When the nice young couple across the street adopted a newborn, I accepted a new client. Having grown up with a sister 8 years younger, I knew how to change diapers and warm a bottle. My mother was home if anything should go wrong. On the maiden voyage, the baby slept; I read some magazines. The cookies designated for my enjoyment were of a superior quality.
When invited back, I readily agreed. A drowsy infant, time to read . . . and $1 an hour! To my surprise, on reporting for duty that evening, I found a second child had been added to the mix. My nice couple was going to a party with friends, whose toddler I was also expected to watch. At 14, I was wise to the way of toddlers, but if the baby slept quietly, I figured I could manage.
I couldn’t. The toddler was everywhere at once, and the evening infant was not the undemanding one I’d tended in the afternoon. He required a diaper change, for one.
Excited to be on the changing table, the little guy thrashed around and knocked over the open bottle of baby oil. It efficiently emptied itself, dripping from the table onto the floor.
Desperate to clean up — and knowing my mother was out — I called my six-year-old sister over to help. I wasn’t worried about the freshly diapered and immobile infant, but the toddler needed a keeper. So, she kept him occupied while I cleaned up. Order restored, the four of us gathered in the living room near the piano.
My little sister perched on the piano bench and tinkled the keys, drawing the toddler’s attention. I lifted him onto the bench next to her to allow him to pound out a little tune. He was not, however, steady enough to hold himself erect for long and, in a slow-motion nightmare, he tumbled from the bench, hitting his head on the floor. He looked startled, gasped, then wailed with pain and indignation.
I scooped him up and, using the address the nice couple had left on a pad, I told my sister to run to the nearby dinner party and summon the parents. She sped off; I wrapped an ice cube in a dishtowel and placed it on the goose egg that was developing. The toddler continued to howl.
I should pause here to say that I was an unusually mature and responsible child, the oldest of three, my mother’s helper. An A student, I was elected vice president of my 7th grade class, served as a bus monitor, and had earned both child-care and first-aid badges in Girl Scouts.
I crawled into bed, sobbing. When my mother returned, she sat on the bed to pat my back and coo comforting words. I keened and gulped my way through the story. I had made a mistake that could have cost the child his life — that’s what the upset mother’s angry words communicated to me — and I couldn’t stop the self-recriminations.
My mother crossed the street to talk to the infant’s mother, who reported the events as I had. The toddler’s mother, she acknowledged, had over-reacted. And, she admitted, it had been a mistake to add a second child without a forewarning. She even mentioned the effort I’d made to clean up the spilled baby oil.
The next day, my mother visited the toddler’s mother. Once assured that the boy was fine, I know my mom had some things to say about the pain her child felt. Later that day, the nice lady across the street came over to pay me; I refused to take the money.
I never accepted another babysitting job.
When I was in my late 20s and working in a Dallas newsroom, a younger colleague approached my desk to say she wanted to get pregnant because, she claimed, “My body is screaming BABY BABY BABY!”
Her resume didn’t prepare me for that: she was a highly competitive gourmet cook and runner with a degree from a good school, hired from a Chicago paper to edit a flashy new section in Dallas. She showed every sign of professional ambition.
As for me, I was happily working as a features writer, married to an older man with children from his first marriage. My body scolded me at night for wearing high heels to work and nudged me to eat dessert, but it hadn’t so much as whispered “baby” to me.
It never did.
“My body scolded me at night for wearing high heels to work . . .”
Meanwhile, I had Wednesday nights to myself — that’s when my husband took his twins out to eat — and I adjusted to every-other-weekend sleepovers. I attended my first PTA meeting, sent letters to camp, baked birthday cakes. My stepchildren were already 10 when we came together: I had nothing to share with friends who were starting from scratch.
The new moms in my circle likely thought I was a big drag. I’m sure I complained about my part-time parenting — about meals and laundry and being stuck at home on Saturday nights. I know I whined about late-night pick-ups at the roller rink and all the backseat squabbling.
Some of it was good, of course. Accepting a limp bouquet of flowers gathered on a walk or having a small hand slip into mine eased the pain of having to scrape bubblegum off the bed sheets. I still remember the first time one of my stepchildren thought to wish me a happy Mother’s Day.
I was only 26 when I took on those 10-year-olds. In some ways, that helped. Because I was still defining myself, I had fewer notions of how things should be. I was accustomed to change: in the previous four years, I had graduated from college, moved to two new cities, married (and divorced) my college sweetheart, and become a journalist.
With all that going on, having babies had yet to make a blip on my radar. Instead, my focus was on learning to be a better journalist and making friends, both of which were happening in that Dallas newsroom. And though I wasn’t looking, that’s also where I met the love of my life. As it happens, he already had two perfectly good children. On the day we married, I became both a newlywed and a stepmother.
