I remember being at a party six weeks after my daughter was born. A friend whose son was a year older came over and said to me, “No one can tell you what it’s really like, can they?” At which point I wanted to say, “Would you? I’d really appreciate it.” Even in my new motherhood, I knew there were secrets about this world I’d entered, like how to get my child to fall asleep for more than twenty minutes a day, or when my milk would stop leaking. Secrets my friend might reveal.
I did not learn the answers that afternoon. Instead, I left the party less than an hour later, when it became apparent that my newborn would neither stop crying nor pass out in sheer exhaustion. My friend urged me, as we departed, to find a “mom glom” at the local park.
The confusion and exhaustion I felt about being a new mother never made me second guess my decision to have a baby, although I did find it ironic to remember that having spent the majority of my teenage years babysitting, I entered my twenties knowing I would never have kids. “Never?” my younger sister asked. “Never,” I said, convinced. For all of my twenties, I used birth control, never conceived, and did not face a single active choice or a decision about my reproductive life.
I don’t know what changed in my thirties, although I have a pretty firm memory that irrational biology played a huge part in my bursting forth, one morning, with the exclamation “I want a baby!” None of my friends had kids, other than that one friend with her mysterious declaration, and yet I was not only wanting, but desperately needing, a baby.
Two recent anthologies offer up stories about the notion of desiring (or not desiring) motherhood. As Maybe Baby: 28 Writers Tell the Truth About Skepticism, Infertility, Baby Lust, Childlessness, Ambivalence and How They Made the Biggest Decision of Their Lives and Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood and Abortion both reveal, most women face a far more daunting process than I when it comes time to be a mother. In the former book, twenty-eight writers address the decision to conceive or not in sections aptly titled, “No Thanks, Not For Me,” “On the Fence,” and “Taking the Leap.” In the latter, twenty-four essays tackle the far more inward, and emotional, subject of reproductive “choice” in a more political sense: abortion, adoption, infertility and single parenthood. Maybe Baby consists of pieces musing on how one comes to the decision to have — or not have — a child. The collection explores the authors’ beliefs about being parents or remaining childless, and how they live with their choices. The underlying assumption is that parenthood is always a “choice” that one can freely make or decide against. This freedom assumes a certain privilege and perhaps keeps the pieces more in the realm of abstract ideas. Choice, conversely, is very explicit about the political implications of its title. Choice is, like Maybe Baby, about reproductive choice, yet it doesn’t shy away from the implications of using the words “choice” and “abortion” in the same title. The book has pieces covering abortion, adoption, and single parenthood. This distinction opens the door to make more room for the experiences of all women and the exploration of issues involving class and women’s rights.
Thanks to my own overwhelming biological urges — and the privileges I had as a middle-class woman with a job and partner — I never faced ambivalence or misgivings about childbearing. In my twenties I didn’t want kids; in my thirties I did. As a result, the stories in Maybe Baby that address not propagating as well as fear and second thoughts about childbearing are some of the most compelling to me.
Elinor Burkett’s decision to have her tubes tied at the age of thirty (“Emancipation from Procreation”), offers a fascinating statement in favor of independence from motherhood and its obligations. In another essay, Michelle Goldberg suggests from her research that a lack of interest in childbearing might even be biological (“To Breed or Not to Breed”). According to research cited by Goldberg, nearly a quarter of American women won’t have children, even though of that quarter, seventy-five percent could conceive. Goldberg lays out a strong rationale for not having children: lack of independence, stress on a marriage, statistics showing that childless couples are happier, etc. Even so, as she herself writes, “There are few experiences in life that come more highly extolled than parenting, so how can you ever know if you’re making a mistake by rejecting it? It’s fairly easy,” Goldberg concludes, “to find stories of those who regret not having children, but it’s difficult to find a mother who will say she wishes she’d made a different choice.”
Maybe Baby offers a wide range of voices, including pieces by men, as well as pieces from lesbians, women of color, single and divorced mothers. There is little socioeconomic diversity here, however, and one wonders if perhaps some of the book’s content would fall on deaf ears for a woman without the resources to make a decision about having a child. How much of the decision about having a child is actually the product of privilege? Reading this anthology, one begins to think, “a lot.”
The essential problem with rhetorical explorations — and one of the shortfalls of this collection in general — is that they are devoid of actual event. To write about decision-making is to risk falling into the trap of narcissism, and a reader can find herself thinking, “Do it or don’t, but just stop talking about it.” I suppose if I had been more ambivalent about having children (and less privileged), some of these essays would resonate with me more. But as it stands, too many suffer from a pat formula: “I used to think this way, now I don’t,” or “I used to think this way, and I still do.” This storyline becomes repetitive and ultimately unrewarding.
