The psychic is down-to-earth and expensive. My husband, Richard, is young. He lives in London, and has not yet moved to the US, where he will meet me, or to Canada, where he will marry me.
She tells him she sees him living on a lake, with twins.
I’m standing in my parents’ kitchen and I’m crying from a powerful and inexplicable connection to the baby I’ve claimed into my arms. Her name is Maia, her age is three months, and she is my teenage brother’s daughter. Richard and I are visiting my family at the Northern Ontario lake where my parents live. We’ve just flown in from a trip to England and are soon to head out again for summer in New York City. We’re stopping in to meet our new niece.
I am overcome.
I’ve held other babies, unmoved. I’m always a little anxious to pass them back. This baby stares at me and our knowledge of each other is in her blue eyes, there you are, so good to see you again. I cling to her and do not want to let her go.
“Is this your biological clock?” Richard asks, but I know these tears aren’t for a baby of my own. Something about this particular baby moves me. The only time a meeting has ignited such gut-level affinity, so bemusing and intense that I can barely look, is when I met Richard.
In the theology I was raised in, motherhood was woman’s calling. A good mother’s children were her life, and mother was her identity. She welcomed them, she did not limit their number, she devoted herself to nothing outside their well-being. I had no formative models of women who were anything but mothers. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said: “A writer and a wife and mother”. A writer because that’s what I wanted, a wife and mother because I was female and that’s what God made females for.
In my twenties my mantra became Marriage and motherhood are the enemy of my dreams. I left home to travel to Paris and Istanbul and Rome, to live in California and New York and Toronto, to immerse myself in literature, earn an education, work in eccentric bookstores and write stories in urban apartments and parks and cafés. To meet a man whose vision aligned with mine and whose support created space for me to flourish as a woman and writer. To struggle into my own model of what a woman’s life could be.
Marriage has proven a nurturer of my dreams, but I remain skeptical of childrearing. Despite occasional surges of baby desire, I don’t consider motherhood necessary to my fulfillment.
I am not certain I even have a biological clock.
Six months later, it’s Christmas, and Richard and I hole up in a guest room while snow floats and piles onto the frozen lake. My brother and his girlfriend have split up. He has brought nine-month-old Maia to the lake for the holiday and is struggling with her care. Maia is passed between women, my mom, my sisters, me, all of us helping diaper and feed and soothe her in the absence of her mother. I volunteer for a night shift. Maia wakes well before dawn, and it’s Richard who stays with her in the tree-lit living room while I slump back to bed, thinking This is insane, I could never do this every night. When I wake in the morning, Richard has her nestled in the bed between us. She sits up and flashes an exuberant smile.
By February I’m neck-deep in the essays and eight-hundred-page novels of the final semester of my English degree. My mother’s calls intrude daily; urgent and distraught. Maia’s mother has decided she can’t keep her. My brother is unable to care for her alone. Maia has moved to the lake, her bed a playpen in the guest room, her changing table wedged beside the washing machine. Nearing sixty and finally finished raising her own six children, my mother is overwhelmed. It’s a family crisis: what will happen to Maia?
I remember the leaping knowledge at our meeting and I long to say Yes, Maia is our daughter. Richard wants no part in separating a child from her parents and is a wall of caution and reserve. We both know we’re the worst adoption candidates. We’re vagabonds and artists. Richard landed in Canada as a permanent resident two months ago; we’re only now officially living together after six years of bouncing between countries. We don’t own a home. Until recently, we didn’t own so much as a bed. I’m a student. Richard’s an actor, establishing himself in a new country. We have no money.
We visit Maia, a communal child with a blanket of worry over all her expressions. We visit my brother, hear his anguish and his helplessness, discuss the level of involvement he would want in Maia’s life and the roles we each would play. I visit Maia’s mother, balance stiffly on the couch in her apartment and enter into a conversation in which one woman talks about giving up her child and one woman talks about taking her. She convinces me she’s sure of her decision. When I leave, I can’t stop shaking.
Richard’s misgivings shift into support for whichever choice I make. He won’t make the decision himself—I am the one sucker-punched by the other-worldly connection to Maia; I am the one likely to bear the greater responsibility for her care—but he will support and embrace my choice.
I have another four months of school. We decide we will decide after I finish.
