All of the books about pregnancy start at the moment of conception. All of the books about conceiving assume that the reader desperately wants a child. And while there are several books that will provide a robust, and much-needed, discussion of the flaws inherent in the way contemporary American society addresses pregnancy, childcare, and motherhood in general—Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids? comes to mind—there is no book, blog post, magazine article, video diary, podcast, or anything else on the Internet that can adequately answer vastly my challenging, personal question: Should I Have Kids? Believe me, I know. I’ve been searching, endlessly, for the better part of the last two years.
I am an attorney, but I almost never spend my days arguing in court. Most of my career—both academic and professional—has been spent researching. If you have a question, an area of uncertainty, you submerge yourself in it. You spend hours reading everything ever written about it. You learn how others have dealt with it. You do not ask whether the question needs to be answered; you do not ask whether, indeed, it is even a question at all.
The pros and cons lists I made, and remade, time and time again, felt hollow and useless. Pros: Profound joy. Cons: Unspeakable fear. Like the size of the universe, some things are too large to conceptualize. Words on a page are flimsy and almost pathetic, like trying to use a five-dollar drugstore umbrella to shield yourself from a hurricane. Perhaps it’s best to just accept the fact that you are going to get soaked.
For our honeymoon, my husband and I travelled to the Greek island of Santorini. On the third beautiful, sun-drenched day of our stay there, we took a boat tour around the island. The boat dropped an anchor off the coast of the caldera, the top of an underwater volcano peeking out of the vast ocean. The tour guide told us, “If you’d like, you can jump off the boat and swim to the underwater hot springs.” The hot springs were an area of shallow, warm water, rising up from the volcano. To get there, you had to swim about a hundred feet through deep, cold ocean water. Our fellow tourists, many of them young couples like ourselves, readily shed their tank tops and shorts and stripped down to bathing suits before jumping off the side of the boat, their tan bodies sliding gracefully into the shimmering, dark green water.
I know how to swim. As a child, I loved nothing more than the smell of chlorine and the feeling of weightlessness I would experience floating underneath the water. But somewhere in my early twenties, I began to fear things like swimming. The sensation of floating and not being able to put my feet on solid earth would feel like a giant hand gripping my throat and I would struggle to breathe, thinking only, I must put my feet on the ground. I had not swum in water deeper than five feet in years, maybe not since I was a child.
J—my calm, caring, safe new husband—jumped into the water and waited for me. “We don’t have to do this,” he said, sensing my anxiety, “We can watch from the boat.” But I wanted to see the hot springs. Most of the other couples had already made their way to the springs and were relaxed and calm on the warm sand. I slowly eased my body into the water and released my grip on the boat’s ladder. I swam to my husband. We got about halfway to the hot springs and the familiar choking feeling returned. You could slip into the water and disappear. You would be gone forever. I tried to distract myself, focusing on the happy travelers in the hot spring, but the terror was tightening my muscles and shortening my breath. There is nothing beneath you to hold you. Who knows what is lurking below you. Do you want to find out? I couldn’t do it. I swam as fast as I could, as if chased by some underwater monster, away from my husband, back to the boat. J, because he is wonderful and loves me, followed me.
From the ship’s deck, I watched the other tourists enjoy the hot springs and I fought back tears—not because I was still afraid of the ocean, but for the deep sense of regret that, once again, fear of oblivion had cost me a lot of joy.
I’m still not sure I am ready to be a parent. I still don’t have the feeling of, “Yes, this is right,” the feeling I had when I said “yes” to my husband’s proposal and when I stood in front of our families and friends and promised to love him for the rest of my life. I don’t think I will ever feel that way about carrying and raising a child. I am, however, ready in the physical sense—I have steady job, a healthy marriage, and a husband who, I am certain, will be an amazing father. I am thirty-two. As everyone (mommy blogs, the Today show, my step-mother-in-law) keeps reminding me, while I may not have to decide today, I cannot wait forever.
But I know this: every single time I picture a future where I don’t have children, I get that same nauseous, angry sensation of mournful regret that I felt that day on the boat, watching the rest of our tour group frolic in the hot spring. I don’t want to spend my life avoiding fear. I need to remember something I think I was born knowing but forget somewhere along the way: how to take a deep breath, submerge myself in the water, embrace the unknown, and trust my ability to get to where I need to go.
So I have decided to be a mother. Someday. Maybe.