“So when are you going to get on with your life?”
Reading Briana’s post last week brought up a litany of emotions that were wholly familiar. I was reminded of comments I received back in the day after I completed one challenge and stood on the cusp of another. I recalled the months following graduation (be it high school or university) where the world felt like an unending stretch of Saskatchewan prairie fields, amaranthine skies and sweeping pastures holding countless possibilities just waiting to be unearthed. During such periods time was an abstract and not-entirely linear construct, which explained why the days slowed down and collapsed upon one another, granting me the opportunity to celebrate and bathe in whatever achievement I had fostered and to also think, dream and consider what direction my future would take.
While there were days of pride and euphoria there were also ones of apprehension and internal torment. I quickly gained knowledge about some of the things you do not learn when growing up. Matters and ideas that remain unspoken or the sort of things people forget to tell you about altogether. In this respect I’m referring to the way in which periods of joy, success and fulfillment appear resplendent and shiny but are almost always lined with their diametric opposites: counterparts like those hidden fragments of melancholy, failure and disappointment, which form the rough outline of your gilded cloud. While they manage to stay put they are sometimes pulled out of orbit and cut through the air, sharp like glass. These are the sort of emotional elements that carry reversals of fortune on their backs and have the propensity to stick if you’re not mindful of where you step or extremely careful of where you decide to tread.
During such periods I was, like Briana, accosted with warm-wishes and well-intentioned-though-sometimes-unnerving lines of questioning from family, friends and acquaintances, all of whom I presumed were happy for me and only wanted the best. The thing was, eight times out of ten this pleasure was expressed via a barrage of inquiries I had no concrete answers for. Looking at me with eyes wide and mouths curving in the soft turns of boldfaced question marks they would ask “What are you going to do now?” with the sort of urgency that made me feel like I was a house on fire. I needed to find the right response in order to put out the flames.
Fast forward seventeen, twelve, ten years from those “roundabouts” of life and I wonder if I am any closer to the answers, quasi-truths, I gave at the time. The funny thing is the questioning continues although I am no longer asked what I’m going to do with my life. The “what’s next?” series of questions has continued though it has done so along a whole other vein. You see, while I have managed to get on with my life to have been there and done that, the hailstorm of questioning related to schooling and a career has morphed into an inquest that feels like a full blown CSI investigation with people trying to figure out when I will settle down and focus on what’s next. The “what” and “next” in this case is code for: when the hell are you going to have children?
Though I am loath to say so, I am of the age where I’m not getting any younger. Nearing the heavily militarized zone that puts me closer to 40 than 30 (my God, where has time gone?) I am peppered with questions like where are your children? Or, why haven’t you had any as of yet? Most of the time I’m asked in the intimacy of a one-on-one conversation with a person I know and love. Comrades who are conscious of my feelings and wary of the boundary they are about to cross, they dance around the issue before asking the question in a commiserative tone, one that sometimes brims with curiosity. How sweet they are, these friends as they try to grapple with
the my truth, with most filling the space following my response with, “Well, between us, you would have beautiful babies.”
Though mildly irritating, I am unable to find fault with these friends and family members since they have my best interests (at least we hope) at heart. Instead, I keep my composure and the thoughts “a beautiful baby does not necessarily equal a loving and well-adapted child” to myself as I mount a defense that includes a set of well rehearsed responses. I need to assuage my interrogator. I have to be prepared for the next baby shower, coffee date or walk in the park.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said when the question is leveled by acquaintances, colleagues or people I’ve just met. Individuals situated nowhere near the centre of my onion but who feel entitled to receive a response regarding a rather deeply personal question. After talking about work or the various places I’ve lived, the one-two punch comes without warning, and in rapid succession.
“Do you have kids?” Pow! There goes a left hook to the jaw.
“No? Well when are you going to have them?” Crunch! The right hits me on the bridge of my nose, shattering the cartilage and causing blood to pour down. I hear the twittering of birds. I’m pretty sure faux-cartoon stars dance in front of my eyes.
Though not always, these hits are often followed up by a look of pity so deep I could mine copper and coltan if I had the right tools on hand. Either way, the knock out punch almost always comes in the form of a disconsolate “well you’ll have them soon” or a cheeky “don’t worry, you still have time,” the assumptions behind such statements smacking of ignorance and leaving me reeling as I look over my shoulder for the candid camera that has me trained in its sights.
