Friday, January 18, 2008

Stopped Clock

This photograph of me and Jim The Small Child Nephew has been digitally in the back pocket of my laptop since Thanksgiving. The plan was to write a short, cheerful post about the fact that it captures a dream manifesting itself in the parking lot of the Cincinnati Zoo; for years, I have envisioned myself calling, "Stay with Aunt Beth!" and holding out a hand for a Small Child such as this to clutch. And thus it came to pass.

Why has that desire, in all this time, never morphed into "Stay with Mommy"?

This still stands as one of my favorite essays, and it still pretty much reflects my feelings concerning motherhood.

I wrote it twelve years ago.

When I did so, I was a freshman in college, still largely regarding children as I did when I was a little girl who cradled baby dolls, turning tiny toy bottles upside down against plastic mouths to watch orange or white liquid magically disappear. I would have children because, well, that's what people did. But the world has spun on, my ten-year college reunion is next year, and last week I fully realized that I feel no more inwardly compelled to bear children than I do to take up a career in real estate or law or candlestick making.

And I want to know what's wrong.

There are all sorts of practical reasons why producing a child, at least at this moment, would function as an absolute personal catastrophe of nuclear proportions. It's financially irresponsible for a couple furiously treading water against crippling student loan debt; my mental health would collapse; I've been marinating my reproductive organs in powerful SSRI's for over a decade, and the mental disorders which they regulate have genetic qualities. But when I burrow down through the recital of logic, spend a little time with that area between where my heart beats and my gut processes, I... just don't want to.

What is wrong? Stopped clocks are right twice every twenty-four hours, but my biological one, totally silent and unmoving day after day after day, seems fundamentally miswired somehow. Is it because I don't want to see myself reproduced? Is it because my own anxiety-riddled childhood, although held together by a comfortable home and heroic parenting, utterly exhausted me? Am I terrified that a child would stunt my writing career? A, B, and C? But plenty of successful writers have children, Josh The Pilot would make an excellent father, and... I... just don't want to.

This doesn't mean I hate children. I simply don't know what to do with them. I cannot get enough of babies; at this past Christmas Eve Mass, I held my finger out to the ten-month-old flung over her father's back in the pew front of me, and she beamed and grasped it. I let her hold on for so long and made so many baby-pleasing faces that Josh applied pressure gentle to my waist: Pay attention.

It's that middle-kid-age I fear. Jim The Small Child Nephew and Will The Baby Nephew are, for the moment, easy to have fun with; they have these tiny little adorable shirts, and can be flung, and find highly amusing any person placing an unexpected object upon his or her head. But the second they start enjoying belching contests and discover the phrase "This is boring," I will be lost.

Endless numbers of people have told me that it's different with one's own child, that I will learn it as we go. I don't doubt it.

But I don't want to.

The reasons I slate for having children--and yes, I do have them--are all incredibly selfish. To ensure some sort of immortality. To avoid the eternal punishment my Church says I will suffer if I don't (more on this in a paragraph.) To hedge against loneliness in old age. To fit in with my peers. To create another American of my German parts and the Norwegian and Scottish parts of my husband. To surround myself with The Cuteness. To force someone to appreciate my zealous scrapbooking in a hundred and fifty years. For attention. For writing material. For the stork-sign space in the grocery store parking lot. But never, never have I thought, "Because the love of my life I are called to do so."

Of course, all this sits horribly with the Catholic Church-- my faith, my heritage, my identity. Last week at Mass, the celebrant, while discussing vocations in his sermon, said, "Perhaps you are called to be a nun, a Bride of Christ. Maybe you're called to be a priest. Or perhaps you need to pray over whether or not to have a fifth child."

That's not a typo, people; that's strictly observant Catholicism. I am expected to not only to conceive, but conceive as much as our budget will bear. The Church considers my sister's two children a nice start.

