The Baby Step
I’ve never been particularly good at change.
When I was nine years old, my mom casually slipped into conversation that my grandparents were selling their vacation home in Phoenix, a place I’d grown up visiting. We were walking into Restoration Hardware at the mall. She spent the next hour consoling me as I cried on the store’s leather couch. Another day, I came home from school to find the eggshell walls in our living room and kitchen painted bright colors of pastel. Shocked and horrified by the drastic shift, I held the choice against my parents for several weeks.
As I grew older, I became more comfortable with the concept of change, but I continued to approach it with scrutiny, stopping to analyze each step before I took it.
Even when it came to good changes, transitions were difficult for me to make. My fiancé, Matt, often reminds me how terrified I was to adopt our first dog. That day in 2014, we were driving to the animal shelter when my anxieties peaked.
“What if we can’t handle this?” I said. “Adopting a dog is a huge commitment. Our lives will change forever. What if we aren’t ready?”
Matt calmed me down, as he always does, patting me on the leg or rubbing me on the shoulder, assuring me that everything would be fine and we were making a great decision. Unlike me, when Matt makes a decision about something, he jumps in head first, no looking back. Sometimes, I hate his assurance. It comes so easy to him, while I spend my days questioning every little thing. Still, we went through with it. Cash, our border-collie, German shepherd mix is six now, and our little family wouldn’t be the same without him.
The routine was mostly the same with our second dog. As we drove out to a puppy rescue farm, I urged Matt to turn the car around. I had my heart set on an adorable, Australian shepherd mix on the rescue’s website, but her picture was taken down a day before we were scheduled to visit the farm.
“She was the one,” I said to Matt. “I don’t even want to go if we can’t see her. Plus, adopting a second dog is a huge commitment. Our lives will change forever. What if we aren’t ready?”
Matt was ready. As per usual, Matt was sure. When we got there, he urged me to ask about that little Australian shepherd. Her first adopters returned her because she was too skittish. We introduced her to Cash and didn’t hesitate to sign the adoption papers. June is three and a half now. Our little family wouldn’t be the same without her.
Since I was little, I’ve seen the lens of motherhood through my mom, who dedicated her entire being to her three kids. She never went a day without telling me how much she loved me. She still doesn’t go a day, she texts me every evening to let me know before she goes to bed and often each morning once she knows I’m awake. I saw how fulfilled she was being a mother, and I figured one day I would follow the same path. Becoming a mother wasn’t even a decision to make. I simply figured it would happen eventually. I prepared for the role in various ways. When I was a toddler, the concept of motherhood consisted of me and my dolls at teatime. We’d visit together, and then I was free to move on to my next activity. During my adolescence, motherhood meant feeding my hamster, making sure she had water, cleaning her cage and playing with her on occasion. She didn’t demand diaper changes. No one expected me to shape her into a morally sound rodent. Even in my mid-twenties, becoming a mother meant loving, feeding and consistently exercising Cash and June. While they rely on Matt and me to survive, we can still leave them at home for a few hours to go out to dinner or set them up with a dog sitter if we take a weekend getaway. But babies, actual human babies, don’t alter your life slightly, they change it entirely. Having children is one of the biggest changes a human can make in their life. And for someone like me, who doesn’t even appreciate a change in wall color, I’m not exactly desperate to go off birth control.
Matt and I are both 30. We’re engaged (and would be married if we hadn’t postponed our wedding due to COVID). And, recently, we bought a house close to family. The “traditional” progression of life dictates that babies – the human kind – come next. Everyone in our life seems ready for the next step. Family and friends tease us about filling up our new house. Some even flat out ask the question: When can we expect children? Occasionally, even Matt asks what our plan is. Then there’s me, waffling over if I’m ready for such an all-consuming commitment, such a resolute change. And, since I’m the one who will be carrying a small bowling ball around in my uterus for the better half of a year, I need to be ready for this next step.
The expectations others have that I become a mom are not only overwhelming, they can occasionally be disheartening. I’m starting to feel as if my identity – as an individual, a woman, a writer, a loyal friend and family member – is disappearing, and all anyone sees me as is a vehicle for what’s coming next, an instrument for ushering in the next generation. I question if me alone is still good enough. Then frustration sets in because I should be good enough, regardless of if I choose to reproduce or not.
