The Ambivalent Mother: Or How I Nearly Chose to be Childless
I had never really wanted to be a mom. It was just something I thought I should want like an MBA or a ceramic light-up Christmas village. Nothing I truly wanted to plan, or work toward, or alter my life for in any way. When I was little, I told people I wanted a career like my mother. Maybe I’d have kids, but there’d be a nanny or a stay-at-home husband to buffer me from total responsibility. Then I had surgery for endometriosis and was warned I probably wouldn’t be able to get pregnant. I downgraded whatever small expectations I’d had about a family, and became a high tech sales rep and then a manager. I flew around the country, silently praying each time I boarded a plane that a wailing toddler wouldn’t be seated next to me.
I’d visit friends with children, observing naked screaming boys fleeing potty training, dinner table time-outs, fragmented adult conversations, and think: What a mess. So glad this isn’t my life.
My boyfriend and I had a great set-up – nice townhouse, trips to Australia and Hawaii, touring on our tandem bike. We spoke vaguely of children in the beginning. We’d get married, maybe I’d get pregnant, maybe we’d adopt. But the conversations never went far and eventually we stopped discussing kids. Besides, I liked going out for sushi at 10pm and spending a Sunday afternoon watching romantic comedies in bed.
Then my boyfriend and I split up after nearly ten years and I started to wonder who I was. Having given up my position for his job relocation, I was no longer the career woman. And at 37, I was edging out of the conventional motherhood window.
And then I started dating Paul. A tall, charismatic, intensely focused engineer, he leaned across the table on one of our first dates and asked,
“Do you want to be a mom? Because I’m going to be a dad, and if you don’t want kids, we should figure that out now.”
My friends thought this was hilarious. Wasn’t it normally the woman with the ticking clock telling the guy not to waste her time if he didn’t want babies?
I really liked Paul. But I was genuinely ambivalent. I told him truthfully that I didn’t know. Because of my medical history, I had pushed the possibility from my mind, and even if I could have children, I was afraid maybe I didn’t want to. He asked me to keep thinking about it, and said he was fine with adoption. Plus, he told me, with seventeen nieces and nephews, he’d had practice changing diapers.
Throughout our first year together, he continued to check in. What do you think today? Do you feel any different? Are you ready?
A close friend of mine – a woman who owned her own business, competed in twenty four hour mountain bike events, and was sometimes hard to picture as a mother – had her first baby.
I sat on her couch with the newborn asleep on my chest, his little fingers clutching the strap of my camisole, and shocked myself. I liked it.
I looked outside to the play set Paul was helping our friends build. I thought about my friend, now the mountain bike racing mom.
Maybe the truth for me was not so much about uncertainty, but fear. Fear that I wouldn’t know how to be a good mother, or that I didn’t have the physical stamina to cope with a colicky sleepless infant, nor the patience to deal with the time-outs or the 24/7 responsibility.
Maybe I’d already lost two prior long term relationships through a fear of fully committing myself, and an unwillingness to show up completely. Was that who I wanted to be?
I readjusted the baby in my arms, and his tiny hand released my strap. Maybe committing to motherhood required not mental toughness, but opening my heart.
The next time Paul asked me, “What about today? Today do you think you could be a mom?” I breathed in, and said yes.
I was old for a first pregnancy, and the words of the surgeon haunted me, so we started trying.
Within two months I was pregnant with identical twin boys. Our stunned joy was quickly diminished when they were diagnosed with Twin-To-Twin-Transfusion Syndrome, a disease of the placenta that can be fatal. It was a risky pregnancy, and I freaked out every day. Would one or both babies even make it? Had I made the right choice? Paul and I weren’t even married yet! If they were ok, would I be able to handle being a mother to two babies at once?
Somehow, we all made it to 37 weeks and the babies were nearly seven pounds each at the birth. A relief.
But then I bled out and had an emergency hysterectomy 24 hours later, spending five days in the ICU. Weak and hallucinating on morphine, I went in and out of consciousness swearing to God or whoever might be listening that I promised to be a good mom if all of us could come out of the hospital safely.
I had worried so much about how I would know what to do, or whether I could put my own selfish needs aside to care completely for another’s. Yet somehow even in the ICU I knew to pump my breast milk, so I’d have the choice to feed my sons when I was healthy. When we got home, above my aching mid-section, I mastered the “double football hold” to nurse them together.
I sat up in bed, surrounded by pillows, amazed by their tiny blonde heads, whispering, “Your Mama loves you so much. So much.”
I later endured potty-training accidents in the middle of public parks and dinner table tantrums that made the ones I’d witnessed as a single person look like model toddler etiquette. I learned to pass out Snickers bars on airplanes to fellow passengers before take-off as an advanced apology for my children’s misbehavior.
As a mom to energetic, now ten year old boys who know all the lyrics to the songs in the Disney “Frozen” movie, and play enough different sports to already have four concussions between them, I’m grateful every day that I chose to step up. I’ve had moments when I regretted trading my cushy single life and independence for this sometimes puke-ridden double-stroller adventure. But before I became a mother, I hadn’t understood the feeling of skiing or biking together as a team, the comfort of family cuddles at bedtime, or the gift of a one-year-old miracle murmuring back some of his first words into my neck, “So much Mama. So much.”
Ellen Nordberg writes humor columns for Boulder Lifestyle and Colorado Babies magazines, and recently came in second in the Boulder Writer’s Workshop Comedy Contest. Find her parenting survival tales on her blog, “Treading the Twin Tsunami – Funny Tales of a Twin Mom Water Aerobics Instructor,” at www.ellennordberg.com. Just don’t ask her to feed your cat.