She never wanted children. But COVID-19 isolation and unemployment has her wondering: Is now the right time to have a baby?
It was April 2019, two weeks after my 31st birthday. My husband and I were listening to a podcast about the “fertility precipice”—the notion that after 30 it becomes extremely difficult for women to get pregnant. The podcast specified that it’s actually more of a sloping hill than a sheer cliff and that it usually comes when you’re 33. With that in mind, we decided to table the baby conversation for another year. I didn’t want children, something I’d been sure of since I was 16. He wanted five. It was a contentious topic, and since we had another couple of years until we were scheduled to meet that precipice, we figured we had time.
Fast-forward a year to April 2020, a week after I turned 32 and four weeks into the COVID-19 quarantine. On a face-masked walk, I tell my husband what had been swimming around my brain: that maybe, possibly, conceivably, feasibly, I may want to have children. The confession shocks us both.
When I was 16, and I first decided that having a child was off the table, I was in the throes of anorexia and bulimia. I’d eat an apple for breakfast, then skip lunch to hang out in the school library or darkroom. After school, I’d play soccer for two hours, then go home to eat dinner and ice cream and then throw it all up. This was my daily ritual for about a year.
During that time, sex and adulthood started creeping into my sense of self. It was an overwhelming change. I felt naked and vulnerable even thinking about it, and I leaned on anorexia and bulimia to guide me. At school, I’d lounge on the carpeted floor in a secluded alcove with the other thin and athletic girls during our free periods, talking about things we never let outside of our closed-off circle. Lying down to accentuate our jutting hips and collarbones, we talked at length about our sexuality and the ideal man. The most frequent topic was who out of the group of horny, popular and gangly teenage boys we took turns kissing would make the best boyfriend, husband or father. I looked down at my waifish figure, cupped my small, perky breasts, and said, “I don’t care who’d make a good dad. I don’t want to have children.”
My friends were aghast. They glared at me like I’d ruined their gossipy game of MASH.
“What? Why?” they demanded.
“Because,” I said, “Having a baby would ruin my body.”
Nods of understanding went around the circle. None of us had any idea how this notion percolating in my juvenile, eating-disordered mind would shape the rest of my life.
Even after you’ve “recovered” from your eating disorder, there is always a part of it that lingers. It’s like knowing where your shoplifting, cigarette-smoking adolescent best friend hangs out every day, even if you don’t meet her there anymore. The idea that the physical toll of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding would devastate my youthful body stayed with me until my 30s. I was repulsed by the thought of my skin stretching, my breasts sagging and who knows what happening to my vagina, because no one ever talks about it.
(Except for Ali Wong during her stand-up special. Thank you, Ali, although from what you have to say, my god, it sounds like my vagina would go bust as well.)
Since that teenage conversation I’ve told anyone who’s shown interest in the subject that I’ve never wanted kids. I repeated it over and over to ex-boyfriends, my parents, my husband and myself.
Despite that, I’ve started to wonder lately, is now the right time to have a baby? Unemployment and quarantine isolation have shaken my once steadfast stance on childbearing. Instead of making lists of how it might ruin my body (and therefore life), I make mental notes of why it might be a good idea.
I am a 32-year-old woman. I’ve been happily married for a year. I haven’t forced myself to throw up in at least four. (Thank you, therapy). I don’t have paid employment (not without lack of trying on my part), but my husband makes enough for us both, so there wouldn’t be any maternity-leave politics on the horizon. I’m really very good with children—my ten nieces and nephews adore me. I enjoy taking care of my cat, although I’m a bit overprotective. All in all, I have the stability, tick of the biological clock and childrearing instincts to be a mom in nine months.
That’s a good list but, most importantly, I think that I’ve finally come to a place in my eating disorder in which the idea of changing my body no longer seems like the same thing as wrecking my life. Still, I ask myself: How deeply true is this newfound interest in baby-making?
My husband and I have been self-quarantined since March 14 in our small two-bedroom apartment. The second bedroom is my breadwinner husband’s office. I spend my days bouncing from desk to couch to yoga mat to the kitchen. I couldn’t start a new job in April, because of the coronavirus pandemic, which means I’ve now been unemployed for over a year. I’ve spent the majority of our time in quarantine retreating into myself, and I’ve found my days repetitive and lacking significance. Depression and anxiety urged me to meet up with my old friends, bulimia and anorexia, but I no longer want to use them to satiate my hunger for control.
Instead, this new idea started surfacing. Perhaps this global catastrophe has helped me refocus on the importance of family, away from obsessing over my beach bod. (Especially since the beaches are closed.) But a darker truth nags me. Do I want a baby because I want to be a mother, or because I just need something to do with my days?
In April, when I told my husband that I was thinking about having children with him, I admitted that it was at least in part because I was bored. He pushed me to deeply consider this reasoning. But I pushed back. All the recent mothers I see on Instagram say that there’s no perfect time to have a baby. Besides, my resistance to motherhood is rooted in my eating disorder: that isn’t exactly fully coherent either.
If my interest in motherhood has spawned during the deadliest virus outbreak in a century, one that’s making me lonely and sad, then why not give my husband, my parents and my friends a baby to look forward to? Maybe it’s a perfectly imperfect reason, and I no longer strive or starve for perfection.