Prologue to Parenthood: A Self-Reckoning

A Reflection on Evolving Archetypes in My Grand Morality Play

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How do you make that incredible leap? From mere mortal to creator of life? From a typical so-and-so to the inevitable hero of a tiny, developing mind?

My husband smiles at the idea. He’s ready to go and definitely deserving of herodom. I, on the other hand, struggle to get on board with babymaking.

Is it ever possible for you to feel ready? An emphatic no is the usual response. Still, the pursuit of knowledge has me all up in my brain, rattling around trends and statistics, searching for my maternal instincts among an overwhelming awareness of things.

Constantly considering the big picture, how things are, how things should be, I can count off a hundred concerns to the ticking of my biological clock.

How will we cope with climate change, inequality, overpopulation? How will we ensure security when technological progress has surpassed the ethical advancement of our species?

How will we overcome the vitriol of partisan politics and social ills? The many insidious -isms terrorizing entire groups and neighborhoods? The lesser evils, everywhere in plain view, narcissism and short-sightedness?

How will we move beyond the greed and corruption? Fiascos of the Equifax and Enron variety, dollars dumped into political campaigns, the lack of accountability for our most influential corporations?

Every generation wrestles with its forms of oppression, its political quandaries. I put my faith in science but note the large swaths of attention diverted to superficial matters and money-making schemes.

Our excessive consumption is injuring the environment with an increasing rate of change. We have no wiggle room for institutions to run amok, for industry leaders to be cavalier with core values.

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There is another looming question. Would I even make a good parent?

My husband? Yes. He is a world-class communicator with a great sense of humor and a lovely, rational brain. He manages to be compassionate and inquisitive without turning into a neurotic, soul-searching save-the-worlder.

In a hyperbolic hypothetical, I envision him teaching our toddler her ABCs, while I go off on a “five Rs” tangent… because future generations are going to inherit a host of highly adaptive problems — local, global, known, unknown— so why can’t we unite already in defense of our children?

You should know that I was a happy baby, who grew up with an optimistic outlook. Over time, empathy intervened — that combination of having an open mind, a lot of conditioning, and extended exposure to pluralism. Now, as political norm-breakers mock my morals, I find it harder to stay afloat in a glass half full.

I also hesitate on my marriage’s conception course because my personal definition of work is “doing something for the greater good.” How could “something” involve maximizing my carbon footprint via chubby little feet?

Anthropogenic climate change and humanity’s uncertain future are hard to stare down. All of my logical brain functions tell me that bringing a baby into this overpopulated world is inherently selfish.

So how to make peace with that incredible leap? Looking forward and outward, I’ve found no recourse. My way must come from the inward dive — a reckoning with the self.

I do not wish to disrespect anyone, parent or otherwise. Undoubtedly, the act of childrearing is selfless and beautiful. My demonstrative parents, friends, and family members are unfailing role models in this regard!

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I culled the plot line of my life. From the decades of evolving archetypes, I recovered a mosaic of nuance, spectacular and messy and whimsical stuff. Fantastic friends, rebellious role models, failures, rebounds. The contest of nature and nurture, and countless lessons learned.

I wanted to memorialize this process, mostly for myself, but also for fellow philosophers and worrywarts, women and men who ponder over procreation, old friends who wonder “What ever happened to her?,” and aficionados of the abridged autobiography. Should none of the above apply, with pleasure I add, for you.

Since we have a way of turning out to be like our parents in the most unexpected ways, I write this especially for my future offspring. An affirmation of your incalculable worth.

You will find no explicit lessons here. No doubt, your own plot line overflows with knowledge from both tragedy and triumph.

My vignettes are for celebrating the beauty in life. With all its complexity and uncertainty. The broad strokes and bold notes. The immensity of love.

This is my prologue to parenthood.

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During the decade of pristine naivety and infinite creativity, I was a shy tomboy, head-in-the-clouds dreamer, musician with a blade of grass. Rainbow was my favorite color.

Wintry months, blanketed with snow. I thrilled at the crisp crunch under my boots. A powdery splat on my brothers’ puffy jackets. Forts rising from the packed icy bricks of our upturned plastic buckets. Sleds sliding down steep inclines. At nightfall, toes wiggling as we clutched our cups of cocoa.

Sunny spring weekends, exhausted on a sweaty court. My father coached me on fast breaks and fadeaways. Thunderstorms rolling across the hills and valleys. Racing inside to the pouring rain. Grandma T and I ruled a kingdom of couch cushions. Rollicking about the room as a feline sovereign, I showered our subjects with royal titles and treasures.

