I am so surprised sometimes to notice that my sister is a wife and a mother, and I am not. Somehow I always thought it would be the opposite. I thought it would be me who
would end up with a houseful of muddy boots and hollering kids, while Catherine would be living by herself, a solo act, reading alone at night in her bed. We grew up into
different adults than anyone might have foretold when we were children. It's better this way, though, I think. Against all predictions, we've each created lives that tally with us. Her solitary nature means she needs a family to keep her from loneliness; my gregarious nature means I will never have to worry about being alone, even when I am single. I'm happy that she's going back home to her family and also happy that I have another nine months of traveling ahead of me, where all I have to do is eat and read and pray and write.
I still can't say whether I will ever want children. I was so astonished to find that I did not want them at thirty; the remembrance of that surprise cautions me against placing any bets on how I will feel at forty. I can only say how I feel now--grateful to be on my own. I also know that I won't go forth and have children just in case I might regret missing it later in life; I don't think this is a strong enough motivation to bring more babies onto the earth. Though I suppose people do reproduce sometimes for that reason--for insurance against later regret. I think people have children for all manner of reasons--sometimes out of a pure desire to nurture and witness life, sometimes out of an absence of choice, sometimes in order to hold on to a partner or create an heir, sometimes without thinking about it in any particular way. Not all the reasons to have children are the same, and not all of them are necessarily unselfish. Not all the reasons not to have children are the same, either, though. Nor are all those reasons necessarily selfish.
I say this because I'm still working out that accusation, which was leveled against me many times by my husband as our marriage was collapsing--selfishness. Every time he said it, I agreed completely, accepted the guilt, bought everything in the store. My God, I hadn't even had the babies yet, and I was already neglecting them, already choosing myself over them. I was already a bad mother. These babies--these phantom babies--came up a lot in our arguments. Who would take care of the babies? Who would stay home with the babies? Who would financially support the babies? Who would feed the babies in the middle of the night? I remember saying once to my friend Susan, when my marriage was becoming intolerable, "I don't want my children growing up in a household like this." Susan said, "Why don't you leave those so-called children out of the discussion? They don't even exist yet, Liz. Why can't you just admit that you don't want to live in unhappiness anymore? That neither of you does. And it's better to realize it now, by the way, than in the delivery room when you're at five centimeters."
I remember going to a party in New York around that time. A couple, a pair of successful artists, had just had a baby, and the mother was celebrating a gallery opening of her new paintings. I remember watching this woman, the new mother, my friend, the artist, as she tried to be hostess to this party (which was in her loft) at the same time as taking care of her infant and trying to discuss her work professionally. I never saw somebody look so sleep-deprived in my life. I can never forget the image of her standing in her kitchen after midnight, elbows-deep in a sink full of dishes, trying to clean up after this event. Her husband (I am sorry to report it, and I fully realize this is not at all representational of every husband) was in the other room, feet literally on the coffee table, watching TV. She finally asked him if he would help clean the kitchen, and he said, "Leave it, hon--we'll clean up in the morning." The baby started crying again. My friend was leaking breast milk through her cocktail dress.
Almost certainly, other people who attended this party came away with different images than I did. Any number of the other guests could have felt great envy for this beautiful woman with her healthy new baby, for her successful artistic career, for her marriage to a nice man, for her lovely apartment, for her cocktail dress. There were people at this party who would probably have traded lives with her in an instant, given the chance. This woman herself probably looks back on that evening--if she ever thinks of it at all--as one tiring but totally worth-it night in her overall satisfying life of motherhood and marriage and career. All I can say for myself, though, is that I spent that whole party trembling in panic, thinking, If you don't recognize that this is your future, Liz, then you are out of your mind. Do not let it happen.
But did I have a responsibility to have a family? Oh, Lord--responsibility. That word worked on me until I worked on it, until I looked at it carefully and broke it down into the two words that make its true definition: the ability to respond. And what I ultimately had to respond to was the reality that every speck of my being was telling me to get out of my marriage. Somewhere inside me an early-warning system was forecasting that if I kept trying to white-knuckle my way through this storm, I would end up getting cancer. And that if I brought children into the world anyway, just because I didn't want to deal with the hassle or shame of revealing some impractical facts about myself-- this would be an act of grievous irresponsibility.
