The Kid Option

I often say, honestly, if the woman I was before I had a child could see the woman I am now, there is no way she would have a kid. That woman was so intense about her work, so used to having her schedule at her control, so used to napping, eating, watching a movie, and having sex whenever she felt like it, she would be horrified to see herself as me.

Me, I get the start and the end of each work day lopped off by the school bus. I get sick all the time from the latest germ to hit our elementary school. (And living in an international academic community, we get a lot of well-traveled germs.) I spend my weekends waiting for my son to finish eating his bagel so we can move on with our day. And then we move on to trainspotting out in the cold for several hours. I even (gasp) go to soccer practice—though I do bring something interesting to read, and I drive a little Honda Fit, or the Saturn SL from grad school (a ’95, with a glove compartment held closed by string), not a minivan. (I am way too sexy for a minivan.)

For intellectuals, having a child can be especially challenging. This is particularly true of the time when your children are babies. Babies don’t hold very good conversations. They don’t make good arguments or cite their sources. And children make you dumber, at least in the short term, because not only is it hard to keep up in your discipline when you lose so much time to family needs, it’s also hard to think straight when you are perpetually sleep-deprived.

When I was breast-feeding, I was sure that the ancients were right about the humours, especially about brains and breast-milk both being made of the same stuff (phlegm). Because the more I fed my son, the dumber I got, and the smarter he got. It really seemed like my brain was draining out my nipples into him.

One colleague of mine was considering having a child, and she asked me what it is like. I decided simply to explain the time loss, for starters. I asked her to pull up her calendar so I could show her. She did. “Now,” I said, “cross off one-third of what you currently have scheduled.” Then I suggested she imagine three days a week doing her remaining work while being very low on sleep. After that, I randomly chose three weeks from her calendar, and told her those would be weeks in which her imaginary child was too sick for her to really get any work done.

And then I explained that, from the moment she had a wanted child, she would be worrying about its mortality, no matter how rational she was, no matter how healthy and sensible her child was.

Her face dropped appropriately. “Why,” she asked me, “do people have children?”

And this is what I told her:

When you have a baby, whether the child is adopted or born from you, you don’t love the baby right away. But little by little, you and your child get to know each other. And little by little, you start falling in love.

You go through all the things you do when you fall in love. You find yourself infatuated. You want to tell everyone about your new love. You can’t wait to be with that person. And you feel like, no matter how many things are going wrong, someone loves you, and that makes it all okay.

The best part about falling in love with a child is that you get to fall in love without cheating on your spouse. It is a socially acceptable way to enter into a new round of loving bliss. And, unlike the average spouse, a child changes rapidly, constantly, in ways that are fascinating and enthralling. Gestures, then words, then real ideas…

My son is now nine years old. I’ve bothered to make a lot of space for him in my life. (I quit working full-time when he was four in part so we could have that space together.) As a consequence of that space and of my having been fortunate enough to learn about good parenting through my work, we have a great relationship. I not only love my son, I really like him. He’s smart, polite, thoughtful, funny, and clever. It is no exaggeration to say he is the light of my life (though he does try to cast a “stupify” spell on me if I try to sing to him “You Light Up My Life”).

I learn a ton through my son, and it’s not because he has interests I don’t, although he does. (I never would have thought I would know so much about diesel trains and aeronautical engineering.) It’s more often because he asks me to explain something, and I really have to think about what something means. For example, he asked me the other day if I knew that some non-human primates have systems where one male mates with several females, and then he asked me if humans ever do that. I said yes, and he asked me about why some humans do it and others don’t.

My son makes me laugh so hard sometimes. Recently he made his stuffed animal penguin, who is named Rocky, talk to me at bedtime. Here’s how it went:

Rocky: Alice, I want a mate!

Me: Why, Rocky?

Rocky: Because I have a high level of testosterone, so my sex drive is high.

Me: What do you want me to do about it, Rocky?

Rocky: Next time you are at the Shedd Aquarium, get me a female. Oh, and get me a baby, too.

Me: But Rocky, you know the female will make a baby with you.

Rocky: Um, Alice, I’m a stuffed animal.

I had a really hard time not laughing my ass off at that response. The whole conversation reminded me of a time we drove to New York, when he was about four, to see my parents. It was a very long drive, and my son was on Year Three of asking “Why?” about everything.

He had learned that sometimes we answered, “I don’t know,” and had realized that he could push us harder by then asking, “Do you have any suspicions?”

So we’re in the eleventh hour of the drive. He has thoroughly enjoyed the trip because, as he told my parents later, “There were so many construction zones, so we had to keep slowing down, so it meant I got to see all the trucks!” We’re on I-80 in New Jersey, and he asks me about some item on the side of the road. “Why…” I snapped back, “Honey, I don’t know why. And I have no suspicions, and I don’t suspect anything!”

There was a pause, and then a little voice from the back seat asked, “Do you have any guesses?” And after we burst out laughing, he added, “Ha, I gotcha there!”

But it isn’t just that he makes me laugh. When I do something well, my son is ridiculously proud of me, and he lets me know it without saying it in a way that makes me cringe. The other day, I was on a field trip with his school and the local TV people came to cover the outing as a “happy” story. Two girls were so enthralled with the idea of being on TV, and my son looked at me and said with a big grin, “Eh, you’re on TV all the time.”

He insisted on reading my recent essays in the New York Times in the paper version, because he said it was cool to see my work in the real newspaper. He was so excited when I got to go to the New York Times building on my last trip and meet some of the editors there. When I went to his class to talk about being a professional writer, he was absolutely beaming when I read the fictional story I had written for his class, in which I included each child’s name and something real about each of them. “Professional writers can do that,” he told his friends proudly.

My son helps me understand my parents (and value them) in a way I never have before. He makes me appreciate the moon, the taste of good chocolate, and Mozart, as if they are all new to me. On days when I feel like I’m getting older in ways that bother me, I can look at him and see him get older in ways that delight me, and it seems okay. Even good. I try hard to be a better person when I am around him, because he deserves it. (He has a swear jar on me to help me out.) And when I fail, we talk it over in a way that at least feels a little productive; he learns a little more about the realities of humans.

When we were choosing our son’s name, we happened to choose the name of a man who saved his mother from being burned as a witch. It wasn’t the primary reason we chose the name, but my husband pointed out that it was probably a good omen, given my tendencies to take on intense work.

My son hasn’t had to save me from being burned as a witch. (Yet.) But I would say he has saved me. And I thank him for that explicitly, every now and then—when I am making a slow dinner with his company, or we are on a long walk together. I thank him for making my life so much better. It took a while for me to grow up into motherhood, but he stuck with me as I matured, and I think I have it right, thanks to him. He is so worth it.