I didn’t think about the date when our friends Juliette and Arthur called to see if we wanted to get together. We met them in Montmartre last Sunday, a week from Mother’s Day, to stroll around and have a drink.
For most of the six years I’ve known her, Juliette wanted a baby. Desperately. When she and Arthur realized they had fertility problems, she did everything possible to be able to conceive. While I admired and respected her determination and her idolatry of the idea of motherhood, I felt a little worried about a girl in her early twenties getting shot with massive amounts of hormones. In the end, though, it paid off; about a year ago, Juliette gave birth to a daughter, Marie.
When we’d visited them for the first time after that, Juliette seemed different. Not the deliriously happy, baby-crazy mother we’d expected, but cynical, detached, and flat-out annoyed at Marie. She openly criticized the little girl for things like being a little hairy, or crying a lot. Though Marie was only about two months old at the time, the boyfriend and I exchanged worried looks; everyone says babies are impressionable, and even if they don’t understand language, of course they can pick up on intonation.
That afternoon, we learned that Juliette, who’d had issues with depression before getting pregnant, had plunged so deeply into it during the last month of her anti-depressant-free pregnancy, that she’d almost been institutionalized. Unsurprisingly, she was now suffering from post-partum depression, which explained a lot of her attitude towards little Marie.
Though they live near Paris, and though we like them a lot, conflicting schedules, vacations, and other commitments mean we usually only see Juliette and Arthur a few times a year. Apart from their wedding last August, where we had minimal contact with them, and even less with Marie, the next time we got together was early November, for our belated Halloween party. They brought an adorably dressed-up Marie with them. She was such a happy kid, and seemed so at ease with everyone at the party, despite the fact that a lot of them were wearing masks and strange make-up. Almost every picture I took that night includes someone holding Marie in their arms, their smile echoed by the baby’s. At the party, Juliette had told us she was still suffering post-partum depression, but she did seem a little calmer. Arthur, meanwhile, seemed like such a happy, devoted dad. Things looked promising.
A few months later, we were at their house for New Year’s Eve. Arthur was frustrated and flustered, and Juliette was frustrated, flustered, and bitter. The two were juggling an inexplicably formal sit-down dinner that none of us guests had requested, and a baby who didn’t want to go to sleep after seeing this crowd of people. When they put her into her bedroom, Marie wailed. The living room was right outside her door; she could hear us all laughing and talking. At the time, I took this as a reminder that having kids isn’t easy.
But this past Sunday afternoon, I came to a new and troubling realization.
From the start of our time together, Juliette was now, even a year after the birth, still complaining about Marie. She said she was a wild kid who often threw temper tantrums and wreaked havoc in the house. “She insists on climbing onto our bed,” Juliette told me at one point, “and I try to take her off, because I don’t want her to fall, and then she just won’t stop crying.”
“Why don’t you just lock your bedroom door?” I asked, a little surprised.
”Well, she should be allowed to wander around,” Juliette answered.
As the afternoon went on, I began to wonder about Marie’s life with her parents. She goes to daycare while they’re at work, but no one mentioned weekend trips to the park or the public indoor swimming pool or the like. Instead, I heard about weekend strolls around Paris. Throughout our current stroll, Marie was kept in her carriage. This was logical, though: the steep, cobbled streets of Montmartre aren’t exactly the easiest thing for a newly-walking toddler to get around on.
We came to a café and sat down. Our friends are moving to the south of France at the beginning of July, and we’re sad to see them go. But Juliette gave us something else to take in: she’d decided to go back to school to get a degree in something she’d long wanted to do. The only catch was, the school is far enough away that she'll have to rent a small studio apartment to stay in during the week, and come home on weekends. “It’s only four months,” she told me with a shrug, “and I figure that can’t matter so much to Marie at her age.” I flinched a little, because I want Juliette to realize her dream, but at the same time, I do think those four months without her mom around a lot will have some effect on Marie.
“Can you imagine,” Juliette went on, “I’ll be a student again! Isn’t student life great?!”
Arthur said nothing, which is usually how he deals with Juliette in public. Meanwhile, Marie got fussy in her carriage. “She’s always crying,” Juliette told me again.
“Why don’t you let her out of the carriage for a while?" I suggested. "I’ll take a walk with her to that shop across the street.”
I took Marie by the hand and we carefully went to look at the brightly-colored jewelry for a while. I’ve been with bad kids before. When she was little, my sister was a terror. A few years ago, I babysat a kid I’m convinced was one of the worst-behaved in Paris. But Marie didn’t seem to have their stubbornness. When I told her it was time to go back to our table, she happily turned and took my hand again.
“I can’t believe she’s being so good today. You should see how she misbehaves at home,” Juliette told me at one point. I can’t say I’m a fly on the wall, and I can’t say I don’t know that kids can have a double nature. For all that my sister was a troublemaker around my parents, it’s true that, with certain strangers and family friends, she appeared to be this cute, wide-eyed, fun child, and that’s all. But doubt started to creep into me, even so. I realized how weird the afternoon was. There we were, walking around a beautiful neighborhood with a young kid, but not really stopping and doing anything kid-oriented. The weather was nice; why hadn’t our friends said we’d have a drink and then go to a park for a while? Goodness knows there are a lot of those in Paris. Instead, we’d spent the afternoon just as we would have before they’d had a child. And while I know any parent needs to get away now and then, when your kids are present, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Who does that?”
