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What I'm Giving | December 5, 2013 1 comment
In this special series, we asked writers we admire to share a book they're giving to their friends and family this holiday season. Check back daily... Continue »
A Baby Changes Everythingby Lori Leibovich
Let me explain.
Three years ago, during the week leading up to Mother's Day, I edited a series of essays for Salon.com, where I work as the editor of the Life section, called to "To Breed or Not to Breed." In these essays, Salon staffers wrestled with this most basic and thorny human question and came up with the answer that was best for them. Michelle Goldberg, in her late twenties and happily married, wrote about her nonexistent biological clock but her concern that she might one day regret not having children. Cary Tennis, Salon's advice columnist, wrote about being more certain that he wanted to write a novel than he was about being a dad, which he has not done. Exhausted new mother Amy Reiter swore that she would never become a cloying parental evangelist, one of those people who tells every childless person within earshot that they should procreate pronto; the job, she decided, was just too hard to recommend. And Amy Benfer explained why, at age sixteen, she decided to keep the baby that most people thought she should give up for adoption.
There's nothing more satisfying for writers and editors than knowing that your work has touched a nerve. Because Salon is published online, and our readers can email us easily, we immediately know what they are thinking. Still, we were stunned and a bit overwhelmed when we received hundreds and hundreds of emails from readers, many of them extremely personal, wanting to share their often fraught decisions about whether or not to procreate. Letters arrived from twenty- and thirty-somethings who felt ambivalent about having children, but were afraid to share their views with their families and friends. Others were from mothers and fathers who confided that parenthood was way more difficult than they had ever imagined, and who wished they had considered the question more seriously. Still others wrote to tell us that nothing could have prepared them for the indescribable joy their children brought to their lives and that all the sacrifices physical, financial, emotional were worth it.
What was clear to us as we sifted through the mountains of mail was that we were hearing from the first generation for whom parenting was a choice, not a given. Gays and lesbians wrote in to say that growing up they didn't imagine that they would have the opportunity to have children, but now, with options to adopt, use a surrogate, or find a sperm donor, the door to parenthood was wide open. Couples who struggled with infertility wrote about the great lengths they took to conceive a child, something that would not have been technologically possible a few decades ago. And young women said that because of their commitment to their careers, they were choosing not to mother. It was clear we were in the midst of a historic moment and we wanted to document it. But how? We decided to turn the series into a book.
I contacted writers whose work I admired, and gave them one instruction: Be brutally honest. Peel back the layers and look at why you did or did not have kids. I called Anne Lamott, whose memoir , Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, is a life preserver for so many new mothers, and asked her to write about why she decided to have a child on her own. I contacted Amy Richards, who wrote a short piece for the New York Times Magazine about deciding to abort two fetuses when she found out she was pregnant with triplets, and asked her to expand on her story. I got in touch with novelist Maud Casey, who suffers from bipolar disorder, and asked her to write about how her illness is affecting her decisions about having children. I was busy talking on the phone and making assignments, very excited about this new professional challenge, when I found out I was pregnant.
Was I happy? Yes. But the timing presented a problem. My new schedule of vomiting and napping wasn't conducive to editing. Some of the first people to hear my big news were the writers in this collection because I had to explain why I was suddenly so flaky and hard to reach. But as the nausea finally passed, and the stories began to file, I began to think that this life imitating art thing was going to make the process of putting together the book more interesting. The pregnancy and later the boy it spawned made me a more discerning editor, both because I could relate to the struggles and elation of the parents, and I could also, during the bleak first months of my son's infancy, truly understand why a great many people would not want to sign up for this experience.
Before my son was born, Rick Moody's reference in his essay to children as "Bloodthirsty Dwarves," seemed a bit... harsh. But it is a phrase that has popped into my mind repeatedly it seemed especially relevant when I was nursing as I was tending to my son's immediate and seemingly endless needs. I was holed up in my house on maternity leave when I first read Laurie Abraham's frank account of how drinking is often the perfect salve for motherhood, though I didn't realize at the time that wine would soon become such a critical part of my maternal experience as well. When Neal Pollack wrote about his son's biting issues, I felt sympathy. Now I email him for advice about my son's chomping habits.
The result of all this was this book. I won't go back to that cliché of it being my "other" baby, really I won't. Really