5. turning on a dime

5. turning on a dime

Having kids was for schmucks; I was sure of it. I never wanted to have children. Raising kids seemed like a ceaseless babysitting job to me, and I was never the babysitting type. My sister and friends reveled in caring for other people’s children. I was the babysitter who counted down the minutes until the headlights pulled into the driveway after a long night of feigned enthusiasm. Why would I want that to be my whole life?

My husband BJ knew this about me when we got married, and he was supportive. He hoped to have children someday, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker. He never pressured me to change my mind. As the years rolled by he seemed content, and I convincingly laid out my arguments.

“We have spare money, spare time, hobbies, travel interests, “ I argued, counting the reasons on my fingers. “All of these would be compromised by small, screaming humans.” And so we spent the years binge-watching college football, baking Julia Child recipes, and playing tennis at the park along the banks of the Mississippi River. Life was predictable, and I very much enjoyed our freedom. When we wanted to meet our friends for dinner after work, go canoeing in the boundary waters of northern Minnesota for the weekend, or take a last-minute trip to South Korea, we could.

Fast forward 15 years and you’ll see that I am now a mother to four little boys. If ‘2021 Jenny’ could have a chat over coffee with ‘2008 Jenny,’ it would be a riot. 2021 Jenny would arrive for the meeting in her minivan, toting what she calls her “Mary Poppins” bag filled with everything from Matchbox cars to splinter-removal kits. She is tattooed, pierced, and her bobbed hair is shaved short on one side, a representation to her of all of the worlds she has walked in as a mother. 2008 Jenny, with her minuscule purse and pressed chinos, definitely has opinions about what she sees, but holds them close as she flips her waist-length hair over her shoulder and convinces herself she probably knows what’s best.

“You’ll have FOUR kids one day. Boys!” 2021 Jenny would declare with a straight face and one raised eyebrow. “And you’ll think it’s amazing!” Past Jenny would freeze for a moment in panic, and then wave her hand dismissively.

“Pfft. Is that before or after I win the Pulitzer?”

“Girl, get this,” 2021 Jenny would go on, ignoring her past self. “You’re even going to own a sewing machine!” She would proclaim it in that annoying manner that elders sometimes take, usually when they know exactly what they’re talking about even though youths don’t want to admit it. The Jennies would have a stare-down and then they would both dissolve into fits of laughter. 2008 Jenny had absolutely no clue what was coming.

2008 Jenny and BJ

It all seemed to happen like one giant boom. After the dust settled, I realized it all began at the used-book sale hosted by the public library when I was 28 years old. Newly-graduated with my doctoral degree and care-free as a lazy Sunday matinee, I browsed through the small, sleepy trailer that held the 50-cent paperbacks. The hot air hung heavily with the scent of old pages as I absentmindedly thumbed across faded spines. My eyes came to rest on Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, and in that moment, Life threw me a knuckleball straight from the Boston Red Sox playbook. Into the cart went the creased, cerulean paperback, and out went my heart and my sanity.

I read She’s Come Undone that summer, and life was never the same. BJ describes that June as the month his wife “turned on a dime.” Throughout much of the novel, the protagonist, Dolores, longs for a child. As I became increasingly immersed in Dolores’ journey, I suddenly comprehended the ache for children within myself. In the span of mere days, I went from full-tilt relishing my independence to dreaming about life with a child on my hip. What was once expansive freedom now felt like a throbbing, joyless exile. It happened practically overnight, and yet I sensed it had been there a lifetime. As the pages turned, my ache intensified.

“What in the sweet hell is happening to me?” I whispered to myself again and again, wracking my brain. Throughout the course of just one week I cried a bucket of tears for a fictional character, realizing as the days went by that some of those tears were really for me. I pitied myself for the sudden emptiness I felt without a child. Excitement, terror, love, and relief coursed through me simultaneously, which as it turns out, is a nauseating cocktail. The night I finished the novel, I sat on the hill in our backyard and watched the sunset, crying for an hour from the sheer overwhelming feelings of this turnabout. I wanted a kid? This had to be my worst scheme yet.

