Books

To Mother or Not to Mother: A Writer’s Decision

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Editor's Note:

Alexandra Oliva was born and raised in upstate New York. She has a BA in history from Yale University and an MFA in creative writing from The New School. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband. The Last One is her first novel.

“Are you pregnant yet?” my neighbor shouted over the fence between our yards.

Standing there holding a ball my dog was desperate for me to throw, I paused for a second, my mind stuck on my neighbor’s yet. We’d never discussed my thoughts on having kids, and the expectation – the sense of inevitability – that hung on that word would usually bother me, but today I found it kind of funny.

I called back a friendly, “Yes.”

I was sixteen weeks along and had just announced the pregnancy on Facebook. I was careful to be funny in my post – hoping to entertain in addition to inform – because as excited as I was, it was not easy news for me to share.

I’ve never felt like it was my destiny to become a mother. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I even began to think some babies were cute, and as recently as a year ago I found the thought of breastfeeding an infant repugnant. I have no memories of swaddling baby dolls as a child, or rolling my stuffed animals around in strollers. My toys were always off having adventures, and if two of them kissed after vanquishing their villain, it was only because that’s how it happened in the movies.

When I read essays by women who have decided not to have children, who don’t feel that supposedly universal maternal urge and have decided instead to focus on their careers or dogs or just living the child-free life that feels right to them, I get it. I can relate to their ire upon being told that raising a child is life’s greatest adventure, or that having a baby is the greatest source of meaning one can possibly experience – that you haven’t truly lived until you’re a parent. I’ve long understood that when someone tells me I would make a great mother, it’s usually less a comment on my personality or caretaking abilities than on the fact that I have a uterus.

That being said, I’ve never been dead-set against having children – I just wasn’t certain motherhood was for me. Additionally, I feared that if I brought a child into this world before I “made it” in my career, I might blame that child for any continued failure.

So for years, when people asked me if I wanted to have kids, my answer was “someday, maybe.” I internally defined that “someday” as a two-to-five-years-from-now span that got continually pushed back as I entered my late-twenties and then my thirties. Motherhood was always two-to-five years away.

Until one day it suddenly wasn’t.

Until one day I asked my husband, “Do you think we should start trying this winter?”

What changed?

It’s hard for me to say. I’d finally broken into the world of traditional publishing and while I still feared the impact a child might have on my writing, it seemed somehow less impossible to keep my foot in the door while holding a baby than it did to kick it down. My debut novel’s heroine is also a secret never-Mom, a woman who keeps saying she’ll have kids “someday” even though what she really wants to say is “never.” Perhaps I worked through some of my issues there. It probably also helped that I watched two of my best friends transition into motherhood, the firsts of my inner circle to do so.

For years, when people had advised me to self-publish and have babies, or recited old wives’ tales of rapidly declining fertility, or assumed that of course I wanted children, it had felt as though as every other aspect of my identity was being pushed aside. It had felt as though they were saying my ambitions and life goals should play second-fiddle to the fact that I was biologically capable of reproduction.

The sense of indignation I felt because of this was difficult to let go of after so many years, even as I realized I did want to be a mother. In a strange way, wanting a child felt like a betrayal to the self-declared never-Moms with whom I identified so strongly. I knew the world wanted me to have children – because it wants all women to have children – and I’d spent so long chafing against this expectation, I didn’t want to give in.

There were fears holding me back too: how would the timing affect my work? Would my dog hate the baby? Was I even capable of keeping an infant alive?

But at a certain point, I realized I was as ready to confront those fears as I ever would be. The timing would never be perfect. I would never be fully prepared. More than fear or uncertainty, it was my stubbornness holding me back – this sense that I’d be “giving in.”

Which was stupid. My life had changed. I had changed. To have a child now wouldn’t be giving in, not if it was what I wanted.

And so, a few months later, my husband and I packed our bags for our first vacation in years, and we left the contraceptives at home. They’ve remained in a drawer ever since.

Today I’m twenty-weeks pregnant and already desperately in love with the tiny being growing inside of me. I’m still getting used to the changes I’m experiencing – physically and emotionally. I find it nearly impossible to not rub my protruding belly as I walk – hello in there, I’m here – and in addition to all my fears about raising him once he’s born, I now fear all that could go wrong between now and his birth. To lose him at this point would be devastating.

I hadn’t expected to feel so strongly so early.

I suspect there is a lot ahead of me that I don’t expect. I suspect my fears will tumble over each other and multiply as this baby grows. I suspect there are going to be times when I fear I made the wrong decision and I’m indeed not cut out for motherhood. I already worry that I might not finish my next book before he’s born – and if so, what happens then? How does one make time for writing when she’s responsible for the life of a helpless newborn?

For all my fears and worries, there is excitement too. There is a part of me that didn’t exist a few years ago, a part of me that can shrug off a well-intentioned “yet” called over a fence. Because while I know my husband and I are introducing an entirely new level of uncertainty and stress into our lives, there is one thing about which I do feel secure: In choosing to have this child, I’m not fulfilling some feminine destiny or embracing biological obligation – I’m making a choice.

Not because I have to, but because I want to.