When I found out I was pregnant, I didn’t really want to tell my friends. We’d talked about babies, over wine and second draft feature articles at a non-fiction writers’ group, and everyone agreed that if you’re smart, you wait until you’re thirty-five.
“There’s too much to do before then!” said one of the women, summarizing.
I was twenty-six when I got pregnant, which meant I’d jumped the gun by almost a decade.
In a lot of different parts of the country, having a baby in your mid twenties is not a big deal; according to a 2009 report from the CDC, the average age of first time mothers in Texas, Oklahoma, Utah and nine other states New Yorkers rarely visit was recently twenty-two to twenty-three. But the average age of first time moms here in New York was twenty-six, and twenty-seven in New Jersey, where I grew up. When you account for factors like advanced education, the numbers climb. The Pew Research Center notes that 71% of first time mothers over thirty-five are college educated. Since I arrived in NYC, I don’t think I’ve even met anyone who didn’t go to college.
But on my Babycenter.com Due Date Club app, people are constantly starting threads with titles like “aNy othr teen moms on here???” And they get plenty of sympathetic answers. In New York City I only know one other woman my age who has a baby. She’d gone to Harvard and worked on Wall Street, but, she once confided in me in low tones, “I always wanted to be a mom.”
I have not always wanted to be a mom. (If I’ve always wanted to be anything it’s a famous fantasy novelist – dorky, I know). More immediately, I’ve wanted to get a college scholarship and then get a high GPA and then get into an Ivy League grad school and then have a sparkling career in the big city. I’m not sure about how sparkling my big city career has been (a guess: not particularly), but I made the rest of my goals happen.
Until now, the conversations I’ve had with my friends about babies have sounded something like this:
Glamorous, perfectly made-up Mara: “My mom is a nurse. She says it’s a myth that women are less fertile in their mid-thirties.”
(We all nod sagely.)
Julie, who has just been promoted and is managing ten people and attending star-studded work parties: “I need to spend at least another five years on my career. And anyway, my boss hates pregnant women.”
Stephanie, who works at a tech start-up: “Five years, definitely. That’s the right amount of time. You have to live your own life first.”
Everyone else: “Yes!”
I had been married for a couple years when I decided to go off birth control. By then, I was in therapy to try to cope with my career-related anxiety. At my preconception appointment (this is a thing! Although I may be the only one who has ever taken advantage of it), the doctor congratulated me for being so proactive and told me to go off the pill three months before I was even thinking about trying to conceive, to get the hormones out of my system and allow my body time to readjust. So I did. And then I panicked. “I have to finish my book,” I told my therapist. “Maybe I should wait another year? Six months? I think I rushed into this. I’m not ready.”
But my body was. Two hours after that therapy session, I peed on a stick, telling myself that I was stupid for even taking a test this soon. It said “YES” in very straightforward digital letters. I was already pregnant.
I have had many visions of my professional self over the years, but none of them involved children. At six I decided I’d be a prima ballerina. At ten, when my dad took me to Carnegie Hall, I touched the stage at intermission and swore in a whisper that some day, by the time I was fifteen hopefully, I would walk across it to the gleaming grand piano. My mom, a strong-minded feminist, always told me that I could achieve anything I set my mind to. Specifically, she hinted, it’d be nice if I became a lawyer. Or a rabbi, because I had such charisma. I once briefly forgot how to pronounce my own name when introducing myself to a cute boy– but she insisted that I was born to lead. Later my dad was rooting for me to become a professor, and I did in fact get into a graduate program after my last year of college.
My friends were career oriented and driven, and for all of us, being a young woman was about proving ourselves in a competitive world. Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton were urging us forward, reminding us of our endless potential. And it was clear that having a baby before fully establishing yourself professionally was exactly the same as giving up on your potential. Having a baby was the kind of thing that my friends’ less ambitious sisters sometimes did, much to everyone’s long-distance concern.
I got married young, at twenty-four. I didn’t mean to, but I fell in love in a way that wouldn’t compromise. “How long do you think people our age should wait before getting married?” I asked my boyfriend. He thought about it. “Five years?” he said. “That’s ridiculous!” I said, surprising myself. He looked surprised, too. “Wait,” he said. “Would you actually consider getting married sooner?”I looked down. “Well,” I said, and I knew I was blushing like crazy. “Wait,” he said, “You would marry me?” “You have to ask for real!” I said. Soon, he did. About five years before sensible people our age might get married, we did it anyway.