I began planning the conversation I knew I had to have with BJ. By the next evening, I could no longer contain myself. I knew from observing him that he would be a fabulous father, and that this would be joyous news to his ears. Even so, I wanted to have this conversation about as much as I wanted to skydive into the Everglades. Somehow talking about it would make it real, and real can be very scary.

“BJ,” I began shakily. “We need to talk.”

“Okay,” he said, visibly becoming nervous. He was used to my wily ways, knowing full well that my ‘talks’ often led to ploys like us joining a recreational soccer league (we had played zero days of our lives, and it showed) and co-leading a group of hormonal high-schoolers in a year-long community service effort (I felt convicted). Marriage with me has never been a walk in the park, but he has always buckled up for the ride. “Go on,” he bravely granted.

“So…” I paused, my back against our back door, my hand on the knob in case I decided to turn and bolt. “I was thinking maybe we should try to have a baby.”

He laughed, which is a fabulous indicator to the ludicrousy of my turnabout. When he saw I wasn’t laughing also, he became somber.

“Are you serious?” he asked incredulously.

“I know, right?” I squeaked, before bursting into tears. “I don’t know what happened, but there’s this awful and wonderful ache, and I think we should have a baby. Like, maybe even three babies. Or maybe even five!”

“Okay, whoa,” BJ interjected, touching me on my shoulders and settling me as I drove headlong into mild hysteria. “Let’s talk about this.” But I could see he was already smiling, and we both already knew where this was going. We talked, we cried, we threw my birth-control pills in the trash, and we laughed about the absurdity of this abrupt reroute in our life plan. That evening, he and I opened a bottle of wine and began dreaming of possibilities as we attempted to let nature take its course.

Within three weeks, I changed my mind again. Obviously, I reasoned, I was being an impulsive fool. What if we hated parenthood and then were stuck with it? I may never again have a free moment to myself! Commitment, as we all know, can be a terribly frightening nip in the ass. Luckily for BJ and me, however, I’m apparently the most fertile of the Myrtles that ever lived. It was already too late. Before I could say, “Wait, what?”, there were two pink lines on a stick and my pants didn’t fit anymore. Our first boy was on his way!

As the months flew by, my shock wore off, and I warmed considerably to the idea of being his mother. By the second half of the pregnancy, I was in love. Just thinking about holding him was the most enjoyable daydream I had ever imagined.

“Okay, this is actually going to be amazing,” I murmured to him in confidence as I protectively rubbed my tummy. My singular goal in life became figuring out how I, an historically-underwhelming babysitter with the parenting know-how of the McCallisters from Home Alone, was going to keep a tiny human being alive and happy. How was I going to succeed? BJ and I had no earthly idea what was in store for us.

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My son is almost eleven years old now. We are still learning, and he is still alive and happy. One child was not enough; we couldn’t stop before four. 2008 Jenny is still marveling how it happened, but she never loved carrying small purses anyway. I laugh now to think that my children are everything I thought I never wanted. They are responsibility, long hours, physical toil, and frequent worry. My index finger smelled of diaper creme for nearly a decade. The songs I hum in the shower have lyrics like, “The horse says neigh-- neigh, neigh, neigh!” A concerned policeman once rang our doorbell in the middle of the night, ascertaining our safety because we left our garage door up, all four car doors flung open, the keys in the ignition, and the diaper bag forgotten in the front seat. The officer apparently didn’t realize that we had a newborn, a one-year-old, and a three-year-old, which newly entitled us to transfer our sleeping children and then collapse into bed ourselves, forgetting to do little tasks like, you know, locking up the house after returning late from an evening with BJ's parents.

In spite of all this, my children are my beating heart walking around outside of my body, as Elizabeth Stone once wrote. Each night I tiptoe into their barracks to smear Chapstick on their lips-- unconsciousness is the only time they will allow me to do it-- and I breathe in their little boy scents one by one, from two sets of bunk beds crammed into a small room. In the darkness, I give silent thanks to the universe and to Dolores for nudging me to realize that motherhood was in me; it was just a yearning that materialized belatedly and without warning. My children, I have decided, are infinitely better than the babysitting jobs that my past self couldn’t wait to end.

2020 Jenny