Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Career Choices

A few days ago I found myself answering a questionnaire that asked, essentially, 'why did you have children?' And I was brought up short, fingers poised, mouth falling open, because I could not come up with a cogent answer to this question. I am still thinking about it this morning. Why did I?

I had birth control. It was 1965 and, distrusting the then almost untried birth control pill, I was using a diaphram. A diaphram is not a method that is conducive to spontaneity, and one night I got involved and forgot to put it in. Result, the elder daughter. That's the simple answer.

That's not the whole answer, however. I was using birth control because my husband was in grad. school and we had decided to wait to have our family until he was finished. Jumping the gun like that was bad for me because it meant that I wouldn't stay in my teaching job long enough to get my permanent teaching certificate (it was simply assumed by the school board I worked for that if you got pregnant you resigned. Period.) After an initial reaction that could be described as mild annoyance, I felt pleased about oncoming parenthood. It was what I had signed up for, after all. You got married, you had a family, you acquired a house with a yard, your husband got a job that funded all of this. After the kid(s) had grown enough you might resume your job, perhaps part time, but it was a job and not a career. Your career choice was wife/mother. Being pregnant confirmed your status as a full adult.

I was not a baby lover. I had done the usual stint as a teenager of babysitting (and toddler and child sitting) and had been bored silly by the little darlings. I spent a few mornings looking after a breast fed baby about six months old and handled him with much the same nervous respect as I would have done a loaded gun. I had spent a weekend looking after a ten day old cousin and his three year old brother and did not remember that experience with fondness. When my mother and grandmother went gooey and cooey over a new baby, I would stand back and wonder what the fuss was about. Unless they were old enough to have a conversation with, kids were not my thing.

So why would I want to be saddled with my own? Good question. As I try to reconstruct that long ago self, the best answer that I can come up with is that I thought it was inevitable. My husband wanted children. Our parents expected grandchildren. My friends all planned to be parents. Society granted mothers a status that single women or childless married women lacked. For anyone who has grown up with the wider expectations and less homogenous society of the seventies and later, it must be very hard to realise just how rigid a social structure I had been raised in and how little I questioned it, even while I watched my mother and my aunts beating their wings against the bars of their respective cages. But that's another post.

In preparation for the arrival of the baby, we moved from our flat in the heart of a wonderful small town to a suburb where we could afford a house with a yard. I had no car and the bus service was poor. When elder daugher arrived, I did not feel the instant attachment that my reading had described. I was issued a fair skinned, diaper rash prone ectomorph who, born at 7 lb, 8 oz, weighed in at a month old at 8 lb. I had little to no knowledge about breast feeding and not much more about the sleep and wake patterns of newborns. I fretted and worried and wept. Fortunately, the ED was about as fragile as a faceted diamond and we both survived the newborn period. When she started to smile at me, I fell in love.

The one thing I was sure of was that I did not want my precious blossom to be an only child. And so, when she was five months old I weaned her to a bottle and got pregnant again on the first try.

Ten months later I found myself trapped in my suburb with two infants, one precociously mobile, and with access to a car only if I packed them both up early in the morning and drove my husband to his university. In the meantime husband had switched his sights from a Master's degree to a doctorate (with my encouragement, I should add, in fairness) and we were in for several more years of penniless grad student existence. The YD was even more precociously mobile, and my days were a blur of feeding, chasing and cleaning up after both hurtling toddlers and the dog we acquired to make the menage complete. My brain turned to mush and my marriage just about tanked.

And then, one wonderful day, I started to be able to have conversations with the terrible two. They grew fascinating personalities. They slept all night, every night. I have the most precious memories. Walking into the kitchen to find the ED spinning her sister in my big spaghetti kettle. 'What are you doing?' I said, bemusedly. 'I be cookin' Wen'y', the little person answered.

Every sleepless night, every miserable dragging day of post partum depression, every frantic search of my dog eared copy of Doctor Spock, all worth it. All repayed a million times, in the years since. I still regard other people's noisy infants with a somewhat wary eye. I still far prefer to deal with kids old enough to communicate, thank you. I've gone on to have not just one but several careers. If you ask me who I am, though, I would answer a wife/mother. Without regret.

If you were asked why you had children, if you wanted them, what would you answer? Would it be an easy answer, or a struggle like this one?


  1. Why did I have children. I guess we, like you, stumbled into parenthood. The more important question for The Producer and I has been "What now?" :)

    Hope you enjoyed Jen Lemen.

  2. Is that a picture of your girls? How sublime!

    I think I answered this question once when I blogged about becoming an orphan. When my mother died, I realized that if I had the power to create a love this great, then I owed it to myself and the world to do so.

    It's only now that I wish I had started trying 2 or 3 years sooner.

    BTW, as I read your post I had this visceral reaction to all those expectations that were placed on you as a woman to simply procreate and take a back seat. That was my mother's experience too and I spent my entire fertile life chaffing in the legacy of those chains. I see so many young mothers today who reject the feminist generation as role models and, while I understand where they are coming from, I can't help but sigh, "you have no idea..."

  3. Yes. YD left, 3, ED right,5.

    I remember your post -- part of the ferment that produced this one. I loved how you decided - unlike Emily and I who 'stumbled' into motherhood. (Great image, Emily!)
    My girls are your generation. Women in this generation should, like you, have a sense of how far women have come, that is, they will if they look at their mothers at all. I am worried about the generation two down, your daughter, Emily's, my granddaughter. I feel as if I need to make a record, to make the points, lest we lose our herstory and are doomed to repeat it. The Sarah Palins of this world scare me, a lot, because they seem to have no idea of how they got where they are.
    I have another post bubbling out of the pot, obviously. I love my kids, I would not change a thing, but I paid. After I do the paean to the rocks, that is.

  4. I know why I had kids. It was an intellectual decision: I felt that having children (not necessarily birthing) was part of the Great Human Experience, and if it were possible for me to participate in that, I wanted to.

    I honestly did not believe that children entailed sacrifice. I figured my husband would be half caretaker and I would be half caretaker and so, given our combined efforts, we would each still get to do the things we most loved. Ha! Can you believe I was so naive? The first year of my son's live was a pretty bad one for my marriage, let me tell you; I blamed my husband for my cage.

    Ooo. There may be a post here : )

  5. My eldest was cooked while we were BOTH in graduate school and penniless. We hadn't expected that it would be so easy to conceive. The joke was on us.

  6. PS Am I wrong, or does ED look just like you?

  7. I don't know because I can't get past the colouring which is pure father. But I don't really know how I look, only how photos make me look. (Sob)

  8. Beautiful post. Let's just say that I didn't know I wanted children until they arrived and convinced me otherwise. Those little fingers and toes are quite persuasive.

  9. it is a very hard question to answer... because I wanted a family? because I wanted to love unconditionally? because I like kids?

    i just finally decided it was time. and indeed it was.

  10. Beautiful post. We decided to try to have a child, but I don't think I could tell you why. Plus, even if I could, I suspect it would be completely irrelevant. Now, if you asked me why I love having a child? Now that I could answer. And I would probably preface it with all my ambivalence about motherhood. I think it's motherhood that finally made me understand the true meaning of ambivalence (from roots meaning literally two-powered).

  11. This was lovely.

    I grew up thinking I never wanted kids. then I got pregnant by accident. I had an abortion that I didn't want, desperately didn't want and was pressured into. That was when I knew that someday I wanted to be a mother. I couldn't tell you what I thought being a mother meant back then.