Summer afternoons, splashed at the community pool. Family gatherings at Grandma C’s, a gaggle of cousins gleefully reunited in mischievous missions. We called ourselves the Runaway Kids and dashed from the dinner table to the baseball diamond on our imaginary steeds. We were dragons, tarantulas, transformers! Collecting tell-tale bumps and bruises of fearsome battles.

Autumn evenings, awash with comforting hues. Pouncing into leaves piled high. Observing the blur of fading forests and woolly worms curled up under dark corners. I pulled down coloring books to recreate nature’s magic with my mom. Mimicking her mastery, my markers carefully sealed the shades of the crayons’ swift circles.

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During the decade of electric awakenings and failures that felt like the end of the world, I was an earnest scholar, insecure athlete, keeper of secrets. The school year warped my senses: a season to stress, a season to breathe.

From the edge of the farmlands to a neighborhood bursting with families. A move of diminutive distance belied great social significance. Friends, a tribe! Our beat-up bikes blazed through summer. Danger and destruction given names on an unfurling map of adolescent adventure: Jagger* Kingdom, The Bony Piles, Ghost Town.

We claimed territory for flashlight tag and sensational storytelling. Wandered the streets of shanty towns that once hummed the coal miner’s tune. Cannonballed into woodland streams. Sprang from slender snakes upon our path. Squeezed each day to the last drop.

Then, the constant rush of the school year, rising through the ranks — studies, extracurriculars, athletics, fleeting sleep, repeat. The plight of the introverted perfectionist: overthinking everything, keen on self-criticism, reluctant to raise a hand.

A willingness to confront ambitions and contradictions. Sports played in a cerebral fashion. The defense delivered passionately in debate. Performances conducted, reaching for panache.

Witty, sassy sister-friends pulled me onto dining room dance floors, hips swaying to the beat. Their boisterous laughter shook my soul, built up my backbone to withstand bullies.

The flight of first love, an orchestra of delights — a friendship’s crescendo to moonlit trysts and whispers that sung under the stars. My heart’s melody was his long after I left our tiny town.

