GETTING IN TOUCH WITH THE INNER MOM

Motherhood sounded great until my sister delivered an 8-pound boy. Then 23 and naive, I made the mistake of grilling her for all the gory details. She mentioned this thing called an episiotomy. They cut you where? I crossed my legs and said no thanks. I think I’ll just be an aunt.

Biologically, it’s been possible for 20 years, but imagining myself as a mom still feels strange. Like last week, when my next-door neighbor asked me to drive her 6-year-old son to school. There in the passenger seat, where my day-timer usually goes, sat a shiny brown-haired boy with eager blue eyes and a Power Rangers lunch box. He was almost too short for the seat belt.

It was only a mile, but I drove like a 16-year-old with a DMV examiner riding shotgun. I didn’t want to be responsible for the death of a first-grader.

Pulling into the cyclone-fenced schoolyard, I took my place in line — my two-door Integra a Maserati among Caravans. Idling, inching, idling, inching, then wham! Deja vu: Mom at the wheel of an avocado-green station wagon, me beside her in plaid uniform jumper, Peter Pan collar, white ankle socks and saddle shoes. Shivers ran up my spine.

Was all this going to be real some day? Me with a kid in the passenger seat? Me sealing cheese sandwiches in zip-lock bags and packing them into lunch boxes with little cartons of apple juice? Me cautioning, ‘’Don’t open the car door until I say it’s OK’’?

I’ve always said I wanted kids. But sometimes I think I’m too young: I’m only 32, after all — my life’s just getting started. The thought of loading baby bottles into my dishwasher and packing Pampers into my garbage can (yes, I’ve already made that difficult cloth-vs.-disposable decision) before the year 2000 feels terrifyingly too soon. Maybe I should get a dog first.

A trilogy of ‘ifs’

Other times, I think: 32! Better get a move on! My mom had four kids by my age; Zana and Lisa — my older sisters — each had two. I start doing the math: If I met someone today, if we got married in a year, if we got pregnant right away, I could have my first child by 34. (Never mind the probabilities associated with that trilogy of ifs.)

But won’t 34 be when I’m packing my bags and jetting off on my first book tour? Or when my business has outgrown my home office and I decide to staff up, rent space and incorporate? At the very least, won’t 34 be when I finally clear the weed forest in my back yard, build the two-level deck I’ve sketched a thousand times on vellum, and throw that housewarming party I’ve been meaning to throw since 1992?

I consider my sisters’ lives. Motherhood hasn’t meant giving up their careers: Zana’s a graphic designer, Lisa’s in sales. They’ve got wonderful husbands. Adorable kids. And in-laws to visit every other holiday. Pretty much the lifestyle I aspire to.

‘Just wait,’ you’ll see

Or is it? I remember a Vartanian family gathering at my parents’ house a few Fridays ago — moms and dads leaping up every 10 seconds to pour more milk, break up cousin skirmishes, institute timeouts. Earplugs would have been handy. Amid talk of animated Disney movies, desirable school districts, and ‘’normal’’ sibling rivalry, Lisa asked, ‘’So, what did you do today, Jess?’’

‘’Well, let’s see. Up at 6:30, over to the coffeehouse for a mocha, home to write for four hours. Finished up some direct mail copy, dropped it into the fax machine, hit Send, and went out for a run. Got home, mowed the lawn, wrote for three more hours, then into the shower and off to meet a friend for a beer.’’

Lisa looked at Zana. Then they both looked at me. I could see their minds rewinding to an age long past.

‘’Just wait until you have kids,’’ they said.

I can’t tell you how much it scares me when they say that. It reminds me of when I moaned about high-school algebra, and they said, ‘’Just wait until calculus.’’

I begin to question whether I really do want to have kids. Will it mean giving up this life I’ve worked so hard to create? A life that, sure, has its moments of loneliness and despair, but one that, for the most part, has me smiling at strangers everywhere I go?

Will I still be able to run 50 miles a week? Or jump on my mountain bike and head for the hills whenever the mood strikes? Lisa’s thrilled to squeeze in 30 minutes on the Stairmaster. Zana has to find someone to watch the boys if she wants to go Roller-blading. I wince at the thought and consider sprinting over to BofA and opening a baby-sitter savings account.

And what about big blocks of writing time? Will those become a luxury of the past? Will I have to learn to schedule my creativity around nap time?

Something else worries me too. Last summer I chauffeured my nephews from San Jose to Sacramento in Zana’s white Taurus wagon. Zooming up I-680, I spotted a cute guy in a red Pathfinder one lane over. He glanced my way, started to smile, then caught sight of Nick and Adrian in the back seat and sped off like a CHP after a carpool lane violator. Will motherhood render me sexless?