Traveling to classes on the subway I read Maybe Baby: 28 writers tell the truth about skepticism, infertility, baby lust, childlessness, ambivalence, and how they made the biggest decision of their lives. I open the book furtively, as though it’s about bomb-making or S&M, something I’m embarrassed to be considering in public. The book is divided into three sections: “Definitely Not”, “On the Fence”, and “Yes.” I relate to all three.
For years I’ve avoided the constraints of childbearing. I want to be more than a caretaker of someone else’s life. I worry that becoming a mother will mean never finishing my half-written novel or any other novels, never really becoming the writer I’ve dreamed about since childhood. I worry that motherhood will demand self-sacrifice I am unprepared to give. I worry that it will consume me – or, worse, that I’ll be unable to summon the proper maternal love, and it will not.
Recently we’ve played with the idea of parenthood, a theory with little relation to reality. We joke about the psychic’s prophecy.
There’s the lake, we said when my parents bought their lakehouse.
If we ever conceive, we think, we will bear twins.
I move on to Between Interruptions: 30 Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood. One April evening I come to a story of adoption. The mother expresses my fears and questions. The child’s name is Maia. The essay concludes with a moving story in which her motherhood of Maia, the bond between them, is proclaimed, affirmed.
I’m premenstrual. All day I’ve been exhausted and irrational, ricocheting between sadness, rage, delight. I’m in no shape for life-changing decisions. But my emotion is bypassing my theorizing, my instinct has escaped the intellectual censor, and what I feel reading this story is Yes.
I stare at Richard and he holds my gaze. I pause between each word: “I. Want. To. Adopt. Maia.”
His response is immediate and sure, like he’s been waiting for me to sort through my doubt and declare the choice he knew all along I’d make.
He says, “Okay. Absolutely. Let’s do it.”
Saying it, having my husband affirm it, incites a subtle but cataclysmic shift.
We meet my brother days later to tell him we’ve decided, and the three of us walk through High Park in the first faint warmth of spring. Before we can speak he announces news of his own: he’s considering raising Maia himself. I keep my response positive, supportive, and feel a trickle of relief, like I’ve wakened from a complicated dream to life exactly as it always has been. Then I go to class the next day and hide in the bathroom sobbing. I feel like I’ve miscarried a baby I suddenly realize I’m desperate for. After a week my brother decides he can’t raise her, but I’m wary and can’t get myself back to the vulnerable place of wanting her.
I’ve finished my coursework and am preparing to travel to the lake; a two-week visit to help with Maia and decide if I will become her mother. I’m sitting in cafés for hours, clinging to my freedom to sit in cafés for hours, writing and drinking chai lattes and reading Nobody’s Mother: Life Without Kids. The concerns and desires of women who have chosen not to mother resonate deeply with me. Yes, I say, copying out passages. This is what I want. A life of books and learning and travel and theatre, silence and solitude and companionship with my partner, a life that is ours.
But the pressure compacts around me. My mother is reaching the end of her endurance with an active fifteen-month-old. Maia needs to be settled as soon as possible with whomever will be her parents. If it isn’t us, we should step aside so it can be somebody else. Except there isn’t anybody else.
I visit a lawyer to find out the legal procedure for relative adoption, and instead am quizzed on my readiness for and commitment to parenting. I feel guilty, angry, panicked, forced. If child-free women in general are accused of selfishness, how selfish would I be to refuse to mother not a hypothetical child but a real one, here now and in need?
I’ll come next week, I tell my mother. And then, next. At night I lie sleepless and in tears. My mind races I don’t want to be a mother I don’t want to be a mother. Envisioning a childfree life is easy and freeing. Becoming a mother feels like the abrupt and irrevocable death of the life I love.
I don’t realize how frantically I’ve been fleeing the motherhood calling I was raised for until suddenly it is no longer abstract possibility but reality. Reality is a bright June morning, a packed suitcase, a car waiting to take me to the motherless child and the decision deadline. This same bright June morning, on the kitchen table between our Eggs Benedict and two tall glasses of orange juice, reality is also a faint pink line on a pregnancy test.
I travel five hours north from Toronto to the lake, the hours-old test blazing in my pocket, the words I’m pregnant a stunned refrain, to care for one child and nurture the second inside my body.
