Twenty years before my pregnancy test came back positive, I watched as the screaming toddler I was babysitting threw her pickle down a flight of stairs, and I wondered why anyone in their right mind would want to have children.
The little girl’s parents had assured me that, although she might be upset when they left, she would calm right down with the offering of a whole dill pickle direct from the jar.
After the obvious failure of that strategy, I spent hours trying to distract her with cartoons, the backyard tree swing, and a variety of games, to no avail. She cried nonstop and finally fell asleep on the floor under her bed. I never went back.
That little girl, along with the many other children I failed to charm during my babysitting days, was on my mind the first time my doctor brightly invited me to ask questions about my pregnancy. I couldn’t voice the real concerns that consumed me: What if I didn’t love my baby? What if I didn’t like being a mother?
The identity I had cultivated over the past two decades focused on achievement in school and my career. Children were a distant maybe, reserved for a nebulous future time. The problem with having kids was that I liked to sleep in. I wanted time to read, go to yoga classes, or eat a peaceful meal in a restaurant uninterrupted by a crying infant, cranky toddler, whining tween. When I was with friends’ children, that clueless teenage babysitter surfaced again — the mystical maternal instinct nowhere to be found.
“It’s okay, you’ll see,” everyone told me. “It’s different with your own kids.”
I wondered for years if that were true. I envied the certainty of people who said no — or yes — to having kids and never wavered. I did nothing but waver. To my mind, a woman doesn’t need children to be a full person, and I never felt like I was missing much.
That distant maybe of having kids started to feel like now or never as my biological clock relentlessly ticked along. When my husband and I passed seven years of marriage, as I approached the age of the horribly termed “geriatric pregnancy” — 35 years old — I reluctantly climbed off the fence.
Over drinks and a dim candle in a dark cocktail bar near our apartment, my husband and I talked about swapping birth control for prenatal vitamins. We had moved to a new city, closer to family, and it seemed like the right time. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel totally ready,” I told him, but I was willing to take the leap.
Four months later, I was pregnant.
After showing my husband the little pink sign, I dropped the pregnancy test straight in the trash. I thought about my friends who had been trying for a baby for two years and countless rounds of fertility treatment, about the people who might see that sign with joy or relief or gratitude.
I tried, and failed, to imagine myself changing diapers and breastfeeding. I had spent 20 years denying that person. I just wasn’t “mom.”
We had tried for a baby, and we were having a baby: Logically, I thought, I should be thrilled. Our friends and family all squealed with surprise and joy when we broke the news to them. My mother-in-law cried the happy tears I hadn’t been able to muster, my best friend gushed about how excited she was for me.
Each new “congratulations” felt like another indictment of my own absence of affection for the bundle of cells in my uterus. Their enthusiasm, intended to embrace and support, pushed me away.
What kind of mother could I expect to be if I didn’t fiercely love my unborn child? Did I deserve that child at all? Maybe it’s something you’re wondering now. Maybe my son should have been earmarked for someone who knew without any whisper of uncertainty that they wanted him, loved him from the moment they learned he existed. I thought about it every day. But although I felt nothing about him, not at first, not for a long time, he was mine.
I kept most of my concerns private. I already shamed myself for emotions that were at odds with the world’s often rosy view of pregnancy and motherhood. “Children are a blessing,” we say — a gift. I knew I wouldn’t be able to withstand the implied criticism that came from watching my doctor’s smile fade or seeing the concern in my friends’ eyes. And then there was the implied question: Why were you trying if you weren’t sure you wanted a baby?
Most of my ambivalence stemmed from shock. Deciding to try for a baby was surreal, still part of my nebulous future, just words exchanged over a flickering candle. Finding out we were having that baby was a strong dose of reality that required time to process. I didn’t have another 20 years to rethink my identity, but I was grateful to have nine more months to adjust to the idea of a new life. Not just the baby coming into the world, but changing the shape of my own life to fit him.
My son is almost a year old now, an engaging “little bean,” as we call him, who has certainly changed my world. I’ve grieved the loss of my former life while adapting to and celebrating this new one.
I find now that I often exist in two spaces simultaneously. There’s the “mom” side of me, a new facet of my identity that has emerged with a capacity for maternal love I never believed possible. This part of me is grateful for a 6 a.m. wakeup time (instead of 4:30 a.m.), could spend hours singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” simply to see one more smile and hear one more sweet giggle, and wants to stop time to keep my son small forever.
Then there’s the side of me that I’ve always known. The one who wistfully remembers the days of sleeping late on weekends and eyes the child-free women on the street with envy, knowing they didn’t need to pack 100 pounds of baby gear and wrestle with a stroller before walking out the door. The one who is desperate for adult conversation and can’t wait for a time when my son is older and more independent.
I embrace them both. I love that I have found myself as “mom” and appreciate that there will always be more to me than motherhood. I’m the same person, and I’m not.
One thing is certain: Even if my son starts throwing pickles, I will always come back for him.
Between her full-time marketing job, freelance writing on the side, and learning how to function as a mom, Erin Olson is still struggling to find that elusive work-life balance. She continues the search from her home in Chicago, with the support of her husband, cat and baby son.