Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Mother of All Melt-Downs

Happy Mother's Day, to those of you in the States who are mothers. The "holiday" is celebrated over here in March, so the day totally snuck up on me. I am completely unmoored from the calendar that I grew up with - Mother's Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving. It's like I can forget they ever existed.

As I get older, Mother's Day becomes an emotional minefield. I don't have any children and I vacillate over that predicament like a weather vane in a tornado - swinging rapidly from wistful and yearning to happy and accepting. Most days, I am quite happy with the way things are, but some days are tough. Last year, watching my niece celebrate her sixth birthday with 15 giggling, screechy little girls, I thought my heart might burst from the longing.

But a few weeks later, while babysitting the same niece and explaining that I needed 10 minutes to just relax before playing the next bizarrely complicated and overly regulated pretending game, I was relieved that I didn't have to deal with children on a daily basis. Days like that make me wonder if I have it in me. I am actually a bit frightened of infants. If one could give birth to a five-year old, I might be willing to give it a go, but the thought of going through night-feedings, then teething, then the Roman-Emperor phase of toddlerhood makes me think that maybe we should just stick to raising dogs.

Last year, to celebrate Mother's Day, Peter's parents, brother and sister-in-law, and the two of us went out to lunch at a really swish hotel in Dublin. It was the sort of place where the tables are blanketed with silverware and the menu is full of terrine of this and confit of that. In short, it was the sort of place that makes me break out in a cold sweat because as soon as the waiter comes by, everyone will know that I am an unsophisticated rube who doesn't drink wine, is afraid of mushrooms, won't eat anything that swims, and will only eat meat that has been processed entirely out of all recognition.

An Taoiseach and his family were dining a few tables away. There was also a woman at the next table who had to be an Irish model, but, since I am not a reader of the Sunday Independent, I couldn't tell you which one. (Nor would I want to be able to.) Her baby daughter was with her, dressed in an immaculate cute dress, and I had to wonder how the woman kept the child so clean while managing to find the time to dress herself up and slather on several coats of make-up. I'm sure there were other Irish-famous people there (Irish-famous being completely different than regular famous) but I was too busy reminding myself "Silverware: Start from the outside and work your way in" to celebrity search.

For whatever bizarre quirk of biology and emotion, I was feeling horribly wistful and yearning for a child. Ordinarily, I try to keep these thoughts and feelings to myself. In the 12 years we have been together, Peter's feeling on parenthood has gone from completely oppossed to being willing to discuss it at some long-distant point when we have ourselves established in what we want to do. Usually, I am quite happy to defer thinking about or discussing this touchy topic. But on this day, the emotional bit of me overwhelmed the logical bit and in the car on the way to lunch, I had blurted out a difficult and awkward question - will I ever be someone's mother?

Understandably, Peter was not eager to open that particular can of worms, not in the car, not on the way to a family lunch, not now. (I am very bad at choosing my moments, probably because I don't talk about things when they bother me so it all builds up and the top pops off at inopportune times.) He gently tabled the matter for later discussion and I'd managed to put the thoughts out of my head. Which was pretty easy to do, given how intimidated I was by the restaurant. Every ounce of concentration I had was being marshalled to allow me to make polite comversation whilst eating in a way that wouldn't make people wonder if I had been raised by wolves.

Near the end of the meal, one of the waiters came around and gave a lily to each woman at our table. I politely told the man that I wasn't a mother, so no thanks, but he was not to be fobbed off. His mission was to distribute the flowers and he insisted I take it. Feeling monumentally stupid, I did take it. But sitting there, it rapidly became clear that this was going to be the lily that broke the camel's back. I could feel the tears taking up the ready position and I didn't want to hang around for them to get the set....go command. I excused myself and headed for the bathroom where I locked myself in a cubicle and had a good long cry. Then I had to pull myself together and go out to smile my way through the rest of coffee and dessert.

I don't know why the day affected me so badly. I don't know why I didn't want that stupid flower. I just know that I had never felt so bad about the whole damn topic and, at least so far, I've not felt that bad since. I know exactly how old I am and I know about the risks and difficulties of having children as you get older. The thing is, I would have been a complete disaster as a mother if we'd had children when I was in my 20s. And how can I want something so badly one day and fear and dread the exact same thing a few days later? Until that feeling stabilises one way or the other, it seems best to err on the side of caution and try not to even think about children for now.

I made it through the rest of the lunch without incident. In the parking garage, I looked for the oldest, most beat up car I could find and then tucked the lily on its windscreen. I hoped that the owner of the car was a single woman with a pile of kids who was having to work on Mother's Day. Someone who deserved a token of the day.


