I never expected to be a mother.
I won’t say I never wanted to be a mother, because that isn’t true – precisely. I wasn’t opposed to motherhood and at various times in my life had sort of distant dreams of having kids one day. But here’s the thing, mostly I saw myself adopting kids.
You see, I never expected to get married. Okay, so it went well beyond logic, but I thought of myself as the world’s most unattractive woman. In retrospect, I wasn’t – not physically, not by a long shot – but I was “awkwardly in the world.”
One of the ways in which I am stupid is this tendency to forget I have a body. What I mean by that is rather literal. I’ll get involved with pursuing some line of research, or get thoroughly ensconced in some imaginary world I just created and other than the obvious necessities and routines – which I do more or less by rote, from eating to showering – I forget I’m present physically (or I used to, before I was responsible for other people’s physical existence. More on that later.)
Anyway, it might not be obvious, but this lack of attention to physicality can present issues when one hits what we’ll delicately call a romantic age. As in, if you don’t much pay attention to how you dress, and periodically remember to style your hair but most of the time don’t (Recently – two years ago – I had hair I could sit on. Not on purpose. I forgot to make an appointment to cut it. For five years) guys aren’t likely to notice you’re there.
Add to that that most young men (and many older ones) bored me out of my gourd, and you’ll understand why I never expected to be a mother in the natural way. Besides, the whole thing seemed very awkwardly put together, as a physical process. I mean, kissing was bad enough with one never knowing what to do with one’s nose, but that? You’d got to be kidding.
Then interest in boys – real interest, not the pretend-romantic one that inspired hundreds of sonnets to a young man who never knew I existed – hit suddenly and devastatingly at eighteen. And I realized my inadequacies. I’m a quick study. I observed other young women and what they did to attract men. It worked. I started to have a dating life.
None of which made me think of motherhood in more than a theoretical way.
You see, I didn’t want to get married. Most men still bored me – particularly long term – and good gravy marriage was SO final. Between 18 and 22 I rejected six marriage proposals that I remember/got I was being asked (I suspect there were others, because I had a tendency not to get “subtle.” My idea of subtle is a two by four to the skull.)
Then Dan asked me. Let me right now assure you I intended to say “no.” Yeah, I loved him. Yeah, I wanted to live in the US. BUT my degree was not valid here (being a teaching degree.) And besides, one travels lighter. And besides…
I can’t really explain it. This has happened a dozen times in my life, at crucial points. I just couldn’t say no. The option didn’t exist.
So I got married. And suddenly, like the boy thing had hit, the motherhood-thing hit. I wanted children.
In retrospect this is vaguely puzzling. Look, guys, I was always awkward around babies, vaguely puzzled by toddlers and often outright scared of school age mons– er… children. So why the heck did I want kids? Who knows? Perhaps biological imperative. Perhaps insanity. I wanted eleven children.
We waited a year then started trying and… Nothing happened for almost six years. Of course, infertility made me more determined than ever to have children. I don’t like failing at things.
What I never paused to think about is why I’d want to have a child, or what in heaven’s name I intended to do to him/her.
So, when I had Robert – actually had him – it shocked me out of my gourd.
To begin with, pregnancy shocked me. Why? Well… I don’t know how I imagined it before. Like Alien, I think. BUT … well… Would you believe me if I told you I knew I was pregnant two hours after Robert was conceived? And I knew he was a boy? And I could SENSE him, clearly?
It is very WEIRD. The idea that there’s a human inside you is one of the weirdest things you can experience, I think.
It gets weirder when they’re born. There’s not only a sense of crushing responsibility – you brought him into the world. What are you going to do about it? – but a sense of being “divided.” Your soul – for lack of a better word – is riding along in two bodies… Three, when Marshall came along. (And, for sheer confusion, with Marshall I not only didn’t sense him from the beginning. I couldn’t sense him even after I’d SEEN him on ultrasound. I thought to the end something horrible would happen and he’d die before being born. Turns out, no, he’s just very reserved. That sense you have of someone else there when someone is in the room with you? Yeah, he turns that off often enough, seemingly on purpose.)
I don’t know how to explain this without sounding new agey, though I think it’s more a matter of “attuning” your senses to the kids, but the “link,” the sense of being a soul in several bodies, grows fainter as they grow up, but I don’t think it ever goes away completely. Right now, a part of me is listening for their movements, in their rooms, the sound of typing. It’s not that I want to pry on them – it’s just a vestigial mother-thing. Even when they’re out of town and too far away for me to hear/feel/sense, my mind tries to follow them.
I used to think, as a kid, that mothers had this special power. I wanted to impress my mother. I wanted her to be in awe of my achievements. (Yes, there is a story there, but mom is mom and she did the best she could, and I love her.) To me, she was a figure of power, the center of the family.
Being a mother, it feels completely different. I feel small and humble, dwarfed by the task and always aware I’ll never be good enough for it. No matter what I do, I’ll always do/have done something spectacularly wrong.
And yet… and yet…
Despite my claims – loud and frequent – that I should have stuck to raising cats, things are not that simple. They never are. The truth is now that they are young adults we are ALMOST equals (no, not quite equals. I’ll claim the rights of experience and knowledge. And yes, I AM one of those sticks in the mud that insists in a difference in how they treat me, and how they treat their friends.) And I find I enjoy their company. I enjoy their minds. I enjoy going for walks with them, and woodworking, and those late night discussions where we unhook the universe and spin it around just for fun.
And in retrospect, I enjoyed the process, too. They never scared me – except with the fear that I was raising them wrong – they never had a “feral” phase. And even as toddlers, they interested me – perhaps instinct over brain.
I miss the sticky kisses, the odd collections of pebbles, the children’s books, the stories. I enjoy the rational discussions, the stories about college, the sharing of esoteric scientific knowledge.
And I look forward to the future – scared and confused, happy and terrified, confident and humble – glad I got to be a mom, even if I was the least likely person to be so.
To my mom, whom at various times growing up I judged far too harshly but who did an amazing job, given that she never wanted to be a mother and that she had no happy childhood on which to model mine, I wish a happy mother’s day and I hope we still share many years among the living and have time, now and then, over those years, to share the joys and fears of motherhood.
To my (paternal) grandmother who was very much my secondary mother, and whom I lost nineteen years ago, wherever she is (keep your opinions to yourself, okay? I might or might not have an afterlife, but I’m sure grandma did/does) I hope she’s not shaking her head too much at my efforts at being a mother. In many ways, now as when I was a little toddler, following around in her wake, reaching up my hand for hers, I’m still following in her footsteps – and I’ll never be big enough to fill her shadow.
And to all the mothers, fathers and children out there: Happy Mother’s Day.
UPDATE: the free short story is up.