Almost 40 years later, I’m astounded to realize how little thought I gave that choice. When I said, “I do,” I joined a club whose most famous members were the tormentors of Cinderella and Snow White. We were “wicked” or “evil,” and nobody loved us. Even I laughed when a co-worker regularly complained about her “step-monster.”
I had been a stepchild, so I guess I thought I knew a thing or two. There was the real parent, and there was the not-real parent. You had to do what the real parent said, and if the other one told you to do something, you checked with the real parent.
And so, I became a not-real parent. As such, I spent the next four decades picking my way through the thorniest of relationships — with my stepchildren, their real mother, their spouses, their children and . . . yes, their stepchildren. It’s been the biggest adventure of my life.
My aunt Helen, whose shoes and purse always matched, kept multiple $20 bills in her wallet at all times. She had her hair regularly colored and styled, and she went to church (my mother said) to have an excuse to dress up. She kept a cake of Maybelline mascara on her pink vanity, and I loved watching her load the tiny brush and sweep it onto her pale eyelashes.
Aunt Helen worked, but her house was unfailingly clean and orderly. She read Perry Mason paperbacks and stocked her downstairs fridge with icy bottles of Tab. She exercised with Jack LaLanne on TV and bought one of those jiggling machines with a wide belt she strapped around her bottom. Having been a pretty woman, she kept at it until the end of her life.
My mother’s big sister had three husbands, but for reasons unknown to me, she never had children. I remember some grown stepchildren who came to holiday meals. And, she had my brother and sister and me, on whom she lavished love and attention.
Because I never heard her lament her lack of offspring, I assumed Aunt Helen was happy with her lot. And, in that unconscious way that children emulate beloved family members, I embraced not only my aunt’s tendencies toward financial solvency, self-care and tidiness, but also her child-free status.
My timing was good. Born in the middle of the baby boom, I had encouragement and opportunities denied women of earlier generations. I knew I wanted an education and a career. Although I first settled on being a flight attendant (when I was 11), my love of reading and writing won out. My parents were encouraging: They bought me books and magazine subscriptions and, when I was 12, my very own typewriter.
In high school, I discovered the women’s liberation movement.
The day I left for college, I had with me the first issue of Ms. magazine, published in spring 1972. I read and re-read the satirical article called “I Want a Wife,” targeted to working women who came home to household chores and childcare expected of traditional wives and mothers. As someone just leaving the nest, it seemed a terrible injustice: The editors of Ms. would have called that my “click” moment.
There were many more. In the women’s history classes I took in college, I learned how recently women had gained the right to sit on juries and to own property in their own names. My eyes opened to the inequalities that persisted. I discovered that I couldn’t apply for a credit card without a male co-signer, not until after someone fought for and won that right for me during my junior year. I got a Mobil gas card right away.
More pertinent to my life choices were the changes that occurred during my first two years in college. In 1972, the law prohibiting unmarried women from possessing contraceptive devices was overturned: my campus health clinic began to dispense the birth control pill. A year later, Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal.
As a woman then in my late teens and early twenties, having control of my reproductive life meant an accidental, or unwanted, pregnancy was unlikely. If I had a baby, it would be deliberate. It would be my choice.
It never was. I know people are curious about childless women, more so in my youth, I suspect, than these days. I’m sure some suspect fertility issues; others assume we dislike children. Once, I was accused of being selfish for not producing a small person or two.
Most adults are too polite to ask for an explanation. But when I was a high-school teacher, at least once a year a teenager in my class would ask if I had children. I always replied, “I have stepchildren.” That was, of course, an evasive answer. I was afraid to say no outright, because the follow-up would have been, “Why not?”
It was not a question I could easily answer. I’ve made an attempt here, partly because my adult stepdaughter once asked me point blank, and although I really wanted to answer, I didn’t have the paragraphs lined up. Because I’m a writer, I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.
Here’s what I’ve learned writing this piece: caring for other people’s children had something to do with my failure to develop baby fever. My role models suggest a rejection of my mother’s preference to stay home and raise children. And, as a young woman, I awoke to my culture’s historic devaluation of women and therefore, of motherhood. These explorations have allowed me, at 66, to consider more fully the choice I made decades ago.
Now, if anyone asks me why I didn’t have children, I’ll say: I simply allowed time to pass — busy, happy years — without considering pregnancy; I felt no urgency to reproduce. It didn’t occur to me that anything was missing from my life, at least not anything that would be solved by having a baby. How very fortunate I’ve been, to have had such a life.