There\’s been considerable back-and-forthing in some of my favorite blogs lately about whether or not to have children, and what to say or not to say about people\’s decisions in this regard. And that\’s started me thinking about why I had children.
Mine was the first generation to have a real say in the matter–a real say as opposed to the old difficult remedies of abortion, adoption, or abstinence. When we married at 23 and 22, my husband and I were both imprisoned, and periodically tortured, in graduate school, and he was in perpetual danger of being sent to Vietnam. We decided that children were out of the question until we were finished with school, settled in our respective careers, had bought a house, and felt ready to bring what seemed like a huge complication into our lives.
I had never been one to stop and coo at strangers\’ babies on the street. My mother gave birth to her second child when I was sixteen, and I was drafted into diaper- and bottle-washing duties, plus ad hoc babysitting. I enjoyed my little sister, but I learned what mind-numbing work a child could be. Besides, I was so young, and had lived so long under my parents\’ thumbs, that getting married felt like a huge liberation–a place of my own, a man ditto…The last thing on my mind was getting pregnant.
No sooner had I embarked on this delicious adventure of grownup living, however, than my body rebelled against the pill. After a year of violent migraines, we had to switch to more traditional ways of contraception. And right away I got pregnant.
This amazed my husband and me. How had it happened? Hadn\’t we been careful enough? Hadn\’t we read the instructions? Now what? And that is when the weird thing happened: no sooner had the first drop of pregnancy hormone dribbled from my pituitary than I became, 1) horribly nauseated and, 2) intensely happy.
Three months later, when I lost the baby, I mourned. And because it was clear that nothing would console me except getting pregnant again, I was dismayed when the doctor advised that we wait six months to conceive. I was taking my final courses for the Ph.D., and studying hard for prelims. You\’d think that six months would have gone by without my giving the matter another thought.
But somehow, a couple of months after the miscarriage, I got pregnant. Again, we couldn\’t believe it. Hadn\’t we been careful, etc. And to say that I was beside myself with joy was to put it mildly. What better antidote to the mind-numbing boredom of memorizing minor seventeenth-century French playwrights than a living baby growing inside me?
This time, it only took a month to lose it. It happened in the middle of the week-long ordeal known as written prelims, between Tuesday, which was devoted to the sixteenth century, and Wednesday, when we covered the seventeenth. I wept as I wrote my essays, and during the lunch break pleaded with my obstetrician not to send me to the hospital. He reluctantly agreed, and warned me again to wait half a year.
A couple of months later, the familiar nausea, the familiar elation returned. This time it all went swimmingly, and we had our first girl, and two years later (for once, our planning worked) the second. And we all made it just fine.
But what interests me, in retrospect, are all those failures of birth control. How could two reasonably intelligent, educated people accidentally conceive three times in a single year? And me, a biology major in undergraduate school! For a long time, I chalked it up to hormones. Once it experienced that first accidental pregnancy, I thought, my body simply insisted on making a baby, and its urge overwhelmed my comparatively feeble brain.
Lately, though, I have revised my thinking. Six months after our wedding in the Summer of Love of 1967, my 53-year-old father died of lung cancer. I mourned him both as a child (I\’d only barely left home) and as an adult (I\’d just gotten married). Life took a downturn then: the people who represented hope for the country were assassinated, graduate school was tough and boring, money was scarce, any minute my husband could be drafted and sent to Vietnam, and my mother and my little sister were bereft. But worst of all, my father was dead.
I mourned him for years, bursting into tears at unexpected moments, often without knowing why. And then, when my daughter was born, the tears vanished. It\’s not that I didn\’t miss my father–I\’d have given anything to see him as a grandfather to my girls. But I had a new generation on my hands, and the future was demanding, insistent, and, though I didn\’t realize it at the time, immensely consoling.
The reasons that we choose to beget or not to beget children, and the feelings that accompany each birth, each failure to give birth, or each decision not to give birth, are as diverse and imponderable as the stars in the sky–and should be as free from judgment as they.