When I was 21 years old, I sat on my mother’s back porch and told her, earnestly, that I would never have children.
She was appalled. “Don’t you think that’s a little selfish?” she asked.
I’m not sure whether she meant it was selfish to deny my unborn children, or selfish to deny her of being a grandmother.
In any case, I didn’t think it was selfish at all. I thought it was self-aware. I told her that I never wanted to look at my child and think, even subconsciously, that I would have been better off, more successful, without someone to care for.
I am a child of the seventies. That nebulous decade when the hippies had grown up to face the fact that their utopian society was probably NOT going to pan out, but before the Reagan era when people began defining their success by the size of their portfolios and their shoulder pads. Suddenly everything was on the table. None of the old rules held fast anymore. Young women had read Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. Young men were disillusioned by the Vietnam War or by avoiding it. My parents could be anything they wanted, if only they could figure out how.
I am the only child of loving parents who had other plans.
That was me at 21. I DEFINITELY had other plans. I wasn’t interested in settling. I didn’t want anyone to feel “settled for”.
It wasn’t selfish. It was only ignorant.
I thought I wasn’t the kind of woman who would be a good mother, and I assumed I would lose myself trying. As it turns out, exactly the opposite is true.
If I could sit with my mother tonight on her back porch, this is what I would say:
I wish you could have had the experience I’ve had. I wish you could have been the unsuspecting mother of many children. When, like you, I had only one child, I was constantly conflicted. I was frustrated. It was difficult for me to balance her needs and my own needs. I took every bad behavior, every sideways look, as a sign that I was failing her. I was annoyed by the slow meandering walks through the parking lot, just as I remember you were annoyed as you pulled me towards the parked car. I had somewhere to be, dammit.
Having many children has taught me that the only place you can be is here. Now. So you might as well stop and pick up the shiny rock. You may as well give up on the idea of vacuuming the living room and sing the lullaby again for a third time. Besides, singing is better than vacuuming, any day. I’ve learned that kids grow up and grow out of it, whatever it is, so you might as well laugh now if it’s funny, and stop taking everything so damn seriously.
I’ve learned that what I think I want is not the priority. Because, what it turns out I really want is to look back on this moment and know that I will be proud of it. It makes it easier not to throw the shoes across the room when they’ve been left on the kitchen floor. It makes it easier to say “yes” to the sleepover instead of drinking wine in the living room all night watching “The Walking Dead” on Netflix.
I haven’t lost myself at all. Instead, I’ve found that I can be much more patient, selfless and silly than I ever imagined. I can be much more determined and work a hell of a lot harder than I ever thought I was capable of working. I’ve learned it’s easier to be a good mom, a good person, when there are several people who already expect you to be one.
I still screw up. I still occasionally throw tantrums like a three year old when things don’t go my way. But even so, I’ve learned that the world doesn’t revolve around me, neither my successes, nor my mistakes.
I’ve gotten so, so much more than I’ve ever given up. In terms of net gains, Mom, it turns out you were wrong.
It turns out that having a bunch of kids is what is a little selfish.