The photo on my friend’s Facebook wall stirs something within me; I can’t ignore her request for help.
Under a trio of palm trees, about 40 Nicaraguan children stand arm in arm, their grins bright as the sun bouncing off waves in the Caribbean Sea behind them. Some are in crisp white button-down shirts with dress slacks. Others wear jeans and colorful t-shirts. But one girl, perhaps marching to her own beat, is dressed in a salmon-colored, ruffled skirt and wears a huge grin.
Lured by the girl’s smile, I leave a comment under the picture, something to the effect of, “Sure, I’ll donate $99. Just tell me where to send it.” My friend KeleMarie, board member of a non-profit educational group that helps Nicaraguan children, replies with enthusiasm, “Great!”
Wait a minute. Did I give just short of $100 to a child I’ve never met?
I never desired to be a parent. It just never felt essential to my life, just as following college basketball, earning a second college degree, or living in a small town did not feel like me. Yet I still feel maternal toward the world at large. My heart flutters when I look at photos of malnourished kids overseas or see pudgy, smiling faces of blonde-haired, blue-eyed babies on the covers of magazines or on television commercials. And, though I’m childless, I feel a responsibility to help children find their place in the world – with love, mentoring or, dare I say it, cash.
According to society, this is about the time my biological clock is supposed to run off the charts. My mind should be consumed with finding space in my house for a child, deciding if my partner will make a good father and if I’ll need fertility drugs. As a fiction writer, I’ve even entertained a few scenarios of my own, including which room in our house would become the nursery, whether to travel with kids on my frequent globe-crossing journeys, and how much more coffee I would need as a new parent. Would I wake up one day and need a kid so badly that I could hardly breathe?
I won’t lie, my clock has chirped – just not in the traditional way. As I cruise into my 37th year, nesting in my home with my boyfriend, I’m filled with thoughts of adopting a dog, deepening our commitment, and repainting rooms. Yet I still find myself blindsided by my affection toward children. I return their animated waves from passing cars on the freeway and stoop down to say “hi” in the coffee shop. I’m the first to hold out my arms to a friend’s toddler and smile at chubby faces on airplanes. I admire their whimsy and resilience, and what they teach me: That each day is fresh, new, and full of discovery.
With these warm feelings I have for kids, it can be difficult to discern between a biological urge and a general feeling of maternal instinct. One evening I stayed up late in the darkness of my living room, procrastinating on the Internet as I struggled to write an article. My eyes fell onto the innocent, smiling faces of Asian toddlers up for adoption, saddled with cleft lips and stricken with developmental diseases. It would be so easy to fill out an application and adopt, I thought, just as I write out checks for environmental causes or volunteer at a local soup kitchen. I could be a parent responsible for someone else’s life. But I never downloaded the application. Pushing aside my humanitarian feelings like a curtain into my soul, I remembered the heavy weight of the commitment. There’s still so much I want to do with my life – travel, write The Next Great American Novel, make new friendships – and I relish my freedom.
But to be certain motherhood wasn’t for me, I queried my boyfriend on the topic. If he wanted to be a father, maybe I would be more open to motherhood. Turns out he’s on the same page: no strong paternal instincts. We both fear that the lack of these feelings might lead us to resent our own children. And that’s no way to be a parent, is it?
Today I mailed out that $99. Afterwards, I resumed my own version of nesting: plotting out that night’s dinner for my partner and me, dusting bookshelves, putting a load of laundry in the washing machine, feeding the cat.
My friend says that I should watch my mailbox, because soon a letter and photo will arrive from my Nicaraguan kid. Most importantly, I am always welcome to visit, she says. This may actually happen. Perhaps I’ll ask someone to take a photo of me under the palm trees with my child, bringing this journey full-circle. Part of being a mother is mentoring a child, serving as a positive role model, and learning from a younger person. This child may not be my own, nor may I be responsible for him or her, but there is no doubt I would be doing all three of the above via an exchange of letters over the next year. So I may not be joining the ranks of parent, but I can still make a difference in a young person’s life.