THE MOST DIFFICULT QUESTION CONCEIVABLE

I’ve decided I’m undecided on the having-kids topic. At least that’s what I’d answer today if you were to ask my official position.

I’ve been thinking about it more lately. Partly because I’m seeing a new guy. A guy with enough potential that I’ve decided not to write about him just yet (neither of us wants to jinx it). And that potential has me thinking about other potentials. Like kids.

I’m also going to be 35 in three months. Forty has always been the cut-off in my mind (higher medical risks aside, I’m not wild about the idea of raising teenagers in my 60s) — which leaves me roughly five years to make up my mind.

Had I married at 25, kids would have been a no-brainer. Back then, I had the whole board game mapped out: get the career going, meet a guy, get married, buy a house, start a family — in that order (Nothing went according to plan, of course.) I had less of a sense of who I was at 25. I think I was more willing — perhaps more eager? — to be defined by my relationships: wife, mother. Had I married back then, I’m sure I would’ve chucked my last name for my husband’s. I don’t know that I would now.

Kids aren’t a no-brainer anymore. It’s not so much a biological clock thing. I’ve experienced — hell, I’ve come to cherish — a level of personal freedom and independence I’m not sure women who started families in their 20s understand. It’s not good or bad. It’s just different.

Kids would be a much bigger adjustment now. Like the difference between being born blind — never knowing any different — and going blind later. (Though I don’t mean to paint parenthood as a disability.)

I’ll admit: The whole thing terrifies me. The change in lifestyle. The sacrifices. Maybe most of all: the utter can’t-return-it-if-it-doesn’t-fit finality of it all.

I’ve got a great life. Do I really want to mess with it?

Sometimes I think not.

Like when I notice some of my friends-who-are-moms running around like chickens with their heads cut off, their own needs met last (if ever). Women who can’t remember the last time they saw a movie or read a book.

I know I’ll sound selfish, but when I see their lives, I mostly think how happy I am to be living mine. (It doesn’t help when they gaze at me wistfully and admit there are many days they’d love to trade places.)

I worry about my mind turning into a mushy glop of Cream of Wheat. Being reduced to the kind of woman whose every conversation centers around the adorable little thing Johnny did or said yesterday. The kind of columnist who can’t find anything to write about except her kids. Yuck!

I just think parenthood is something you — and your spouse — should really want to do. I know I’m supposed to want it. But do I? Truly?

When I see women pushing kids in strollers, I can’t say I feel any overwhelming ache to be a part of their world. I used to feel that inner tug when I’d see couples in love. But kids?

I do get the occasional itch, though. Like six months ago when I helped my friend Jenny nurse her day-old daughter in the neonatal intensive care unit — my job was to rub little Casey’s pink, wrinkled feet. Or last week, when my friend Karla — who covets her independence as much as I do mine — called after giving birth to her first kid Drew and cooed that she’d never been so in love in her life.

I don’t know. Do I want to miss out on all that?

It’s not that I don’t have a maternal bone in my body. Or a fear of responsibility. I’ve agreed to raise my two nieces were anything to happen to my sister, Lisa, and her husband, John. Occasionally, they ask me: “Are you sure?” The truth is, I’d be jealous were anyone else to have that honor. I’d put my life on the back burner for those two munchkins in a heartbeat.

I worry that were I to choose not to have kids, I might regret it when I’m 60. Regret foregoing the once-in-a-lifetime experiences of pregnancy, labor, birth. Regret not having kids and grandkids crowded around my dining room table on Christmas. And what if my husband died before I did (husbands usually do)? Who would take care of me?

But are those good enough reasons to have them?

I’ll admit, the idea of mixing a little bit of me with a little bit of the man I love and creating a new human being is mighty appealing. (Purely romantic, I know — but damn appealing.) And seeing them turn out well (assuming they do) must be deeply satisfying.

But aren’t those rather selfish reasons?

Or is it not having kids that’s selfish? Wanting to do what I want to do when I want to do it. Not having to save for anyone’s college education. I could travel the world on a moment’s notice. Write award-winning screenplays. Eat at 5-star restaurants. Would it be enough to be a part of my nieces’ and nephews’ lives?

Would my life lack richness and meaning without kids of my own?

While I don’t view kids as an instant recipe for fulfillment — I think there are many paths — I do believe the best thing my folks ever did was create our family. To treasure family as much as I do and not carry on the legacy seems almost blasphemous. (Though sometimes, when reading the newspaper, I question whether this is a world I’d even want to bring another human being into.)

Were I to opt out of the parent trap, I feel as if I’d have to have something extra to show for it. A best-selling novel. A charitable foundation. Something. It’s like a few years ago when I went part time in my corporate job, most people assumed I was reducing my workload to take care of kids. When they found out I didn’t have any, most asked: “So what are you going to do with all that extra time?” As if the value of motherhood is self-evident; choose an alternate route and you need to explain yourself.

Deep down, I suspect that given the right circumstances — a good marriage with a good guy, before menopause strikes — having kids is something I’d like to do. I think I’d be good at it.

I also suspect it’s one of those things no one would ever do if they thought about it too much (which rules me — Ms. Overthinker, Overanalyzer — out).

Lately I’ve been thinking if I ever do decide to do it, maybe I’ll just have one. Even though I’ve always said I’d never want a kid of mine to be an only child, one feels like something I could get my hands around.

Only time will tell which way I end up going. (And given the game board I’m playing on, who knows if I’d even be able to conceive if I tried?) I’m not at the point where I need to decide.

I figure I’ll wake up one day and want to have a kid.

Or I won’t.

The thing I’ve come to is this: I can be happy either way.

published thursday, october 15, 1998, in the san jose mercury news
copyright 1997 jessa vartanian . all rights reserved
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