For some families, Christmas is sacred — a non-negotiable yule be sorry if you don’t show up. But for my in-laws, it’s the Fourth of July that obligates me, my husband, his two sisters and their fifty-something husbands to converge on Cape Cod for a weekend of overcooked swordfish, Wimbledon and Trivial Pursuit. Former pilgrims all — except the spouses — it’s an annual exercise of alcohol-sodden repression, topped off by a firing of the family cannon into Buzzards Bay.
This past summer I came with a short stack of Seven Days, which I placed strategically in the living room. I didn’t expect a tickertape parade or anything, just a little recognition that I had created a newspaper since I saw them last. But what little discussion came up was financial: Did I think anyone would want to buy the paper, and if so, for how much?
Later that day, I observed one of my in-laws flipping through an issue, fast, like he was angry about something. When he was done, he suspended the paper like a soiled diaper between his thumb and forefinger, and dropped it on the floor.
I was so pissed I volunteered my husband for a trip to the store. En route, I raged, “What is wrong with your fucking family? Strangers are more interested in the paper than they are. I bust my ass for an entire year and all they can say is, ‘How much is it worth?'” He looked at me like it was the most obvious thing in the world, and responds with typical Yankee reserve, “They want you to have a baby. They don’t like the paper because they think it is keeping you from having a kid.”
“What?” I shrieked. “You barely see them. We hardly know them. Why can’t they have their own kids?” I already knew the answer to that one. Both my sisters-in-law were divorced and remarried, to older men with pre-existing families. For whatever reason, neither of them had children. Their “kids” were practically my age. My mother-in-law was in the market for grandchildren, and had been for a long time. Everyone in the family was looking to us — more specifically, to my pelvis -— to produce the heir.
I knew all that when I married him, of course. And when we tied the knot, I thought I might want kids some day. There was so much time. But this rejection — of the creation I did bring into the world — was a crushing blow. Not just because I felt dissed by these relatives living vicariously, but because the plans they have for me are not who I am. To my parents’ credit, “Don’t be a nurse. Be a doctor” was the adage I grew up by. The options of wife, mother, homemaker never came up. Speeding down that Massachusetts highway, I felt oppressed by my gender for the first time in my life.
Clock ticking? I don't hear it. A second childhood? I like being an adult, thanks. I may burn in hell for this one but impending parenthood fills me with dread. Two weeks ago, my last wild friend in New York called with a kicker. “Are you sitting down?” he asked, knowing me well. “We are pregnant,” he announced with glee. “We weren’t really trying, either.” He had promised a few months’ warning. “You guys better get on the stick.”
The “stick” is not the problem. Everything else is. I know my parents felt pressure to procreate, “because everybody else was doing it,” as my mom put it. But I never thought I would be in the same position 36 years later. You mean the “long way, baby” is a reproductive thing? Who would have thought — with so many other options and the planet overflowing with dysfunctional human life — that old-fashioned, ego-driven reproduction would still be so damn popular?
Instead of joy at the news of a newborn, I feel sad en route to Howdy Wear for the umpteenth shower gift. There are no support groups for people who bum out about babies.
It’s like being against world peace. No use lamenting the fact that your best friend will be unable to complete a single thought without interruption for the next decade. Or, in the case of certain journalists, that the little darlings will work their way into every single column from now until their first drug bust.
To the still unpinned, the sorority of pain looks like a pretty tight-knit group. Even my most ambitious girlfriends are giving up high-level jobs to become full-time mothers — at least temporarily. “Being a mom is better than working at a career. It’s more fulfilling,” says my friend in San Diego, who used to be a television news producer in Beijing. She chose the children, of course, because anything else would have been irresponsible. “I can’t go back and forth like some women,” she says. “The kind of work I do demands an emotional commitment that I don’t seem to have left over after being a mom.”
Forgive my paranoia, but is there a conspiracy here? Is it any wonder there are so few women leaders in the world when our best women bail out at the crucial moment to raise babies instead of holy hell? Anyone notice how alone Madeleine Albright looks out there — a bright red flare in a sea of gray? Sometimes it takes a hard blow with a sharp object to break the glass ceiling.
Okay, or a husband to take on the role of mother. When I asked mine if he would be willing to give up his job and stay home all day, he responded, “I think we have to look at the economic reality of that.” In other words, whoever earns less money gets diaper duty. I lose. And like my control-freak friend from San Diego, I am not sure I would trust my child in the care of someone else, even my husband. "Beer-swilling husband," he amends with a laugh, knowing full well I would cave at the first cry.
Don’t get me wrong. I like kids. My cat is spoiled rotten. And right now anyway, this paper is my surrogate child. Do I bore people incessantly with publishing prattle? Absolutely. Midnight feedings? I am there. With a lot of tender loving care, this little monster may even grow up and bowl over the in-laws. The other option, of course, is to call in sick next July at reunion time — morning sickness.