I got pregnant just six months after I got married. While most expectant mothers gush for joy when they hear they are going to have a child, I instead tried to stifle the throaty scream in my head. I remember my husband beaming more than the blue positive sign screaming at us from the pregnancy test I had just taken, but I was mortified.
That wasn’t the plan – at least not my plan.
Numb with terror, I went on autopilot and made an appointment with my OB-GYN. Women overflowing with maternal warmth filled the office hall. It only made me more anxious. I didn’t understand how this could happen when I had taken my birth control pills diligently.
Nothing against the kids or the people who had them or wanted them, but I didn’t. Never. Even as a kid, I didn’t like kids – not even Cabbage Patch Kids. The thought of being responsible for someone else – and maybe ruining their life – terrified me.
As I sat there in the waiting room, I hoped with all my heart that there had been a mistake. I had taken a pregnancy test in a drugstore – surely it can’t be trusted, right?
“Congratulations!” The nurse cried out after the results of my test returned. Her smile quickly broke into a frown when she noticed my lack of enthusiasm. “Or not,” she mumbled. I felt bad for not wanting what everyone seemed to want naturally.
Not two weeks later, I woke up to what looked like fire burning my leg and realized I was lying in a pool of blood. We rushed to the hospital and found my life was in danger. It turned out that I had an ectopic pregnancy, when too intense sperm ran right in front of the uterus and went up the fallopian tube to fertilize an egg which is still descending. I learned that my fallopian tube was only minutes away from rupturing, so emergency surgery was performed.
The fetus did not survive. I couldn’t believe what had just happened, and I took it as a sign that I was right not to be made to be someone’s mother. In fact, when the doctor explained that because I only had half an ovary and a badly damaged fallopian tube, the likelihood of me getting pregnant again was, in his words, “zero or zero”, I said. was relieved.
Less than a month later, I got pregnant again. Except this time it was different. I was different.
I felt that if this future baby had still found a home inside of me even after everything I had been through, then maybe motherhood had struck twice for a reason. But I? A mother? I was too shredded, too broken, too cold. Yet I promised her then and there that I would do whatever I could to be the best version of myself for her (don’t ask me how I knew she would end up being a girl – I just knew). And, yes, I was still scared of my mind, but this time I didn’t feel so lonely. The way I saw it now, I had it and we were doing this together.
On the way home from the doctor, I walked into a children’s bookstore and bought a few books. That night, I started reading to the growing baby inside me, and read to him every night after that. I felt like a fool at first reading to someone I had never met. I wondered if the sound of my voice soothed her or if she just wanted me to shut up. Over time, I no longer read what I would have called a parasitic bean a few months earlier. Now I was talking to my future child, Annalisa.
I know most parents say this, but my daughter stole my heart the day she was born. Much like in “The Wizard of Oz,” my world went from black and white to full color the instant it appeared.
That being said, having a baby is the most intimidating thing I have ever done. I’m the girl known as the serial killer of houseplants. I was worried that if I couldn’t keep a plant alive for more than a month, how could I take care of a baby? To complicate matters, unlike plants, hatchlings are fleshy drops of Jell-O that move. Just learning how to hold it was a master class for me. But in the end, it all fell into place. And as Annalisa learned to walk and talk, I realized that being a parent means being a guide in life for a little human desperately trying to figure out how to navigate this world on his own. My job is to point out shortcuts and pitfalls so that his journey can hopefully be smoother than mine. And, as I acted as her tutor and guide, she taught me the power to give a little to get a lot.
I quickly learned that newborns are a struggle, but living with a toddler is like going through the seventh circle of hell. At 18 months we started potty training and it was a real battle of wills – her against me. I started by offering her encouraging support by patiently persuading her to do her thing, but she refused. I quickly collapsed and tried to bribe her, making vain threats and, when none of that worked, crawling. It wasn’t until I surrendered and said, “I’m giving up,” that she gave a smile so infectious it was scary. Then, with her favorite book under her little arm, she walked straight into the bathroom and used the potty for the first time like a big girl. I might have lost that battle, but we definitely won the war by simply allowing him to do it his way.
From there, I quickly learned what made the “terrible twos” so terrible: a child’s need to practice speaking … a lot. Once it started, it never stopped. Worse yet, his speech was mostly made up of endless awkward questions. Ignoring her only turned her volume up because she assumed I just couldn’t hear her. What his constant questioning revealed to me was that his mind was not a vessel to fill, but rather a fire that had to be kindled. So I decided that I would always be honest with her. Even when she asked me about Santa Claus, I told her the truth. Opening in general has never been easy for me – in the past I have found that my secrets keep me safe – but by answering her questions, I was not only building an unshakeable bond with my daughter, I realized that I was interacting more sincerely with everyone, myself included.
Annalisa also taught me to be more self-aware, because kids discover everything even when we think they’re not paying attention. It was cute to see her scampering around in my shoes or listening to her parrot my sentences as if they were her own, but then I realized that I was catching my first glimpses of her becoming her own person. The pressure children feel to grow up quickly – especially nowadays – is real. As my role as a mother continued to grow, I became more aware of everything in my life, which in turn made me less responsive. This is what an adult is: someone who thinks before acting, considers the feelings of others, and finds that it is childish to draw power from one’s ego because true power comes from the heart. There were times when I still couldn’t believe that I was a mother, that I was in charge of keeping this little creature fed, safe and curious about the world. But I was grateful for everything I learned and for what I became because of it.
Throughout my journey as a mother, I have learned to cherish the value of “just one more”. There was a time when all I experienced with my daughter was that she only wanted one more: one more story, one more push on the swing, just one more hug. As Annalisa grew and became an adult, “just one manners” turned into “nothing more”. I’m proud of the amazing woman she’s become, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t give anything for just one more one.
And that brings me to my biggest lesson of all: letting go. Nothing brings me more joy than seeing the little girl who brightened my days with her tiny love notes to start her own journey. It’s bittersweet to have someone so deep in your heart, but knowing that I gave them the best – albeit flawed – version of me makes the little voice in my head sigh.
I never thought I would have a child. I never wanted to. But I’m so glad I did. Of course, I would never encourage anyone to do the same if they didn’t want it. Having a child is a very personal choice, and just because it worked for me doesn’t mean it will work for others or that their life will be missing something if they don’t. I have a lot of friends who don’t have kids or want kids, and they are perfectly fulfilled and happy without them.
Children don’t magically improve lives. On the contrary, not only do they complicate it, but they also require deep and often difficult sacrifices. And sadly, there are too many stories of people who have had children who weren’t ready for it or who were ill-equipped emotionally or financially or in some other way, and tragic consequences can ensue. Just because you can have a child doesn’t mean you should or will be a good parent.
In the end, my story is just one story among millions of stories. It’s my personal journey, and it has nothing less than life changing. It changed my way of seeing the world and my way of seeing myself. It taught me to love in a way that I didn’t know I was capable of. And while my path to motherhood was not typical, it ended up being perfect for me and hopefully my daughter. Annalisa may have passed my knees, but she will never pass my heart.
Susanna Maddrigal, author of “A Cat’s Tale,” is a former consultancy columnist for “Ask Susa” and the CEO of MADD Media.
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