The Baby Vortex
Jessica Lynne Henkle
I’m walking towards a table full of female relatives: my mom, my aunt, my cousins, and my oldest cousin’s twenty-something daughters. We’ve gathered for lunch on a rainy day in June, and I’ve broken my rule about not leaving the house on Saturdays so I can join them. Still, I’m the last to arrive, and my mother, ever the planner, has already put in my order, having asked me to look at the menu the night before and tell her what I wanted.
I enter during a conversation about my youngest cousin’s recent trip to Hawaii with her husband and five kids. “I’ll show you some pictures, even though you probably don’t want to see them,” she says to me with a laugh.
“It’s okay,” I say. “I’ve been showing pictures of my best friend’s baby to everyone.”
“Oh, I’d love to see him. I love babies,” she says. But the thought gets lost for several minutes, as we look through vacation pictures, and she talks about the kids hanging out with chickens and playing soccer by the beach.
When the conversation lulls, my mom reaches over and says, “Show her the pictures of the baby.”
“Baby?” my other cousin says, turning a surprised face to me. “What baby?”
“I had a baby,” I say, deadpan, as I dig my phone out of my purse. “Didn’t I tell you?” Everyone laughs. “It’s my best friend’s,” I say, swipe to the photos, and begin passing around the phone.
It's something we never talk about, the fact that I don’t have children, or how, at age thirty-five and chronically single, it’s unlikely that I will. But I have a good family—despite the drastic differences between our lives, no one ever makes me feel odd or outside of things. I don’t feel like I’m a disappointment to them for failing to procreate, not even to my mother, who, had she had different children, would undoubtedly be a grandmother by now. My brother doesn’t have a spouse or kids either, but of course, it’s different when you’re a woman.
It’s something I never talk about, the fact that I don’t want children, and it’s something I never write about, though I talk and write often about wanting a relationship. That desire is there, has always been there, but the desire for motherhood has ebbed and flowed. I didn’t want kids, and then I did, and then I didn’t again, and then I did again, and so on, until I landed at the place I’m at now: if circumstances were different, and if I were ten or even five years younger, then yes, maybe. But at the age every woman has been trained to recognize as the signal that her time is running out, I have made my peace with not becoming a mother.
And yet, I feel guilty even saying that—how much “peace” did I have to make? I don’t have that deep soul-ache to have children. I don’t want them the way I want a husband, the way I want to write, even the way I want to run or read or keep collecting houseplants. I hear stories about my cousins camping with their kids, shuttling them to soccer practice, or staying up with them late into the night, and I can’t cut these mothers out of the frame and insert myself in their place. My best friend just had her first baby, and we now go weeks without communicating, as she disappears into what I’ve come to call “the baby vortex.” I can’t see myself doing that either without (at least somewhat) losing my mind.
And yet, despite all of this, I still fantasize about having a child—holding her, reading to her, trying to calm her as she howls in my ear. I’ve named and renamed her a thousand times, and I admit I feel a twinge when I think she may never exist. I don’t doubt that men have their battles about becoming fathers, but when your body sends you a monthly reminder that you have the capacity to carry new life, it’s hard to block out the siren’s call of what if? what if? The possibility itself becomes a constant companion, which is, I suppose, why so many of us feel so conflicted about it.
Then one day, that capacity is taken from you. You get no choice in the matter, and when it comes down to it, that’s how I feel about all of this: I’d at least like to be given the choice. For I’m reaching an age where, if I did want children, I’d have to figure out how to have them on my own. I’ve missed that blossoming that can only come in a couple, where the line between what if? and reality is (at least theoretically) less of a leap. That, too, was a decision I never made. It was more like wave crashing down upon wave, while I kept trying to swim out to sea. I wonder if that’s how some women feel about their marriages, about their children. I wonder if it’s ever as easy as “want” or “don’t want.”
I look around the table at my family: my aunt, my mother, my cousins, all married by their early twenties. All of these women, mothers. And I look at my oldest cousin’s daughters, all (as yet) unmarried and childless. When my mom moved up to Oregon last spring, she said, “I wish I would’ve been here when the kids were babies.” I told her not to worry, that my cousin’s daughters would have babies soon enough.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Times are changing.” Maybe so. Women undoubtedly have more choices than we used to. But the decision to have or not to have a child will never, I think, be a simple one, even when it feels less like a decision and more like a yielding—an acceptance as inevitable as the rising tide.