I hate babies!
OK. I lied.
I actually love babies. But what I hate is the overwhelming angst created by the weight of responsibility that comes with taking care of them. So when my husband pulled the car up to the front door of the hospital 27 years ago and the nurse lifted me from the wheelchair (yep, that’s what you got 24 hours after a C-section) and handed me my 8-pound bundle of joy, I grew angry.
Why wasn’t the nurse moving toward the car with me? Did she think I was going to take this blob of noncommunicating protoplasm home alone? Where was the operating manual? Where were the instructions?
Didn’t she know that I might be the copy chief of an internationally respected fashion magazine who was capable of swishing adjectives around a page but that I had less than zero experience swishing a baby around an apartment?
I willed her silently to come to me — the way a hungry dog wills a steak to jump off the counter.
My freak-out came from the fact that, growing up, I had never been the baby “type.” I didn’t love babysitting. I found other people’s older children bratty and dirty, smelly and annoying, a lot like poorly trained dogs that jumped all over you with their dirty paws, drooling in your hair, yapping incessantly with demands that only their parents would deign to consider.
In fact, I’d never even wanted to get married. When I landed my dream job as a copywriter at Vogue, I imagined I’d stay there for the next 30 years, as had most of my bosses. Those women were the pioneer members of the first generation who’d piled into the workforce and sacrificed their personal lives to it. Most were unmarried. Few had spawn. Since the magazine had no legal maternity leave, the only editor I knew who admitted she had a daughter told me that her work-life solution was to keep the newborn in her desk drawer.
The single life of a Peggy Olsen career girl seemed much more glamorous.
But then my biological clock and therapy kicked in. I realized what I wanted more than cheap sample-sale clothes and a designer haircut was a deep, loving, connected, warm family — the kind I’d never had.
Oh snap! But I did realize that babies could be a bridge!
And so began 27 years of my mothering for the unprepared. I binged on parenting manuals and magazines till I felt sure I wasn’t going to drop and break my son. I stopped reading the newspaper. That formerly welcome window on the world now felt like a fragile pane of glass that could shatter at any moment, allowing the evil happening halfway around the globe to slither off the page and into my home.
I remember telling friends that up until I’d had children, I’d thought I’d been swimming in the deep end of the pool. After JJ was born, I realized I’d never even inched off the steps in the shallow end.
By the time my daughter was born four years later, I was a seasoned pro. We lived through contiguous bouts of strep, all manner of grade-school dramas and parenting milestones like letting each of them bike ride by themselves around the brook (yikes!), to driving (double yikes!), to packing one off to boarding school and two off to college, and to semesters abroad. Through strep and lice and concussions and failing courses. Through losing boyfriends and girlfriends. To gaining new ones.
College is exactly what the experts say: Blink your eyes after drop-off and you’re standing at the $250k graduation. And then they’re kind of gone, moved to the nearest town for a first job that they discover they hate, and then boomeranging back to home base for a tune-up. You and your mate bite your nails and search your soul, asking, “Where did we go wrong?” “Is it our fault?”
And then in the early calm moments of the dawn, you quietly relish the fact that you have a full house again (even if you can only detect your spawn’s presence by the telltale crumbs he leaves on the kitchen counter each morning).
You feel guilty that you are so secretly happy. And so you try to nourish a new relationship. You try really hard to perceive your kids as adults, and you will yourself to interact less like a parent, more like a friend. Luckily, they stop rolling their eyes at you. But now they say things like, “You’re annoying me; I’m going to hang up.” “That’s too bad,” I say to the 23-year-old. “I’m not trying to annoy you. Seems everything I do is problematic these days.” Ten minutes later she calls back, changing the subject to shopping for shoes.
You discover that you have grown up, too, just a little bit, enough to know that you can let that old thread go. You don’t need to have the last word. You ask which pair of boots she’s talking about.
And then, at some point, at a wedding or a business event, you step into a room of strangers and watch them treat your children as unrelated to you. You watch from the side of your eye as your adult kids handle themselves with poise and confidence. The strangers say nothing to you because they don’t know you are connected. But you wink at your kids when they look up.
Then all at once you realize you are truly and finally done. You no longer can parent. You can only nudge and suggest. You start using “in my opinion” or “in my experience” to preface answers to all questions. It’s time for them to decide for themselves.
Then their lives snap back together again. They take a course, land a job, get into grad school, and move out again, to somewhere far away.
And you know, suddenly, finally, they have achieved escape velocity. They are strong young adults, with clear values, caring hearts and great friends who are prepared to navigate this beautiful but awful world alone.
Once a year you find a way to travel together as friends. During holiday breaks you talk about voting and how to manage your boss, about birth control and “f*@%k boys.” You discuss meditation and therapy and you remind them (jokingly) that the statute of limitations on blaming your parents for everything with their therapists runs out at 30.
They tell me that they like who they are and that Jeff and I have done a good job.
Despite the fact that we annoy them. Constantly.
And I tell them that when they have kids, I’m happy to sign up as their nanny. To start the cycle all over again. I tell them: “I love babies.”