that I had a meltdown or wondered why I had agreed to this. I was too tired and too delirious to have lost it, to have formed much of any thought at all. I was riding a wave of her need.
Within days, I noticed that, by necessity, my first thought in the morning was not my own needs—To pee? To snooze? To swig some water? No, it was this baby. Hungry? Gassy? Too hot? Too cold? In need of a tighter swaddle? If she was okay, then I was okay. I could go back to sleep. By necessity, I had to think of her first.
The details of the story have changed, of course. The hospital grade breast pump is a faint memory, and she eventually developed an interest in my boobs enough that she’d pant at the sight of the nursing pillow. Now she doesn’t even nurse at all. Now her dad can do midnight feedings. It is awesome. It is so supremely awesome.
But in many ways, the story is the same. Her needs often trump mine. If my life is a spinning wheel, she competes with me for that center. Perhaps we take turns. But those first days represented a new way of thinking, a new way of interacting with the world, one that has and will continue to thread through my life. Here’s another example: six weeks after, I went for my first jog. I saw a “wisher,” those white fluffy things that float through the air in July. I grabbed it, and instinctively, and for the first time in my life, I made a wish for my daughter. Not for me.
I don’t know if this sounds enticing to you, or just terribly depressing. Bear with me. I haven’t actually gotten to my point just yet. My point is this: There are a hundred reasons, really lovely feel-good reasons, to have a kid. They are cute. Especially when they are sleeping. They give humorous wet kisses before they learn to pucker. They might find you nearly as funny as you find Tina Fey, and you don’t even have to do very much to make them laugh. Just lift them into an airplane. Or hang them upside down by their feet. Or fart on their belly. No, don’t do that. Also, their hands and feet are soft and miniature. They become the adoration of every stranger and acquaintance you see, thus alleviating you from that painful “What should we all talk about” situation. (Yes, I highly recommend babies for the socially introverted.)
But here’s, I think, a very big reason to have a kid, one that might run counter-intuitive to all your weighing and family-planning and pro-and-con-listing. They will rock your world. Turn it upside-down. Turn you upside-down, shaking your totally understandable self-focused thinking out like change from your pockets. They will even boil you down to the primitive, leaving you believing that a good day is simply a day showered before noon. In other words, the difficulty of a child is, at least as far as this fairly amateur mother can tell, the very reason to have a child.
It hurts. This change. But I think that, if you feel the calling, it is good.
Now, dear friend, perhaps you’re leaning away from kids. You’re thinking, My God, I just don’t think this parenting road is for me. If so, I fully support you on that! I do not wish this kind of life-rupture on the seriously kid-resistant. I think it’s imperative that you discern whether or not you “have the calling.” Parenting is not for everyone, and life will have plenty of ways of turning you upside down, of shaking out the coins in your pocket. Also, if you feel life isn’t doing a good enough job of this, there are monasteries you can enter. Really rigorous Zen monasteries, where you are made to live without heat or sex, and with very little sleep. My husband entered one. He can give you tips.
But I think losing the very thing that we soon-to-be parents are often freaked out to lose—our independence, our island-like self-reliance—is actually one of the rich gifts of parenthood. It is, in some ways, a relief to make a wish for another person, and to feel that her wish is more important than mine. Had I read that sentence pre-motherhood, the feminist in me would have gasped, but I’m not talking about a subordinate, “I’m just a mom–my needs and wants aren’t important” kind of thinking. I’m talking about a deep compassion that breaks a heart open, sets it throbbing something fierce for another, in the best and achiest of ways. I’m talking about, not an eye on one’s past—finally, not an eye on one’s past, on one’s own childhood as the reference point, the narrative touchstone, the central story that guides one. But instead, an eye on the horizon, on the future, on someone else’s childhood and how you will shape that person’s life and, consequently, those whom that person touches. Parenting feels like a massive, wild, difficult and delightful upgrade. For me, it has felt like “Life, 2.0.” If you’re open to that, I highly recommend it.