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I Can’t Believe It: I forgot to Have Children
Pain Grieger- University of New Mexico -1989
I look back on my teenage years through windowpane stockings; I peer through fishnet
hose at the girl I was. My hair is ironed straight, long and parted razor-sharp down the middle. A vivid icy blue shades my eyes; my lips and nails are frosted white. The world is kaleidoscope-crazy paisley print. When life is simple, it’s Young Rascals and Moody Blues and Cream. When life gets complex, it’s Bobby Kennedy and Eleanor Rigby and Martin Luther King.
I’m madly in love with Ryan Blaine. We’re both in Mr. Shaefer’s math class. I know Ryan likes me too because he goes out of his way to torment me. I stare at fuzzy formulas in my math book, but I think about Ryan. When we get to high school, he’ll ask me to go steady. I’ll wear his chain bracelet and letter sweater, and we’ll go to the prom. We’ll get engaged, and after we graduate we’ll get married. He’ll get a job, and I’ll have babies. Our kitchen will be yellow. When I remember the past, the kitchen is always yellow.
That was almost twenty years ago. I have the yellow kitchen now, but I never had Ryan, and I never had babies. If having a man means marrying one, I never had that either, though I came close a couple of times. There was Clark Savage, who wanted me to homestead the wilds of British Columbia, eat moose meat in winter, and bear our children on the dirt floor of a log cabin. We had books showing us how to make goat cheese and how to get thermal energy from chicken droppings. We decided that natural childbirth couldn’t be much more complicated.
I thought I would marry Jess Mitchell. In fact, we talked about it for eight years, until we both realized it was just that-talk. We had talked about where we might live, what kind of house we might build, and I guess we even talked about having children. The part about children was a lot more vague, since we never really got straight on cities or houses or wedding plans.
Suddenly, I’m past thirty. Funny, but about the time l feel grown up enough to even consider having children, they tell me I’m past my best child bearing years. Not only am I past prime, but my biological clock is nearing the midnight hour.
How did this happen? I’m pressured to make a decision, but I need more time to think. I go back and forth like the target duck at a carnival shooting game.
If I don’t make my own decision, time will choose for me. A time will come when having children is no longer an option. I think of Eleanor Rigby, and I search my heart once more.
Kids don’t fit my lifestyle. First of all, I’m not married, and current statistics warn me not
to get overly optimistic. There’s some jerk statistician at some ivy-league college who’s telling me that unmarried, college-educated women between the ages of thirty and thirty-five have only a twenty percent chance of ever marrying. After you reach thirty-five, your chances drop to Live percent, and, God forbid, if you’re still a spinster at forty, you have a better chance of dying in a plane crash.
Granted, marriage would be a nice prerequisite to having children, but let’s say I never get married. If I still wanted to have kids, I could do it alone. Of course, the logistics of finding the willing donor of a good set of genes might be challenging, but it could be done.
It’s really my financial status that limits my options, even more than singledom. I’m working twenty hours a week and putting myself through college. I’m barely surviving. I eat chocolate MaltoMeal for dinner. Would this be any way to raise a child?
It’s not going to change for a long time, either. I won’t have my bachelor’s degree in psychology for another year. A bachelor’s degree in psychology will qualify me to make minimum wage. I’ll need a doctorate, and in my field that’s looking at another five or six years. I’ll be forty-plus by the time I finish school. That doesn’t bother me, but it’s hardly the best age to become a first-time mother.
Of course, at that point I could always adopt an older child. That’s it! I’ll adopt. How about a boy? Yes, a boy … somewhere between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five.
My cousin April joined the navy, and they sent her to boot camp in South Carolina. Fine, except she had to leave husband Blake and their fifteen-month-old baby in Reno. Last weekend Blake brought Erin to visit. I went to see them over at my aunt’s house. Erin looks just like April, with grey-green eyes and fine curls of fiery red hair. She has April’s hot temper, too. I’ll grant that it’s pretty unsettling for a child to wake up one morning and mom’s gone and doesn’t come back. But all that evening Erin raged like an ocean storm, howling and red-faced. I left congratulating myself on having passed on motherhood.
