This Mother's Day, something happened for the first time: I got wished a Happy Mother's Day.
On three separate occasions. At two grocery stores (before 9 a.m., with my husband, no children in sight) and at our lunch spot (at noon, with my husband, no children in sight).
(Seems strange to me that a mother around my age celebrating Mother's Day would not have her children with her. Might mean that she's not a mother, eh? Context clues: they really can help in social situations.)
No hesitation from those who wished it, until I gave a brittle chuckle and said faux-brightly, "Not yet!"
My husband and I don't have kids, but we want them someday, and what someday means is up to us—except, you know, not entirely.
Now that it's September, I can officially say that I'm turning 30 next month, and I'm excited about it. (Get pumped, readers: I've already been working on my 30 things to do before I turn 31 list.) I'm not feeling the need to say, "It's my second 29th birthday!" I'm genuinely looking forward to a new decade.
As I finish up my twenties a married woman, and women my age are starting to have children, it feels more and more like maternal instincts are expected of me. Instincts that are (evidently) supposed to be "natural." That bothers me a lot more than the idea of turning 30.
This spring at small group, one member brought her beautiful new baby for us to meet. Apart from me, most of the others are already mothers. They passed the infant around the circle easily, cooing and giving her a bottle, giving the new mom some time to breathe and vent.
When it was my turn, I took the baby somewhat awkwardly from the person next to me, and paused. I wasn't sure how to position her. Should I tuck her head in the crook of my arm, or try and lift her up to my shoulder? She had just eaten; was she going to spit up on me? I don't know how to burp an infant. I loved reading The Baby-Sitters Club but I always hated actual baby-sitting. I don't know what to do.
In that moment, it felt like every woman in the room was watching me.
It felt like they were expecting me to feel something I very much didn't.
It felt like I didn't even want to try and hold the baby the right way (sorry, baby, I'm horrible), so that I wouldn't satisfy (what I interpreted to be) their expectation.
Then someone said something. Exasperated, short.
"Come on, Claire, you know how to do it!"
Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm basically the opposite of a rebel, in the traditional sense. No curfew issues, no groundings as a teenager. But I've learned that one of my biggest sources of rebellion as an adult is to be passive aggressive. To not try.
I didn't want to try and hold the baby the right way, especially after that comment. Even though many of these women are my close friends and role models (and people I’d want to emulate as a mom), this moment spurred an internal and external rebellion against showing the mothering tendency that it's assumed I even have. Because if I show that I do have it, then I'm conforming to what women are supposed to be in the eyes of our world, what has been seen for millennia as a woman's highest calling.
I don't love that I'm a passive aggressive rebel. But I do recognize it. It happens in other scenarios, too. And I'm working on it. Slowly.
Granted, there are some ways that I "rebel" against what society thinks a woman should be by just...being...me. I don't like makeup, the idea of a having a wedding hashtag made me cringe, and it took me forever to understand the appeal of skinny jeans (finally got there on that one, though). Most of that is because I'm incredibly low-maintenance, always have been (what's this hairdryer contraption you speak of?). But a bit of it is that proactive sense of... wanting to be different. Not wanting to be told how meaning should come into my life.
How meaning should come into my life.
Because that's what it's really about, right? Children equal meaning, the greatest meaning there is, at least according to our "family values" society (remind me how that works again, no-paid-family-leave, anti-insurance-for-all, I-could-go-on U.S. government?). Raising a human to be, well, human (or their particular brand of it), and to see how they grow and learn and start to find meaning in their own lives. I certainly agree—that whole journey is chock full of meaning.
But that doesn't mean that's all there is. And I think my fear is that I will narrow myself down in meaning and purpose. To sound like the incredibly selfish almost 30-year-old that I sound like right now, I don't want all of my meaning to be wrapped up in someone else's. I want who I am as a person, not just a mother, to still matter when I'm breastfeeding and running after toddlers and picking up middle schoolers. And I don't want to lose value now, when I'm not a mother.
I didn't want that group of women to look at me cradling that baby and think, "Wow, someday Claire is going to be even more valuable to the world than she is right now—when she becomes a mom."
Reality check: They love me. They most likely didn’t think that. I am probably projecting that thinking onto them. Why take the time to think that about me when there’s a cute baby to focus on?
I'm going to be getting lots of concerned looks at church next week because of this blog post, aren’t I?
Maybe not concerned looks, but I do imagine that mothers are reading this and shaking their heads at my limited view. I promise: I know I can't even understand a fraction of motherhood right now. That’s probably why I’m coming off defensive and passive aggressive—because I do hold some fear and apprehension about the whole concept.
While I'm happy with my current life, if I look forward down the road and see us without kids, I feel deep regret. As a child of two amazing people, I have a taste of the joys and rewards that a positive parent/child relationship can bring. I want to see my husband be the fantastic father that I know he’ll be. I want that next adventure with him.
