As I may have mentioned before, I spend seven hours a day counseling callers on an anonymous hotline about their sexual and reproductive healthcare needs. The other day I found myself on a call with an 18-year-old regular caller (I could tell by his voice and details of his situation he had called many times before). In the past he’s had many questions that any young adult might have about puberty, menstrual cycles and had been truly transparent that these conversations with his parents had been nonexistent (hence why he called the hotline so frequently). Demographic info revealed he was from a Bible-Belt town that preached abstinence until marriage and all that jazz. Nonetheless his inability to talk to his parents didn’t stop him from getting a girlfriend or having sex. And today, the concern at hand was infertility and he was curious why after having unprotected sex with his girlfriend for some time, she wasn’t becoming pregnant. After a lengthy discussion about fertility windows, ovulation and sperm health, we got into a discussion about expectations and intentions and I proceeded to ask him, “Are you two trying to plan a pregnancy?” His response was one I heard often, but not usually from young adults who aren’t even old enough to buy liquor legally. He said, “We’re at a place in our relationship where if it happens it happens.”
The thing is when I hear people approach pregnancy with the same attitude as planning a weekend trip to the shore or buying a scratch off, my initial reaction is that it’s just a tad bit irresponsible to approach bringing life in the world with such casualness. I’ve had more commitment and dedication to scoring Kendrick Lamar tickets than some people appear to have for parenthood. However, before I became a mom for the first time at thirty, I found myself with similar feelings as my Bible-Belt caller. I had made the decision early in my twenties that at some point I wanted to be a mom, but before I knew it I was rapidly approaching thirty and facing the harsh reality that a dream salary, house with a two car garage, man of my dreams and peak age for fertility dopeness may not exactly align like a lunar eclipse. By the time me and my now spouse had over eight years invested in the relationship and were financially stable we got to a place where we agreed verbatim, “If we get pregnant now, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world.” Because the thing is, you can always stand to make a few more dollars to feel more financially stable. You can always give your partner a couple more years to prove his/her commitment. But people get laid off. People break up and get divorced. And all those chess moves you’re trying to plot years in advance to feel prepared for parenthood, could prove worthless if life comes and kicks the whole damn board off the table. Inevitably, parenthood came as a surprise for us as we were planning a wedding (I’ve told this story way too many times). Almost four years later, personally I think we are killing this whole parenting thing, but to say we were “ready” or “planning a pregnancy” is definitely an overstatement. In fact, when it comes to parenthood, I don’t care if the nursery is a page straight up off of a page in Pottery Barn Kids and your ovaries are front and center, no one is ever fully prepared, especially for your first child.
But is ambivalence a bad thing? Statistics quoted on Power To Decide state that when it comes to millennials most aren’t eager to lift the parking brakes off the umbrella stroller but that doesn’t mean that they don’t desire to become parents at some point:
“Between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 women in the U.S. report that they would be okay either way regarding getting pregnant. In the same study, 53% of men and 52% of women said they would like to be parents now “if things in their life were different.” Even among those who say it is important to them to avoid pregnancy right now, 20% of women and 43% of men say they would be at least a little pleased if they found out today that they or their partner were pregnant.”
I don’t think pregnancy ambivalence has as much to do with taking the same concern you would have deciding on a pizza topping as it does with plotting down exactly when is an ideal time for you to the responsibility of raising a child. It’s also important to consider that even with all the financial and career stability in the world, there’s an emotional preparedness that comes with approaching parenthood that may actually be more challenging. You can’t really prepare for sleep deprivation, the cries of a cranky, hungry infant, and a healing c-section scar until you’re elbows deep in Enfamil. So in that respect, ambivalence is a justified reaction to something that you may not ever feel 100% ready for.
