I vividly recall wanting a baby once.
It was the ’70s, while watching The Flintstones, when an overwhelming wave of nurturing washed over me. I ran to tell my parents I needed a Pebbles of my own—a sweet gumdrop of a baby with a bone in her hair that was mine, all mine. My 6-year-old pronouncement was met with a chorus of Awww, then quickly followed by Go get your dollies. Admittedly, that lightning bolt of maternal instinct didn’t leave a mark. I graduated from the ages of Slip n’ Slide, braces and graduate school with nary an impulse to birth a Pebbles of my own.
The reasons are myriad and self-incriminating. In my 20s and 30s, while focused on a journalism career, I was loathe to compromise bylined goals, much less my time. Having slumber interrupted for nighttime feedings, relinquishing weekends to softball games, jumping into the play-date scrum—none of it appealed. I was an over-sensitive kid who grew up acutely aware of the sacrifices involved with childrearing. As an adult, that knowledge calcified into a fear that I’d resent every minute of it. The ugly truth of it all, the real warty admission that even in this day and age still feels embarrassingly anathema to my gender, is that I’ve always been too selfish to be a parent.
Which is why I coasted through early adulthood without being responsible for anything more than a houseplant, one purchased from a South Jersey Walmart for pocket change in 1994. It was a hearty varietal requiring precious little water, one capable of surviving a basement rental in Weehawken, NJ, then a railroad apartment in New York where it received only slightly more light. This was what I was capable of: the occasional watering of a plant.
Fortunately, it only took semi-regular attention for my $7.95 greenery to thrive. I incorporated some encouraging words into my plant’s diet. I named him Apollo. He sat verdant and un-needy all throughout graduate school, three different apartments, and a decade’s worth of articles. Apollo was loyal, unfussy and required exactly what I had to offer.
Enter John, my husband-to-be, on Labor Day of 2005. A handful of months into our courtship, and, oddly, on the eve of my grandfather’s funeral, John and I discussed how neither of us felt compelled to have children. Admittedly, it was a strange conversation to have, given the somber occasion and late hour at the Cleveland Holiday Inn, but I needed to be clear on this point—however panicked an inarticulate it was. My fear was that I’d get backed into the C’mon-let’s-have-a-baby corner at some later date. John assured this wouldn’t happen. I quickly followed up with the caveat, “This is how I feel now, and if I wake up one morning and decide I want to have a baby, I’ll go have one by myself.” We’d walk down that road together, he said. Bases covered, we buried my grandfather. John helped carry the casket.
Later that year, John proposed. Waiting until your late 30s to marry means there’s likely someone else in the picture who’ll need to be taken into account. In John’s case, it was his Shih Tzu Bogie, whom he shared custody with and assured me I’d love. I was born into a family with a 250-pound St. Bernard. Later there were Golden Retrievers, and that was as small as our dogs ever got. So, the notion of four tiny paws enchanting me seemed a stretch.
But I’d underestimated Bogie. With his black-and-white mop of hair and massive personality, he unleashed within me a compassion that softened my angst-y edges. In no time at all, I was the one leaping out of bed at dawn to walk him. I prepared his kibble and chicken, doted on him with toys and treats. Whenever he was ill, my insides contorted with an acidic ache. I expected resentment from responsibility, so the fire hose of emotion gushing forth for this pup, so pure and powerful, it caught me unawares. John and I were married in the summer of 2007 in an intimate, family ceremony in the West Village. The groom wore a tuxedo. So did Bogie.
The summer after our wedding, we got Bogie a little Shih Tzu brother. Kona was coffee-colored, barely tipping the scales at 2 pounds when we brought him home. Instead of a crate, we bought him a puppy playpen with a padded liner. We wiped his food-dappled face after he ate. We laughed as he wobbled around, batting at a golf ball with his tiny paws. During the first month, I awoke every hour throughout the night to Kona’s tiny whimpers. I rushed out of bed to keep him company, to carry him to the wee-wee pad, to feed him. To this day, that entire period of my sleep-deprived life remains a blur. Feeling wigged out and unhinged, I remember marveling to a friend, “I have a houseplant, a husband, a dog and a puppy…How does anyone do kids?” The look on her face, I’ll never forget, was one of pity.
