I knew right away who had put it there. It was Co-worker A, a man who shares many of my parenting frustrations. We often trade eye rolls about the demands of parenting and confess fairly frequently our desire for the kids to grow up and get out of the house already. This guy’s wife is the primary breadwinner and he has probably done more kid-duty than she has, so we have that in common. Co-worker B is my age (37), already a tenured professor, and has three kids ages 2, 5, and 7. I’m sure she has her moments (what parent doesn’t?), but she mostly seems to enjoy—heck, even relish—time spent with her little ones.
The three of us were sitting in the conference room after everyone had rendered a pretty droopy rendition of “Happy Birthday” to the celebrants of the month. The conversation turned—as it often does when I’m around—to parenting. I was making fun of a man I know who supposedly can’t get his own kids to bed without his wife’s help. (I know, I know—judge not . . .) And so I said to my friends: “The way I see it, if it took both of us to get the kids on the planet (which it did, trust me), then it takes both of us to raise them.” Then Co-worker A said he occasionally reminds his wife that since she was the one who wanted kids, she should have more of the responsibility for raising them. (And really, he’s mostly full of crap because he’s a great dad.) Co-worker B responded that she could’ve gone either way—she could’ve been happy with or without kids.
And I was left speechless (a truly rare occurrence). Confused, I asked for clarification: “What do you mean, you could’ve gone either way?” And they both confirmed that they had considered not having kids.
This conversation occurred about six weeks ago, but I cannot get it out of my head. I can honestly say that it never occurred to me that I might not have children some day. I don’t remember ever discussing it with my husband. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll just say here that I was 19 when I got married. I know, it’s crazy. Now let’s move on.) It would’ve been like discussing whether we would breathe or whether we would sleep. That conversation would’ve been, as I learned in a Mandarin Chinese class I took as an undergraduate: “fei hua,” which means “wasted words.” My whole life plan was set: grow up, go to college, get married, have kids (preferably in that order), pursue and enjoy a meaningful career. At no point did I consider the possibility that “have kids” was something I could actually choose to do—or conversely, choose not to do.
I never had anyone breathing down my neck, telling me to hurry up and have kids. I wasn’t getting that from my husband or my parents. Still, parenthood is a huge part of Mormon culture and doctrine. It’s the whole purpose of life, right? But it’s bigger than that; getting married and having kids is a huge part of American culture, too. We’ve got Disney movies and life coaches and Family Fun magazine all telling us that having children is the thing to do.
Right after my second daughter was born, our oldest daughter complained: “I don’t want a baby sister. Can’t you put her back?” A fair enough question from a three-year-old whose position as only child had just been irrevocably eliminated. I can’t take back my decision to become a mother. And I wouldn’t even if I could (on most days, that is). My kids are great, they really are. But this idea that I could’ve chosen a different path keeps tagging along behind me like a shadow.
And even more important than the parenthood question (which, for three obvious reasons—all of whom share my DNA—is purely academic), the conversation during the office birthday celebration makes me wonder what other aspects of my life just happened because I jumped into them without even thinking, without questioning. What other conversations should I have had before acting, but didn’t, because to have them would’ve been “fei hua”?
[Pat Byrnes Cartoon printed in the 6/28/2010 edition of The New Yorker.]
[Featured image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/the-g-uk/3496896939/sizes/o/in/photostream/]