Hi. My name is Kim. You don’t know me, but you probably know someone like me. Smart girls are nearly a dime a dozen, aren’t they? As a child, I moved myself and my books to a backyard tent to read in peace. Imagine Hermione Granger, if Hermione had been a 16-year-old high school senior who considered Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov a role model.
Perhaps inevitably I am now finishing the last few chapters of a doctoral dissertation that focuses on 19th-century British literature. Academics don’t experience meteoric rises to success, but I am on the verge of achieving a plethora of career goals. I am at the life stage where in but a very little while I’ll see my hard work pay off, and many of my professional ambitions will be satisfied.
Also, I really want babies.
Some would call this baby fever, but since my fiance jokes that I nearly foam at the mouth over the idea, I’ve gotten into the habit of calling it baby rabies. It’s a disease with which you’re either painfully familiar, or it’s an illness you can’t fully comprehend. Either you pass a mother pushing a stroller, look down, and think That one should be named Charlie, or you have a few friends who decided to invest large amounts of time in fat, small humans with sub-par motor skills. Baby rabies is a definitive either-or. I’ve never seen a more divisive issue, and I lived in Ohio during the 2008 election.
I didn’t always want babies this much. I was raised in a world that told me either you want children or you want a career. By now everyone’s heard of “the Princeton Mom” who made headlines by urging college women who want children to spend three-quarters of their time searching for husbands and only one quarter working on their degree. She explained that girls, after becoming personally fulfilled through marriage and children, could “work a little harder” to “make up that lost time.” The Internet hated her. I, too, am no fan of her simplistic moralizing. What I hate far more than the Princeton Mom is the culture that says I can’t possibly pursue both career and kids at the same time.
Take my own academic profession as an example. It’s no secret that far more men than women gain tenure. That gap can be explained by the birth of children. Mary Ann Mason, a co-author of Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Towerwrites that when a woman has a baby, regardless if the woman is a graduate student, non-tenured, or tenure-track faculty, the child is often “a career killer.” It turns out that all women, no matter their career, face a maelstrom of negative effects from their decision to become a mother. Women who have children are less likely to get hired, earn less than childless women, and, in what might be the ultimate unfair twist, men see only an increase in salary when they become a father.
I grew up in a culture that says women can either be serious about babies or serious about a career. If you want children, their big heads and high-pitched giggles, you have no interest in professional victories. If you dream of becoming a specialist in your field, enjoy the skillful execution of your abilities and education, then you’re a single-mindedly ambitious woman who lacks the emotional ability to care for another person.
I no longer find this acceptable. As a child I always thought of myself as having more than one attribute. I was smart, funny, weird, caring, inquisitive, and loyal. OK, yes, and serious, too. But I refuse to be an adult who is defined solely by my serious, all-consuming commitment to either kids or career. Because, despite the loud either-or scripts I grew up surrounded by, I recently discovered I have a desire for both.
It all started at a physician’s office, oddly enough. I was lying on a table, and a radiologist was leaning over me. We were both looking at a blurry ultrasound screen that showed a dark, uneven lump in my left breast.
“We can get that biopsied,” the doctor said. I remember because I liked the way she offered the biopsy as though we were going to have one together.
Right here is where all the Princeton Mom-wannabes expect some sort of teary-eyed admission. And then I realized what had been missing in my life… Sorry to disappoint you all, but that’s not what I thought. I didn’t immediately regret all those years I had studied Shelley, Wordsworth, Brontë, and Dickens. I didn’t wish to exchange the hours I had spent encouraging students to use active voice and coordinating conjunctions with hours I could have spent struggling with PTA scheduling.
To be honest, I didn’t think at all. On the bus ride home I sat in the back and cried.
Everything turned out fine! I won’t make you wait for the punchline, though I had to. It took nearly two weeks to schedule the biopsy, a week to get results (they were ambiguous), and another week to run more tests.
But everything came back fine! I had never before had so many doctors pronounce me healthy. Radiologists, pathologists, and oncologists all concurred I was healthy.
I spent all my time waiting for the results in a sort of shock. I couldn’t comprehend my possible proximity to illness. So, when I learned I was healthy I managed to turn contemplativeness into some kind of marathon. I was a teenager again, experiencing everything with an elation tempered by amusement. I listened to a lot of music. I performed lengthy yoga sessions. I went on long strolls.
And I started noticing kids. Everywhere. They each were the oddest combination of familiar and foreign, known and unknowable, immediate and distant.
One brisk afternoon I turned a corner and saw a small ginger-haired boy staring at a white spot on the cement. “It looks like melted ice cream,” he said. “Except of course ice cream can’t melt in this weather.”
It took a few seconds for me to register he was speaking to me.
I kept walking and he kept pace. “The talent show is tomorrow. I just signed up for it today,” he said.
I asked what he wanted to perform and why. He chattered on, pretending garden rails we passed were gymnastic bars. He was all at once contented in his confidence, like a friend I made during my masters program, and considering where to leap next, like a finch inspecting his domain.
At a grocery store a dark-haired little girl sold me Girl Scout Cookies. She explained the difference between a pretty good and a really good cookie. “They’re all great cookies,” she said, “but when I eat this one I pretend I am eating a s’more and my dad likes this other one.” She was all at once irrepressibly appreciative of beauty, like my brother, and scornful of all pleasures deemed less-than-adequate, like my gray-striped cat.
There were many more.
I had never seen children like this before. They reminded me of Keats’ lines in “Ode to a Nightingale,” when he imagines himself with the bird: he
“cannot see what flowers are at my feet, / Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, / But in embalmed darkness, guess each.”
As a human, Keats acknowledges he’ll never comprehensibly understand what it’s like to be a nightingale in its habitat. He’ll never experience things as the bird experiences them. But, incomplete knowledge can’t alter Keats’ appreciation for the bird’s allure. I’d read his lines before, but seeing, actually seeing, children made me appreciate alterity in all its undeniable delight.
This was how, quite unsuspectingly, I caught baby rabies. It wasn’t just seeing children in this new way, and it wasn’t just some sense of my biological clock ticking. It was something more. When I stopped living illness-adjacent I started needing joy. All of a sudden I felt intense cravings for life experiences—quality life experiences. I need more and now. I need new and constant. Although I had not seen them this way before, I realized that this is precisely the realm of children, and I do not want to miss that simply because I also love Keats and want to be a professor.
I need children. I must have them—their big heads, their fat arms, their toothless grins. I haven’t lived with them yet, and now I can’t imagine a life without them.
So, in case you couldn’t tell, yes, I am getting a PhD in literature. Yes, I want to do things with that, and, yes, I want babies.
I realize that this will mean having more stress on my time and having to make difficult choices about career and family. But I refuse to limit myself to an either-or scenario when there is so much gorgeous difference to appreciate and experience.