I went back a few nights later. Erin was better adjusted to her new surroundings. I laid down on the floor and pretended not to notice her. Pretty soon, she came up and pulled shyly on my foot. I smiled at her, and she smiled back. I’ll never understand the power of a child’s innocent smile, but I felt like the clouds had parted and the sun was shining on my soul.
She worked her way up to lay on my chest, wrapping her arms around my neck. I rubbed her back, and her eyes grew heavy, then closed. “You look like her mother,” Blake explained in a whisper.
I looked hard into the little face so close to mine. And I wondered, would my baby look like you?
People are talking these days about something called bodymind. They say that a person’s mind and body are so closely linked that one can’t function without affecting the other. Well, my body seems to have a mind of its own.
Like yesterday. I’m doing my laundry, sorting it into piles. As I unwad the eighty-seventh un paired sock, a voice centered at about my belly button speaks to me. It says, “Let’s have a baby.”
I throw the sock into a laundry basket and heave a great sigh. “Let’s not go through this again,” I say, focusing my gaze on my midriff. “You’re just a bunch of impulsive, instinctual bluff, powered by biological drive, and frankly, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life raising kids just to satisfy your momentary madness.”
“Let’s have a baby,” it replies.
I’m a little unnerved by its unreasonable insistence, afraid that should I lower my guard my carefully planned future might be undone by this organic simpleton.
“Traitor!” I hiss. I’m a bit awed, too, by the power of this “bodymind.” If I refuse to indulge its desires, is it possible it might press on toward motherhood without me? I can just see the article in some future issue of the New England Journal of Medicine: “Meiotic Division of Human Egg Cell Facilitated by Wishful Thinking Alone.” Or in the National Enquirer: “Unfertilized Woman Gives Birth: Is This the Second Coming?”
“Oh, damn,” J mutter, adding Oxydol to the load. “You just can’t win sometimes. You just can’t win.”
I met Motherhood incarnate last Tuesday morning as she pulled out of Safeway’s parking lot. She drove a beige subcompact Ford station wagon; one hubcap was missing. A baby, gender unknown, was strapped into a child’s seat next to her. A little girl was leaning over the back seat, digging into one of the bags of groceries that filled the rear of the car. Her older brother gestured excitedly at the McDonald’s across the street.
The woman’s face bore a haggard, resigned look. Our gazes locked for an instant as I turned into the parking lot. I felt a momentary paralysis, as if I were looking into the eyes of a medusa. I drove on, grateful that my heaviest responsibility that morning was to remember to buy Alpo Livers- naps for my dog. ‘
I have great difficulty envisioning myself as a mother. I can see myself flying a sailplane. I can see myself writing the great American novel. I can see myself climbing Mount Whitney, or running an ice cream store, or entering a Tibetian monastery. But I cannot see myself as Johnny’s mom.
My friends can’t either. I had a Christmas party and invited Holly, my highschool girlfriend. She came with her nine-month-old son. He was dressed in a festive red sleeper, and I slung him over my shoulder as I introduced Holly to the rest of the group. Laughter and cries of “Get out the cam era!” told me that my image was a bit leeward of Madonna and child.
Still, I think motherhood is what you make it. If you let go of the stereotype of a woman whose identity is totally consumed by the demands of her family, you’ll find examples of women who have children yet maintain a strong individuality. Take my friend Candy, for instance. Mother hood hasn’t kept her from the nontraditional sport of female bodybuilding. Childbirth twice over didn’t keep her from winning a state bodybuilding championship, either. Of course, traditional motherhood has its benefits, too. Candy makes the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever tasted.
Perhaps motherhood needs an exciting new image. All mothers know that parenting is a challenge, but if trophies could be awarded, maybe the rest of us would be more interested in playing the game. Motherhood could be broken down into
categories and age divisions.