But that doesn’t mean parenthood is anything to be taken lightly. As I tried to remain unbiased on my call with “Straight Outta Knoxville” I wanted to find a way to communicate that making sure you are a whole fulfilled adult, is just as important as being financially stable when it comes to parenting. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some days where I want to pack my toddler and her Goldfish crackers up and drop her on Grandma’s doorstep, but ultimately I don’t find myself with many regrets of what I wished I had accomplished before motherhood. I took trips, had girls’ nights and happy hours in regular rotation, dated enough men to the point where I was relieved to find my spouse and settle down. But even with getting all of my twenty-something and single goals under my belt, that doesn’t mean I don’t play the “What If?” game at times especially when it comes to the idea of being a better mother. Should I have been farther up the career ladder making more money? Should I have had deeper conversations with my partner about our different approaches to parenting? Should I have had more money saved for a bigger house in a better neighborhood or school tuition? Am I never going to get to the Yukon to see the Northern Lights without a diaper bag on my shoulder? What brings me some comfort is the knowledge that my husband and I avoided a lot of the hurdles that can come with parenting and building a home together because we both came to the table as fulfilled adults to the best of our ability. We were at a point in our lives when our happiness and comfort could take a backseat to parenthood without us feeling resentful. So now, when folks ask me what they can do to better prepare for becoming parents one day, more than being financially stable, what I think is most important is to focus on being as fulfilled in your own life as best as you can before you put yourself in a position to possibly shape someone else’s. Sleepless nights and tantrums are a lot easier to get through when you have made peace with the life you had before parenthood. But even then parenting has a way of awakening anyone’s inner psycho, no matter how many past adventures you try to access to bring you comfort in the wake of toddler meltdown.
In a post that recently went viral, Instagram user @herholisticpath offered transparency into her own journey to motherhood, and the conflicting feelings that can come with a pregnancy that hasn’t been explicitly planned for:
“No one teaches you how to love a child you didn’t plan to have. No one shows you how to traverse the emotional complexity of loving a child you weren’t happy about being pregnant with. It’s even more difficult at those times when they’re having tantrums and pushing you to a point of emotional exhaustion.”
“This stage of motherhood has forced me to look at my reflection in my daughter’s eyes and realize that no I don’t enjoy being a mother all the time, but this child has been the catalyst for major growth. She is the mirror that allows me to look into my past and see the fears still controlling me now.”
And that’s the thing about parenting. Preparation is one thing, but looking down at someone that is here because of your actions is what forces you into the driver’s seat. There are some folks that aced their way through driver’s ed and there are some who snuck their mom’s Nissan Sentra out for a joyride just because they wanted to. There’s no guarantee that the person who parallel parked with an instructor will be the better driver. The only thing that is guaranteed is that once you’re in that driver’s seat you have to figure out how you’re getting to your destination in one piece. Parenting is just that: You never really know the love, patience and selflessness you are capable of or how well you can do it until a toddler has screamed out “Mommy!” for the 134th time in two hours.
With that said, I love that @herholisticpath did a follow up video in a response to the comments from folks who feel like anyone who is anything less than head over heels in love with motherhood after becoming a parent should be ashamed. She speaks on how not everyone is as open to accepting the realities of motherhood as they like to believe:
“Me sharing a sliver of my personal experience as a mother was only to bring light to a situation that is shamefully kept in the dark.”
“People be saying, ‘Keep it real’ but really y’all just want to see maternity shoots and pretty pictures of babies.”
If anything, I’d argue that the illusion of motherhood is easier to speak of pleasantly than the reality of it. What I have come to learn in my own experience is that there is no mathematical equation that once solved is the key to perfect parenthood. I know far too many women whose individual approaches to motherhood and the variety of things they have to offer their children are directly a result of their past transgressions, missed opportunities and their individual paths they took to get to where they are today. The sooner we accept that everything from ambivalence, to resentment to a restless desire to parent can still result in a healthy relationship between mother and child, the less likely we will be to shame everyone whose approach to motherhood isn’t straight out of Hallmark movie.
You can check out @herholisticpath shed some light on stigma below: