I’ve taken a really long break from this blog. And with good reason! I became a mom a few months ago and in the months leading up to that and following it, I have been pretty preoccupied. I’ve been yearning to get back to writing and especially share the emotional journey I took in deciding to become a parent. The following post was started before I became a mom and is now finally being put to bed.
It was July 2011 and I was 36 years old. I was visiting with my sister and her family at a cabin in Quebec, Canada. I woke up in the lower bunk of the bed I was sharing with my 6 year old nephew. Tossing and turning in and out of sleep that morning, I knew that he had already been up for a couple of hours. As I faced the inside wall and slipped in and out of consciousness and sleep, I could hear my nephew and nieces quietly opening the door to the room a couple of times to peek in on me. Whispering voices discussed whether I was awake and then I heard my sister kindly admonish her children to let Aunt Stephy sleep in. They left me alone to be by myself and slumber. Lying in bed in a half daze, I was suddenly overcome with an unexpected and raw emotion that hit me like a freight train.
For a few years, I had witnessed friends and family members become clucky and express sentiments and desires of starting families. Then I subsequently watched the same friends expand their little tribes and bring their own children into the world. I myself was in my early 30s as my friends started to go through their transformations. I remember thinking of myself as heartless and cold for not having any form of maternal instinct and desire. Perhaps I was selfish and enjoyed the ease of being an aunt and then living my life just for myself. I wondered if getting that maternal instinct would ever happen to me and whether a time would ever come when that primal need to breed and bring a little one into the world would kick in. Perhaps in my late 30s? It was useless to force it. Then suddenly that morning, lying alone on the lower bunk of the cabin isolated in the woods of Quebec, a tidal wave of emotions hit me and I realized that I had a very strong desire to have a child of my own. I began sobbing over what had come to light. I don’t know if they were sobs of joy, fear or both. Perhaps I was elated to finally know I had my own maternal instincts deeply embedded in me. On the other hand, perhaps I was fearful that I would never be able to experience motherhood first hand and that I would never know what the joys, trials and tribulations of having my own child would be like.
Newly single again at 36, I found myself for the first time rediscovering my own wishes, desires, needs and destiny. I had already made the decision two years before to put myself on the trajectory to pursue a PhD. I was living an exciting life overseas and discovering new places in China and Southeast Asia. I was honing my skills and love of teaching. There was still so much I wanted to do for myself! Feeling blessed to be a modern and independent woman and to have the freedom to pursue and sculpt my own life and future, having a child and family had not been part of my plan and vision. But after that fateful morning in July 2011, I suddenly found the visions of my future evolving. I started to fantasize about adopting a Chinese baby from an orphanage and building my tribe of two. I figured that I could teach at the university, hire a nanny and then my friends and community would be our extended family and support. As unviable as an option as it was, it was what I yearned for and it was starting to change my trajectory.
Connecting with my now partner in early 2012 put an interesting spin on my life. Around the same time we came together, I was accepted into a PhD program. I found myself at a crossroads. Could I pursue this relationship that was still in its early stages and with perhaps an uncertain future or should I continue to seek my goal of becoming Dr. M? I had worked two years to get into the PhD program. Yet I threw it away in a second. Without being offered funding for my PhD, I was relieved that chasing it wasn’t an economically sound choice anyway and I believed that to be some sign from the divine and that I had a blessing to head down another path. I reasoned that a PhD degree could always be put on the shelf for a while. But what about the opportunity for love and family?
Although when I was at that crossroad, I didn’t allow myself to hem and haw over my choice, my experience has made me sympathetic to the hard decisions many of my mid-thirty to forty-something sisters must go through. Like me, other women may have a late surge of motherly instinct or may simply not have the stars aligned at the right time to pursue starting a family. As motherhood and having a baby have been on my mind a lot over the last five years, I have confided and shared experiences with many other women who have either experienced first time motherhood in their late thirties or early forties of who for whatever reason could not or did not pursue motherhood. Some of them may have had hopes to start a family, but found themselves in the wrong relationship with someone in their late 30s and ended it, only to make peace with the realization that they had probably closed the door on any chances of future motherhood. Other women may have experienced heartbreak after miscarriages or news of their partners’ fertility incompatibility. “I feel society and some mothers don’t recognize you as a real woman until you’ve experienced pregnancy and motherhood yourself,” a friend confessed in a heart-to-heart conversation before I became pregnant. Indeed, I could relate to this sentiment and there had been so many times when I felt like a fish out of water in social gatherings where I was outnumbered by friends who were mothers. Listening to the swapping of stories of playgroups, their toddlers’ toilet antics, or about the brilliance of their children, I often felt bored, uncomfortable and unable to relate in such situations. As a mother-to-be, I magically crossed over to the “other side” from which I felt shut out before. I found myself exchanging tips and getting parenting advice from mother-friends at work, only to feel awkward and wanting to move away from such topics when I noticed non-mother friends or colleagues suddenly in our presence.
