The Pen Is…Pondering Motherhood in Detail

After her last piece kept things deliberately vague, Hana committed to writing a piece that was heavy on the detail and specifics. This week’s piece is written from the perspective of a young woman unsure of her life’s path and wavering on a momentous decision: to have children or not. Hana blends her own experiences and thoughts with those of friends to develop a story that is familiar, while being careful to double check her facts.

Originally recorded September 20, 2020.

Bethany takes a breath and starts to read, “Once upon a time, there was a little girl who-”

“No! I said I wanted the other story, the one from the Today Times, not a Back-Then story,” Eleanor crosses her arms and pouts up at the older girl. It’s getting toward the end of their bedtime ritual, but Eleanor has been in a fussy mood all evening, demanding more hugs and treats than her usual happy-go-lucky demeanor suggests. 

Her parents have been preparing for the upcoming trip to the hospital, packing a bag for her mom and putting the final touches on the bedroom next to hers. Clearly, though she has no idea how much her life will change shortly, Eleanor feels the excitement and tension in the air. She wavers back and forth between gloriously happy anticipation and a frantic desire for everything to remain the same. Being a four year old on the cusp of sisterhood isn’t easy.

Bethany pulls out the picture book with a sprightly redheaded girl on its cover and begins to read the well-worn story yet again. As she recites lines memorized from repeated performances, she steals covert glaces at the little girl lying in her parents’ big double bed. Whenever they’re out for the night, Eleanor insists on sleeping in their bed so that she’ll “greet” them when they get home, though she almost never wakes up while being carried back to her own bed down the hall.

As if on cue, Eleanor’s eyes start to drift shut on the fifth page. Bethany wonders if there’s a Pavlovian response at work, given how often they read the Pippi Longstocking story and the fact that Eleanor falls asleep at exactly the same point in the story every time. She makes a mental note to bring the topic up in her History of Behavior Therapy class next week.

Once Eleanor is soundly asleep, Bethany stands up, careful not to shake the bed, and leaves the room, closing it until just a crack remains. She walks down the stairs of the darkened house, guided by familiarity and the glimmer of light coming from a lamp in the family room. Her feet avoid the various scattered toys by instinct.

Grabbing a Coke from the refrigerator (Paul and Marion keep their kitchen well stocked, knowing how much a college student appreciates free food), Bethany makes her way to the couch in the family room, where a pile of textbooks, handouts, and notepads sits. She sighs inwardly, thinking that she’d love to just enjoy the peace and quiet until the Camford-Strahofskis get home from their weekly date. 

When Bethany decided that she wanted to attend a huge state university two days’ drive from home, her parents immediately started calling around to friends to find a surrogate family for her. That’s how the nannying job with Eleanor came about and she’s grateful for the stability and spending money it provides. Plus, with Paul and Marion being on the faculty at the university, she knows they understand the college student perspective more than most – though their positions in Economics and Sports Marketing bear no relation to her chosen major, Psychology. 

Not only does she have a second home outside the dorms at the Camhofski residence, she also appreciates getting an up-close and personal look at the life of two hard-working professionals juggling family and career demands. Now that she’s in her fourth year of college, choices of job and family seem to be more consequential and concrete than ever before. If only the correct choices were as easy and clear to figure out as the answers on her multiple-choice midterm exams.

Coming from a small town with more churches than bars, Bethany has several childhood friends who are already married and expecting their first child. Before leaving home, she had never considered the multitude of options out there, but moving to a city has opened her eyes to family structures and choices she didn’t know existed. At first, it was exhilarating, realizing that she didn’t have to make her mind up right away and could pick from seemingly unending choices. 

Lately, though, it’s been a bit exhausting to think about it. If she could just focus on her classes, her friends, nannying, and enjoying the last bit of college, when the ultimate combination of great freedom and little responsibility is at its headiest heights, she’d feel ready to take on the debate again in a few months. But she encounters reminders every day, from friends who ask if she’s dating someone serious (no) to her 22nd birthday card from her mom (enclosing a photo of her mom at 22, with Bethany’s older sister on her lap and Bethany in her womb), to the struggles and highlights she witnesses in a household with two working parents and one energetic child, sooned to be joined by a newborn.

As she settles down for a night of studying for midterm exams, Bethany tries to imagine her future, 10 years from now. She’s applied to several master’s programs and is anxiously awaiting acceptance letters, but she already pictures herself in an elegantly appointed, calming office where she sees patients for therapy sessions. Some of the details are fuzzy – who her clients are, if she’s in private practice or part of a larger organization, what city the office is located in, how she treats them. Luckily, those can be gradually filled over the next few years. What she can never figure out, but feels increasingly pressured to do, is what that life looks like outside the office. When she finishes her sessions and the last client goes home, does she go home to her own family? If she works with high-needs clients, how does she balance after-hours emergencies with being a parent who goes to all the dance recitals and reads bedtime stories?

Being present in Eleanor’s life from almost her first days, Bethany has witnessed the struggles of Paul and Marion raising their little girl far away from family. While Paul has done an admirable job of shouldering his share of parenting, Bethany never sees him confronted by his inability to flawlessly “have it all,” something reserved for Marion. The preschool has Marion listed as the first contact, she’s the one who keeps track of all doctor’s appointments, and Eleanor runs to her first to have wounds kissed. Bethany’s afternoons and evenings with Eleanor give both parents some necessary time for themselves, but she sees traces of the sacrifices Marion has had to make it her tenure-track career, delaying a study publication or turning down a conference speaking opportunity. She obviously adores her child, but her life path forces her to make difficult decisions, often without the time to truly weigh the options. Bethany wonders if any of her past choices ever come back to haunt her.

“You’re so good with kids! Of course you’ll be a great mother.” If Bethany could get a dollar for every time she heard that when she was out with Eleanor, she’d pay off her school loans in no time. Each time she hears it, she feels a slight increase of that invisible weight, the expectation of her impending motherhood. Even Marion said it once, surprising Bethany because she’s never discussed her uncertainty or feelings around having a family with her. But how can she discuss it openly with someone who has already made her decision? With whom can she be honest about her ambivalence and questions? There’s no Questioning Women of Childbearing Age Club at her university.

Bethany reads through her lecture notes from this term’s statistics class, dutifully writing down key concepts on the notecard she’s allowed to take into the midterm. If only all life processes were as easy as this, learning the material, studying it, and demonstrating that she understands it, with a simple grade at the end of the semester to prove that she’s mastered the topic. No one is pressuring her to take this particular psychology course or write her final paper on that particular subject matter. And, most importantly, if she signs up for a course that is not what she expected or just doesn’t work for her, she can always drop it. Nothing about children is that cut and dried and REVERSIBLE.

Bethany hears the car pull into the driveway and starts putting her schoolwork away in her bag. When the Camhofskis come in, she’ll ask them what they ordered for dinner and which movie they ended up seeing at the theater. They’ll start getting ready for bed and Paul will carry Eleanor back to her bed while Marion rubs her swollen feet. Bethany will head back to her dorm room, a little sad to say good-bye temporarily to such a heartwarming and cozy scene, but also happy to return to her own sanctuary, with no dried food crusting on her desk or stuffed animals tripping her. No small, scared voice in the middle of night waking her up with stories of a nightmare, no tiny body crawling into bed with her.

Is that what she wants? The answer remains unclear.

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