To read Part One, click here.
Several months ago, I was on an edible excursion with a writing class in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood. It was near the end of a four-week-long January term course on food writing, and I was really getting into the idea of using meals and culinary experiences as vehicles for telling stories and developing connections. The men I was dating at the time must have found this a bit strange, wondering what kind of woman dedicates hours of her time (nay, full days of her week) to planning, creating, photographing and describing her meals, but that is another topic entirely.
We were on our way from nibbling The Sacred Wheel’s panini-seared mac ‘n cheese and tasting their PRB tomato soup to sampling Barkada’s seasonal polenta cake (which was served with fresh red and green grapes and a generous scoop of marscapone mousse), when I saw a row of big black bubble letters painted over the entrance of a teal concrete building. The two words caught my eye: “Baby World.”
In a past life (a life that has only recently passed, I might add) I would have kept going, made a bee-line for my polenta cake and never looked back. I have never been a “baby person.” I did not attend to younger siblings or take care of my neighbors’ toddlers growing up. I was not one of those high school girls who fawns over strollers and asks women if they can hold their wriggling infants. I refused to babysit anything that wasn’t potty trained, and preferred looking after children who could articulate their needs, brush their own teeth and liked listening to me read them stories. Even after my niece, Johanna was born in July of 2010, I was hesitant to hold her, uncertain what to do when she became fussy and started crying (aside from crying right along with her, which I have done on more than one occasion). Babies and I just didn’t mix.
But by January of 2014, that had changed. By January, Baby World beckoned me. After the food tour was over, a classmate and I went back and went in. We saw row after row of cribs and strollers stuffed with toys and blankets—three-foot-tall giraffes and microfiber fleece, multilingual color wheels and terrycloth monkeys. There was an entire wall covered in diaper bags and another filled with shelves of children’s books. My classmate and I each picked out a seat from the double row of gliders toward the back of the store. We settled in and sighed deep sighs.
I have friends in Kansas City who are expecting in June. I used them as my excuse for walking into a store devoted to baby items. But as I rocked back and forth, back and forth, I knew I was there for myself. I pulled my purse onto my lap and imagined what it might be like to hold a little human in my arms, to cling to someone who had grown inside of me, had been a part of me and would always be a part of me, everyday for the rest of my life. I looked down at the brown leather bag swaddled in my sweater. It didn’t fuss or cry or wriggle or shriek. But it also didn’t squirm, coo, nuzzle or sleep. It was a poor substitute for a human.
I stood up and walked over to the clothing racks, my fingers hesitant to stroke the tiny strawberry pink chenille sweater, the bright red ladybug rain jacket, or the jungle animal footie pajamas. I didn’t want to admit that I wanted this, and that I wanted it this badly.
“Just look at this,” said my classmate, holding up a mint green sleeper with an elephant on the drop seat. I felt my heart flutter. And then I felt ridiculous, fawning over tiny little socks and fire truck onesies—articles of clothing that are made to fit infants, but are clearly created for the adults who buy them.
“There’s a whole display of them up there,” I noted, pointing to the clothesline of soft-colored sleepers on the wall.
“Oh, that’s the worst,” she said, nodding her head upwards, toward the row of framed photos that hung a few inches above the sleepers. “Baby daddies.”
I locked my gaze on a black and white photograph of a man cradling a newborn that couldn’t have been more than two weeks old, not even the length of his forearm. He wasn’t looking at the camera, but at the little lump of blanket resting its head on his bicep. I was embarrassed by my fixation, my intrusion on an intimate moment. I blinked back the emotion that was filling my eyes.
I want that, I thought. I want that so much.
It’s not like me to get all worked up over the possibility that I might never have children of my own. Or it didn’t used to be. It’s like a switch flipped on, and for the past year or so I’ve been seeing life by this alternative light source. Initially it was strange and beautiful, and the desire itself, which also seemed strange and beautiful, was something that I owned and acknowledged and felt settle in me like a new kind of wisdom.
|Owen–the last man to really steal my heart.
Last summer, before moving to California, I nannied for a family in Kansas City. Mona had just turned four and Owen was right at 13 months, not quite talking and only just starting life as a biped. Prior to my 6 weeks with the Hursts
, I had never so much as changed a diaper. My older brother gave me lessons, using my 8-month-old nephew as an example when we were all visiting my parents in June. Even with my modest training, I expected that my charges and I might get off to a rough start. I expected it would be difficult in ways I couldn’t foresee. What I did not expect was to fall in love with them. I did not expect to enjoy strapping them into a stroller or packing snacks for a wagon ride to the park. I did not expect to start a running list of Mona’s insights on life or to look forward most to the afternoons I spent carrying Owen around the family room, singing “Rainbow Connection”
as I rocked him to sleep. Maybe that’s when the switch flipped, or when I realized that it had.
As time went on, my new longings became painful and poignant (as many desires do when they go unrealized for too long). I began to feel desperate, eager and anxious and not at all focused on anything other than the yearning to build and become family with someone. I started looking for the switch, hoping I could flip it off and go back to seeing my life in its previous shades of individuation.