Some women of my generation do have five children, or hunger for five. They have my deepest respect, and also my envy, for wanting what they are supposed to want. The Church does not lay down its teachings arbitrarily, spinning a gigantic Price Is Right-style wheel to discover which theological reality we shall enforce today. Christianity is not about being comfortable. It orders what is best for my spiritual development, propelling me to override my selfish human nature. Some Sunday mornings I would prefer to sleep until it's time to watch Dan Marino glare at people, but my Church reminds me that the least I can do is give God an hour a week, for crying out loud, and so I throw back the covers. Often I would rather fling money at such life necessities as The Rotato Express, but my Church reminds me that Jesus was all, "Share!" and so I pull a paper ornament off the Giving Tree in the vestibule instead. And actions become written on my heart, as I am then behaving as I ought to behave, despite my own terrible efforts in the opposite direction.

But this-- is it right to introduce a new life as a self-improvement project, to override my instincts? Do I have the strength to avoid raising a child in an atmosphere of resentment? Should little Miriam Abigail or Luke Adam ask (of course I have names chosen for the children I am not planning--I was once a twelve-year-old, you know) "Where did I come from?", what am I going to say? "A deep sense of obligation, dear"?

One of my mother's high school friends is a real-life nun. Franciscian. I could not imagine a lifetime of doing what other people told me to do, and, when I was eleven years old, I asked her why she took holy orders. She put her hand on her chest.

"Because," she said, "it was just something I felt like I had to do."

I had to become a writer and a wife. And... there it stops.

When I was engaged, and beginning to attempt to manufacture maternal instincts, or at the very least flailing to come to terms with my lack thereof, I sought advice, relief, affirmation. I posted a message on an e-board for observant Catholics describing my situation, asking to hear from other married Catholics who had not reproduced. What I got back still twists and shreds: "If you don't want to have children, you shouldn't get married." "Entering a marriage without openness to childbearing invalidates the sacrament. You will be living in an invalid marriage, a grave mortal sin." "If I were invited to your wedding, I wouldn't come." "You won't find a support group for married Catholics who haven't had children, because children are the point of marriage." (I imagine this might come as news to infertile couples and those who marry past childbearing age.)

UPDATE from Amy The Reader: Here's a good bit of fun from the other side of the road--she's presented anecdotal evidence of people with larger broods receiving visits from the Department of Children and Families, tipped by neighbors concerned because Mom was expecting #4 or #5. Margaret Sanger on a pogo stick, you just can't win.

I took my panic to the kind priest who was to marry us, as well as a former theology professor, and both assured me that avoiding children, at least for the moment, was simply prudent. That is what the priest said-- "prudent." You have no idea how much I cling to "prudent" in the darker hours.

No tubes have been tied, no vas deferens snipped. I sob, unbidden and uncontrollably, whenever we even broach the possibility of permanent sterilization, because my gut is telling me that's not right for us, either. And so the door is ajar, precisely .7% ajar. I've got this top-of-the line fertility monitor which promises a 99.3% no-babies effectiveness rating, and it has a function which will allow us to use it in the opposite direction, even suggesting the best hour of the day to conceive a boy baby or a girl baby. If we use this setting, a tiny bathroom sign-style icon will illuminate at the proper time. So every morning, when I lay with the thermometer of the monitor under my tongue, I watch the orange numbers rise, the backlight of the reading barely, just barely, making the girl shape and the boy shape visible. And then they disappear into blackness again.

Nightmares to the contrary notwithstanding, should I ever pee on a white stick and watch it, with amazement and trepidation, turn blue, I would indeed put on the big-girl pants. The pregnancy would either end in a much-grieved natural miscarriage or on a delivery table. I know, intellectually, that this child would not exist if he or she were not meant to exist, and I would likely emerge on the other side of motherhood a better, more giving, changed person. Grace sufficient, and all. And maybe someday Josh and I will come across a child who desperately needs us, and we will discern a spiritual hand at our backs pushing us to make that child our own. Or maybe I'll wake up tomorrow on fire to start a registry at Babies R Us. I hope so. I desperately hope so.

