About two years ago I performed at The Jukebox, a storytelling/karaoke series run by my good friends Steve Jacobs, Margaret Lyons, and Steve Heisler. The topic of the evening was parenthood, and while the story I told isn’t the kind of thing Hallmark cards are made of, it is a love letter to my daughter, and so I thought I’d share it today.
Happy Mother’s Day, no matter how you got there.
* * *
I found out I was pregnant in a bathroom stall at Nickelodeon. And I was FURIOUS.
And shocked. The word “gobsmacked” comes to mind. But mostly furious.
Here’s why: I was 35, I was a newlywed, and I was madly in love. At my recent annual gynecologist appointment, my doctor had told me that for a variety of reasons I might have a very tough time getting pregnant. I was a little concerned because I was pretty sure I wanted to have a baby…eventually. Not now, but, you know, later. Eventually. When I told my doctor this, she said, quite gently, “You do realize that 35 is considered ADVANCED MATERNAL AGE.”
WTF? Apparently I had run out of “eventually” and if I had any intention of having a baby ever, we had to get the ball rolling. So even though I had absolutely no interest in getting pregnant right now, she pulled me off the pill with the idea that she’d run tests and check my hormones, and I would feel my mucous (totally gross) and we would see what my cycle was like when I was off the pill. And then maybe I would get pregnant in a year or two.
The other thing you need to know is that I was about to quit my job. Yes. I had a great big job then, with an office on the 38th floor of 1515 Broadway overlooking Times Square and an assistant and a bonus every year…and I despised it. I was a contract negotiator, which is an exciting job if you’re into that kind of thing, which I was decidedly not. I’m not a lawyer. I don’t have a business degree. In fact, I have a degree in Theatre, and a minor in Religious Studies. What was I doing negotiating contracts, you ask?
I came to New York City after college to be a stage director. And I had a job at Manhattan Theatre Club I adored, but it paid almost nothing and then I ran out of credit cards. So I took this job at MTV Networks in the Business and Legal Affairs department when I was 25, thinking I’d work there for a year and then I would go to grad school. And it never happened, because every year they promoted me, and the salary got bigger, and the bonus got bigger, and then I started thinking, who quits a job like this, I have such good benefits. And every year I died a little more inside.
On the day I found out I was pregnant in the bathroom, I had finally gotten to a place where I was ready to quit. I was going to quit big. I was going to quit my full time job, and take a $30,000 pay cut, and I was going to work as a freelance writer. It wasn’t as completely crazy as it sounds, because I had a permalance gig lined up to be the editorial director for tvland.com and nickatnite.com, but even so, I wasn’t flying out of the nest so much as I was flinging myself out of it… blindfolded…while on fire.
I should also mention that my husband, Jonathan, was working at EMS (an outdoor store sort of like REI) but his real focus was on finishing and selling a screenplay. So we got a fantastic discount on fleece, and every night at our house was like a scene out of Shakespeare in Love, but when it came to our income, it was all pretty much on me.
But we had talked about this, and he was completely supportive of me quitting. I mean he was all, “You quit that job! You quit it hard! Full steam ahead on the quitting!”
And now I was pregnant.
So there I am in the bathroom stall with my pee stick and all I can think is, I don’t want to have this baby. Never mind it’s basically a miracle I got pregnant without trying, totally by accident, WHILE using a diaphragm (and I put spermicide in that thing EVERY TIME, just saying) after all the talk of advanced maternal age and checking the mucous.
Nope. No thank you. Because if I had this baby, there was no way in hell I could quit my job, with the paid maternity leave and the sweet benefits and the big paycheck. No way in hell. I would have to stay there, negotiating contracts forever, until I was just a shell of the person I once was, and then I’d retire, and then I’d die. And my tombstone would read, “She had amazing benefits.”
You guys, I came up with this awesome plan. The plan was, I was going to hide my pee stick in the trash and then march back to my desk and call my doctor and tell her I needed an abortion. Right now. Immediately. I wasn’t even going to tell anyone. I was just going go and quietly have an abortion and never tell anyone and then quit my job. A stealth abortion. A Stabortion. And then, in a year or so, when things had settled down a little, we’d have a baby. Maybe. Probably. Whatever. I don’t know. Abortion. Right now.
