Dear 12-year-old me

Actually, let me start with:

Dear parents,

What do you tell people who are considering having children — well, quite frankly, they’ve already decided they’re going to do it, but they just want you to bolster their nerves. But what do you say when they ask you, “Would you do it all again… honestly?”

Do you have a moment where you wonder, Should I tell them? Should I tell them how hard it is? Because really, what good does that do? Like the blogger says, they’re going to do it anyway; why take away this moment of happy anticipation? Maybe I should just smile and say, Sure. I’d do it again in an instant.

Not me, kids. I can’t lie to them. I smile wanly and say, “You know, I’m just not sure.”

Which invokes the recoil of horror. Which prompts me to self-correct: “Don’t get me wrong. I love my kid. I really, really love him, and I can’t imagine not having him in my life. It’s just that if I were right back at that moment, before he was a real flesh-and-blood human being, back when s/he was just an abstraction, and you told me — really told me — about what this was going to do to me…. Well, I just don’t know.”

When I was 11 years old and approaching my twelfth birthday, my mom asked me what I would like as a present. I asked her if I could get a hysterectomy. Also, I said, I would like steak, a baked potato, and asparagus for a birthday dinner.

But back to the hysterectomy.

I don’t quite recall exactly what was going through my mind when I asked for this gift, but I’m pretty sure it was some combination of knowing (or thinking I knew) that I didn’t want children and having endured a junior-high health class where we talked through the realities of menstruation. Good lord, I remember thinking, I’m not going through all that if I don’t even need the equipment.

Yeah, I was a weird child.

To her credit, my mother responded with her usual respectful sagacity that this was a serious decision, and we should think it over for a while. If I was still interested on my 13th birthday, we could discuss it again.

Yeah, I love my mom.

It never came up again, except as a funny story. By the time I was in my twenties, I was sure I wanted at least one child, possibly two. I went into pregnancy with near-total confidence that this was the right thing to do.

Without belaboring the details here — that’s a story for another day — suffice it to say that childbirth and the first four years of my son’s life were hard. I went from being a physically and mentally healthy person to being clinically depressed and 60 pounds overweight. Things have slowly gotten better, especially with the depression, but I feel permanently altered.

Again, granted, this permanent alteration has also brought with it a truly lovely, loving child whom I adore with every fiber of my being. OK, sometimes I want to strangle him, but sometimes I want to strangle everybody, and that’s people I don’t even have to see that often. So really, he’s fine.

But still, I find myself thinking often these days about that 12-year-old wish of mine. Maybe it wasn’t so crazy. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. But I’m in it now and there’s nothing for it but to muddle ahead through this strange mixed-up soup of anger and unconditional love.

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15 comments

  1. Susan Harper

    Well said, and interesting.
    I would choose it all again, for me. I don’t know what I would be doing if I hadn’t had children, but it wouldn’t be being called ‘active’ by doctors, playing the fiddle, playing Ultimate, or caring for two rabbits, a mouse, and a Swiss exchange student (we’d still have the cat).
    It’s damned dark down that other trouserleg of time.

      • Susan Harper

        Terry Pratchett’s image.
        I think the darkness is the real reason I’d choose this way again: maybe down that other leg I’m even more smugly content, doing a lot of good for a lot of very appreciative people, a creative leader in some important field, giving TED talks and bringing joy to the world… but maybe not: maybe without the impetus of a post-natal check I’d’ve been too busy at that imagined fulfilling and glorious work to get the cervical smear that saved my life.

  2. Carol Hamlin

    Darling Lizzie! I just have to reply to this as it is so close to my heart. I know how much you love and adore and want to strangle that little, getting so big, guy! Never doubt that. And you have one of the absolutely best mom’s in the world. Now let me tell you why I understand your post.
    Even as a child myself, I never understood why the woman had to stay at home and take care of the house and the kids. That just didn’t seem fair and very uninteresting to me.
    Then at a very early age 12 or 13, I met John. I knew immediately that if I ever married that I would marry him.
    Years later that did happen and we just had our 40th anniversary.
    But we chose not to have children. Have I second guessed our decision–seldom. We just knew that it wasn’t for us. We enjoyed our lifestyle and when forced by medical conditions to make a decision, we chose child-free. That may sound cold, but I do know that I would have been “cracker dog crazy” if I had been a mother. Depression would have been a constant. And alcohol would have been involved!!
    So Sweet Lizzie, our childfree lifestyle has allowed us to love you, Mary, Liam and all of our other nieces and nephews with much zest and enjoyment!! Sometimes you’re just supposed to be the crazy Auntie!! I love that role!!

    • Elizabeth GM

      Thank you for your message, dear Aunt Carol! I completely understand your decision. I can’t imagine that it’s been easy over the years being a military spouse having to answer people’s insistent questions about why you didn’t have kids, as if you had made some kind of unnatural choice. I’ve always admired your determination to take your own path. There are many ways to love children, and sometimes it’s in other people’s houses! 🙂 Love you.

