I was recently asked the question: “What advice would you give to your 22-year old self?” Several tidbits came to mind: Make your own money. Keep going to school. Don’t worry about being the only woman in class. Remember other women are your sisters not your competitors.
But the one that I keep mulling over is this one: Don’t be in such a hurry to have a baby. Where did that come from, I wondered. It was so automatic, the first thing I thought of, the first book I reached for in a mile-long corridor of books. Don’t be in such a hurry to have a baby.
Having a baby, having children by whatever means, is a wonderful, joyous, unbelievably lucky thing. I know, it’s happened to me four times. And while becoming a mother is extraordinary, sacred even, it means you will never be carefree again in your life. Your carefree days will be over, become distant, then unreal, and then mythical, as if you never lived on this earth as a person without worry.
You’ll see it sometimes, a person who appears to be carefree, a young woman diving into the surf and riding a big wave to the shore, laughing for the pure joy of being in the sun and the ocean and having no fear, just being able to be her whole physical, healthy self with a mind clear of things that might happen.
Raising kids is the fine art of keeping one’s terror that something will happen to one of them under control so you don’t ruin their lives and turn them into people who are afraid to do things. Sometimes I think I overcompensated and let my kids do things that someone less preoccupied with terrible things happening might not allow.
Once, we found a big, thick rope hanging from a tree on the shore of a blue lagoon off US 1 in the Florida Keys and my three younger kids immediately started swinging on the rope and dropping into the lagoon while I cheered them on, partly glad and partly thinking there were dozens of sharp tree stumps feathered with razors just below the surface. They emerged unscathed and delighted with themselves but eventually someone took the rope down. I shouldn’t have allowed them to swing on that rope, I thought, someone wiser than me put an end to it. Overcompensating is so fraught.
Sometimes I’ve wanted to ask women I know who don’t have children if they are carefree but I know they will say they aren’t because life is never carefree for an adult or for many children, for that matter. But if I ask them if they have worry that is constant like Mormon undergarments, there every day despite what is going on in reality, in the rest of the world, they would look at me and shake their heads. No, they’d say, I’m just wearing a bra and a pair of underwear.
There were occasions, very brief, when I thought this worry business was just me. It’s not. It is a mother’s condition. It is the price we pay for the great joy, the rent owed for getting our wishes granted, the threat that makes our children’s continued life and health and well-being the stuff of amazement and celebration. It’s a peculiar appreciation for dodging imaginary bullets, being grateful for terrible things that haven’t and will probably never happen.
I thought a lot about this on Mother’s Day. What all of us mothers do to keep our worry under control, keep it from splashing all over our kids and ruining their lives. It’s a huge invisible accomplishment. I applaud us, me, you, all of us for trading our carefree lives for the Mormon underwear. And I admire those mothers who, when it’s the right time, know when to take the heavy pieces off, fold them neatly, put them in the drawer and run into the surf.