Children, for a woman of brains and ambition, are a double – edged sword. This is the conundrum: Without children a woman’s life is not complete. There is something biological/psychological/ sociological that propels most women to bear children. A woman without children at the end of her life will probably have pangs of regret. If you are a Greek woman, then that pang of motherhood skewers your loins like a paschalino lamb on a spit. The drive to breed and have Greek babies is on overdrive in our culture. I can’t make out whether it is more nature or nurture that leaves women with that vague numbness in the womb, with that conscious or unconscious desire to have children; I suspect the pressure is coming from both sides of the proverbial debate for women from warm Mediterranean Middle Eastern cultures.
Let’s face it. Children are beautiful; they give meaning to our lives, they center us and focus us, rooting us to both the fabric of past and future. Being a mom is indeed a very fulfilling calling.
But, what about that part of mommy that needs self-actualization? At the same time they bring fulfillment and rootedness, they also take away from self fulfillment. The challenge comes when a woman and a mother has to pit her career and her own sense of discovery against the needs of her child(ren). For women who are socialized to gain their identity through motherhood first and foremost, the choice although difficult is a no-brainier. She chooses the child over self all the time. But this is also the root of her unhappiness.
I remember when I made such a painful decision on the eve of taking a job with CNN in Atlanta as part of the Africa International division. I had agreed to the job, which would entail a short-term relocation and probably lots of travel to the African subcontinent. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the kind that would open up a new career path. I had arranged for my daughter, a seven-year-old, to stay with my mother while I was on assignment. Everything had been arranged, the flight, the accommodations, the job. But on the night before I was supposed to go, Christina started having heart palpitations. She peed on herself, was overwhelmed with anxiety and pleaded desperately “Mommy please don’t leave me alone. I’m scared. Don’t let me go.” Yes, I could have ignored it as a child’s attempt at emotional blackmail. Except that it struck a chord somewhere deeper that clarified what really was at stake. I was the only parent she had; her father had been out of the picture since infancy. My going would register to her as abandonment. It would send the signal not so subtly that between her and my career, my career came first. That would be devastating to her so young and vulnerable.
The next morning with that sinking feeling in the deepest pit of my stomach the place that registers my emotional Richter scale, I did not board that flight to Atlanta. I closed the door to an opportunity that would have changed the course of my life and perhaps made me happier. I have regretted making that choice. On looking back at that point in my life, it was the tipping point that spiraled me into a deep chasm of depression. That was the deepest, ugliest depression of my existence. It nearly killed me. I lost my will to live, my will to fight, I never finished my degree in journalism, I lost my job. I have been passing happy, if not miserable, ever since.
Perhaps if I had made a different choice, the choice to put my own needs and career dreams first, the type of choice Cheryl Sandberg prompts women to take by Leaning In, I might have been happier. Perhaps I would have given my daughter the message that “Hey you are not defined by your role as a mother, even a single mother. You have the right to your destiny and to pursue your happiness. Become an independent woman without being shackled to children like boring housewives are.”
In any case the choice is a double edged sword. I wouldn’t have won no matter what. Had I gone, for sure the pangs of maternal guilt would be skewering me to this day. Perhaps my daughter would have wound up alright in the end, resilient and strong.
But now, I am left with the emotional baggage that being a “good mother” brings. I am shackled to this idea of motherhood that keeps me from being able to live my life on my own terms. The sickly sting of sacrifice. I cannot push the metal to the pedal no matter how much I try when I feel psychologically responsible for the package in the child seat. I cannot take the risks my childless counterparts can. I cannot fly to the four winds like the journalists. I carry the child on my back and in my psyche. It chains me for better or for worse to the earth.
I am still soul searching. But after decades of putting my needs second to the well-being of children, the fact of the matter is that children create a sense of identity and also detract from it. They are the reason for both your success and your failure. You can’t be happy with them or without them. Like the final scene of Aliens, Sigourney Weaver has to jump into the open incinerator sacrificing herself knowing that she bears the alien queen in her body. Not that children are malicious extraterrestrials (although some have made the case), but as a woman with ambitions and a brain you wind up sacrificing your whole being to sustain an alien life form. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.