At 13 May 2007 at 12:22, Blogger laurie said...

you should send this essay to the New York Times "modern love" column. it's beautiful, ann, and it made me tear up.

it also made me want to write almost as length of a response to you, which i won't do. your feels are universal, and also unique.
that's all i'll say.

At 13 May 2007 at 15:16, Blogger Fence said...

Great post Ann.

Personally I'm not against having children, but at the moment I don't want them. That may change, one of my friends who was adamant when at college that she never ever wanted children has grown a lot more broody as time has passed.

At 14 May 2007 at 11:52, Anonymous Harlequin said...

Wonderful post Ann. Really wonderful. I've always (theoretically!) wanted children and my fella adores them but as I've gotten older (I'm approaching 28) and especially since my sister got pregnant, I've grown more afraid of parenthood. I have no idea how I would cope with pregnancy or look after a baby. Like you, I'd prefer to have a CHILD rather than a BABY. But then they are children a lot longer than they are babies so I suppose that's ok.
I'm afraid that when I no longer have the I'm too young, we aren't married, we haven't got a house etc etc etc arguments to fall back on, when trying for a baby actually becomes a reality, that I won't want to do it. But I guess I'll jump off that bridge when I come to it!

At 14 May 2007 at 13:20, Blogger Terri said...

I'm sure the recipient of the lily really appreciated it - that was really nice. I empathise with this post in a big way. The broodiness kind of sneaks up on us as we get older. I've realised with me it's the hormones and the ol' biological clock that are in cohoots. Like you, though, it takes but a short time spent with babies or toddlers to make me come to my senses. Just because we make a decision, doesn't stop Nature from voicing her opinion occasionally.
Happy mother's day :)

At 14 May 2007 at 16:10, Blogger Col said...

Awww, Ann. That is a lovely essay.

Like going to a swank restaurant, having a child takes you out of your comfort zone. Every day is a new challenge. While babyhood can be exhausting, it doesn't last very long.

I know you'll do just fine if/when you guys decide to take the plunge. The first couple of years are tough, but then you have a whole lifetime to collect on your "investment".

(PS-- I laughed out loud at "10 minutes to just relax". You should have told her you had to go to the bathroom.)

At 16 May 2007 at 21:40, Blogger -Ann said...

swLaurie - Thanks for the idea. i did some checking on their submission guidelines and it looks like I could even expand the word count by another page or so.

Fence - Cheers. It's funny how the broodiness can just sneak up on you.

Harlequinn - Thanks. It was very cathartic to write. Children are great - babies are terrifying. And I know exactly what you mean about being afraid of what happens when you run out of excuses.

Terri - Peter told me that whomever got the lily was probably going to be confused and think they had a stalker or something. :)

Col - Excellent advice as always. I think, if I ever cross the child-bearing bridge I might have to ring you, like I have in the past with my Fashion Emergencies. As for the break - I have a patented technique for dealing with that now. I go against the rules of the game and then give myself a Time Out and sit on the Naughty Step. Rules must be observed and there are consequences for behaviour. :)

At 19 May 2007 at 17:22, Anonymous Conortje said...

I just came across your site while blog surfing. Was completely unprepared to find something so touching and personal. Truly wonderful.

At 21 May 2007 at 19:18, Blogger -Ann said...

Conortje- Thanks. I am glad you enjoyed it and hope you stop back again. (Although I don't post as often as I used to and, as Billy Bob says in Bad Santa, "they can't all be winners, kid."

At 26 May 2007 at 14:41, Blogger stwidgie said...

Hoo boy. Thank you for writing that, Ann. It sounded so familiar. I remember some moments like that. The saddest was at a friend's baby shower and I just lost it, burst into tears in front of everyone on a day when she was supposed to be the center of attention. That was when I decided I would never make myself go to another baby shower. (I've been to a couple since then, but only for women I really cared about enough to put myself through the risk of feeling intensely blue in public.)

Now that it's become clear that I'll never be a mother, I've pretty much come to accept it. I look for all the brightness that's still there - the time to spend on whatever's dearest to me, the less complicated relationship of being an aunt, the realization that even if I did have kids, that would not guarantee happily ever after and I might yet feel alone when I grow old. Still, I know there will always be moments when I miss what might have been. The key is not to let the regret define me.

I wish you the best whichever way you choose to go. There are many ways to live a happy life.

(Sorry I didn't exercise Laurie's restraint!)

At 30 May 2007 at 21:52, Blogger -Ann said...

Stwidgie - Restraint is highly overrated sometimes. I appreciate hearing your story and knowing that these feelings are not uncommon. Baby showers though - I never thought of that because I've never been invited to one. I hope my luck holds!


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