There was a story I once heard about a woman – an ordinary woman of the sort you meet every day – who gave birth to children and raised them, and that was that. “Goodbye, my dears,” she said, giving each one a kiss. Off they went, those adult children, self-sufficient and sturdy. And our heroine, her job completed, retired from motherhood.
It’s a nice little story. Perhaps you’ve heard it too.
At the age of twenty, married and newly pregnant, I, like my fairy tale counterpart, was prepared to spend eighteen years doing the mother-bit. If I lived out a normal lifespan, that would constitute about a fourth of it, a fair enough proportion to contribute to the establishment of a new generation. In fact, I decided in a burst of practicality, I might as well have a lot of children quickly and get the whole job over with. We were the “large family generation,” and I was a time-saver. This way I could do my stint and get on with the rest of my life.
But there was a catch in the plan that I didn’t count on.
I should have guessed it in the labor room when I looked past my nervous young husband into the face of the middle-aged woman behind him and watched it contort with each pain that struck me.
“Pant like a dog; it takes the edge off,” my mother advised me, panting right along with me.
I should have guessed it in the delivery room when they held up my daughter, a dark-haired, brown-eyed version of my blond, blue-eyed self.
I made her, I thought incredulously. I, who had never done anything important before, had achieved the ultimate! I had made – actually made – another human being!
It is the absolute ego trip and the absolute guilt trip.
This is my creation, this minute bit of flesh, superimposed in some miraculous manner upon this microscopic frame! I am hers, and she is mine, for the next eighteen years!
“She’s so tiny!” I whispered in terror. “What if something happens to her?”
“You’ll keep her safe,” my mother assured me. “You’ll learn to take care of her. I’ll be here to help you.”
I did learn, too, as baby followed baby. I sterilized bottles. Changed diapers. Spooned in baby food. Kissed hurts. Read stories. Cheered at ballet recitals and Little League games. Held birthday parties. Chaperoned field trips. Signed drivers’ permits.
And, one by one, my children reached that magic age.
“Goodbye, my dear,” I said, giving my first-born a kiss, and out of the nest she hopped. Three weeks later she was back again. On a dare from a college classmate, she and her roommate had jumped a freight train, fallen off between stations, and broken their legs.
“Oh, my God!” I cried. “I never should have let her out of my sight!”
“But, honey, she’s grown,” my husband said reasonably.
“I don’t care what age she is!” I told him. “I am her mother!”
And there it is, the part they never tell you – that there is no automatic stopping point to motherhood. You cannot close off those feelings that you spent years developing and go dashing off, light-hearted and unencumbered. At best, those early years are only a testing ground. The hardest part of parenting is when it’s too late to do anything about anybody. When it all has slipped through your controlling fingers. When all you can do is sit back and ache and love and pray and wonder and worry.
When you peek in a grown child’s refrigerator and see nothing but one bottle of beer, a jar of pickles and a can of cat food.
When you lie in bed at night and hear the sirens of police cars and ambulances going by on the freeway that lies between your home and your daughter’s apartment.
When a son spends his savings to purchase a motorcycle, and the first thing he does with it is round a curve at top speed and run into a deer.
You realize then that there’s no getting out of this thing that you got yourself into. You are caught – enslaved – forever! They may be yours for an approximate eighteen years, but you are theirs from the moment of their conception until your death.And even then, my guess is that you don’t escape entirely but return in some ghostly, see-through form to hang worriedly over sick beds and cluck at careless driving and shriek silent warnings about impending disasters.
I don’t mean, of course, that my whole life is the children. My husband and I have a good marriage – we go places and do things together – I have friends and hobbies and a challenging career. But let the phone ring in the night, and I am up like a shot, wild-eyed and blithering: “Something’s wrong! Something has happened to somebody!”
And, all too often, I’m right.
Women who are mothers of grown children are drawn together in a kind of sisterhood. The roots of their hair show gray beneath their blond highlights, and their faces have a lived-in look. They go shopping a lot, but the things they buy are seldom in their own sizes. They keep sheets on their spare beds. And when they go on vacation trips, they leave messages with everybody – friends – neighbors – pet sitters:
“This is where I’ll be if somebody needs to reach me.”
Today’s generation is having fewer children. Many young women I know are choosing not to have any. “The world is over-populated as is,” they tell me.
They are right.
“The expenses of raising a child today are mind-blowing!”
They’re right again.
And some, in utter honesty, say, “I simply don’t want to be tied down, to sacrifice my freedom, my job opportunities, my own growth as a person.”
Intellectually, I can accept that. I can even applaud it. I know that I, myself, went into parenthood blithely and blindly with no true understanding of the immensity of what I was letting myself in for.
I know too, however, that my own “growth as a person” began at that terrifying moment when I looked at one tiny scrap of newborn humanity and realized that, for the first time in my life, there was somebody in the world who meant more to me than I did.
And my final step into womanhood came eighteen years later, when I accepted the fact that it was always going to be that way.
Causes Lois Duncan Supports
Operation Smile and Hospice