But in the same way that popular culture endlessly insists that I find Tina Fey just wonderful and I endlessly fail to, here is where I am. When beholding the open staircases in our home for the first time, I first thought, "Well, that's cool," and then, "If our nephews ever come to visit, perhaps we shouldn't let them crawl around those huge gaping holes twenty feet in the air unsupervised," and, finally, "No step backs = less vacuuming. AWESOME."

Never, never did I regard them as obstacles for my own children.

anybody else out there at:

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Event Reminder

We're gonna kick it Udvar-Hazy style, aw yeah.

shuttlin' ain't easy at:

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Your 20's Are CLOSED

Oh... he tried. But not even Josh The Pilot can conquer The Horrible Birthday Karma (new The Readers, here's a primer.) I like mountains, so Josh The Pilot attempted to bring me atop one when I turned thirty-one.

But the mountain was closed.

Mountains do close, apparently.

Well... that's OK. I like fermented grapes, too, so he took me to a winery.

But the winery was... this bustling complex.

Here's the good part, though: No vomiting! Always a plus for the Ides of January. I'll take it.

not going through it alone anymore at:

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Welcome, MSNBC Readers

Lime Time!

my bridesmaids' dresses were ice blue with bell sleeves, and nobody has ever worn them again at:


The day of my birth: Downright miraculous.

That people wanted to take me home, anyway.

(click to enlarge)

thanks for pushing at:

Monday, January 14, 2008

Karma, Cautiously

We are now in the Days of Birthday Karma, and with great trepidation I opened my email box today to find an invitation to appear as the keynote speaker of my alma mater's National Honor Society Banquet in May. Good, right?

Or... not. Because this means the following:

1) The standards that Mother of Mercy High School applies to gathering role models have clearly dipped to alarmingly low levels. Was Courtney Love not available?

I have decided I am being presented as a cautionary tale: "You need to take calculus, or this will happen to you."

2) My parents, once convinced that they were now free of any child-related banquets, Track and Field Days, dance recitals, science fairs, soccer parties, or interminable choir concerts, are now right back where they started. I am the auditorium-related gift that just keeps on giving.

Josh The Pilot is also invited, fortunate man. At the moment he is preoccupied with birthday plans, as I told him that I didn't want anything expensive or shiny or even drivable-- I just wanted a surprise. The man has yet to surprise me with anything, other than the shocking news that he likes pool when I had no idea that he liked pool. I blame his utter inability to be anything other than painfully honest. Last year he tried to surprise me when I turned thirty; we were on the phone the night before, and I heard the unmistakable noise of a suitcase closing and zipping.

ME: That was a weird noise. What are you doing?
JTP: ...Arranging... stuff.

And of course, it was little to no shock when he appeared on my doorstep 24 hours later, suitcase in hand. This is a good thing, in a relationship, for I know that he is incapable of cheating. I would find out in about four seconds, not due to any possession of investigative skills on my part, but because I would call him on his cell phone all, "Hey, can you pick up some milk on your way home?" and he'd be like, "OK, I'll stop by the grocery when I leave the In-N-Out Motel."

So it went this year. We descended into the Man Cave to eat dinner last week, both of us balancing trays, and I set mine down on the footlocker which serves as a coffee table. (Like I said... Man Cave.) And sitting atop the footlocker was a piece of paper upon which was written some flight information, along with the following:

"Fletch The Extremist is arriving on Jan. 14. Pick up at IAD after work."

"Oh," I said, holding up the note, "is Fletch coming to town?"

There followed a great deal of empty-box kicking and wall-smacking, because not only was The Pilot furious with himself for leaving a paper trail in plain view, he didn't even think to fling a fully honest, fully believable air traffic control-related excuse, such as the fact that he wished to play a practical joke upon his friend, and route him to, say, Omaha.

But given that today is also the tenth anniversary of this, I am perfectly happy with a lifetime of paper trails.

six monthiversarying at:

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