There’s a passage in Sheila Heti’s latest novel “Motherhood” that I’ve underlined, dog-eared, texted to friends. “On the one hand, the freedom of not having children. On the other hand, the loss of never having had them. But what is there to lose? The love, the child, and all those motherly feelings that the mothers speak about in such an enticing way, as though the child is something to have, not something to do. The doing is what seems hard. The having seems marvelous.” I gravitated toward Heti’s book, not because I’m currently grappling with the decision about having children—I have two daughters—but because I did. And some days I still wonder what if? What if I had decided to opt out of motherhood?
In my early 20s, I was sure that was exactly what I wanted. I was living in the United States working as a nanny for three children while going to school part-time. I befriended a fellow Canadian, who happened to be a fertility doctor, and who, when we met for coffee and I told him I didn’t want children, asked if I’d ever considered donating my eggs. It seemed like a solid idea: if I wasn’t planning on having kids, I thought, at least my reproductive abilities could help someone who did (and it did—my donations helped two different families grow). The photo wall behind the clinic’s reception desk filled with birth announcements and thank you cards from expectant mothers made me feel pleased about what I was doing, but also made me wonder why I was different. Different from women like my sister-in-law, who had dreamed of being a mother since she was a little girl, and upon returning from her honeymoon, announced that she was pregnant, the beginning of what she hoped would be a family of five kids. How did these women know they wanted to be mothers? And why didn’t any of the negative things I had heard and read about motherhood—that your career would flat line, that your marriage would be pushed to its limits, that your body would never be the same—deter them? From where I stood, the cons far outweighed the pros. Yet, every mother I talked to raved about having children. “When are you going to have a baby?” they asked me at every family dinner, baby shower and birthday. As an outsider, motherhood seemed to me a little like a pyramid scheme, with the mothers always trying to get the non-mothers to buy in, as if there were some financial incentive.
My husband listened to me vent during car rides home from these gatherings, sympathizing with me until one evening, after Thanksgiving dinner with his family, when he confided that he’d been giving the idea of having children more thought. Before we were married, we talked a lot about what we wanted our lives to look like—he wanted to be an entertainment agent, I wanted to be a journalist, and we both wanted to travel the world. Children didn’t quite fit into that plan. But just like his career goals had changed from being a Hollywood hot shot, to pursuing a steadier gig as a corporate lawyer, so had his feelings about being a parent. He wanted to have children after all, he said, and would I be willing to revisit the subject? By that time, my reasons for abstaining from motherhood had become less about my career and imagined lifestyle, and more about my concerns about whether I would be a good mother: my drinking habits had become problematic, which concerned me because of the alcoholism that runs in my family, as did mental health issues like depression.
But closing the door to having a baby would be letting my partner down. What if it had been me who changed my mind? So eventually we started trying to conceive, me feeling relieved every month when my period arrived, and him growing more frustrated. I was dragging my heels, still unsure if it was the right decision, but I also felt like when it was meant to happen it would. Two years later, we decided to see a fertility specialist. Now we were the couple that needed help.
After several tests, I started taking the hormones that would increase my chances of getting pregnant, and we had our first round of Intrauterine Insemination (IUI). When we received the call that it wasn’t successful, I was crushed. Suddenly, when I was confronted with the possibility that my body wouldn’t allow me to be a mother, that the choice may have been taken away from me, something shifted. I realized that even though I still wasn’t totally sure that having a child was the right decision for me, I wanted to take the risk. Fortunately for us, the second round of IUI worked. In fact, I was pregnant with twins. I felt relieved, terrified and guilty all at the same time.
With just five years of motherhood under my belt, I’m still new at it, but what I do know is a lot of my fears about it weren’t unfounded. My career being sidetracked, the stress on our marriage—they have all, for the most part, come to fruition. But so has a heart-bursting love for my daughters that no grocery store aisle tantrum or sleepless night can diminish. The doing is hard, but the having is marvelous.