I hid my pee stick, and I left the bathroom, but instead of going to my office I took the elevator down to the lobby and I went across 44th street to the Starlight Deli, because as much as I desperately wanted an abortion at that exact moment I wanted a coffee the size of my head and a black & white cookie even more.
The head counterman at the Starlight Deli is this robust, wonderful, gregarious, friendly Egyptian man named Abraham. On the day of the pee stick, he’d been feeding me breakfast every work day for more than a decade. He fed me through my South Beach phase, and half a dozen bad breakups, and then he fed me though all the time I dated Jon, and planning our wedding. We were pals.
I walked into the Starlight and Abraham hollers out, “Hello beautiful! Coffee time! Yes?”
And I said, “Yes. But decaf.”
I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t want this dream-crushing, soul-sucking, scary baby. But I also didn’t want to hurt it.
Meanwhile, Abraham lights up and does an actual double-take. Because ever since I’d come back from my honeymoon he’d designated himself my Jewish mother and had been pestering me about where his babies were.
He points at me, and he says, “Decaf!? You baby?”
And I burst into tears. Wailing. Snotty wailing.
Abraham comes rushing out from behind the counter, and he takes me by the shoulders and he says, “Why you cry? Baby ok?”
I tried to explain about my job and quitting and my dreams and being a husk and my tombstone. And he just shook his head and he said, “You have baby. It’s good. You’ll see.”
And I was like, noooo, you don’t understand. $30,000 pay cut! How in the world can I possibly do this?
He shrugged, and he said, “I have five children. A blessing, every one. Every baby brings its own blessing. You ask me how you do this? You do it. Have your baby. Quit your job. Be brave. You’ll see, your blessings are just starting.”
I stood there with him, crying, and he actually took me in his arms and started to sway with me. He smelled like sugar and salami, which for a Jewish girl from the Bronx is the smell of home. He made it sound so easy. Have the baby. Quit the job. Both. Say yes.
It dawned on me that I had been saying no to myself for so long, I’d forgotten how to say yes that way. All of my choices, from the day I left the job I loved at Manhattan Theatre Club, were based on being safe. All of them. Everything was an “or.” It didn’t even occur to me until that moment I could choose “and.” Have the baby, and quit, and have it be ok.
I pulled myself together finally. Abraham poured me a decaf, bagged me a cookie, and sent me on my way.
And here’s what happened next.
I did call my gynecologist…
…the next morning, after I’d gone home and told Jonathan he was going to be a father, and we called our parents, and I called my best friend.
And then I quit my job.
Our daughter, Emerson, is going to be 9 this summer. She is the image of her daddy, and the love of my life. And every single thing I was scared of that day in the bathroom, they all turned out to be nonsense.
I was afraid I’d be trapped forever in a job I hated. Instead, emboldened by the need to contribute to my family’s wellbeing and motivated by a cellular desire to be the kind of person my daughter can admire, I kept pushing until I found a career that rewards me richly for being an information junkie with a tendency to burst into song.
I was afraid I’d lose myself completely, and instead I rediscovered everything I’d ever taken pleasure in: making up stories, singing songs, living room dance parties, talking in silly voices, themed Halloween costumes, ice cream for dinner, laughing until you pee.
I was afraid I’d resent her, but instead, I am indescribably grateful, for her laughter and sweetness, how she helps me see the world as a place of wonder and goodness. For the ways she’s softened me, made me kinder, slowed me down.
I am absolutely certain that every good thing in my life started the day I said yes to her. As Abraham predicted, she has brought an endless stream of blessings. And they have just started.
There were a lot of people around the day Emmy was born — Jonathan and my best friend, Lisa, were in the delivery room, and our parents were at the hospital also. I didn’t get to be alone with her until about 4 in the morning, when everyone had gone home to rest. And that first night, with her tiny head tucked under my chin, I whispered the most honest thing I have ever said to another person. “I have spent my entire life wondering what I’m supposed to be doing, where I’m supposed to be, what my purpose is. And it’s so clear now. I am here to love you.”
I know it’s corny, but motherhood is a corny business. It is made of promises, of hopes that are larger than everything you fear, of saying yes, and yes, and yes, to the mystery of love, to the surprising hugeness of your own heart, to messes, to the unknown.
It’s also made of lullabies, and that’s what I’m going to sing you for now.