An Open Letter To Janine Kovac

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Kerry Cohen responds to Janine Kovac’s piece “Maybe You Are Ready For Kids, You’re Just Not Paying Attention.”

I was ready to have children. I was more than ready. Somewhere around 28, my biological clock kicked into gear and I could think of almost nothing else. I had spent the better part of my life thus far letting myself be free. I slept with lots of men, often for the wrong reasons, and I went to graduate school to pursue creative writing, which wasn’t a very smart career decision. But as I approached 30, I was acutely aware of how much I’d already fucked up. Already, I wasn’t doing what was expected of me as a woman in our culture. I should have already been married. I should have already been working on having children.

And then, too, I just genuinely wanted a baby. Maybe I was looking for something to love. Maybe I was ready to grow the hell up and stop living for myself. Whatever it was, I was ready. I wrote, I taught composition, I dated, but in the back of my mind always was that somewhere in the ether, waiting for me, was a little baby, born of my passion for him, ready to be here.

When my husband and I married, he was well aware of my desperation. We took long walks around our neighborhood during the months we tried to get pregnant, after the miscarriage that left me bereft, and then, finally, while pregnant with my tiny animal child, growing and swimming and flipping inside me. Those days were like no other. We had no idea what to expect, of course. No one does.

So we fantasized. We would take the baby everywhere. We’d cloth diaper. We’d sing to him and baby-massage him and all the other glorious images you get from Pampers commercials and Dr. Sears. There were times when my husband expressed concern. He was in graduate school and working full-time. How would he have time? How would we have enough money? I reassured him constantly. I would take care of the baby. Newborns need their mothers more anyway. I would be nursing him, rocking peacefully in the chair we bought from Goodnight Room. And newborns don’t cost money, especially if we cloth-diapered. By the time the baby started needing more things, he’d be out of school, making more money. And I would go back to work too.

Everything would be fine because, you know, babies don’t change anything.

When Ezra arrived, everything was not fine. I was in labor for four days. I broke down on the third day, decided I needed the drugs. I couldn’t sleep. I labored for 15 more hours, hooked up to Pitocin and an epidural, and then I pushed for almost four hours while I fell dead asleep between pushing contractions. When he finally came out, the pediatricians rushed in to aspirate meconium. And then, finally, they placed him on my chest where he immediately began to nurse. Discussing the arrival of one’s first born is always complicated. I’m not sure there are words to capture what for me was at once uncompromising love and terror. It was the first time I understood that this wasn’t a fairy tale. This was no Pampers commercial. This was a person, a goddamned human being, whom someone had entrusted to my care.

We stayed in the hospital for four glorious days while the nurses waited for me to urinate. Someone had forgotten to give me a catheter with the epidural, so my bladder was extended. I had to pee through a catheter, and then I had to take antibiotics to prevent a urinary tract infection, which gave Ezra and me thrush. When the four days were up, they sent us home with my fiery nipples and a yelling, uncomfortable baby, and a few extra catheters to see me through the likely three weeks I’d have to wear it. Let’s just say: We forwent the cloth diapers. We forwent the possibility that everything would be fine.

Around six weeks later, we finally combated the thrush, Ezra laughed for the first time, and things felt a little better. But it turned out I was wrong about not needing my husband to be around a lot more to help. I was exhausted and bored and terrified of how alone I felt. This is probably when my husband began to resent me. I’d lied to him. I’d pressured him into having a baby too soon, before he was ready. And now, I was beginning to wonder if my sense about being ready had been wrong too. Because I wasn’t ready for any of this.

I was even less ready when just a year later, we began to suspect that Ezra was on the autism spectrum. Who can ever be ready for this? Who talks about this at the baby shower with those cute little diaper games, or in the Lamaze classes where you learn to breathe? How was I to breathe now?

There has been joy. Like you say, Janine, my heart has expanded. My understanding of humanity and life has increased immeasurably. Having Ezra changed everything about how I would parent my second child, who we had in a fit of another biological ache, because if we were to logically decide whether we wanted another one, we never would have done so. I love my children with all my body and heart. I couldn’t live in a world without them. They are delicious and sweet smelling and funny and often so delightful to have around. But, also, had it not been for my children, I am quite sure my husband and I would still be together. Instead, his resentment about how his life changed grew. His grief about Ezra made him turn away from me.

If I could have been one of those people who chose to not have children, I would have been. I don’t say this aloud much because it sounds so horrible, but I often wish I had been one of those people. When I meet people who aren’t interested in having children, I feel tremendous envy. It’s not my kids. They’re great. It’s that I’m not cut out for this. I’m not a good mother. I get bored by their games. I lose patience. I do feel like I have to give parts of myself up sometimes, regardless of your statement that this doesn’t happen.

I’m still not ready for my children, who are 9 and almost 7. And then, when I found a new partner, and he brought with him his two children, who are 10 and 5, I wasn’t ready for them either.

So, I believe it’s OK for your friend to not be ready for children. I just read an article in Ms. Magazine about Guillermo Del Toro’s latest horror movie Mama. The article addresses the idea of “The Reluctant Mother.” This woman doesn’t want to be a mother at all. She wants her freedom. She wants the freedom, for instance, to look at her iPhone all day, or to pursue other dreams, like music or art or her career. But a child is forced on her, and fight it as she might, she can’t resist the force of motherhood. By giving in, she learns she really does have what it takes to be a mother, which is what had been the right choice, the better choice, all along.

My point is that maybe Doris really doesn’t want children. Maybe she likes being a career woman, and her fears about having children are justifiable. Maybe the pressure she feels to have children comes from a culture that values mothers, but not middle-aged career women. What Doris might need is support for her feelings. It’s OK to not want children right now, yes, even in this culture where you’re not encouraged to make such a choice as a woman. I’d like to think you and Doris could make different choices and still respect one another. But I also think she needs to find a new friend. 

Kerry Cohen is the author of six books, including the acclaimed Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity. She’s been featured on Dr. Phil, Good Morning America, and the BBC, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Psychology Today, and many others. Learn more at www.kerry-cohen.com.

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