  3. Katya

    It’s interesting, almost like there’s a parents-who-already-had-babies club and the rest of people. You have a kid and *then* are being told about how shit it feels to not sleep for 3 year or what it’s really like to have a post natal depression and what not. But I don’t think there is any point in telling expectant parents any of it, because (apart from the fact that there’s no point unless you’re being helpful in some way) most likely their experience is going to be different from yours. Their depression might have a different trigger, their kid will have different needs to yours, their family circumstances will be different.

    I am pretty sure I’d do it again. Sure my life changed completely, but I found happiness in it. I really enjoy seeing my kids come up with clever and funny stuff and see them grow. I was just as confused before I had them but now (think it’s more to do with age rather than with having kids) at least I know what my problems are.

    • Elizabeth GM

      Thanks for your thoughtful response, Katya. Depending on my mood, I slide back and forth between feeling what you just expressed and darker moments when I feel like I do in that post. You and Susan and Carol are so right that simply making that choice to have kids or not forces forward a lot of very valuable self-exploration.

  4. Angela S.

    Yet again your post makes me feel so validated! Our road to choice was very different than most people, and yet, many of the emotions around parenting are the same. One of my sisters did invitro for 5 years before finally having a child, and still admits to sometimes thinking, “Why did I do this?!” It’s not creating the child, or in my case, choosing to parent the children, it’s those days where you feel like your life has been so fundamentally altered, sometimes in ways that aren’t at all gratifying, that you dream about all the great things you could be doing with your time and emotional energy if only….

    But then you have a day that shifts all of it. I love hearing from other parents about these experiences (especially parents who write so well!). It helps me to make sense of how I feel. And it allows me to not feel so guilty. [Which makes me think about how hard parenting is for perfectionists. I hate feeling like I’m not being perfect (yes, that is obnoxious and totally ridiculous, but it’s true). And nothing makes me feel like I’m coming up short like parenting].

    Hang in there! And thank you for sharing.

    Angela

    • Elizabeth GM

      Some are born mothers, some achieve motherness, and some have motherness thrust upon them. I have long had such great admiration for how you two took on an extremely challenging parenting situation and made it work. Boy, how you made it work! Those three kids are so happy now! And all of that said, it’s still perfectly OK to acknowledge, isn’t it, that everyone has felt pain and anguish and even regret along the way.

      And you’re right that those “shift” moments make a huge difference. All this morning before he went off to basketball camp, Liam sat on my lap and did puzzles with me. Much lovey dovey. It was such a great salve for the dark moment from the night before when I wrote this post.

  5. Bob Paver

    Dare I be the first and perhaps only father to respond?
    EG-M: your post is courageous. Your disclosure, which would horrify some people – think Sarah Palin, demonstrates your capacity to confront imperfection.

    I have four children. I hear your gasps. Children bring so many responsibilities and so unanticipated work, leading to your question, “Why didn’t someone warn me about this?” That question, by the way, is is asked by every parent. It’s also normal to think horrible things about your child.

    One’s mental state changes one’s outlook. Our attitudes about children are influenced.

    Our children are mostly grown. The youngest is 23 and graduated last year from UT. I will tell you with all honesty that the experience of happy, healthy “adult” children is a joy, even for Shari who did the superwoman thing, especially when the kids were young. Not that I was a horrible father and didn’t participate.

    Children are worth the effort, in my opinion. Had they been more difficult than they were, I could be singing another tune. Parenthood is a long term project. Gratification is elusive.

    In closing, if YOU want children PLAN accordingly, and have them. However, understand that pregnancies and new babies may not follow the plan – believe me. You and your spouse will have to compromise and sacrifice. The sacrifice may be huge. I don’t know how dual career partners in tenure track positions under intense pressure to perform can manage children. But many do OK. Others, not so much. One member of the team may have to “take one for the team” and defer his/her career. Wow! Did I say that? I did. It’s reality, and not just for academics. All dual career couples in demanding professional occupations struggle with this. Of course, your mileage may vary. You may have a great support network of relatives and friends who are there to help – a huge benefit. Do not underestimate the demands of child rearing. It’s a job, not a side job. You can’t ignore or put off parental responsibilities. Nothing is optional.

    If you don’t want children, try not to feel guilty or ashamed or having failed. It is your decision and no one else’s. Parents, other relatives, and friends can be annoying and hurtful when they repeatedly ask, “When are you two going to have a baby?” and other such loaded queries.

    I have thought about these challenges for a long time. And while I appreciate, love, and am grateful for all of my children, knowing what I know now, I would not have had 4 children in today’s world. Cost of college degree in 2030? I’m not even going to think about it.

    Y’all are wonderful. I enjoyed every comment.

    • Elizabeth GM

      Bob, thanks for your very thoughtful reply. Like you, I’ve really enjoyed reading people’s comments on this blog. They’re quite honest and insightful. I particularly like what you said here: “Parenthood is a long term project. Gratification is elusive.” (And I want that on a shirt.) My parents have commented many times on how much they enjoy my sister and me as adults, and your comment makes me realize the full meaning of that. It’s a life-long relationship that’s difficult and wonderful — and constantly changing — all at the same time.

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