Category IV might be women with maids and nannies. This category wouldn’t be much more challenging than not having children at all, but we would need a category to elicit yuppie participation. Perhaps Category III could be women with newborns. Category II might be single mothers. A mother who survived the rigors of Category I competition-raising teenagers-would be awarded a gold medal.
I want to be a winner. Being a mother shouldn’t have to mean you’re the backstop in someone else’s game. And women are beginning to realize that mothering isn’t the only game in town. We’re realizing that we can be mothers and business women, or mothers and pilots, or mothers and artists. It’s this recognition that we aren’t just someone’s wife or mother that shows us who we are.
Rene was my cycling partner several years back. I remember the first time I saw her. Someone had invited her to ride with our Saturday morning group. She drove up in a chrome and silver BMW and pulled a fushia twelve-speed Tomasi racing frame out of the trunk. Rather than dressing in traditional black cycling shorts and jersey, she was outfitted in a pale metallic pink body stocking that looked as if she’d painted it on. From a distance she looked stark naked. Not that she looked bad. Far from it. She had a traffic stopping body. Her hair was long and black and pulled back from her face. Her large, widely spaced eyes gave her an exotic look, sleepy and erotic at the same time.
I took all this in at a glance. I felt certain that although she might have all the right equipment, she surely couldn’t ride. Fifty miles later I was dog-tired, and Rene was still waiting to get her pulse to a training level. I grudgingly granted her my respect.
In fact, we became fast friends. Our lifestyles were similar: we were both single and unattached, and cycling was the center of our universe. One Saturday morning Rene arrived at my house and said, “I ate a whole cake last night. We have to ride to Moriarty to work it off.” Moriarty is thirty-five miles east through the mountains. We clipped our kangaroo-leather cycling shoes into the pedals, and we didn’t unclip them until seventy miles and five hours later.
Outside of cycling, our interests were similar and reducible to one word: men. She was looking for a wealthy, sophisticated type. I was just looking.
She found hers first. Ironically, Michael was poor. But he was an artist, and to her that was some compensation. Rene and I remained good friends, though somehow things seemed different. A few months later she was pregnant, which explained why she’d been throwing up on our interval training rides.
She and Michael were ecstatic. I felt a sense of doom. Was this the same woman who could talk for hours about the benefits of sew-up tires over clinchers, or about the perfect gear ratio for a racing freewheel? Now we talked about the best colors for a nursery. She poured as much energy into her pregnancy as she ever did climbing thirteen-thousand-foot Bobcat Pass on a bicycle.
A few months later Rcn6 was no longer riding. We began seeing less of each other. I got a shower invitation in the mail. It was a huge affair. My present stood out from among the pile of mint green baby blankets, pastel yellow sleepers, and fuzzy stuffed bears. I had gotten her the smallest hardshell baby helmet that I could find. It was bright red with Snoopy stickers all over it. Rene walked over to where I was sitting. She smiled down at me around her huge belly and said, “I just can’t wait to start riding again.” But I knew it would never be the same.
Jet Elliott Harris was born on a cold, blustery day in early January. Rene called me from the hospital, and I went to see her newborn. She was exhausted but radiant. Jet was a jewel. His black hair shone like obsidian. As I held this new life in my arms, I realized that his birth signified a new life for Rene, too. I was happy for her, but as I left my footsteps rang hollow along the empty hospital corridor.
I’ve seen Rene once or twice since Jet was born. She’s busy and so am I. She had a birthday last month. One year, before she met Michael, I bought her a slinky black swimsuit trimmed in leather fringe. It was a size three, and she wore it in Las Vegas a few weeks later.
This year I had intended to remember her birthday. We don’t talk much anymore, but I was going to send her a card. Somehow, though, the day slipped by, and I didn’t even call her. I could have sent a belated birthday card, but I didn’t.
I guess I just forgot