In the end, though, I was most guided by something my friend Sheryl said to me that very night at that very party, when she found me hiding in the bathroom of our friend's fancy loft, shaking in fear, splashing water on my face. Sheryl didn't know then what was going on in my marriage. Nobody did. And I didn't tell her that night. All I could say
was, "I don't know what to do." I remember her taking me by the shoulders and looking me in the eye with a calm smile and saying simply, "Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth."
So that's what I tried to do.
Getting out of a marriage is rough, though, and not just for the legal/ financial complications or the massive lifestyle upheaval. (As my friend Deborah once advised me wisely: "Nobody ever died from splitting up furniture.") It's the emotional recoil that kills you, the shock of stepping off the track of a conventional lifestyle and losing all the embracing comforts that keep so many people on that track forever. To create a family with a spouse is one of the most fundamental ways a person can find continuity and meaning in American (or any) society. I rediscover this truth every time I go to a big reunion of my mother's family in Minnesota and I see how everyone is held so reassuringly in their positions over the years. First you are a child, then you are a teenager, then you are a young married person, then you are a parent, then you are retired, then you are a grandparent--at every stage you know who you are, you know what your duty is and you know where to sit at the reunion. You sit with the other children, or teenagers, or young parents, or retirees. Until at last you are sitting with the ninety-year-olds in the shade, watching over your progeny with satisfaction. Who are you? No problem--you're the person who created all this. The satisfaction of this knowledge is immediate, and moreover, it's universally recognized. How many people have I heard claim their children as the greatest accomplishment and comfort of their lives? It's the thing they can always lean on during a metaphysical crisis, or a moment of doubt about their relevancy-- If I have done nothing else in this life, then at least I have raised my children well.
But what if, either by choice or by reluctant necessity, you end up not participating in this comforting cycle of family and continuity? What if you step out? Where do you sit at the reunion? How do you mark time's passage without the fear that you've just frittered
away your time on earth without being relevant? You'll need to find another purpose, another measure by which to judge whether or not you have been a successful human being. I love children, but what if I don't have any? What kind of person does that make me?
Virginia Woolf wrote, "Across the broad continent of a woman's life falls the shadow of a sword." On one side of that sword, she said, there lies convention and tradition and
order, where "all is correct." But on the other side of that sword, if you're crazy enough to cross it and choose a life that does not follow convention, "all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course."Her argument was that the crossing of the shadow of that
sword may bring a far more interesting existence to a woman, but you can bet it will also be more perilous.
I'm lucky that at least I have my writing. This is something people can understand. Ah,
she left her marriage in order to preserve her art. That's sort of true, though not completely so. A lot of writers have families. Toni Morrison, just to name an example, didn't let the raising of her son stop her from winning a little trinket we call the Nobel Prize. But Toni Morrison made her own path, and I must make mine. The Bhagavad Gita--that ancient Indian Yogic text--says that it is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else's life with perfection. So now I have started living my own life. Imperfect and clumsy as it may look, it is resembling me now, thoroughly.
Anyway, I bring all this up only to admit that--in comparison to my sister's existence, to her home and to her good marriage and to her children--I'm looking pretty unstable these days. I don't even have an address, and that's kind of a crime against normality at this
ripe old age of thirty-four. Even at this very moment, all my belongings are stored in Catherine's home and she's given me a temporary bedroom on the top floor of her house (which we call "The Maiden Aunt's Quarters," as it includes a garret window through which I can stare out at the moors while dressed in my old wedding gown, grieving my lost youth). Catherine seems to be fine with this arrangement, and it's certainly
convenient for me, but I'm wary of the danger that if I drift about this world randomly for too long, I may someday become The Family Flake. Or it may have already happened. Last summer, my five-year-old niece had a little friend over to my sister's house to play. I asked the child when her birthday was. She told me it was January 25.
"Uh-oh!" I said. "You're an Aquarius! I've dated enough Aquarians to know that they are trouble."
Both the five-year-olds looked at me with bewilderment and a bit of fearful uncertainty. I had a sudden horrifying image of the woman I might become if I'm not careful: Crazy Aunt Liz. The divorcee in the muumuu with the dyed orange hair who doesn't eat dairy but smokes menthols, who's always just coming back from her astrology cruise or breaking up with her aroma-therapist boyfriend, who reads the Tarot cards of kindergarteners and says things like, "Bring Aunty Liz another wine cooler, baby, and I'll let you wear my mood ring. . . ."
Eventually I may have to become a more solid citizen again, I'm aware of this. But not yet . . . please. Not just yet.