A soft disclaimer: Before sinking into this essay, I want to preface by writing that motherhood is a fluid experience. My confusion about having children is entirely different than the experience of those struggling to have children, those who have lost children, and those who raise them. No matter the journey into motherhood, our stories are valid and different. This story is complicatedly mine.
I turned thirty-four this year and purchased a home. My husband and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary. I went to the doctor. My gyno told me on a Tuesday, after digging around my womb like one would search in a box of jewelry, “It looks beautiful in there.” She said it while tightening the lid of a testing tube. I imagine her comment is supposed to make me feel hopeful and it does. Sometimes I open my iPhone notepad of baby names, and they light up my face. I love imagining my husband as a dad.
I’ve lived my entire life watching the ideal of motherhood like a sensual fantasy. It started with Teen Mom, and fear and burden grew on me like mold. Magazines and pre-written expectations remind me of the home inside my body like a ticking time bomb. Nightmares about being pregnant become dreams, and dreams become feared reality. The reality, my urgent temptress. My imagination, a painted picture of what could be and what doesn’t have to be.
I want to be a mother. And I don’t.
The wanting part is, for me, a little less complicated than the not wanting part. Because I do want to preface by saying: Our plan (if my body allows it) is to have children. But I want to talk about the pure version of myself that feels a tug the other way. That complex feeling that bops around like a deflating balloon and sings, But what and who will you lose?
I made a “having children pros and cons list” in my Passion Planner. It wasn’t my best moment, but I thought writing a list would give me clarity. Quickly, the items started to sound ridiculous. I wrote “giving birth” as a pro and con. If anything, the list made my desire for children foggier. Planted on both sides of the decision are deeply rooted beauty and pain. And to me, the contrast is terrifying.
Motherhood is the dream. Become a mother or die alone. With this kind of idealism, choosing not to have kids can get awkward fast. People shouldn’t have to explain themselves, but they do anyway. Sometimes I wonder if I want children to avoid judgment—and that’s the reason paradox exists at all. But, I don’t think anomaly exists in societal expectation. I want children. There’s something in the pit of my gut, very scientific almost, that feels the need to procreate. But there’s also a modest, less primal voice that whispers, Are you certain?
I never knew I was capable of equal parts desire and disinterest. I have met many women who would rather live their entire lives pregnant, who felt destined for it. I have met women who do not want children at all. But what about the women who feel both of those things? Many women fear motherhood at the same time they lust for it, wallowing in the middle ground. We need to talk about the paradox of desire: wanting children as much as you don’t want children.
Many women fear motherhood at the same time they lust for it, wallowing in the middle ground. We need to talk about the paradox of desire: wanting children as much as you don’t want children.
I have reoccurring dreams that I am pregnant. The visions are so erotically sensual the process feels palpable. In them, I anchor myself to a version I’ve never known, not afraid of my body. In the dreams, I am beautiful and full. In real life, when I imagine myself pregnant, I’m insecure. Part of me wants to be hidden or private while my body grows. Somehow, I am no longer me at all. When I imagine myself pregnant, I am a ghost. How can I dream so vividly about desire and yet see nothing in real life?
I am afraid. Mothers sacrifice their physical alone time, and I am worried, despite that, motherhood will be lonely. Being a mother is a fierce representation of humanity, but it’s also fragile. This blurb from columnist Courtney E. Martin in On Being, as she writes about the paradox of motherhood itself, sticks with me: “I still feel like my world is not quite as big, my consciousness not quite as vast, as it used to be,” she writes. “Part of this is pragmatic. It takes a lot of energy and attention to make sure a largely defenseless little creature grows into a person. . . . In those early days I asked myself: will I ever feel like myself again? The answer, it turns out, is no. In the most universal and specific way possible—no.”
Selfish for time and my obsession to self-define are two big reasons I straddle the desire to become a mother. I’m scared of changing who I am and not understanding that person. I don’t want to lose access to my hobbies, and I want to be able to focus my undivided attention on the friends I love, the things I love, the places I love. No one ever said having kids would take everything away. It’s perhaps the permanency of motherhood wedged somewhere in the core of the fear and self. I’ve been stretching out, trying to take up space my entire life. Do I want my world to feel smaller?
While these things scare me, I’m aware of the burden behind life’s expectations. As referenced in this Positive Psychology article, social psychologist Roy Baumeister writes in his book Meanings of Life “that there are two happiness peaks in the lives of adults in America, namely: between the wedding and the birth of the first child and between the departure of the last child from home and the death of one’s spouse.” Read that again and tell me that’s the SADDEST THING YOU HAVE EVER READ?!
It gets better, I promise. The article explains that having children harms personal happiness because our expectations are too high. The extreme focus on hedonistic values in our culture is the root of worry and disappointment. The thing is, humans suck at predicting their feelings (it’s called affective forecasting disorder). And if we’re trying to envision this high form of happiness all the time, we fall prey to an illusion we make up in our minds. Our feelings-radar is not accurate. We imagine children to be this enlightening, perfect scenario; the reality of motherhood wavers because of that ideal.
The paradox, the wondering, the fear, and the ideal of motherly euphoria is the reason we survive. Planning a family is supposed to be complicated. It can’t make sense until it’s right in front of us, breathing in our lap.
When I think about becoming a mom without the expectation of happiness, the story becomes clear. Mothers are striking, selfless mammals. I don’t know how I’m going to feel if I’m lucky enough to become one. The paradox, the wondering, the fear, and the ideal of motherly euphoria is the reason we survive. Planning a family is supposed to be complicated. It can’t make sense until it’s right in front of us, breathing in our lap.
The waiting room and the wanting are complex. Until motherhood is ours, we struggle to accept its form. An appetite for the unknown is big and small, melancholy and rewarding. As much as I try to colorize a feeling, motherhood stays grey for me. And as I spend my days wondering about being a mom, perhaps the beauty does lie in the uncertainty. You can’t splash color anywhere without a blank slate, anyway.
If my future child reads this (or anyone for that matter) I hope they understand that humanity is complicated. Women, or anyone bringing human life into the world, are allowed to feel complex, ridiculous, and confused. A woman’s story about being flighty or noncommittal is a rare one to find, and I wanted to put mine here. I believe part of wanting is the confusion of that desire. The paradox is life, after all.
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her baby brother cats, Rami and Monkey. Follow her on Instagram, read more about her latest book, Borderline, and (most importantly) go hug your mother.
BY Brittany Chaffee - October 27, 2021
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.