My refrigerator is covered with photos of babies: Drooling babies crawling across carpeted floors, crying babies with food smeared on their faces, smiling babies propped up beside Winnie-the-Pooh dolls. People often ask me who owns all these bundles of joy.
"Well that one's mine," I'll say, pointing to a photo of a smiling baby girl. "And so is that one and that one. Those two are my roommate's, and that one over there belongs to both of us."
I am not a mother. Neither is my roommate. But we're both 28 years old -- prime baby-bearing age. We each have friends and cousins who have become parents in the last couple of years, and they all send us photo after photo of their precious little ones: Baby at one month sitting in car seat; baby at two months sitting in same car seat ("Look, he's gained a whole pound"); baby in the adorable little outfit you sent as a gift; baby chewing on a little cloth book, another gift. We dutifully display these pictures on our fridge, claiming ownership based on my relationship to their parents.
Every time I tear open an envelope to reveal the glossy image of another rosy-cheeked baby, I can't help but coo. But I've always felt removed from the reality of parenthood. I'm a single graduate student, after all, and a lot of these kids belong to friends I've only known for a few semesters or to cousins who live several thousand miles away. I've learned to "ooh" and "ah" and bestow the appropriate accolades on these latest additions to the human race ("She's sitting up already? That's amazing!"), but I've never seriously considered what it really means to be a mother. That is, until my best friend Emily had a baby last spring.
Emily and I have been friends since we were kids. We shared secrets, survived the growing pains of high school, talked for hours on the phone through college and commiserated after graduation over our plight as artists (she's a painter, I'm a writer) in a corporate world. When Emily became pregnant, it was obvious that her life was going in a completely different direction than my own. It hit me that I too am old enough to have a kid and mature enough to reasonably, responsibly bring a child into the world, and I was stunned. Suddenly the idea of motherhood went from clichi and abstract to personal and very real.
As Emily's pregnancy progressed, I wasn't prepared for my reactions. First there was denial: Emily can't be having a kid, we're not old enough for that yet. Resentment: What about me? She can't go take this giant leap forward in her life while I'm still stuck in a prolonged post-college never-never land. And finally, a strong and selfish sense of loss -- of childhood, of innocence, but mostly of a best friend, of the entirety of our lives together up until that point. I realized that being a mother is all-encompassing and forever. It changes both who you are and how you relate to the world, and it would change Emily.
As the months went by, Emily described to me all that was going on in her head, not to mention her body. All she could think about was this living thing inside of her; she felt like she could burst any second; her back and hips hurt. Slowly, her pregnancy became real. There was no going back. In the beginning, the baby had been a hypothetical creature to me. I'd tell Emily how I was going to teach the kid to play tennis one day, and maybe we could all make a children's book together -- I'd write, Emily would draw, and the baby would come up with the story idea. Talking about the future felt like preparing for a big party, some landmark occasion, like a bat mitzvah or graduation. I hadn't considered that this time, the occasion wouldn't pass, the novelty would never wear off. This kid would be born and then stick around for the rest of our lives.
The day Emily went into labor, my friend Marcy and I phoned each other a dozen times throughout the day, jumping with excitement. How much will the baby weigh? Will she have hair? How much longer, how much longer? The thought that burned hottest in my mind, though, was that today, another person was coming into the world, a person whom I loved unconditionally even though I'd never even laid eyes on her. I loved her automatically because I already loved her mother. When I learned the next day from Emily's husband Alex that Eva had been born (seven pounds, no hair) and all was well, I had two simultaneous reactions: One of sheer delight and excitement, and the other, which I tried to stuff down and ignore, of denial and jealousy. I wanted to shout into the phone at Alex, "No! It can't be! Put it back! Tell Emily to put it back and forget this whole thing ever happened." I kept these impossible thoughts to myself. Once I digested the news, it occurred to me that I hadn't heard from Emily myself.
I just assumed Emily would call me a day or two after the birth to tell me all about it, the way she did with everything else. She didn't. When I spoke with her mom, she told me Emily wanted to talk but was too exhausted and in too much pain. I know that childbirth is unbelievably painful, but then it's over, right? Don't some women go back to work practically the next day? I was getting impatient. When I did talk to Emily a week later, I heard all the gory details, the bleeding, the lingering pain, the lack of sleep. I had no idea until then that it took six weeks for the body to recover. Then there's the breast feeding -- every two hours! -- and that lasts for months, a year, who knows. My romantic notions of motherhood were shattered.
I finally met little Eva five weeks later. I expected that seeing her for the first time would melt my heart, bring out any inherent mothering instinct I'm supposed to have and make me desperately want a baby myself. When I caught my first glimpse of Emily's tiny baby curled up on her daddy's chest, both of them sleeping, it did melt my heart, completely. But I didn't feel like I wanted, or needed to have a baby too. Instead it had just the opposite effect. The physical, emotional, and financial realities of it all overwhelmed me. You have to give your life over to your child. I know I'm not ready for that kind of commitment anytime soon.
The next time I saw Emily and Eva was in October, when I was home for our 10-year high school reunion. The moment I saw Eva, now with puffy cheeks and wide brown eyes, I just had to hug her and kiss her and talk baby talk. But seeing Emily standing there holding that baby, I still couldn't help but think, "Is this real? Nah, this must be someone else's kid." Emily told me she often feels that way herself when she walks in front of a mirror with Eva.
We went to the reunion, leaving Eva with her grandparents. Emily and Alex took a pager with them, and sure enough, two hours into the reunion, the pager beeped: Eva wouldn't stop crying. She needed her mother. I can't imagine being in that position myself. Talk about responsibility! I sometimes feel limited because I have a cat, for Pete's sake. I saw firsthand that there's no getting away from motherhood, not even for a couple of hours. And Emily doesn't want to. She's entirely committed to Eva; she is needed by a tiny creature who is completely dependent on her, while I am still independent. She's a mother; I am not. We still talk and share, but now we are interrupted by Eva's cries. When I tell Emily about graduate school or my travels, I'm talking about experiences she'll never get to have on her own.
Maybe I never want to have a kid. Maybe I just want to be free to travel around the world on a whim, or spend eight hours a day staring out the window. Even though I feel ambivalent about my own desire to be a mother, I'm mostly just thrilled that my friend has brought this kid into the world, this happy, much-loved baby, who is adorable beyond belief. To all those other babies stuck on the refrigerator door, I'm a face they see maybe once or twice a year -- Cousin Michelle, Mommy's-Friend-From-School Michelle. But to Eva, I'm much more: I have the honorary title of Aunt Michelle. Her photo is up on the fridge too -- Eva, with a tuft of brown hair and a one-tooth grin, sitting in a high chair, the tray covered with spaghetti. When people ask me who she belongs to, I tell them, "That one's mine."