Cassie, when you proposed this series of posts—well, the truth is, I was worried. There’s nothing that seems to make a comments section ignite like someone pontificating on motherhood. And I’m embarrassed to say, I’m not quite sure if my—our—decision to have kids had much to do with science, beyond that biology might have conquered all.
There wasn’t a particular moment that settled it. What I remember was that at some point, the if in the ongoing conversation between my husband and me turned into a cautious when.
This shift happened right around the time I turned 30. The timing was perfect. I could just tell people—I imagine I have told people, people who I didn’t really want to get into it with—that it was that rhythmic ticking, insistent as the clock inside the crocodile that trailed Captain Hook in hopes of his other hand and everything attached.
But I’m guessing that doesn’t help you much. At least, when I was trying to think about what life with kids might be like, and how to make a decision about that life, that’s not what I wanted to know.
This was not a decision I made rationally. The truth is (and I can’t believe I’m admitting it in front of you) it mostly had to do with feelings, with memories. Even with poetry.
One of these feelings: how loved I felt as a kid. I always knew my parents were crazy about my brother and me. My dad, in particular—he was 50 when he met my mom, and at that point, I don’t think he thought he would ever have a family.
I couldn’t figure out exactly what we were doing to be so delightful, but even at the time, I knew he thought we had changed his life for the better.
I guess another way to talk about how I made the decision is to tell you about a poem I once read. I can’t remember the name of it, or who wrote it, and I might even be misremembering what it’s about. But in my memory, there is a stadium filled with all of the lives that a person could have led, and they are all sitting there, watching the life you’ve chosen play out the rest of the game.
I first read the poem when I was in Spain, and realized that the doctor that I thought I was going to be needed to step off the grass and into the stands, to watch.
And later, as my husband and I thought about having children, I realized that the game I wanted to see was the one in which a mother stood at the center of the field.
Because I knew—for me—this would be the most unpredictable life, the one that would deal out the most challenges, provide the most risk. Another person could find a cause and fight for it, move to another country, transform herself from the inside out. She could invite children into her life in other ways, and really let them in.
And this is one of my weaknesses. I’m too cautious to do any of that. Too happy to keep doing things the way I’ve always done them. Too quick to throw up very comfortable walls that keep the rest of the world out.
One of the things that I was both dreading and wishing for was exactly this: that parenthood would make me a different person. A selfless person. I had a friend who, on several occasions when I put her off by saying we were waiting a few more years to have kids, said, “So, you’re just going to have a few more selfish years, then?”
After I had my first son, I found that I was a different person. And I wasn’t at all. I still got hungry and grumpy and worried and tired. I still did not mind cleaning toilets, like I had in college. I still wanted nothing to do with vomit. I still looked longingly at waves I didn’t have time to ride.
But new things have emerged, and continue to do so. I’ve found I am (usually, mostly) more patient than I ever thought I could be. I can (usually, mostly) sing lullabies until my voice gets hoarse. Even though I’m not someone who would have been described as warm, nurturing, motherly—I liked it all so much (usually, mostly) that I wanted to do it again.
And here’s where maybe the science part comes in. Through my children, my capacity for wonder has returned. Before they were born, I had come to a point where, even though I asked questions for a living, I had stopped asking the questions that mattered.
Now I have to answer questions from the time I wake up until long after we should all be in bed.
In answering, I realize how much I don’t know. Why, for instance, is the ocean salty–how did it get salty in the first place? What is that slimy stuff coming out a snail? Why do people like shoes so much? Do monkeys sweat?
There are all the questions that I will never have the answers to: Will we all die in the same house? Where is Grandpa Morley now? When we die, will our dishes still be here?
(Actually, I can probably guess at the last one. Barring natural or unnatural disaster, there will always be dishes in the sink.)
I guess this is getting into something that you didn’t ask about, which is, what was the result of all of these feelings, this poetry? For me, it’s been connection. Connection with the questions that I should be asking. Connection with other parents, and with my own.
One of the great joys of being a parent has been seeing my mom being a grandmother. Seeing how she loves my sons, I can see how much she loved me as a child, how much she loves me still. I feel the same joy seeing my brother be an uncle. Seeing my husband be a father.
I realize I haven’t said much about what’s hard about being a parent, but it seems like enough people talk about that. There are things that I have given up, at least for the moment. But with everything I’ve received from my children, I feel like I’m only now entering my selfish years.
Somewhere in that stadium in the poem that may or may not exist, many people who I might have been fill the stands. At least one of them is a doctor. At least one of them is a biologist. One does research on bioluminescent plankton in Belize, another climbs into tree canopies, another works in Antarctica. Several wrote books before they turned 35. They speak many languages, and they surf more gracefully, ski more boldly, and run faster than the person standing in the center of the field.
But that’s the thing: I’m not alone out there.
There are so many people with me. Some of us have kids and some don’t, and some are doctors and some are biologists and some have written books. One of them is you. And my boys are there, too, saying that now is the time for me to play.
This post has been edited since it was first posted. I fell asleep while putting the kids to bed and didn’t get the chance to clean up my messes, here or in the sink.