Every night, no matter how tired I might be, I sit alone in my small kitchen eating a bowl of cereal. My husband has gone to bed, the television has bitten its sharp tongue, traffic noises outside have slowed to the occasional soft hum that rises and fades. Life seems — suddenly, finally — simple. I have Cheerios and milk to fill my bowl, a furnace to warm me, curtains to keep out the night. I sit, chew, gaze around the clean, tidy kitchen, enjoying this uncomplicated time of day.
One night two weeks ago things got complicated. It happened when my seven-month-old kitten, Ella, came into the room. She headed quietly and purposefully for her blue plastic food dish brimming with Kitten Chow. As she passed me, her fluffy, gray coat brushed my bare ankles.
All at once I was scooping her up and cradling her on my lap. I was popping open a can of Friskies Ocean Whitefish, reaching for a teaspoon, and whispering to this trapped, bewildered kitten, “Are you hungry, baby? Don’t worry, Mommy will feed you.” I was spoon-feeding a kitten perfectly able and willing to feed itself. I was calling myself “Mommy” to a cat, cringing as I said it. My sense of peace and contentment had vanished. Replacing it, muscling its way even into my late-night quiet time, was my deep longing for a baby.
How did this happen? How did my desire for a baby escalate during the past few years from a sweet little notion that fluttered through my mind now and then into a full-scale, unrelenting obsession? At what point did I lose all sense of proportion and patience?
Part of it is that I have been waiting; isn’t it human nature to want what is withheld? My desire has been heightened by a growing sense of urgency, of running out of time: I am thirty-five years old; my husband, a retired English professor, is sixty-nine. Frustrated in our effort to conceive, we have tried fertility treatments but found them not at all guaranteed. It is in those moments when conception seems unlikely for us that my desire for a baby is, I think, most intense.
But surely if giving birth seemed less unlikely I would want it just as much. Something else must be driving my obsession. One may ask, Isn’t the desire for a child healthy, normal, perfectly natural? Why call it an obsession? Let me tell you. I have watched all the avenues toward happiness that once stretched out before me closing off. There is but one that I can see: a sunshine-and-birdsong-filled lane leading me toward a tiny, warm, blanket-wrapped baby. I have felt my interest in people narrowing, honing itself to one single question: do they have children? If the answer is no, I am evilly glad to have company in my misery; if the answer is yes, I ache with envy.
I work at a homeless shelter in central Pennsylvania. Recently I sat talking with an eighteen-year-old, unwed mother from New York City. She said she had left New York to escape the horror of the streets, where she saw her brother shot and killed; where she was homeless for several years, whenever her mother’s money went for cocaine instead of rent; where she knew her father only as a drunk lying in some doorway. As I listened, I gazed at the underweight wide-eyed four-month-old propped up on her lap, trying to suck on her blouse, and I thought, Oh, you’re so lucky to have a baby.
What else can I call it but an obsession?
There was a time in my life when, frankly, the thought of having babies filled me with horror — all through my twenties, in fact. My own mother did not enjoy motherhood. When I say that to her, she denies it, so full is she still of the ethos force-fed to women of her generation. She denies having screamed at her children that she hated them, that they had ruined her life. She denies the days, the weeks at a time when she simply stopped speaking to us, when she rushed from a room the moment one of her children entered it. Of course she denies it: what she did then, she could not control; something buried deep inside her, so deep and so unattended that all it could do was fester, drove her to act this way. Maybe she really doesn’t remember.
But my mother does not want my understanding; she wants my cooperation. She wants me to confirm the myth to which she is still — still — impelled to cling: that she was happy, contented, fulfilled as a mother. I can’t do that for her; that kind of pretending causes vertigo in me. So we avoid the subject. Now, as I write this, I am filled with guilt at betraying my mother. At not avoiding the subject.
The point I am trying to make is that for me, for many years, having a child meant being condemned to live a long, painful lie. I was frightened of it. I wanted no part of it. Ten years ago, having children meant to me the loss of myself.
I had very little sense of myself in those days. I remember a feeling of utter aimlessness: writing not because I had something to say but because moving a pen across the ruled lines of a piece of paper gave me the only sense of direction and control I knew. What a disaster it would have been, then, for me to have had a child. Instead of turning inward to find my identity, as I have since done, I would have turned toward the child. Each moment of nurturing the child would have been at the expense of nurturing myself. And as the child began to grow and thrive and want to become itself, could I have allowed it? Or would I, out of fear of losing all I had invested, have forbidden it a separate existence, as my mother did me?