A few hours later, we headed down the hill towards Juliette and Arthur’s car. Arthur pushed Marie’s carriage, as he’d done for most of the day, and chatted with the boyfriend. Juliette and I walked along a few feet behind them.
“So,” she asked me, “when are you going to have a baby?”
It’s a question I get asked so often that it’s become blasé. But this time, I wanted to laugh.
And yet, I kept telling myself, maybe it was all a matter of presentation. For all that she criticized and moped about Marie, Juliette really did love her.
Maybe she’d just had her too early. It’s hard for me to make that judgment because I’m the opposite kind of person: I think about things so much that sometimes I end up wallowing in worry instead of taking action. When it comes to having children, I want desperately to get it right. I know enough moms to know that I will never be – or even think I am – a perfect parent, but some part of me hopes to be able to do the best I possibly can. I think about my own mom. I know she fiercely loves me, my sister, and my brother. But she never forgets to remind me that having children is a burden. She often says, in a dread-filled voice, “You’re not pregnant, are you?”. I think about my father, who loves his biological and adopted children, yet who never fails to tell me how he can’t wait till everyone’s out of the house and he and my stepmom can be free. I think of my stepmom, one of the most maternal people I know, and how she stresses herself so much about making everyone happy that's she's actually had to go to the emergency room before. I don’t have a parenting role model, I realize. I’m not saying that a parent will never be stressed or frustrated or exhausted. But I’ve never met someone who just seems to take having kids as a more or less completely good thing.
I know there are people like this. The ever-calm wife of one of my boyfriend’s friends, for example (though this friend once confided in the boyfriend, “Having kids makes couplehood hard.”), or my unflappable cousin Melanie, who’s got two kids, a new house, and a full-time job (then again, she also has a mom and a sister who live extremely close to her and are ready at any time to help out).
My way of dealing with it all seems to be standing like a deer in the headlights. And yet, Monday, six days before Mother’s Day, I went to the doctor’s and faced two fears: the fear of not being a good mom, and a rather debilitating fear of needles. The nurse drew blood that would be analyzed for toxoplasmosis -- the first formal step towards planning to have kids. Even before the needle was in my arm, my phobia kicked in, full force. I lost myself to fear. I sobbed and made strange noises, I breathed so hard the nurse thought I was going to faint. The boyfriend is sort of my litmus test in terms of how much I’ve completely lost control. Though he’s witnessed me being physically ill from IBS, or having panic attacks, I’ve only seen him get truly worried about me two times. This was one of those times.
It’s now two days till Mother’s Day. My tensed muscles and the way I was unknowingly moving while the blood was being drawn, have left an ugly bruise in the crook of my left arm. The lab results have come back already: amazingly, despite the fact that I’ve been around cats most of my life and often eat raw or rare meat, I don’t have toxoplasmosis. So that will mean one more challenge to face when I’m pregnant. I’ve read that, whereas in the US, pregnant women aren’t regularly tested for this bacteria, in France it’s standard procedure to have uninfected women get blood drawn once a month, to be sure they haven’t caught it. But I worry that the stress and physical tension I go through anytime a needle is involved, should be avoided as much as possible when there's a fetus in the picture. I’m going to have to stick up for myself and insist on doing this part of my pregnancy like an American.
Last Sunday, we said goodbye to our friends. As we headed home, the boyfriend muttered, “I’m worried about Marie.” Juliette was the boyfriend’s close confidante for many years before he met me, so he doesn’t have a problem telling her what he thinks. At the café, he’d said to her suddenly, “You shouldn’t talk about your daughter the way you do. She understands a lot more than you think.”
“You’re making me feel bad,” Juliette had replied, her voice heavy with guilt. The boyfriend often says things that might not be full of social grace. Normally I make a funny remark to ease the tension. But this time, I’d stayed silent.
Five days before Mother’s Day, I emailed Juliette and Arthur some photos we’d taken from that afternoon together. I’d hesitated at first: we had dozens of pictures of Marie and Arthur, but there was only one of Juliette and her daughter. I didn’t know what they’d make of that. I decided to send them anyway.
When I see a couple like Juliette and Arthur, I can’t help but feel vindicated by my decision to wait to have children a little longer. And yet, I know it’s not worth gloating about. Parenthood is unpredictable territory. Two days before Mother’s Day, I feel like I’m standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, getting vertigo as I try to see all the way to the bottom. The only things I can make out clearly are the two questions that soar up like birds, flying in circles: When it comes to motherhood, in the words of Paul Simon, “Who’ll be my role model?” And, no matter who I look up to, no matter what maternal vision might give me hope, when the time comes, what kind of mother will I be?