I remember the first time I talked to my partner about children. It was early on in our relationship and it felt safe to ask about, since it was still clear we weren’t necessarily talking about children we’d have with each other. “How do you feel about having children?” I had asked. I sank back into the couch, preparing myself for the long response that would inevitably follow. After all, I thought, this is parenthood we’re talking about.
“I’m not ready to have children now. But I will one day. I’ll be really excited to be a father when it happens and I think I’m going to be a good parent.”
You know that feeling when someone kicks a soccer ball into your stomach accidentally? That sums up what happened when he said that to me. You think you’re going to be a good parent? Who knows that for sure? How did you respond to this question with so much confidence and integrity? Right as I was struggling to inhale, my partner batted the dreaded question back to me.
I don’t know how people can be so calm answering a question about being a parent. The question of motherhood, of raising a child, of being a mother to another human life is so loaded for me that I spend an equal amount of time trying not to think about it and obsessing about it.
I have a running list of things that immediately come to mind when I envision myself as a mother:
1. What if they don’t like me?
2. What if they grow up to be conservative and vote for a future Bush? What if they rebel against all my politics and want to donate to anti-choice organizations?
3. What if they reject their South Asian roots?
4. What if they’re extroverted?
5. What if I don’t like them?
6. What if we’re not as close as my mom and I are?
7. How will I raise a child who has male privilege or passing-for-white privilege?
8. What if the child likes my partner more than me?
9. How could I handle raising more than one child? (Note: I am an only child.)
10. What if I don’t like being a parent and spend my whole life secretly regretting it?
11. What if I’m too clingy and fuck them up for the rest of their lives?
12. What if something tragic happens to them?
I realize that this list is a testament to how NOT ready I am to be a mother. There are just so many factors to consider! And I’m a cautious, anxious sort of person. The fear alone of caring for another human life in such a seemingly unique and powerful way is enough to send me down the path of hyperventilation.
I thought I would find solace with friends around this issue. Not so. Most of my friends are head-over-heels for babies and children and chastise me about ever questioning becoming a mother one day. They can’t wait to meet new children, play with them, and hold their sticky hands. The rest of my friends seem to have resigned to parenthood; they see it as an inevitable next step after finding and marrying a partner. My response to meeting children is about as awkward as meeting anyone else. Baby talk makes me a bit nauseous and the only children I’ve ever really liked are quiet, intelligent, and feel just as skeptical about themselves as I do.
Then I think of my own mother. She narrates her decision to have a child with that knowing half-smile that says, “You feel this way now, but you’re going to laugh in 10 or 15 years when you look back on this.” She had decided in her early twenties to never raise a child. But then, when she was 30 and five years into her marriage, she gave birth to me. She and I have never teased out the skepticism or resentment she may have had about giving birth to a child. Perhaps she felt an obligation to fulfill the traditional roles of wife and mother, like her mother before her. I suspect she wonders what life would have been like without me in it, but I think overall, she is pretty happy. Not to toot my own horn too much or anything, but my mother raised a relatively competent and intelligent child who believes in serving her community for the rest of her life. She also happened to raise someone who loves her mother so much, it kind of hurts sometimes.
I think it’s this idea of “loving so much it hurts” that makes me want to scream and run away from the land of mamas. Caring for someone with all your heart that way requires a tremendous amount of trust in oneself, and even more vulnerability. Opening up our heart to love, and letting in everything that comes with it — happiness, sadness, fear, intimacy, risk, compassion sounds… terrifying. I struggle with this already as a daughter, as a person in a committed romantic relationship. I feel this way as a best friend. How can I take this on as a mother? The insecure and scared person inside me who has experienced and remains afraid of loss says, What if I can’t handle it?
This Mama’s Day, I’ll spend the day with my own mom, curled up close to her, taking in the smell of her hair and the softness of her hands. I’ll wonder if I can ever be like her and take on the work that she did. I’ll thank her and all the people and institutions that have allowed me to consider motherhood, have allowed me to see it as a future option, and not an obligation or unexpected label. And until I know, I’ll keep wondering, keep being scared, keep asking questions.