I received the below email from a reader on New Year’s Eve. With her permission, I’m replying here.
I’m 37 and single and not a mother. I was engaged for a while and have been in a series of relationships for the last 12 or so years. I recently realized I want to have a family, but I’m mystified as to how I could possibly ever believe love lasts and being a parent is something I wouldn’t screw up. I really loved your piece on FaceTime and your daughter. I have babysat for children in the midst of young romance and have been so moved by their ability to open their hearts so wide without fear (well fear of being embarrassed I guess). I suppose this isn’t a question you can really answer, but it felt right to send it out into the Internet ether: How do you settle into a life that will be your life forever? How do you know what man will be a good father to your as yet non-existent children? How did you know?
Anyway, quite personal I know, no one answer fits all, but I am so new to wanting actually wanting a family, that I would gladly accept any thoughts you have.
There’s a story I tell about the day I found out I was pregnant. It’s a funny story, about how I took a pregnancy test in a bathroom stall at Nickelodeon, where I was working at the time, and how I was utterly floored to find myself knocked up by accident at the age of 35, a newlywed, and days away from quitting a lucrative full-time job I despised to start a career as a “permalance” writer. You can go read it, if you want to, and then come back here. Or not, that’s all right. What you need to know is that I took all the elements of that day, the day I found out I was unexpectedly, ambivalently pregnant, and turned it into a sweet story with a happy ending.
It’s not a lie, that story I tell, but it’s not complete.
I’m going to tell you the part I always leave out, because it goes to the heart of what you’re asking, or at least some of what you’re asking. I’ve never written about this before, and I’ve told only a few people about it. But these questions of yours demand courage, in the asking and in the answering.
I went home from work the day I found out I was pregnant and told my husband, Jonathan. He was surprised, but joyful in his gentlemanly, muted way. That night we discussed logistics (Oh God, our apartment is so small and we have no doors!!!) and finances (Oh God, we have no money!!!) and if I could still quit my job (Oh God, it’s a huge pay cut and I’ll lose my paid maternity leave but if I don’t quit it will surely ruin my life but how can I possibly?!?). Sometime after midnight we fell into bed exhausted and giddy, having decided that babies are small and surely we could fit one into our Brownstone floor-through apartment, and it was inaccurate to say we had “no money” because we were managing, and would continue to manage, and that I would quit my job, no question about it. We’d figure it out.
At six the next morning, I woke Jonathan from a sound sleep, so overwrought I was nearly dry heaving. I’d been up for two hours by then, sobbing in the bathroom (the only room in the entire apartment with a door). I told him I wanted a divorce. I was going to have an abortion, and I wanted him to move out, right now, today, and I wanted a divorce. Because this baby was going to turn him into a father, and fathers leave. That is simply what they do. It was unbearable, to think of this man I loved turning into a father— unknowable, frightening, ultimately gone. And anyway, who was I to believe I was the kind of person who got this life? This love, this husband, this baby? I was the girl who got left, everybody left, I was made for loss, but not this time. This time I was the girl who was leaving.
He let me go on like this until my throat was so raw I couldn’t talk anymore, and then he opened his arms to me and I fell into them. If I wanted an abortion, he said, then he would take me for one. And if I wanted a divorce, he said, he’d give me one. And if I truly couldn’t bear to have him in the apartment, then he’d just sit outside on the stoop. You know that quote, he asked, the one from Winnie the Pooh? “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.” Well if you live to be a hundred, he said, I promise I will live to be a hundred plus one day, because I am going to be the man who never leaves you.
You asked, Anne, how I knew. This is how. I showed him my most ugly, vicious, terrified secret self, and in return he showed me exquisite compassion and promised me the thing I could never bring myself to ask for. He promised to love me, in all my broken sorrow. He promised to stay.
For the longest time, I wondered how he managed it. How he was able to comfort me exactly the way I needed, cracking open the door to possibility just enough for me to walk through. I’ve come to realize part of it is who he is, his goodness and decency, his fearlessness. But also, I let him. He was the first man I was willing to be completely honest with. No fronting, no performing, no trying to be interesting by pretending to be what I thought he wanted. The irony of all this is that, when we first met, I thought he was so out of my league I didn’t even bother trying to be anything but what I was, and it was me in all my messy realness he fell in love with. Go figure.
I wonder, Anne, what is the promise you can’t bear to ask for? And where do you keep it hidden, this visceral, essential need you have? It’s worth investigating, I think. And once you’ve thought about it, can you be courageous enough to show someone, to let them see you in your raw, most vulnerable wanting and answer you with kindness? Can you show up and say, I don’t know how to believe, but I want to. I want to believe in a love that lasts, I want to believe I can have kids I won’t screw up. I want to make a family somehow, but I don’t know where to begin. Here is why it’s so hard for me to trust in that. Here is why it’s so hard for me to ask. Will you stand with me and let me show you how I am when I’m at my worst? Can you see how my worst is also my best?
I think you can. I think you’re that courageous.
That’s how you start. You find out what your plus one day is — the secret ache you hide, the thing you suspect no one could ever possibly give you — and you ask for it. You keep asking until someone opens his arms and says yes. And then you believe him.
I know how overwhelming it sounds, how scary, but it gets easier, the more you do it. And you do have to keep doing it. Because even when you find that lasting love, even when you have the kids and you’re almost certain you’re not screwing it up, there is no such thing as a life you live forever. You were engaged and then you weren’t and then there were relationships and then there weren’t, there were friends and jobs and places you lived and here you are. For years I was scared and then I was alone and then I was in love and then I had a baby and now I am a wife for more than 10 years and have a child who can FaceTime. And soon I will have a teenager and then she will be gone and Jonathan and I may finally take the honeymoon we never managed and we all roll along, the years unfurling like an endless road while we keep telling the truth about who we are now and the secret thing we still need, in the face of change and heartbreak and joy.