Yesterday I was having lunch with some childhood friends; none of them have children yet. Four women, they range in age from twenty-one to thirty-four, and they asked me how it's been. Having children.
I told them that I almost didn't. (You almost didn't exist!) I've always wanted children, always planned to have them. When I was young, I secretly planned to have a horde of them, like my grandmother, who had nine. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I had pruned the numbers down to a more respectable three or four, because after all, I did have books to write. Lots of them. By age thirty it was clear that I was madly in love with Kevin, the kind of love that seemed quite likely to last the rest of my life. And it was also clear that he was serious when he said that he didn't want children.
You know the punchline to this part of the story -- obviously, your father changed his mind. But you don't know how it really went, because I don't think I've told anyone all of this before, before telling the girls at lunch. (They are all women, of course, grown women, not girls, but I first met them when they were children, and so to me, they will always be sweet girls, forgive me.) I told them how I tried, for many years, to not want children, because Kevin didn't want them. How he tried, for many years, to want them, because I wanted them. We broke up, in large part over this. We got together again, almost a year later, because we couldn't stand to be apart. But we still had no idea how to resolve this.
In the end, I decided that I wanted to be with him more than I wanted children. I was shaken, but relieved, because finally the decision was made. And then it turned out that it was not done at all. Because at thirty-four, I developed uterine fibroids, which were at first terrifying, and then turned out to be merely fertility-threatening. And it shouldn't have mattered at that point, but it did. And then I turned thirty-five, and knew that my window was beginning to close, and soon it would be irreparably shut. I found myself crying all the time, helplessly crying, so much that at times Kevin would have to drive me in to teach because I was crying too hard to drive, and I would pull myself together for an hour to teach class, hoping the students didn't notice my swollen eyes and reddened nose. And then, he drove me home, and in the car, I would start crying again.
This went on for two hideous months. I tried to get past it, and failed. I couldn't have told you why it felt so important, so critical, so utterly necessary that I have children, but it did. It felt like something I absolutely had to try to do. And at the same time, I loved Kevin so much, and couldn't bear to leave him again. I felt I was being torn in two, and at times I didn't know how I would get through the days.
In the end, I told Kev that I wasn't leaving him, but that I was also going to have a child, and he could stick around or not, as he chose. I started researching adoption, because if it wasn't going to be our biological child, shaped of us both, I found that I didn't have much investment my genetic material being in the mix. I wanted to raise a child, to be a parent. That was the part that mattered. It turned out that adoption was horribly expensive. That Sri Lanka wouldn't allow a single woman to adopt, but India was more lenient. I talked to a friend whose uncle ran an adoption agency in India, and started saving money. And then Kevin came to me and told me that if I was going to have a child, he would rather I had one with him.
You'll have to ask your father why he was so resistant to the idea of becoming a parent, and why, in the end, he changed his mind. That's his story to tell, not mine. I hope it's clear to you, as it is to me, that once he decided to be in this, he was all in. Kev has been, for the past four years, an utterly committed and devoted parent, and far more patient than I am. I think I am right when I say that your father has found tremendous joy in you both, and I have to admit to sometimes feeling a little smug, because I was quite sure, all along, that he would love this.
I haven't loved it so much.
No, that's wrong.
Let me say rather, it has been immeasurably difficult, much more so than I imagined. I try to come up with phrases to explain parenting to these four women, some of whom are sure they want children, some who are not so sure, but are considering it.
It is like taking on another full-time job, on top of the one you already have. And then some. You give up all control of your own life, because at every moment, your infant's needs must come first. Research has shown that the brains of sleep-deprived parents look very much like the brains of psychotic people; you are literally crazed with lack of sleep while you are trying desperately to keep this small and fragile creature alive. Breast-feeding can be a torture for both mother and child when it doesn't go well, and the guilt, while the hormones rush through you, can make you feel like an utter failure. Exclusively pumping for six months takes twice as much time as normal breast-feeding would, which is already an impossible amount of time. Showering becomes a luxury. Cold food is better than no food. You are at the mercy of your body and its hormones, your child and its unending needs. It is as if someone has reached in and torn a hole in your very self. The first nine months of your life, Kavya, (until you finally slept through the night) were the most intense physical, mental, and emotional gauntlet that I have ever been through, and I just put my head down and tried to survive the days. And then, Anand, we did it all again with you.