Will I have to trade in Jessa the runner, Jessa the writer, Jessa the woman for Jessa the wife and mother?

Are those trade-offs I’m willing to make?

I want to say yes — without the teeniest hesitation, yes! I’d like to say that I have absolutely no doubts that looking into the beaming faces of my very own children will more than offset any sacrifices I might have to make.

But occasionally, I wonder. And the instant I do, the little selfish-detector in my head starts beeping: selfish, selfish, selfish; me, me, me. What kind of person am I anyway? To always be thinking about my own happiness?

I prefer to think I’m single, not selfish. There’s a difference. A selfish person would have told her neighbor she couldn’t drive her kid to school for her, right? A selfish person wouldn’t have agreed to watch her niece last Saturday when the sitter came down with the flu at the last minute.

Playing baby sitter for a day

I’ll admit, I was a little put-out at first. Couldn’t Lisa find someone else? It’s not like I was sitting around with nothing to do. I had a full morning planned: After an eight-mile run and 200 stomach crunches on my kitchen floor, I was going to brew a huge pot of French roast, defrost a banana nut bagel and hunker down at my desk to finish the third draft of a 20-page brochure I’d promised to a client by Monday.

Now I was going to have to drop everything and take care of 2-year-old Sara.

I pull up to Lisa’s house at 9 a.m. Sara’s watching from the dining room window. She’s wearing forest green leggings with little white snowflakes and a matching long-sleeved T-shirt — the Gap Kids outfit I spent far too much money on last Christmas. On her feet are bright rain-slicker-yellow rubber boots — a recent gift from my mom for worry-free mucking around in mud puddles.

Sara’s fat little cheeks and glinting eyes are framed by a new pixie haircut with a stylish little wedge in back. If only my hair could look so good after sleeping on it all night and smearing my hands through it like a napkin at breakfast.

Staying on schedule

Seeing no reason for a little brown-haired tyke to put a cramp in my style, I decide we’ll go out for coffee. I toss Sara into the car seat in my sister’s Explorer, and off we 4-wheel to Starbucks.

I turn the radio up loud, and we both start clapping to the music. Sara laughs and smiles at me. The look in her eyes, on her face, fills me with a stabbing joy that makes me lose my breath. It’s like the day after she was born when I held her in my arms and rocked her to sleep singing ‘’my little Sara bundle.’’ I’d just broken up with a man; she made all my pain evaporate.

Sara charms the patrons at Starbucks. She hides behind my legs, her sticky little hands curled around my bare calves, peeking out between my kneecaps at the woman in line behind us. A game of peekaboo ensues, Sara giggling each time she pokes her head out. I want to scoop her into my arms and hug her, swallow her enthusiasm so it’s inside me.

We sit outside at a black metal table and feed shortbread cookie crumbs to the birds on the sidewalk. Sara is entranced, her eyes tracing their flight as they zoom from sidewalk to tree branch to phone pole. She barely notices I’m there. For the first time, I am jealous of birds.

We walk three blocks to The Posh Bagel. It feels good to hold Sara in my arms. Her weight on my right hip, her cheek close to mine. When my right arm grows tired, I switch her to my left hip, secretly praying that she doesn’t ask to get down and walk.

Every few steps, her right boot falls off. We hear it thunk onto the asphalt, then turn to see it lying sprawled on the pavement — as out of place as a sunbather in a snowbank. Sara giggles each time it happens. So do I.

We retrieve the boot, slip it back on her foot, and keep walking until it happens again. We play the game all the way back to the car. Each time, Sara’s zeal grows. So does mine.

Forget the bagels: Giggling with Sara is all the breakfast I need.

Each time I think back on our morning together, I can feel my insides smiling. How can a person with a life as short as hers, bring such perspective, such joy, to a life as tall as mine?

Sacrifice and reward

Thinking about it now, I wonder if motherhood will be like taking care of Sara that day: While at first it might seem like I’m giving something up, as soon as I’m in it, I’ll only see how much I’m gaining. Just like when I gave up job security for the challenge of my own business. Or when I gave up a comfortable relationship to find one that would help me grow.

For my sisters, apparently, the trade-offs have been worth it, because neither stopped at one child. They each had two. And like a telephone evangelist who’d had a divine revelation, Zana called after her second delivery to tell me about this thing called an epidural.

‘’Really?’’ I asked. ‘’You can’t feel a thing?’’

Motherhood may be a possibility after all.

I’d better start shopping for a baby jogger.

published sunday, may 12, 1996, in the san jose mercury news
copyright 1996 jessa vartanian . all rights reserved
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