I was not cut out for motherhood. I knew this by the time I hit college.
I hadn't made this decision deliberately, or even thoughtfully. All I knew was that I couldn't be bothered with kids, because who had time for them? Not me! As a braless, hairy feminist of the 1970s, I had my sights set on forging a career out of adventure, like chimp expert Jane Goodall or Arctic explorer Louise Boyd. I was off to a pretty good start, too, having studied in Argentina and Spain, taught in Mexico, and backpacked through Nepal and Southeast Asia before I turned 30.
Then I met this guy and accidentally got pregnant. Yes, accidentally pregnant — despite the fact that I was definitely old enough to know better, and held a degree in biology.
I careened into the key lesson that Zen masters spend decades teaching their students: you cannot control life, but you can choose to embrace what comes and be loving and happy.
I contemplated abortion. But then a funny thing happened while I was dancing at a street party in San Francisco: I pictured my baby hearing the rhythm and dancing, too, even knowing that my child was the size of a grape at that point.
The guy and I got married. I had the baby, and my life imploded. I had been working as a public relations director for a California school system, a burnout job if ever there was one, and yet I loved it. I believed I would give birth easily, maybe squatting in a field and popping the baby out, like my pet gerbils had done with their litters. Then, I would get back to work. That's what feminists did, right?
But I hit a snag: Emotionally, I couldn't leave my baby. My son had been born early and weighed about five pounds. Yet, despite being the size of a sack of sugar, this infant became my powerful Overlord. I lived to serve him: nursing, diapering, cooing. You know the drill. It should have been hell. It certainly wasn't what I'd signed up for, back in my zesty feminist-explorer days, but I felt compelled to cut my work hours in half.
Was my life over? Some days, I was afraid it might be. Who was I, but a walking dairy bar with new pouches and veins all over my body?
Slowly, though, another self began to emerge, and this new self was, well, selfless. Nothing else in my life mattered as much as this baby. I continued working part time. Those novels I'd been trying to write on the side? I kept dabbling, but I had different priorities now. I was 31 years old.
Within 16 months, I had a second child — a daughter, this time — and, soon afterward, my marriage broke up. Chaos reigned. I was about as ill-equipped to be a mother as a person can be: I couldn't cook, had zero interest in housecleaning and forgot things like buying Valentine's Day cards for my son to hand out in preschool. (Fortunately, the teacher was prepared with spare boxes of cards; she'd met moms like me before.)
Despite these obvious flaws, I married a second time, to a man with two children about the same ages as mine, and got pregnant again. Seemingly overnight, I was 42 years old and had five children.
I hadn't done many of the things I'd imagined doing. I had not traveled through Europe, much less explored Africa or the South Pole. I had not published a novel. I hadn't even managed to figure out a way to cook every night, because I hated the grocery store with a passion equal to what most people reserve for root canals.
And yet, I was happy. Despite my domestic flaws, I loved being a mother. Given the choice back then, I would not have given up the noise; the trips to the mall; or even that one horrible family vacation in Florida. Those hours spent in pediatrician's offices; watching track meets in the rain; and listening to the "Star Wars" theme played on the flute, clarinet and trumpet all seemed worth it, in exchange for the shining gift of family.
Along my bumpy road to motherhood, I careened into the key lesson that Zen masters spend decades teaching their students: you cannot control life, but you can choose to embrace what comes and be loving and happy.
Slowly, though, another self began to emerge, and this new self was, well, selfless.
And — the biggest surprise of all — I discovered that motherhood ultimately enriched my work life. I don't have as many free hours in a day, true, but I'm damn good at making the most of every hour I do have, and my writing is richer for having experienced this complex aspect of the human condition.
Best of all, my children have taught me the art of joyful play. I am still a so-so cook and housekeeper, but I am an expert at acting out “Titanic” using empty laundry baskets as lifeboats. I never get tired of hearing about school dances. I even see the point of video games.
Motherhood, it turns out, is like life: if you give up control, you make room for love, laughter and wonder. You will be forever transformed.