But I don't want it to be assumed or expected of me, just because I'm a married woman about to turn 30. Or a woman, period.
Does that make me a walking, talking, writing contradiction? To announce that I want something, but then demand that it not be assumed of me? This is getting complicated.
(I should also note strongly and with much gratitude that my parents and in-laws are wonderful, non-nosy and supportive human beings when it comes to someday grandchildren, not to mention in all other aspects of life. Any pressure I feel comes from the outside—society, or people who don't know me very well.)
A few weeks ago, I posted a photo of me holding my new niece. She'd had trouble settling down, but she was on her way to a nap when I took her, and I knew my sister-in-law was snapping photos, so I smiled. I posted one of the photos on social media and got the comment, "You look like a natural with that baby!"
Full disclosure: I adore my new niece, and I love the person who made this comment very much. But I wondered:
Why do I look like a natural? Because I'm a woman, holding a fairly calm baby, and smiling? Is that all it takes? And I felt the rigidity of my internal rebellion flare up again. What if I don't want to be a natural?
Well, that's where my passive aggressiveness gets a bit absurd if it hadn’t already; of course I want to be a natural. That makes child-rearing sound simple, right? But just like the truth behind the photo, I know that's not the case (I replied to the comment, "Looks can be deceiving!").
I imagine every mother wants to be a natural, and doesn't get that wish. Or is a "natural" in some ways, but not in others. Either way, what gave me the qualifications to even look like a natural to begin with? I certainly don't feel like a natural now, and I'm guessing that feeling will go even farther south as soon as we bring our first child home from the hospital. With that, I'm not declaring that I'll be a terrible mother—I'm just not expecting, from all firsthand reports, for it to be easy.
I haven't even broached the fact that this takes on a whole new level if you struggle to have children or have lost children. The irrational, overly-sensitive part of me who takes far too much lucky/unlucky stock in "be careful what you wish for" fears that even writing these emotions out to process them will make my uterus reluctant. Another absurdity I pray I won't hold too close, blame I pray I won’t assign. But I can only imagine the heartstrings it tears to hear a carefree "Happy Mother's Day!" (at the grocery check out, of all mundane places) and not be annoyed, but devastated, because you so desperately wish that it were true.
I wrote this post over a week ago, and have sat with it since. I'm not sure my wordiness has captured what I'm trying to say. I'm certain that I’ve missed other perspectives that are just as valid. But all I can authentically share is my own—and what else is writing for but to process these moments so that they yield not regret, but growth?
Part of me feels like I should keep this tucked away in my private journal. That’s because it’s perhaps the most fraught piece I’ve ever considered delivering into the world—and I deeply don’t want it to be taken the wrong way, especially by the people I care most about. My best friends are starting to have kids, and I’m thrilled for them. I do, indeed, adore my new niece, and already relish seeing her grow. My husband will be a wonderful dad and I’m excited to be a parent with him. And yet here I am, writing this.
Who cares what I think, anyway? It’s just adding another voice to the din.
But then there are the other women that I’ve talked to who nod their heads, eyes full of understanding.
When I talked to my non-Facebook mother about what I had written (after a baby shower, of all things), we discussed how social media comes into play in terms of how I view parenthood. It’s overwhelming, I said, as I tried to describe to her the bombardment of information, stories, photos, opinions, videos, articles—and I’m not even a parent yet. It made me think about how much social media plays into my response to potential parenthood more than I realize. And maybe I need to remember that while I can’t fully control whether or not I’m a “natural” at parenting, I can control how much or how little I want to be a part of the bombardment.
(Maybe it’s easier to say that as a non-parent. That’s a possibility, too.)
Dear someday children,
If you stumble upon this long-ago post after we give you your first smartphone (so you're at least 18, right?), please know that you were and always have been so deeply loved. This piece is not about not wanting you. This piece is about unpacking thoughts that I need to unpack before you come along, about figuring out how I can be, probably not a natural, but a true-to-myself parent in a world that has a lot of expectations and opinions on the subject. I'm sure there will be plenty more to process once you get here, and knowing me, I should start now.
Because I'm not just going to be your mother. In fact, that’s going to be the newest thing that I am, though I’m sure we’ll get the hang of it together. But first I am Claire, the writer (and thus over-thinker), the introvert, the people person, the alto, the Hufflepuff, the Wildcat, the reader, the traveler, the homebody, the photographer, the God seeker, the daughter, the wife, the sister, the coworker, the friend.
On Father's Day, we went through our normal morning grocery store routine again. "Happy Father's Day!" the cashier wished my husband, then added, "If you're a dad."
I had been granted no "if" on Mother's Day.
World, all I want is that "if." That "I recognize that there's more to you than simply your physical ability to produce offspring and keep them alive!"
Because I'm so much more than that.
And yes: my so much more will feed into my chosen motherhood. It will contribute to whatever element of “natural” parent that I someday grow into.
But, most importantly, that so much more already feeds me now. And I am truly grateful.