In a way, my desire now to have a baby, even if it is never realized, is a victory for me. My victory is that I do, now, have my own existence. It has taken many years, a divorce, moving back and forth across the country (until I graduated from searching geographically for myself to searching metaphysically), two master’s degrees, thousands of pages of fiction, and it is still, of course, evolving. But my life is strong, and real. I feel a sense of wholeness. I feel, now, that I cannot be diminished but only enlarged by giving of myself to a child. Paul Klee, the Swiss painter, spoke of living “close to the heart of creation.” Maybe that can help explain it. Before I truly felt alive, the thought of having a child seemed irrelevant, a distraction. Once I awoke to life, the thought of having a child — of entering more fully into the forces and rhythms of life, of coming closer to the heart of creation — began to seem wholly, perfectly relevant. Giving birth has come to mean, to me, becoming fully human.
Even as I write these words, I horrify myself. Do I really believe that I cannot be fully human unless, and until, I have a child? Of course not. I know I am human when I write an honest sentence. When I love my husband, sisters, parents, friends. When I recognize each homeless client at the shelter as individual and complex. I know I am human when I . . . when I long desperately for a child.
When my husband’s brother, a professor of psychology, asked me not long ago why I wanted a child, I felt flustered. I finally blurted out, “You have children, don’t you? So why shouldn’t I?” I’m not proud of it, but I do realize that a small part of my desire for a child is so that I won’t feel left out. My colleagues have children. My sisters have children. My husband has children. Nearly every one of my friends has children. In this society, despite the women’s movement, not to have children is still to feel somewhat of a freak.
As the rare childless one among my friends, I am often the person to whom they complain. Their motives vary. Sometimes I think they resent my free time, my nights unbroken by crying babies, my quiet, uncluttered house. Sometimes I think they mean to do me a favor, a kindness: “Do you know how lucky you are?” they say in so many words. “Do you realize the freedom, the opportunities you have that we lost when we had children?”
When my friends complain to me about their hectic lives, I shake my head and sympathize the best I can. What else can I do? If my friend says, “I haven’t been able to finish a single book in the three years since Jennifer was born,” I say how terrible it must be to have no time to read, and I offer to send a short-story collection. “Maybe you could squeeze in a story,” I say, “while Jennifer is taking her nap.”
How did my desire for a baby escalate during the past few years from a sweet little notion that fluttered through my mind now and then into a full-scale, unrelenting obsession?
I say this to keep myself from saying other things. Things like, “Sometimes when I’m reading a book, in a chair, by myself, I try to imagine how it would feel to have my child on my lap and to be reading to her. Sometimes I can almost feel the slight weight of her body against my arm, my breast. Her soft hair brushing my cheek. But then I can’t feel her at all, and I start to cry.” It wouldn’t be fair to my friend to say such things. What could she offer to send me?
Lack of sleep is a common complaint among my friends. Children cry out for them during the night, rise at the crack of dawn, refuse to nap in the afternoon. My friends are often exhausted when they talk to me, and I am genuinely sympathetic; I know that sleep deprivation is so painful it’s used as a method of torture. I agree that I am lucky to get plenty of rest, to go to bed when I feel like it, to sleep as late as I want on weekend mornings. One recent Saturday, I stayed in bed until eleven o’clock. I could have stayed in bed until one o’clock, or five o’clock, or midnight. No one was calling to me, waiting to be fed or dressed or played with or held. There were no cartoons blaring, no high-pitched voices, no laughter. Just the silence of the house, telling me to sleep, that there was really no need for me to get up at all.
Yes, I am feeling sorry for myself. Yes, I am ignoring the greater world and all of the rich, varied experiences it offers, while I fixate on one experience so far denied me. I know this. I can’t help it. It wouldn’t be an obsession if I could.
I suppose I must consider what I have been carefully sidestepping: hormones. Is it possible that I’ve been taken over by chemical substances I do not in the least understand? Is it possible that I will awaken one morning with a cool, clear head and no particular feelings about children at all?
No, it is much more than hormones. Perhaps hormones do act as intensifiers, making my hand cup against my stomach, feeling for something that isn’t there, but my desire for a child is not just a physical urge, as for food or warmth. My desire is to wear myself out with loving someone, to be needed and used and drained of all I have to give. It is the desire to be strong for someone who comes to me helpless, to show her the way from dependence to independence. And it is the desire to feel in my bones what I understand from a distance when I read this line from John Balaban’s “Words for My Daughter”: “I suspect I am here less for your protection than you are here for mine, as if you were sent to call me back into our helpless tribe.”
