I wrote a book instead of having a baby, on Babble.com.Colette LaBouff Atkinson
Sometime in my thirty-sixth year, my body changed. No more twenty-seven-day cycles. No more like-clockwork ovulation pain at day fourteen. No sleeping for nine-hour stretches. Most nights, between two and four, I thought about kicking the starlings out of the eaves. Everything inside shifted. Then, at thirty-eight, my husband and I split and the changes intensified: more hair to sweep from the bathroom floor. Night sweats. I figured it was stress, big life-shifts like moving, separating, and marrying off the other two women in my family, my mother and sister.
Though I’d never had children, my husband had two sons. They were ten and eighteen and living on the opposite coast when I came on the scene. I never considered them a replacement, but I am sure they helped me avoid thinking about having my own kids. It wasn’t until the younger one left California with his brother for a cross-country trip and college that I felt the merest shadow of what an empty-nester faces. I was thirty-seven and there go the kids. But what nagged me nights when I’d bolt upright in bed wasn’t that I didn’t have children; it was that I hadn’t finished a book.
Newly on my own, I wrote constantly. I turned down dinner invitations. I quit walking with a friend on Sundays. I saved Saturdays for writing the way some set aside time for family. Consider it a practice, I told myself.
By then, the time between my periods was longer or shorter. I wasn’t feeling bad, but I felt different. The young gynecologist, who ran a series of tests, told me that I was coming to the end – quickly – of my ovulating days. “At forty?” I asked. “Everyone’s different,”she said. The markers indicated to her that it might be a couple years and then over. “Done.” I can’t remember how she phrased it, but I knew she was skirting around a major life-change and trying to throw it in the best light: “This is just a normal process,” she said, “unless you are thinking of having children . . . ” I answered: “Not really.” It was true.
In my twenties, I put myself on a path that didn’t lead to having a family. I turned away, serially, from relationships that might have made for two people, down the road, wanting a child. I’m not saying they were bad relationship decisions; I’m saying they weren’t accidents. I favored playmates over partners, parental figures instead of equals, men who wanted to be boss or to be taken care of themselves. There was the man who was too young, the one who loved Dungeons & Dragons, the one who said he’d never travel, and the one who’d been married twice and had two children.
In all of this, I never said, when I’m thirty-five, I want kids or when I’m forty, I want to have my dream job. I was slow to understand myself; I was in school far too long and trying to find the discipline – if that’s the word – to write. And it’s not because I thought I had talent; it’s because writing made me feel sane and connected. Whenever I’d write, I’d feel like, I’ll have more of that. Two helpings, please.
Cut back to my thirties. The relatives would ask, “So, where’s the baby?” Yes, that bluntly; they’re Italian. I’d tell them I was busy working and trying to write. They’d tilt their heads sideways as if I’d said I played dominos all day. But I respected the reactions from women in my family. They’d done everything, worked and raised children, and why couldn’t I just dig in? As I write this, I know there are women out there – hip cocked with a glorious infant resting on it – who manage to do it all: to be partners and work and be creative. But not all of us can have it all.
In a moment at the pool with a friend who has two kids, I felt that the window of possibility was shutting too soon, but then a breeze blew and water splashed me and I realized I was worrying about someone else’s possibility, not my own.
I was happy being a stepmother. The oldest one came to live near us for a few years, and it was great to have him drop by anytime. Both boys spent the summer out west three years ago and the house was crowded with men. One night, the younger one begged me to make his favorite pasta. “I’m tired,” I said. “Please,” he whined. “I’m worn out,” I pleaded. Together, the boys – at twenty and twenty-eight – cried big, pretend tears. They wailed until I gave in, and I loved every minute of that: being able to do something ridiculously small to please them and then being able to go in my room and not worry, as I know their mother does, about how they’re really doing. It’s not that I don’t worry; it’s that I can’t ever worry inA friend gave me a card that read: Congratulations! It’s a book! exactly that way she does.
Flash-forward to my forty-first year. My ex and I worked out shared custody of our two dogs. He’d gone to Mexico and I’d stayed in the area. I kept writing, playing ball with the dogs for a break. Then, the unthinkable happened; the manuscript I worked on was finished. This happens all the time for writers, I know, and in the larger scheme, it’s no big deal. In other ways, though, it’s crucial. It’s what’s called in the film world a San Fernando ending – the happy ending edited in to replace the heavier version – to the early finish of my childbearing years. A friend understood the significance; the card he gave me read, Congratulations! It’s a book!
In two weeks, I’ll move to a new home. I intend to make it a place where plenty of writing gets done, where I can walk up the street for cheap Mexican food or procrastinate an hour at the microbrewery if I’m truly stuck. The bungalow is west-facing and two blocks from the ocean where a path opens onto the shore, rocky and calm, and where I can walk for miles. Surfers wait there, just like I do, for the next big thing to happen.