We paper-trained Kona, then taught him to do his business outside on the curb. I trotted him around the neighborhood, became friendly with the other dogs on the block. We’d cab to Central Park, where he’d gallop like a tiny stallion, tongue joyously lolling out the side of his mouth. I fretted about his finicky eating habits, his eyes that required an array of ointments, and whether he was licking his paws raw. We eventually settled into a comfortable routine filled with thrice-daily walks, twice-daily feedings, and playtime with loads of plush toys. Our apartment floor became a patchwork quilt of cushions and fluffy blankets, so no matter where Kona or Bogie decided to rest their tiny bodies they’d be comfortable. We took them on road trips. Included them in family photos. Couples typically consummate a marriage with children. John and I did it with pups.
And we were happy, so happy and on the same page. Simpatico in every way a family can be, while our friends and siblings were all busy having children. I’d always joked that my biological clock wasn’t plugged into the wall. It was an honest comment that always elicited a reliable chuckle.
That is, until 40 approached.
Forty. That cliffhanger-esque milestone threatening women that they need to Get On With Having A Kid If You’re Gonna Have A Kid. Because a day after 40, ovaries burp out misshapen eggs and DNA helixes unravel. Or so every bit of professional guidance seemed to scream. I had to be sure the path on which I’d marched myself, my houseplant, husband and pups was the right one. Did I really not want children? Was it simply fear and career-focus deciding matters prematurely? Maybe I did want a child. Maybe it would be manageable? I needed to figure it out before my biological piping rusted.
And so I examined every permeation how our lives would change with a child—really, how my life would change. I made a mental pros-and-cons list, and despite the sparseness of the “pro” side, kept reconsidering the internal argument, entertaining the nattering what if in my head until finally, I looped John into the conversation. Or, rather, tiptoed up to the topic over the course of several weeks and countless conversational false starts. On one of my many tepid forays, I made some sort of passing joke on the subject. John looked at Kona and said, “Did you hear that, Ko? Mommy wants to replace you.”
More instances followed where I’d do my best sidle up to the weighty issue, tossing out a half-hearted what if here, a generic what would you think there, avoiding direct language at all cost. Throughout my career, I’d covered everything from economic indicators to zoning-board referendums, explaining it all in simple prose. Yet here I was at a place in my life where articulating anything rooted in the emotional was impossible. It shouldn’t have been; I was literally trained in words. But for as many as I’d crafted, and for how much I’d prioritized their importance over the years, words abandoned me when I needed them most.
One day, that changed. Maybe it was because my 40th birthday clomped closer. Or the internal childbearing debate, once an annoying murmur, now had a sharp, tinny ring to it. Probably it was the overwhelming, sphincter-clenching panic to DECIDE ALL THINGS CHILD NOW that pushed me to blurt, “I’m not saying that I definitely want a child! But if I did, I just want to know if you’d walk down that road with me.”
I needed a comfortable, hypothetical reality to get a handle on my true desire, and for whatever reason John was the keeper of that reassurance, the one thread that could help me knit heartstrings to sober judgment.
He looked me straight in the eye. There was no demurring, no skittish sideways glance to his gaze. There was no talking to the dog. “Of course I’d walk down it with you.”
It was all I needed.
The answer, which had always been there, just too gummed up with anxiety to acknowledge, was clear. The exhaustive mental list I’d compiled of pros and cons became gauzy. The tinnitus-inducing worry that I’d regret my decision faded like the sound of a passing train. The piercing wonder of whether I’d want anything besides our non-traditional, people-puppy family, gone. Wanting for nothing but what I had never felt sweeter.
Last year, we lost Bogie to old age, so now it’s just the three of us in the apartment. Well, eight, if you include Apollo and all his offspring. We still dote on Kona like he’s the world’s most precocious tot. We are those people. And John and I recently discussed when, not if, we should expand our family. It’s an enormous step, one that will involve several conversations, possibly a pros-and-cons list, but absolutely no tiptoeing. Not only have I found my words, but John and I both agree: The time we give Kona a little Shih Tzu brother, it has to be perfect.