What we give up.

A and I saw Julie and Julia the other weekend. Have you seen it? Wasn’t it terrific and food-y and writer-y  and funny and wasn’t Meryl Streep fascinating?

Anyway, in that great movie, there’s a crushing scene where Julia Child—married for several years and childless—finds out her younger sister is pregnant. She reads her sister’s letter in the kitchen and tries to be brave and happy but weeps, and she and her husband stand there for a long and awful moment, comforting each other.

It took me by surprise, and it hurt to watch. And then I had a thought that I was so ashamed of I could barely hold onto it: If she’d had children, we wouldn’t have Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

It felt wrong to be even a little bit happy about someone’s infertility, even indirectly. So cheap, to imply that their pain was a necessary cost if Americans were ever to learn the really proper way to cook an omelet.

But infertility aside, we aren’t supposed to talk so starkly about the tradeoffs, are we? It’s disrespectful from the point of view of the children; no one at any age wants to hear that their Mama would have made a masterpiece if only they hadn’t been born. And it’s overly simple to draw an automatic line from childbearing to missing out on other creative work—it does wrong by the many women* who do accomplish something really significant after—or even because**—they have children.

But it does make me sad to think of what we miss—what we, the world, have missed—because women, for so long, have by default put so much of their energy into parenting.

Also, it is very inconvenient that we can’t know the other path. You can never be certain whether you’re going to be the failed (insert dream job here) who should have birthed the child who grew up to cure cancer, or, on the other hand, the lousy parent of deadbeat offspring, who instead should have poured your energy into writing the novel that could have changed the world.

I’m glad it isn’t, in reality, now, so black and white. Most of us (us, here, reading this) chose parenthood rather than taking it on just because it came along. Most of us can fit in more other meaningful work than our mothers and grandmothers could. Hooray for that.

But here’s where I say something I’m probably not supposed to say: Even though it’s better for us than it would have been for Julia Child,  and even though we have great opportunities to get things done outside of parenthood, and even though we choose this life, something is still lost. We give something up, something significant, each of us. And I am so overcome, after saying that, with the urge to backpedal and disclaim and excuse and reassure you of how much I love my children, that I am extraordinarily curious about the system of thinking that makes it feel so absolutely shameful to point out that simple fact.

*And men. But come on: Paul Child would not have ended his diplomatic career to care for a family. But when would Julia have studied at Le Cordon Bleu with a little Child in the picture? And yes things have changed since then, but not that much.

**Cloud recommended the book The Mommy Brain after my last post, and after reading most of the Kindle sample of it last night, I can say it looks fascinating and positive without putting its head in the sand about how we are chaaaaaanged by parenthood. The most smartly uplifting thing I have seen about motherhood in a long time. Eerm, more lucid review later. Also later: my conversion to the world of paperless reading.


5 thoughts on “What we give up.

  1. Oooh, I can’t wait to hear your opinions on the Kindle. One of the things that I’m giving up to have baby #2 is bookshelf space! (We’re merging our guest room and office to make baby’s room.) But my local library is… inadequate. I need another solution.

    This was an interesting post. I think you are right that even when we choose to keep our fulltime jobs (as I have), we make choices and have subtly changed priorities that probably affect what we accomplish. I’d made some of those choices (to go into industry rather than academia, for instance) long before I had kids, so I’m not really conflicted about them. I also realized quite a while ago (again, before kids) that I am not the type of scientist who is going to have brilliant, creative insights and drastically change the world. I am the type of scientist who is going to help turn other people’s insights into useful things and to move things forward incrementally. I’m OK with that- the world needs both types.

    So, I have a career I’m happy with, but not one that is going to cause anyone to write a biography of me when I’m gone- but that would probably have been true without the kids. The thing I feel I’ve really given up is travel- Hubby and I used to do a lot of traveling. We do a little now, but I miss that feeling of “gee, if I wanted to, we could go to [insert name of wonderful, exotic place] on vacation next year.”

  2. Was intrigued by your comment on AskMoxie so I clicked through to read your post and ended up devouring your archives. What great work! Writing, family, all of it! I’ve subscribed and can’t wait to read more.

  3. Sometimes it’s so hard to respond to your posts because they just hit me in the gut, but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

    I don’t think about not having had children at all, but I do have this struggle in terms of whether to have a third child. We’re probably not going to, and I feel horribly guilty about it. It feels so selfish to choose myself over a potential third child, but I just couldn’t imagine giving up two more years of my body and my life to pregnancy and nursing. I felt like it was my turn to focus on myself and figure out what I want from my life besides being a mother. But it is, as you say, a shameful thought to acknowledge just how much sacrifice having children requires.

  4. Yes. And can I add something related? – I sometime long for these early childhood years to be over, for my kids to have some kind of life without me (and J, but right now, still especially me) at the very center all of the time. For the creative space I see in the lives of the 40, 50, and 60-something women I know, the empty-nesters. And I feel guilty and defensive about that too, but f*ck, some days I really want to be the grandma and not the mama. Julia Child, though–she wasn’t young when she went to Cordon Blue, was she? I had the thought that an indomitable woman like that might actually have pulled off both and just skipped the hat-making bullshit in between. Motherhood does, after all, make us into wise spenders of the little creative time we have left.
    I loved the movie too – both “stories”, (though I did think the fights between Julie and her husband were a bit contrived).

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