A college campus carved from a limestone quarry. My bubble expanded, if just by a bit. Laid-back, freshman Friday pranks and capers, lingering in the hallway a few moments more, deliberating life, my heart filled to the brim by one of a kind friends-like-family.

~~~~~

* jagger (n): a thorn [colloquial to western Pennsylvania]

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During the decade of big decisions and resolute actions, I was an incontrovertible idealist, passionate activist, expeditioner on a shoestring. I took the road less traveled; repercussions ripple yet.

Very first plane trip, ascending toward my antipode. For a semester abroad, perfectionism gave way to the most carefree days of my collegiate career, thanks to sunny Australian skies and marvelous mates. Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, hiking the Blue Mountains, sky-diving over Cairns. Forcing my fears down, and down, and down.

A trio of internships, a glimpse of government clockwork. Spring semester on Capitol Hill, sharply contrasted with the embers of my first love, finally extinguished. A summer spent in the underbelly of lawmaking, the lobbyists’ crowd. Senior year flew by in fiery sparks of theatre and dance and friendships’ frivolity. A look at Constitution Avenue from a federal agency. Then, off to the Peace Corps.

Madagascar, the Great Red Island. My verdant, volatile village, awake before dawn. Assimilation was slow, intentional. Fetching water for bathing by bucket, cooking candlelit dinners, dealing with diseases that have lain dormant in our history books. Conducting outreach, constructing cookstoves, planting trees. Dancing, trekking, perforating rice paddies.

The rotating roles of a Community Health Development Volunteer. Record-keeping for the midwife: prenatal consultations, baby-weighing, vaccinations. Hiking the hillsides to discuss HIV, tuberculosis, family planning. Witnessing the female pillar of strength, a stunningly silent process of childbirth, teeth clamped down on knotted cloths.

A sentence of summary — like my skills — would never be enough to do this extraordinary community justice.

Covering great ground, I visited home, then hopped on a plane to instruct ESL in Ukraine. Learning, yet again, so much more than I taught. My professional-aged students had an honest and stark appraisal of getting ahead. They were fatigued by high society’s close companionship with bribery and brutality.

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I poured my paltry paycheck into peripatetic pleasures. By plane or by train, school breaks were for getting out and about; weekends for giving back. Hungary: a blue-domed Basilica along the Danube, a nod to the nectar of Tokaj. Georgia: chomping on doughy delicacies, tromping the snowy Caucasus. Uganda: bungee ~wheeee!~ jumping, the White Nile River cascading into dusk. Ghana: a serene stroll under towering trees, a contemplative constitutional along the coastline. An orphanage in Kiev: Charming children diverted my lessons, demanding song and dance. I was a pushover in a foreign language.

With an opportunity to matriculate to a Master’s program, home was calling. But not before the fates had their say — on the unexpected origins of a marriage. Friendship was forged by the faulty electrical socket in my apartment, a singular surge crackling through its walls. My good-natured guide to the city’s underground shops put my obliterated laptop into better perspective. A remarkable relationship rose from the ashes of my digital data.

Sojourning, I slumbered fitfully in my childhood bed. I accompanied a young man with autism through his school day and afternoons in his home. His story is not mine to tell, but I can express my admiration for two strong role models, his instructor and his mother.

Graduate school began, an exciting spin of courses, clubs, and volunteering. All obscured by a blotch of cancer and the hurdles of long distance love. Surgery carved away the affliction. There was no cure for yearning.

His visa rejection was a trial. The confiscation of his passport, a tribulation. My summer internship, our brief reprieve. In Kiev, I worked with a group of polyglots in the eye-popping world of anti-human trafficking. I admired the tenacity of these courageous activists. They nurtured nascent civic circles and aided victims in reintegration, the fight for normality.

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My graduate studies got more muddied in the second year by the dead end of another visa rejection. This time it was a sentencing. Communication cut off. Crashed upon the rocks of realism, our relationship sank into a hopeless heap of discarded documents.

Wonderful friends tried to help me heal heartbreak. It was rough going as our diplomas appeared on the horizon, no jobs in sight.

But they call it the City of Steel, the City of Bridges. A summer language program offered an intellectual escape. My rural upbringing stunted my skills for foreign languages. They are eternal interests, challenges. A theme was affixed to that summer: the power of a growth mindset and neuroplasticity.

Though it meant a rapid return to the graduate classroom, I applied to become a teacher, selecting Special Education, bound for Brooklyn. In the brief in-between, I was the beneficiary of incredible kindness. Words cannot convey my gratitude. My friend’s family whisked me across the seaside of Spain and into her homeland. I forayed into the south of France, volunteered on a vineyard. The owners were miracle workers on my melancholy.

As I readied for the next decade, I received my love’s request: Let’s try again.

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Half a decade down. It will take the other half to achieve any semblance of objectivity. In the meantime, impressions precede reflection:

My students, my teachers. I took a bite out of the Big Apple, and it took a bigger bite out of me. Teaching was complicated.

My best friend, my spouse. We had seen each other seven times in seven years. Togetherness was bliss.

A ‘highly skilled immigrant,’ a tough choice. Job hunting is never easy unless you have the right connections. My husband’s first American job took him to another city.

Shorter long-distance, continuous waiting for the weekend. Our ping-pong between states was mentally and physically exhausting. I buried raw emotions in greater professional responsibilities.

The eclectic resume, a need to grow. I felt my work experiences had been building and building. I was ready to make the switch from teaching to administration.

My future, a plot twist. I emerged from my leadership transition program raring to go. Then, without any real plan, I stepped off my career path to be with my husband.

Everything has slowed down. Problem-solving and patience have always been great assets, yet I remain undecided.

Though I love a good quest, I don’t want to start all over again.

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Yes — my first three decades were spectacular and messy and whimsical.

I flung myself around this gorgeous and complicated planet. To try and do that “something.” To feed wanderlust and curiosity. To learn and grow.

Now, I pause.

The knowledge acquired through so much movement has come at great cost. The pain of disconnecting from the most important people on my plotline. The fading of beautiful friendships across time and space.

My first three decades were riddled, too, with bias blind spots. And full of emotion in response to widespread injustice. There is dissonance between ideas and actions. I am privileged, and I feel powerless.

As a seeker of truth, I strive to peel away my biases. To better understand the world, myself, and others. With my husband’s support, I am addressing negative thoughts and behaviors, restoring healthier habits and wiser ways.

Sometimes, you simply need to remind yourself of common sense. Though I still believe in service, I am changing my definition of work. I will choose greater gratitude and less guilt. I will aim to spread joy, hope, and love.

Sometimes, you need to embrace the most fundamental facets of being human. Our plot lines are ephemeral and complex, but in the end, love grants them meaning. Love of family and friends. Love of truth, beauty, and goodness. Love, in its myriad forms and radiant reach, as much as you can give and as much as you can carry.

So how do you make the leap? I understand why you might want to become a parent, and I understand why you might not. Parenthood requires a self-reckoning, and like so many difficult choices, is far from being binary.

For me, the evolving archetype of the Mother Figure starts with accepting uncertainty and welcoming complexity, drawing calm strength from an affirmation:

It shall be the most powerful role in my morality play.
The broadest stroke, sweeping across the remainder of decades.
The boldest note, a celebration of beauty and the immensity of love.

~~~~~

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Emily Thurston

A kind and intelligent human. Lifelong learner. Comfortable with my bundle of contradictions.