But I couldn’t. Or I haven’t. I’ve learned a great many things in past year and a half. I’ve learned to love and long for another person more fully and deeply than I realized I was capable of doing. I’ve learned that there are decisions you can’t change, words you can’t take back, damage you can’t undo, no matter how hard you try. I’ve learned to risk and to trust, even when that risk doesn’t seem to pay off. I’ve learned to let go of my plans for my life, to allow the shifting in my heart that has led me to this place of new longings and realizations. I’ve learned to grieve and to mourn and to hope for life in the face of death and rejection. But I haven’t learned how to flip back that switch. I’m not entirely sure I want to.
In January of 2013, just before leaving for France, I spent a week with my brother and his family. Johanna was two and a half years old at the time, her brother only three months (too young for me to be interested). Jo and I had a hot-and-cold relationship, both of us rather strong-willed and stubborn, often knowing exactly what we want, or at the very least thinking that we do. During that visit she ran from me when I tried to hug her, scolded me for touching her little brother, and bit me when she thought I was trying to take the cardboard box she was planning to use as a house. “No!” she yelled. “No, you!”
When I returned in June, we reached a new sort of understanding. I was spending some time with my parents in Nebraska and my brother and his family came to stay for a week. I began charming Jo with stories of France, presenting her with a hot pink Eiffel Tower that Nina had given me before I left Paris. Nearly three-years-old, Jo was into mimicking, and I quickly became one of her favorite subjects.
“You’re my favorite,” I began saying to her each day.
“You’re my favorite,” she’d repeat, melting my heart a little each time. I knew she probably didn’t mean it. Didn’t really know what she was saying or how easily she could woo me with her words. But I accepted them anyhow.
One morning I woke to the sound of tapping at the door of my childhood bedroom. It took me a few minutes to discern which city, state, and country I was in. A little voice pulled me from my dream-state.
“Auntie Amanda, blow bubbles with me.”
Within five minutes I was sitting on the front steps in my pajamas, blowing large rainbow orbs of soapy liquid through a hot pink wand and watching Johanna chase them across the front yard.
“Looks like someone really likes you,” said my mom as she came up behind me.
“She just needed to grow up a little,” I said. “We both did.”
To say that my desires and the opportunity to realize them have been poorly timed is beyond an understatement. It was good that the Kansas City man and I broke up before I went to Europe. I needed to be on my own in order to be confronted by myself. The man was probably right in his unspoken estimation that I wasn’t fit to be a wife or a mother. I wasn’t. Not when we were dating. Not when we broke up. Not when I left for France last January.
But that was before. Before I was an au pair or a nomad or a housekeeper or a nanny. Before I was a grad student or a teacher or a Californian or a grown up. That was before I realized that deep down my desires and I are actually much more domestic than I’ve ever let on.
This past Sunday was Mother’s Day and I was at church in San Francisco. At the beginning of the service we recognized the mothers who were sitting among us. “I don’t know how you do it,” the pastor said, noting the physical, emotional and mental capacity it takes to birth, nurture and raise a child. “Waking up to feed infants, staying up with sick babies…”
I flashed back to a Robitussin commercial
from the late 80s that had aired in the middle of the Care Bears Movie II
when my parents had recorded it off of CBS. My brother and I watched the VHS tape until it wouldn’t play any more, and I became as familiar with the commercials as I was with the featured film. The tagline of the ad was “Robitussin: recommended by Dr. Mom.”
I have thought about getting a PhD since I was a teenager, since I realized that it was possible to become a doctor without going to medical school (which I had to rule out when I nearly passed out while shadowing a nurse). It was pride that led me to think I needed one, that I was the kind of person who should have a doctorate in…something. But Dr. Mom? That’s a title I had never desired. It didn’t come with the kind of recognition and respect I had been out to attain. I thought of how much I now wanted that title, of how this was the first Mother’s Day that I found myself actually wanting to be a mother.
Back in my sister’s apartment we switched from talking about my hypothetical future to discussing plans for her early-July wedding. We looked at white and peach flowers on Pinterest and compared and contrasted different flavors of sheet cake. She got up to snap her birth control from its shiny silver packet, the little pill that lets her decide when she wants to have children, if she wants to have children, since she is still young and has already met the man with whom she will build her future and her family.
|If motherhood doesn’t happen, the aunt gig is pretty great.
I have met women who are desperate to have babies, whose biological clocks ring louder than their rational thought. “I just want to get pregnant,” they say. “I need to meet someone, anyone, so I can start having kids before it’s too late.” Their eyes get this sort of wild, hungry look when they see toddlers playing in the park or small children riding public transportation. The desire is palpable.
That isn’t really the case for me, and I hope it doesn’t become so. I don’t see myself on the fast-track to motherhood. It isn’t just a baby I want, it’s the whole package—the opportunity to nurture life, not just to bear children, but to create a home and a family, and to do that with a certain kind of man who will love me in a certain sort of way and will work alongside me to create a life that blends both of our dreams and desires.
But until that happens, I carry my longings, wondering how long the gestation will last. Wondering if the switch will flip off and my heart will shift back, or if maybe, just maybe, this time the longing will be fulfilled.