Yesterday, I was wading through old photos on my computer looking for one I could use for an article when I happened upon some pictures of myself, roughly eight years ago. I’m feeding baby Gage with a bottle and looking over at toddler Jack, smiling. I totally look like I have my shit together in those photos. I totally did not.
I often wonder, when I see parents at the grocery store toting two young children along, parents who look like they also have their shit together, are they really that chill? Or is it like that photo of me — only calm on the outside? Is everyone kind of a wreck when they have little kids? I wonder this because I have…let’s say a history behind my quest to have children. That history gave me an unusual level of anxiety once I had them.
I always wanted kids. I have introspected on that desire a lot, and I’m pretty sure it was a biological/emotional urge that originated with me and not societal norms. So in college, I mapped it out in my head. This may seem weird, but I know of at least one other person who did this, so it’s a thing. I wanted to be done having kids by the time I was 30. To space them out by at least two years, I needed to be pregnant with the first one by the time I was 26. I wanted to be married for at least two years before having them, so that meant a wedding by the time I was 24. I wanted to date at least two years before getting married, so that meant meeting Mr. Right by the time I was 22. And, since I figured this out when I was 21, I panicked.
This absurd logic is what prompted me to get married, just slightly off my timeline, at 25. This doesn’t mean I was a heartless asshole who didn’t marry for love. I was deeply in love with my first husband. We were great friends, we were okay dating partners, we were shitty at marriage together. (Not that anyone knew it, not even us. We were delusional.)
I was the catalyst for all of this. I don’t think he was quite ready to get married, and I think he was even less ready when I suggested going off birth control when I was 27, but he went along with it because he loved me and he did want kids at some point.
I got pregnant. We celebrated. We told everyone. I gave my grandmother a birthday card from her great-grandchild, and it brought tears to her eyes. Then, I miscarried. It was awful, and we had to tell everyone what happened, which was a lot shittier than telling them I was pregnant. I was devastated. Then, I had three more miscarriages, and I was a wreck. I was profoundly depressed and panicked that I might not ever carry a baby to term. My timeline was all fucked up now. He said, “I’m afraid you’ll never get over this.” I said, point blank, “I won’t.”
He went back to school to change careers, and we decided to take a break from trying to conceive. That’s when I realized how unhappy I was. I’d been distracted by the baby thing, and taking a step back, I noticed how dysfunctional our marriage was. I knew it, but I didn’t do anything about it. I let it fester, the childish part of me pushing it down and ignoring it, despite the more adult part of my brain knowing that wasn’t going to work long term. We got divorced.
At that point, I was 30, and I finally stopped clinging to my stupid timeline, stopped adjusting it and projecting forward with the ridiculous notion I had control over the matter. I decided, in my dogged way, I would have children. If I had to beg, borrow, steal, or adopt them, if I had to raise them by myself in the woods amongst the wolves, it was going to happen sooner or later. So when Jason and I got married, I had no ulterior baby motive.
I got pregnant on our honeymoon. Nine months later, we had Jack. Two years later, I had another miscarriage. I got pregnant with Gage when I was 34, and gave birth to him when I was 35. During my last pregnancy, I had to talk myself out of a panic attack repeatedly; my uterus hadn’t magically expired on my 35th birthday. Then, there was a measure of relief. Procreation, which had dominated my thoughts for over a decade, seven pregnancies later, was complete. I could stop worrying about baby-making sex and relax. But I didn’t. Because after all that time, I couldn’t believe it was real. I couldn’t fathom that “they” (I have no idea who “they” are) were going to let me keep my children.
When they were infants, I worried about SIDS, I worried about whooping cough and the flu, I worried about BPA in baby bottles and pesticides on lawns. If it existed as even a remote threat to my babies, I worried about it. Something in my brain could not wrap itself around the idea that they weren’t going to be yanked away from me. The saga I’d gone through to have children made their existence feel fragile to me.
Thankfully, I grew out of that. I’m pretty free-rangy as a parent these days, and it would be hard to know I was ever so anxious about their safety. Those close to me back then knew — my parents, Jason’s parents, and certainly Jason. But not the people in the park or the people in the grocery store. They saw what I see in that old photo — a calm, smiling, competent parent. More and more these days, I am that mom, but I still have my moments.