At a time when women are having fewer children than ever, Katie Arnold-Ratliff shares how fate and free will came together to shape her family size. Read about why a party of three suits her perfectly in this month’s “Life with the Girls.”
I’ve met women who’ve always known they wanted to be moms. I’ve met women who knew they didn’t. But I’m one of the only women I know who was never sure.
I grew up feeling I didn’t want kids, and then, over twenty-plus years, decided I did; was undecided; decided in the opposite direction; tried to get pregnant, then got divorced (this suggested the matter was closed); and finally, met a marvelous guy and got unexpectedly pregnant, ending the endless debate. My path to parenthood was less an ascending trek to a treasured dream than a train I kept boarding and bolting from, until fate punched my ticket for good.
It turns out the universe knew what it was doing. When I learned I was expecting, I was delighted, and since the day my son was born, I’ve felt monumentally lucky to be his mom. Now three-and-a-half, he’s a wonder: funny and zany and clever and sensitive. (Also, occasionally bossy and impatient and hangry and flatulent, but it’s all part of his charm.) If I could rewind time, I wouldn’t hesitate to make all the same choices that gave him to me.
But will I ever do it again—the is now the right time? pondering, the ovulation tracking, the goopy sonograms, the maternity pants that never stay up, the barfy glucose test, the massive hospital bill, the delirious newborn era, the maddening toddler era, the skipped naps, the bimonthly daycare colds, the potty-training nightmare, the circular arguments about how many bites of food were agreed to, a number now being reneged on?
Several years ago, before I was a parent, a friend said something I’ll never forget: “If you’re ambivalent about having kids, have kid.” She herself was a mother of one, and she understood the paradoxes of childrearing: It’s more and less intuitive than you think. It fills you up and it drains you. The days are long (a sample of my internal monologue: Please don’t ask me to play Halloween songs again, it’s May), and the years are short (sometimes I’m afraid to blink, lest I come to at his high school graduation). Some parts are effortless and others are torturous.
I adore my child, his inventive games, his adorably weird grasp on language (said upon drinking something too cold: “The ice pinched my teeth!”). But I also relish and fiercely guard my private passions, writing and reading, which I can only indulge when he’s not around. I love raising a child. I’m not built to raise more. I want to ease this marvelous boy into the world—then ease myself back into my own life. Luckily, my husband agrees. (He’s scheduled the procedure, thanks for inquiring.)
“Moms are supposed to love every aspect of mothering and be grateful they get to do it. But that’s frankly ludicrous”
I sense as I type this that some vestigial part of all our socialized psyches is screaming: BAD MOTHER! DEFECTIVE WOMAN! Moms are supposed to love every aspect of mothering and be grateful they get to do it. But that’s frankly ludicrous. I melted down hard in the newborn phase; I had a blast during months two to eighteen; toddlerhood was one long grinding battle of wills (our son has been called “the most stubborn kid our daycare has ever seen”); and now he’s occasionally threenagerish but mostly lovely and calm and hilarious. I can leave the room to pee without worrying he’ll somehow mortally injure himself, and he can tell me what he wants instead of wailing indecipherably for an hour. I don’t want to go backwards.
But hang on a moment, because I don’t want to give the wrong idea. It would be reductive to say that our one-and-doneness was born solely of the difficulty of parenting. That’s just one reason among many. Some are practical: We live in a sweet but small house; I doubt we could save enough for multiple college educations; I’m pushing forty, so the decision may not even be ours to make.
And the greatest reason of all, more than the exhaustion and the money and the renaissance we’re planning for our empty nest years, is also the simplest: We really love being a trio. There’s something magical about the way one kid and two parents fit together—in conversation, as two doting faces lean in to hang on one boy’s every goofy word. In a bed, when a sick kid materializes in the doorway and wants to snuggle between his parents. In moments of distress, when four arms are the right size to envelop his quaking little body. We fly in one tidy airplane row. We fit in one bench seat on the zoo’s train ride. “We are,” our son loves to say, “a three.” After a lifetime of waffling, I feel the rightness of that in my bones.
So, I will repeat the advice given to me: Unsure? Have kid. Experience what parenting is in all its contradictory splendor, then move on with your life. When my son does graduate from high school, I’ll be fifty-three. Practically still a baby myself! Whole decades before me!
Too often we mistake the present for an eternal future—we think that life will always be as it is right now. But if all goes as it should, you and me and all of us will be on this planet a long time. There are plenty of years in which to live plenty of lives. One in which you cast about for an answer to an impossible question. One in which you devote your life to raising a sweet little guy. And one in which you finish that job and turn back to what you love—not to the things that make you a mother, but to the things that make you, you.