In spite of my longing to breed and have a little person of my own, there were moments of doubt as well. I don’t know if many men and women had similar doubts before becoming parents. It was part of the roller coaster ride of emotions I had to grapple with before deciding to go through with the journey towards parenthood. Would I regret becoming a parent and resent the sacrifices it would require? Would I feel I would be giving up on the exciting and spontaneous social life and travel experiences that used to be my raison d’etre? I stumbled upon a heart-breaking article from an online British tabloid in which a housewife and mother of grown children in their 30s confessed to always being regretful of having a family. Yes- the woman loved her children and always fulfilled her duty, but the rewards and satisfaction she had hoped to reap from parenting never were part of her experience. Instead she was bitter that years were wasted on raising her children. As I read this woman’s shockingly honest take on parenthood, I felt a deep pit in my stomach. This was probably one of the greatest fears I have ever dealt with in my adult life. Of course I have made other altering decisions that I have regretted such as with relationships or jobs. But even those situations could be fixed and reversed over time. However, a child would mean permanency and forever. There would be no turning back. For about two weeks I struggled with the unknown and these doubts. I kept my fears to myself for a few days until I finally and reluctantly broached the subject with my partner. Surprised at this new development, he told me he didn’t know how to advise me with my anxiety and that perhaps I would need some time to work through these emotions. For the past two years before I had read that article, I shamefully would struggle with any news of friends or acquaintances being pregnant. Pictures of gleeful parents-to-be sharing baby bump pictures or ultrasound scans on Facebook seemed incredibly insensitive to me. I would frequently bemoan to my partner whenever I would read news of yet another couple expecting. Therefore, I could understand his dismay and surprise after my change of heart.
As a woman at the age of 40, I didn’t have the luxury to put such a heavy decision on hold for a few years. We had had the plan for parenthood mapped out for a couple of years. Everything was going according to plan. We had moved to New Zealand, secured jobs and then 3 year contracts, I had gotten my New Zealand residency and we were steadily saving money for the budget of an eventual family. It was go time. But what about the feelings of doubt? In addition to the fear of regretting becoming a parent, I also grappled with the thought of starting a family so far away from family in the US as well as in such a remote and isolated location of the world. Having a child in New Zealand would likely permanently anchor me there and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to take that step. There was also anxiety over whether I could be a good parent and would be able to hack caring for a newborn baby let alone a human being for decades to come. I had also heard many accounts of how having children can also put a strain on the relationship between the parents. All of these possibilities haunted me.
On the flipside, I was terrified of completely missing the window of opportunity to become a parent. What if deciding not to go for this chance, I would regret in my 50s this decision? Or what if becoming pregnant wouldn’t happen? Would we really want to go through years of grief and thousands of dollars for fertility treatments? I knew I didn’t want that. In the end, we discussed that we would cross that bridge if the time ever came. Adoption was something we were open to although it never came to us researching the process and what it would entail for us as an unmarried, international couple.
In the end, I suppose most prospective parents probably go through the “what if?” process and the tumult of uncertainty. In this final stage of the emotional process and the exchanges of “should I or shouldn’t I’s”, I came to the conclusion that life would turn out well and as a blessing no matter what. If becoming a parent never happened, I was content to be fulfilled with the love of my nieces, nephew and friends’ children as a well as a community of adult friends throughout the world. World travel, volunteering and training for open water swims could also fill up my calendar. On the other hand, if becoming a parent did happen, I was ready to embrace it head on with the same excitement as any of my other previous adventures in life. Either option would work out okay. Once I came to this realization, I reached an inner peace. Within a couple of weeks, I was pregnant.
Dedicated to the women and men in my life who listened and counseled me through my “Should I or Shouldn’t I?” journey as well as those who are amazing parent role models!