But marriage isn’t anything like a baby. Despite what some people seemed to think about it limiting a person’s freedom, I felt more available to pursue my career goals and other interests than I ever had before. Without the distraction of dating and with the support of another income, I could push myself harder. “You should write!” my new husband said. “That’s what you want to do, so you should give it a shot.”
Tentatively, I left a job I’d never really liked, and soon I was working part time and writing every spare moment. I was nervous. I wanted this so badly. Actually, I was nervous all the time. I was also the meanest boss I’ve ever had. I berated myself for not being more productive, for not being more savvy, for taking a whole day off. I berated myself for never, ever making enough money. One night, after a piece I’d worked really hard on finally went live, I had my first panic attack. My heart was frantically trying to escape my chest. I struggled to breathe and my mind kept insisting that everything was terrible. That everything in my life was shattering and skittering under the couch when it hit the floor. It didn’t make any sense. After what had felt like an eternity trapped under a pile of rejection letters, my blog was getting big, I’d signed onto a column, and three literary agents contacted me in the same month. It was beginning to seem like I might survive as a writer, and suddenly I was terrified that I’d mess it up. The panic attack subsided, but my fear persisted.
These were angsty, whiney, first-world problems, I thought, but I couldn’t seem to shake them. So I plowed ahead, telling myself that if only I had a big break, if only I succeeded in the way that I sometimes succeeded in my dreams, where Bill Bryson was constantly telling me that he’d read my latest bestselling book and he loved it, then I would feel better. I would finally relax. By the time I turned thirty, I swore to myself, I would have arrived.
But then something happened. I began to think with an eerie, abrupt certainty that I should get pregnant. At first, I dismissed the urge as self-sabotage. You just won’t let yourself achieve your goals. But the changed part of my mind fought back. It said, There is enough time in life for all of this. Babies and writing, too. Stubbornly, it seemed to imagine that everything would somehow turn out alright, that life had a slower, more graceful arc than I pictured. The part of my mind that relentlessly encouraged me to have a baby sounded reassuringly like healthiness. It sounded like growing up. It sounded like calming down. And I was emotionally exhausted. I gave in.
In the middle of the night, during the first trimester, too sick to sleep, I found myself downloading books about infertility. I didn’t know why, but suddenly, I wanted to read everything I could get my hands on about and by people who wanted a baby more than anything and couldn’t have one. It occurred to me slowly, over weeks, unfurling like my baby’s limbs: I wanted someone to explain to me that getting pregnant meant something wonderful and important. I wasn’t sure I was allowed to feel proud of myself, and I was a little embarrassed that I did. For my whole life, I’d wanted to stand out and go farther and be more impressive than other people. But on a certain level, becoming a mother is completely ordinary, and only the infertile writers seemed to appreciate its simultaneous miraculousness.
The day before my twenty-seventh birthday, I had my non-fiction writing group over for cake and conversation. Everyone sipped red wine except for me, and they talked about their recent victories—a cover story, a new job, a book deal. A little awkwardly, I shared my ultrasound photos. “Oh my god,” they said, uncertain at the sight of my ghostly black and white baby. And then they were all talking at once- reiterating themselves frantically to each other, explaining why they weren’t ready to have babies, how they hadn’t accomplished nearly enough yet, despite all of their accomplishments, how they just weren’t old enough.
“I think I’m old enough,” I said, interrupting.
It got very quiet. Finally Stephanie said, “But how do you know?”
“I don’t, really,” I said. “I just don’t want to wait.”
To my surprise, she said that sometimes she wishes she could have a baby now, too, but she isn’t married and wants to get married first. Julie added, “Don’t get me wrong, I definitely want to have kids. Someday.”
“I don’t, ever,” said Mara, and she looked uncharacteristically nervous. “You’ll stay friends with me, though, after this, right?”
I eagerly promised that I would, startled and moved by the reversal of my expectations: I had thought that she would be the one who might leave me, after, when I had been rendered uncool and poopy and distracted by motherhood.
“Can I touch your belly?” someone asked. And suddenly, everyone’s hands were on me, and I felt like the sun in one of those Styrofoam models of the solar system, with my friends orbiting my roundness. Their hands were shy but supportive, and I felt important and relieved. Rebelliously, I was impressed with myself.
Read the rest of Kate’s story in her new memoir, Growing Eden, available here.
This essay originally appeared on Slate.