I believed as I got older I would become less frustrated with public concern regarding my reproductive health. Instead, I find I am ever more perturbed at engaging in the sort of conversations where I have to actively justify the absence of children in my life, and explain why only phantom apparitions reside in my uterus–take up space behind the sides of my eyes. It is maddening to continually bite my tongue and swallow searing retorts while others feel it is acceptable to take up such lines of questioning. For some reason, as long as the dialogue involves the sort of cultural markers, gender-based identifiers or social indicators that (seemingly) afflict us all, it is perfectly fine to grill me for nine and half minutes as to why I have not procreated as of yet.
As if bringing a child into the world is the only gift I have to give.
This is not to say that childbearing and motherhood is not fulfilling and worthwhile work. It is, and I will be the first to stand in line and salute the mothers past, present and those still to come. I will back the women who claim raising a little person is one of the most rewarding, life-changing and incredible events they have ever experienced and I will continue to marvel at the way the inherent nurturer comes out in so many mothers, how she manages to coexist with the divine goddess, feisty warrior and the indomitable sorceress within. It is the sort of occurrence, life stamp if you will, I am forever curious about and sometimes find myself reaching for as the pull of creation plays the song of the sirens deep within.
Having said that, I also believe there isn’t one path to follow or one road we should all be barrelling down. There are women who were born to carry children and bring them into the world. Who were born to be the most glorious caregivers and teach by example. These are the women who find ways to transfer their gifts on, gift their insight to their children so their offspring grow up to be herders and teachers and playwrights and doctors and the next leaders of the free world.
There are women who thought they had the capacity to be mothers but only learned after the fact how sorely mistaken they were. They are women who spend their time wishing they could turn the clock back because circumstance was unkind and they weren’t dealt they hand they so desperately wanted. Bemoaning the cruelty of life and how the dice they rolled showed a three and a one instead of a pair of sixes, such women wind up repeating familial cycles–they sure do die hard–and impart their bitterness, fear and distress to their children before they hit the tender age of five.
Then there are women who were never supposed to be mothers–those breast beating warriors meant to move through life alone. They may have other axes to grind or mountains to climb or perhaps they tried to reproduce but natural selection replied with a whispered “no.” In some cases they never got the memo because they were not listening to the blare of their internal alarm. Just your average Jane Doe, she is a woman who woke up one day to the resounding truth that, sorry baby, but you’ve run out of time.
Don’t ask me why, but I suspect I am the axe-grinding-alarm-clock-ignoring sort of woman.
I suppose my resentment regarding all the questions is because of the intimacy of the query and the way in which it can easily become conversational filler or gossip fodder. I am also not a fan of how the question can be used out of context, as a segue to another topic, or as an offensive weapon, lobbed into the ring like a percussion grenade–the blowback rings through my ears long after my investigator is gone. It bothers me when it is employed as a tool to measure whose life is better. Children acting as yardsticks with contestants racking up their points. Kids counted like digitized numbers on a scoreboard and used to highlight the winners and losers of the familial game.
The thing is too many people ask about children unborn and children yet (or never) to come without pausing to consider the range of responses I may have to give. There are also a fair percentage who remain completely unprepared for the sort of unsolicited responses which include a bevy of words like: stillborn, miscarriage, crib death, infertility or, quite simply, I have no want for children of my own.
When I was young I presumed I would follow the path most educated and economically secure North American women tread: I would attend university and date a guy by the name of “Mr. The One,” and once I graduated I would get married and have my first child before my 30th. The second would arrive by my 33rd birthday, which would enable me to return to the workforce and start climbing the corporate ladder by the time I hit the age that is set to eclipse me now.
That is what I expected. It was the way things were supposed to be. However, Life (that vexatious mistress who rules us all) well, she had a different map of my world in her outstretched hands. And though I fought her at first she mothered me, showing her tough love by shoving my face into the dirt and suggesting I get grip. She told me to stop trying to micromanage because it was tiresome and because things don’t always turn out the way that I, that you, that we all plan.
It took several years but I finally got her point, and it is with this wisdom I resort to the mantra: we will see how things play out. One of the only things I know for sure is that time is the sole entity that can tell us what the wheel of fortune brings. Perhaps she will spin to the left or, maybe, she’ll turn to the right, though there is a good chance she will fall right off her axel and careen down the road, steamrolling cars and pedestrians in her path. The important thing is I no longer spend my days consumed with anxiety over the question of whether or not I will add a biological child of my own to the seven billion, and counting, inhabitants of this awfully small Earth. And though I know time is making a move to the other side of the pond I will choose instead to abide by Briana’s hymn that while “I may not have it all figured out – […] I’m not doing anything different.”
In other words, I’m moving through life with the same intensity I always have: hoping for the best, sometimes preparing for the worst and trying to live in a way that is unbridled, in living colour and without a string of open-ended regrets or series of unanswered questions.
And, yes, I do so with the sincerest hope others can do the same.