I never wanted to have children. Oh, I liked kids just fine. I had lots of fun babysitting in junior high and high school, and I loved my little sisters. But I wanted to travel and save the world and write. Children were not on the agenda.
People often laughed when I told them this. I was just rebelling, they said. After all, my mother had six children, all girls—it was natural that I would profess the need to do something different with my own life. Besides, I was young. Surely I would change my mind.
I was in college when I met the man I would someday marry. When I told him I did not want children, he just shrugged.
“Who wants kids in college?” he asked.
“No, I mean not now, not ever,” I said.
“That’s ok,” he said.
I was young enough that I believed him.
After we graduated, he asked me to marry him. I said yes.
I had always assumed that women wanted babies, but men just put up with them. It occurred to me during our engagement that many men do actually want children, and it was possible that my fiancé was one of them.
“Do you want children?” I asked him.
He was very quiet for a minute. “Yes,” he said finally.
My heart dropped into my stomach. “This isn’t going to work. I won’t change my mind.”
He smiled and took my hand. “You might. But even if you don’t, I would rather be childless with you than have children with someone else.”
Clearly I wasn’t alone in my stupidity.
A few months later, unable to handle the stress of wedding planning, we eloped to Hawaii. Our parents took that to mean I was pregnant, despite our assurances to the contrary. They were disappointed when, nine months later, a grandchild had yet to make an appearance.
“Oh, well. Maybe next year,” my mother said hopefully.
I rolled my eyes.
Life continued. We traveled, but not as much as I wanted to, and mostly just to South America; money was always a factor. I finished my master’s degree and then, after discovering that I had no intention of being a teacher, enrolled in law school.
“Wow, I’m going to be in school until I’m in my thirties!” I marveled to my husband. He was startled. He suddenly realized he was going to reach an age milestone by the time I graduated. That was the beginning of the end of his complacency towards what my mother called our “childless state.”
During my second year of law school, he became increasingly persistent. I listed my very valid reasons. Travel—even though I knew that if I wanted to travel badly enough, I would just bring the child with me. Save the world, write—my husband pointed out that having a child does not prohibit those things. Mom hair. Worse, mom jeans. He didn’t really have a response to that.
And then there were the deeper fears, the fears I had never before said out loud. I would be a terrible mother. What if I did not love my child? What if my child did not love me? The mother-child bond is supposed to be one of unconditional love, but women in my family had never gotten this quite right. My grandmother lost her husband and eldest daughter to cancer within a year of each other. Although she was a very loving grandmother, she was cold and distant to her remaining daughter after this tragedy, according to my mother. In response, my mother was suffocating in her demands for my affection.
“Tell me why you love me,” she would request from the time I was six years old.
As the lists became longer, my love was offered more and more resentfully. Once she burst into tears when I begrudgingly told her I loved her, while I watched in horrified silence. “I never loved my mother,” she told me. “I’m so glad you love me.” As a selfish and often bratty teenager, I began to doubt that I actually did. Worse, I wasn’t entirely convinced she loved me, either. My mom needed to be needed, and she tied her love to that need. I didn’t need her.
I found, over the years, that it was easier to love her from far away. The more time I spent with her, the more that mother-daughter bond was pushed to the breaking point. I imagine it was the same way with my mother and grandmother. Love is there, but always difficult, and always from a distance.
I can’t say what finally changed my mind. There was no epiphany. At some point, I discovered that I did, in fact, want a child, that I wanted to watch and, yes, assist in a blank slate becoming a wonderful, unique person. I can’t say I accepted my husband’s blind faith that I would be a good mother, that I wasn’t broken, that I did know how to love—but I knew he at least was those things. When I graduated from law school, I was pregnant.
I loved my daughter before she was born, and it only intensified from there. I was exhausted, nursing was harder than I had expected, and being a working mother often left me feeling like I was letting everyone down. And yet, that first year flew by, full of milestones and all-important “firsts.” First smile, first tooth, first word, first Christmas, first birthday. And then an unexpected first: The first time I realized she loved me, too.
She was eighteen months old. My husband was holding her. As I walked by, I paused and kissed her hand. She stopped me and, still in her father’s arms, looked into my eyes, reached out and grabbed my face, a dimpled, starfish-shaped hand on either cheek, and leaned in, emphatically pressing her rosebud mouth to mine. And there it was: Emotion so strong that my chest ached, and I laughed even though my eyes were wet. It was such a simple thing, such a little thing.
It isn’t so hard to love and be loved after all.