Justin Hackworth asked me to write and read something on motherhood for the opening reception of his 2011 30 Strangers exhibit. I was honored by my company: Brooke, Amy, Molly, and Stephanie. I cried a lot, but so did everyone else. A few people who attended asked if I would post what I wrote to my blog and then I did:
I did not want children.
Who would want children? I am the oldest of four and believe me, handling my little brother and sisters was not just annoying, but constant. I had plans, you see, I had dreams. And everyone knows that kids supplant your dreams with the end of your life. No more midnight walks. No more movies in the middle of the day, lazy weekends spent sleeping in, or marathon novel reading. Traveling to Tahiti, Timbuktu, and Hong Kong, too. Plus, hosting a child inside your body? Inside your body. They have to get out...somehow. And what happens if you forget about the child once it’s out? People get really upset at that sort of thing. I once kept an ivy plant alive for almost 18 months--I was handing out no guarantees on children. But something happened one day and I knew I had to have a child. Not in the abstract, “Oh yeah, I’ll be a mom some day” but in the concrete, "I need to start having children." It was a Sunday afternoon and I knew as plain as my then unblemished stomach, we should try to have a baby.
And then I couldn’t have children for a long time. The months, then years, went by and no children came. I read a lot of novels. I slept in a lot. I built the career I thought I always wanted. In the middle of a pre-Christmas snow storm, my first son came and turned everything I thought I knew from the inside, right side out. I would stare at him in the plastic hospital bin and wonder who he was; it’s a strange feeling to love someone without knowing who they are. During the middle of the night I’d hold him in front of me and look into his dark eyes. This backfired one night when I watched his eyes go cross-eyed, then cock-eyed, sending me into a brief, sleep deprivation-induced panic that I had a demon-possessed baby. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t really possessed. At least not at that time. Ask me about the time that he walked, as a 4-year-old, to LaVell Edwards Stadium by himself so that he could go to the college football game. Or the night I went to close the garage door at 10pm and saw a flash of bare white skin as the long-bedded escapee ran naked around the house. My second son arrived at the end of March and the beginning of Spring. My Grinch-heart grew another three sizes, maybe even four. It’s a good thing he was so sweet, so loving and affectionate, because no one ever told me how toilet training would literally stink, especially when it took more than a year. A year. The profound, never ending scatological travails of motherhood. The constant dribble, flow, and stream of juice, spit-up, crushed cereal, and bodily fluids. I don’t know if you can even call yourself a parent until you’ve caught vomit in your hands--or down your shirt, pooling in your brassiere. A daughter arrived on the first day of summer. There’s a moment after you have a baby when you look down and realize, “Hey, that’s MY BABY, I can pick her up whenever I want.” I can hold her all day if I want. I miss her when she’s sleeping. She won’t keep, she’ll grow bigger, stronger, smarter, and push away from me. And based on what I did to my mother when I was a teenager, I have some terrible, but just, things in my future from a tiny bundle, this spirit captured in a wiggling mortal body. Because it’s true that once you have a baby they are always your baby, even when they are yelling back at you, “I am NOT a BABY!”
I heard the other day that Late Night talk show host Jimmy Fallon’s mother still calls him “The baby.” The baby is on TV. The baby has a new movie coming out. It doesn’t matter how old he is, he’ll still be the baby. That makes perfect sense to every mother. Because when you look at your child you can still feel their baby weight in your arms, the nights you spent staring into their eyes, the longer nights when you begged them through the most profound exhaustion known to man outside of a POW camp to please, please, please sleep, the days you spent cleaning, wiping, sorting, scrubbing, holding, hugging, feeding, yelling, yelling louder, and answering the never ending chorus of “MOM. mom. mom. mom. mom.” Who knew? Who knew that you laugh more, cry more, that everything is more when you’re a mother? It’s not that you’re giving up your dreams, it’s that you understand that the dreams you had before were incomplete, a facsimile of a real life. It’s not about you, it’s about what you do, how you serve, how you grow citizens, workers, warriors, and responsible people. That you’re trying, desperately, not to mess up these people, to give them everything they need and not everything they want. So while I didn’t want to be a mother, I don't think I was a real person until I became one.