I don’t blame those who ask and tease about when Matt and I will get pregnant. There are plenty of instances when I get very excited about the concept too. Who doesn’t want a cute, chubby, little human around? My family has seen a lot of death in the past decade. I understand the comfort in bringing more people into this world when we’ve seen so many leave it too soon. I also desperately want my children to have plenty of years with their grandparents. Having kids that didn’t get to grow up around my mom – who had me when she was in her early forties – would devastate me. But there’s also a lot of pressure. In my direct family, the job of creating the next generation has fallen squarely on Matt and me, as we’re the only couple who have vocalized, at least as of now, intentions to procreate. I’m my family’s hope for a little one. I’m my mom’s hope to be a grandmother.
I still want a baby. Matt and I still plan on growing our family. But I’ve realized I’m not yet ready. When I say this to a friend or family member, the next question typically is: Why? Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, I’ve come up with a slew of excuses to give.
Typically, I start with my wedding dress. I’ve dreamt of that gown since long before I even put it on, and I’m excited to wear it this August for the wedding.
The dress can be taken out or altered for a baby bump, people joke.
My next response is to talk about champagne. I plan to drink it, lots of it, at my wedding. I’m going to toast with loved ones and dance the night away.
Oh, people respond, as if I’ve just made some kind of deal with the devil. So, right after the wedding then?
To this question, I typically nod and try to change the subject. If that doesn’t work, I talk about my career. I don’t plan to solely be a stay-at-home mom, but I’m concerned for what I’ll have to give up to have children and to raise them well. Will my career ambitions – the stories I yearn to write, the projects I plan to tackle, the professional roles I aspire to fulfill – be cast aside? Forgotten, even?
I’d like to be able to say that in 2021, the answer to those questions is a resounding no, but sadly that’s not the case. In September 2020 alone, 865,000 women in the U.S. left the workforce. That number was four times higher than it was for men. In total, since the pandemic began in March 2020, nearly 3.5 million women have opted to put their careers aside to take care of the demands at home, which now often includes homeschooling their children. If I had kids in the middle of a global pandemic, would I feel pressured or personally inclined to add my story to statistics like this?
Outside of conversations with others, I’ve tried to locate the root of my fears. Yes, I naturally hate change, but why is this particular change stirring up so much anxiety within me?
Perhaps it’s because failure terrifies me. When I have children, I don’t want to let them down. I also don’t want to let myself down. I’ve got a lot of career goals and life ambitions, outside of having kids. Life is a constant game of juggling, but will I manage to keep all of the balls in the air without dropping one? Can I manage to be an attentive, loving parent as well as a dedicated writer and journalist?
Matt and I already have a designated baby room in our new home. The space is sparsely furnished at the moment. Three light grey dressers with white trim around the bottom sit against the wall below a window. They were in my mom’s nursery when she was a baby. The dresser drawers are empty, except for a few of my baby books, which wait patiently to be read aloud again. From the room’s window, we can see the sun rise every morning, a sign of bright times to come. I already see the crib. I see the toys that will fill the closet and the rocking chair where we will sit for feeding time. I envision what the little dumpling will look like. I imagine the smiles and laughter they will bring as they grow.
If I really get down to it, if I dig past my wedding dress dreams, the alarming pandemic numbers and my fear of juggling, I know what I’m truly scared of is losing myself. I spent most of my teenage years and twenties trying to figure out who I am. And even though I can still nitpick my looks, my habits, my motivations, I’m feeling more stable in who I am than ever before. I’m just starting to love myself. Learning to do that has taken nearly 30 years. And now I feel like I’m being asked to give that up and dedicate my life to loving someone else. Surely, there’s enough love to go around, but still, I worry I‘ll lose myself in motherhood, that my own self discovery will end with the birth of a child. And I’m not ready for that.
I’ve never been particularly good at change.
Last October, when Matt and I were about to buy our first house together–one that we both adore– I questioned our decision every step of the way.
“What if we can’t handle this?” I said. “A house is a huge financial commitment, and it’s going to be a lot of work to keep up. Our lives will change forever. What if we aren’t ready?”
As is expected, Matt was fully in, leaving any worries or concerns behind him. Four months later, I can’t imagine our life without our new special home.
Having a baby is not as simple or as quick as adopting a dog, or two. It’s not the same as buying a house or managing a mortgage. As far as life changes go, it’s pretty much the largest one. This change takes time, giving me plenty of moments to fear what the future holds, to want to turn around, to question if we’re really ready to raise a human being. But identifying my fears (and my reasons for having them) feels like a good place to start this next journey. Hopefully I can turn those fears into motivation to continue to be the kind of woman I want, while working to become the type of mother I admire.
One thing is certain, I’ll be questioning my decisions each step of the way.