Tonight, as I again sit at my kitchen table, listening to the quiet, there will be no complications, no hungry kitten to remind me of the baby I want. Three days ago, my kitten, Ella, was struck and killed by a car.
Her death has taught me something: I loved Ella for herself. My affection for Ella, I had thought, was a venting of all the feelings stored up in me, waiting to pour forth upon a child. But after she was killed and my husband and I had buried her on a friend’s land in the country, covering her grave with stones we lugged from the bank of a stream, I couldn’t bear to look at her blue plastic food dish, her brush, the colored balls she’d batted across the living room floor. It wasn’t the opportunity to vent my maternal feelings that I missed; I missed, and do miss, Ella.
When my husband carried her in from the road, placed her inside a cardboard box, and covered her with a towel, I felt everything go out of me. I lay flat on the floor, face down on the carpet, and wept. I have experienced the deaths of people very close to me — my grandparents, my aunt, my husband’s parents — but I never fell down on the floor for them. The force of my grief for Ella has astonished me.
What was different about Ella is this: she was all mine. When my favorite aunt, whom I loved very much, died nine years ago, I felt that her own two children had a greater right to grieve than I. So I choked down my own grief. But Ella had belonged to me; no one had a greater right to grieve. I held nothing back.
Recently, while I was the supervisor on duty at the homeless shelter, one of the residents, a seventeen-year-old girl, had a telephone call from her mother. The girl had been severely depressed, had run away from home, attempted suicide, spent time in a psychiatric hospital. After the call, the girl dropped the phone and ran upstairs, sobbing. I found her in her room, crouched in a corner in a fetal position, her face pressed against the wall. I went to her and carefully put my arm around her thin shoulders. My touch seemed to shock words out of her. She began to sob, “My mother doesn’t love me. Everything I do, she’s against me. She’s never loved me my whole life.” From a recent conversation with her mother, I understood the genesis of those words. From my experiences with my own mother, I understood the girl’s pain.
What I wanted to do, what I wanted to do more than anything, was to say to her, “I love you.” I had to bite my tongue to keep back the words. She would think me insincere: I didn’t know her well enough. It would only make things worse.
The thing was, though, the words were true. She was an innocent, frightened, young girl. Most of the time she tried to laugh and joke and act seventeen, except for times like these, when she fell apart in an agony of loneliness and despair. How could I not love her? Why should I not love her?
Well, because such an emotion would have been suspect. People don’t have sudden revelations of love for one another like that. In movies maybe they do, on television, in books, but not in real life. Worst of all, to tell her I loved her would only have reminded her that it was I, not her mother, saying those words. These, at any rate, were the thoughts going round in my head, keeping me from saying what I wanted to say.
But my own child . . . my own child I could love freely, fiercely, without thinking twice. Without the fear of crossing a line. Friends tell me that they were filled with love at first sight of their newborn children, and on how long an acquaintance, I would like to ask, was that emotion based? Perhaps parents love their newborns so deeply because, at last, they have a perfect right to love.
A close friend of mine with two children once said to me, “When you have children, you have a future.” When she said that, I was hurt and angry. Did she mean that as long as I had no children I had no future? But now I think I know what she was trying to say. If being alive means being able to love — as I think it does — then to have a child is to see love extending on and on, yourself made always alive by it. It is possible to imagine a marriage ending, a friend moving on, but is it possible to imagine an end to loving your child?
I can’t help thinking of my husband’s mother, Bessie Rubinstein. Bessie died last year at the age of eighty-nine, and I have missed her very much and very often, but never more, I think, than now. I miss her now because I think I know what she would say about this search of mine. I think she would say, “Of course you want a child. What needs explaining?”
Bessie loved her children fiercely. She loved a lot of other things, too: mythology, Greek tragedy, biblical history, Israel. But on her worst days, when she sat hunched in pain on her couch, it was one of her children coming through the front door that would transform her face. What joy, what power she got from loving her children.
Not long before she died, Bessie and I were sitting on her couch, our heads bent over one of her many photograph albums. With fingers crippled by arthritis, she plucked one of the pictures of her great-grandchildren from a page and brought it close to her eyes. She stared down into the photograph, as if staring through a microscope at a bit of DNA.
I studied her studying the photograph and knew what she was thinking. She was thinking how lucky she was to have four adorable great-grandchildren, six beautiful grandchildren, three wonderful children. She was thinking how precious these great-grandchildren were, looking up at her from the photograph. She was thinking that if she were soon to die, she would have the great solace of four great-grandchildren to carry on for her.
Bessie lowered her hand to her lap. She turned to me. Her eyes were bright. Her face was alive and open. “I hope I have more,” she said.
What needs explaining?