A sort of twins. Both come to us, in a way, on the same day.
At first I feel like I’m in a reality show that flings unprepared contestants into extreme circumstances: you’re pregnant and you’re the mother of a fifteen-month-old. Go! Some days, splashing in the lake with this strawberry-curled child, meditating at dawn with one hand on my belly, I feel deep contentment, rightness, the unexpected pregnancy a nudge from my body in the direction my mind has feared to take. Some days, I weep a looping track of My life is over; I don’t want this life. In dreams I’m barred from my upcoming graduation because I’ve chosen a domestic path. In daily bouts of panic all I see ahead is slavery, my large and varied and creative life diminished to diapers and laundry and endless rounds of meal preparation, no space for myself, ever.
When my mom asks one evening if I’ll wash the dishes, I stand at the sink, time-warped back to my teens, hands buried in suds and face streaming with tears. A pile of dirty plates the symbol of the domestic life I thought I’d fled, my presence before them evidence of my new and permanent entrapment. Because this time, there is no escape. I have succumbed. At age thirty-two, after evading it so long, I’m caught in the biological system that has enslaved women for millennia. Goodbye, personal goals and dreams; hello, life of small things.
I stand at the sink and weep.
By the side of the lake I read Mother-Daughter Wisdom: Creating a Legacy of Physical and Emotional Health. Dr. Christiane Northrup writes about a spectrum of mothering styles. On the opposite end from the traditional mother displayed in my youth is the nontraditional mother, “the woman who is primarily turned inward toward meeting creative needs that come from deep within her”. These mothers love their children, and they are good mothers. But they “are not biologically wired for motherhood to fulfill them totally at the deepest levels”. They must prioritize their own nourishment or jeopardize their emotional and physical wellbeing.
And this is okay.
I feel relief, hope, permission in the acknowledgment of another way to be a mother. I begin to see that my anxiety stems not from motherhood itself but from the baggage I carry around it. The gospel of motherhood as woman’s holy duty, the fear of losing my dreams and independence: is this the truth about motherhood, or is it only one construction? I begin to hope, as early-pregnancy fatigue slays me, that the martyr mother I’ve dreaded becoming is not the mother I have to be. I begin to hope, as I feed and clothe and play with Maia, that I might find my own model of what a mother can be. That it will not mean giving up myself, and might mean discovering deeper parts of myself.
The two babies begin to feel inextricable, belonging together, belonging with us. One is already part of my body; the other has always felt, beneath the doubt and panic, part of my soul.
Richard comes for the final weekend of my stay with Maia. I carry her to the lake and she snuggles at my chest while Richard asks her how she feels about joining our family. She watches him and listens intently, as though understanding. I hold her tight, and I cry.
Richard and I talk about moving to the lake.
The decisive moment, the moment I know finally and absolutely that I am Maia’s mother, comes the night she bites my stomach. She’s overtired, screaming as I prepare her for bed, and she leans forward and bites me, hard, in the belly. I explode with words good mothers do not use, cry: “I don’t even want this life! I don’t want this!” At last we both calm down and she clings to me, whimpering, as I carry her to the playpen in my parents’ guest room. When I put her down she wants me to stay, and I lie on the floor next to her until she falls asleep.
I think how I battled my own mother as a child, and felt safe to do so because I knew without doubt that she loved me unconditionally and would never leave me. I think how even in battling my mother I wanted no one but her, the one person with whom I possessed absolute security. I am pierced by the realization that Maia has no one like this. I decide then, her bite still smarting on my belly, that I want to be this person for her.
Throughout the fall and winter of my pregnancy I wake in the darkness of early morning to work on my novel. Richard lights a fire in the woodstove of our yellow A-frame cottage, and light seeps gradually across the lake as I work. When Maia wakes, Richard goes to her, changes her diaper and dresses her, and she thumps down the stairs with him, calling out: “Mama!” My due date is my novel completion deadline. I write with greater focus and urgency than ever in my life, and I finish my draft.
One week before Maia’s second birthday, Richard’s arms around me and midwives cross-legged at my feet, I give birth to Aphra. We bring her home to the lake. Maia’s expression is intent, her body moving with single-minded purpose toward the baby I am holding.
Maia opens her arms and claims her.