We did it all again.
Because for all the misery and difficulty, it is astonishing, being a parent. It is transformative. I imagine it must be similar to being in a war, or having a transcendental religious experience -- you go through a door into another country, one you could never have envisioned. In passing through that door, you are changed forever. Admittedly, I am an experience junkie -- if you asked me right now, would you like to go into a war zone? , I would want to say yes. Only the thought that I have a responsibility to my children to keep my body safe for the next seventeen years would give me pause. In my life thus far, I have chosen great risk every time, as long as there is also the possibility of great rewards. So let that frame what comes next.
Because although I would never say those words to anyone -- do it. have kids. -- I said it to these women, at the end of our lunch. I told them to dive into the trenches. Take the risk.
I don't think you should have kids if you don't want to, if you don't have an interest, if there are other things you'd rather do. Having children does preclude other kinds of lives. Each of my (relatively easy) children has cost me two years of writing time, which is perhaps a book each. Time and energy are finite resources, and there are trade-offs that only you can calculate the worth of. You absolutely should not have kids unless you want them, and if anyone -- parents, siblings, society in general -- tries to tell you otherwise, well, I hope you will tell them where to shove it. There are so many fascinating and worthwhile ways to live your life that do not involve being a parent, and if I had died before having children, I would not feel that my life had been wasted. My life pre-kids was amazing.
But I think those women I was talking to -- I think they all do want to have children. I may be wrong, but I've known them for a long time, since they were wee children themselves, so perhaps they will forgive a little big-acca butting in, when I say that I think they want quite badly to have children, but some of them are, perhaps, scared of how having children will destroy the beautiful lives and careers they have built for themselves.
And to those particular people (who want, but perhaps fear), I say yes, children will destroy you. They will tear you apart. But afterwards, they will help put you back together new and golden. In a shape that has two strong arms in which a small creature can nestle, knowing that she is warm, and loved, and safe. Through that crack in your self, as Cohen says, the light will come in, and you may discover a new dimension that you didn't know was there. An entire world on the other side of that door. Parenting will likely -- perhaps especially if you are a smart, capable, accomplished person who is used to succeeding easily -- be tremendously humbling. Sometimes on a daily basis, as you realize just how hard this practice will push at your capabilities, at the limits of what you can stand. And who deliberately chooses to be humbled? That's no fun. And yet.
I know it's scary, I know that you will lose parts of yourself that you have valued, that you have even loved. But you will get most of them back, eventually, and so much more besides. The reasons I am besotted with my children are beyond measure. Joy upon joy.
One of those women raised the question of having a partner in this endeavor. And the gods know that I do not know how I would have survived the past four years without Kevin at my side. I do not know how single parents do it. But at the same time -- they do do it. People parent in all kinds of circumstances -- alone, old, exhausted, poor. Some of them do it very well. And while I absolutely think it is worth searching for a partner to share your life and work and love (if that is what you desire), and I know it can be terrifying to consider parenting without one -- don't wait too long. Whether you choose pregnancy or adoption, there is a deadline, and if you cross that line, you may lose the chance to choose to be a parent. Be aware of your own timeline, and be smart -- and when the time is right, take the leap, even if the circumstances seem far from perfect. There is never a perfect time to have a child.
Or, another way of thinking about it, is that perhaps any time is perfect. I chose not to have a child at eighteen; that was the only choice I felt I could make at that time. I didn't think my life would survive having a child, and so I didn't even let myself think about whether I wanted to try. But now, looking back -- I think if I had had that child, I would have survived it. I'm not regretting that choice, but I do wish, perhaps, that I'd known myself and my capabilities better. That I'd trusted that no matter how hard it would be, I would find the help and resources I needed to survive it, and survive it well.
Kavya and Anand -- I have no idea if you will ever desire children yourselves. Please do not ever think that you need to have them for me, that you are obliged to give me grandchildren. Grandchildren sound like great fun, but they are the bonus round, so to speak. You are my main event, and whatever you choose for your lives, parenting or not, war or love or God or who knows what, all I ask is that you do it with your whole heart. When fear rises up within you -- and it will -- try not to let it stand in your way.
Be brave, children. And know how very much you are loved.
You are so interesting.