The essays in Choice present a wrenching counterpoint to the belly-button gazing of “Maybe Baby,” offering up true stories based on the fallout of making decisions: abortion, adoption, infertility and single parenthood. These essays dismantle the abstract notion of reproductive rights by showing the consequences of choice and demonstrating how loss and devotion reside deep inside that right. I defy any conservative to read a single piece in this book and think that choice implies that the decision is easy.
In their foreword to the book, the editors explain that their original idea for the anthology was to address the subject of abortion, specifically in light of South Dakota’s decision to ban the procedure. However, the book quickly became something more. As Karen Bender writes, “we started talking about what our anthology could include…. As we talked, we realized that every woman we knew had some sort of story involving her reproductive life. What if our anthology focused on true stories — not only about abortions but about adoption, infertility treatments, the morning-after pill, birth control? Doesn’t the word ‘choice’ refer to all forms of reproductive options?”
From the story of a single lesbian mother seeking out fertility treatments — and enduring the affront of a doctor who would treat only married couples, to the story of a teenage mother giving her daughter for adoption, to the newly married woman making the impossible decision of choosing between her own health and that of the couple’s fetus, none of the decisions presented here are easy, or simple, or swift, and they all have lasting, lifelong consequences for the writers who describe them.
Ashley Talley’s “Donation” narrates her role as her mother’s egg donor, a decision that seems simple and easy at the time, but has lasting ramifications for their relationship. “I find myself unwilling to analyze my situation too much — unwilling to make any sort of actual decision about how I feel, but I guess that’s okay — that’s how life happens, right? Without our careful orchestration, without even our vaguest say-so.”
In a similar manner, Stephanie Andersen finds herself motherless and pregnant at sixteen, the result of an intentional accident. “I stood in front of the bathroom mirror one afternoon. I was supposed to be studying for a history final. My boyfriend was still in my bedroom as I watched his white ejaculate drop from my abdomen….. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was wrong. … But I was curious. I wondered if I was capable.” Andersen is unable to keep the baby girl that results, but stays in touch with her through an open adoption. “My daughter and I are left to struggle through this strange distance from each other, memorizing pictures of each other, unable to put the pictures away. When asked whether or not I regret my decision to give my daughter up for adoption, I can answer honestly, Yes.”
In a remarkable way, the essays in Choice show us the full ramifications of reproductive rights. Sometimes, as in Talley’s and Andersen’s pieces, the choice feels accidental but can easily be seen as purposeful at heart. Other decisions, like Ann Hood’s to adopt a girl from China after her toddler’s tragic death, have a kind of urgency that can’t be explained, but result in just what was necessary and required. Finally, the essays in the anthology that address the subject of abortion show the full depth of reproductive decision-making that women sometimes face, and the consequences of those choices.
Susan Ito’s “If” tells the story of a pregnancy that results in life-threatening complications for herself and her baby boy. She and her husband must decide between her health and the future of their son, whom they name Samuel. Set against this moment, Ito recalls an earlier (unwanted) pregnancy, her decision to abort, and telling her own birth mother the news.
“You’re lucky that you have this option,” her birth mother says.
“It’s what I would have done, if it had been available to me…” And then she stopped short, realizing what she had just said.
I blinked. I tried to keep my voice steady. ” Of course. I know.” I was balancing on a tightrope. I wanted this support, this ability to confide in her. I needed her to be my understanding, forgiving mother. And yet she had just told me that she would have killed me if she had had the chance.”
To which one might add, “or the choice.”
Ito and her husband terminate her high-risk pregnancy and she goes on to have two daughters, but she does not, as she writes, “forget that son, small cowboy, the way he galloped through me. Nor do I forget the microscopic, unnamed seahorse of a child who came before that. There is still a part of me that believes that I failed the test of motherhood, the law that says your child comes before you, even if it means death. I put myself first when it came to Samuel, just as my birthmother had with me.”
Now that my own firstborn is ten years old, it’s easy to forget that long-ago party and my own painful confusion about being a first time mother. If my biological urges had me deciding to have a child, I don’t think I actually chose that baby until I learned how to weather my difficulties. The abstract lens of Choice would not have helped me in those days. But the trenchant essays in Choice — reminders of all that goes into that original leap of faith, the act of motherhood itself, and all that came before it, for myself and women everywhere — those words would have brought tears of relief.
Even now, ten years later, they still do.