When I was growing up, I thought I would get married by 27, because that’s when I would find the perfect guy, settle in my dream job and ace it. I would have a baby at 30. And would swing back into my career by 35.
30 came and went, and I neither had the dream job nor the man. The baby of course had flown off the radar. My mother treated me like a time-bomb with every oncoming birthday. Soon, relatives stopped asking me when I would settle down. Meanwhile, the rest of my friends were busy tying the knot and popping babies. I was busy playing the cool aunt and buying books that no one else would buy for them.
One day, I was 35. And I was told that I had totally missed the man and baby bus.
In the next five years, dream job, man and baby happened. I didn’t plan it this way. But I think the fact that I had stopped thinking about them had something to do with it.
Was I ready? Hell no. Being a cat lady, playing aunt all those years, buying baby clothes, books and toys, playing peekaboo was hardly a qualification. I had no idea how one tiny person can change your life so irreversibly, enough for you to never be able to find factory settings again. I still go to bed wondering if I could, just for one day, wake up single. And the strange part is, I have a good kid, and he is really fun and kind and sensitive and bright and I had no idea of the person I could be without him around. Does that mean I was ready for a child? No.
My friend A’s kid and mine share the same name. Hers is 16, mine is 6. She and I are the same age. Hmm, maybe it’s a good thing to have kids early, I thought. You can just get on with the rest of your life soon. She has entered the second phase in her career, and is pursuing her new entrepreneurial role with renewed vigor. We met last year. And then she told me about the black hole her life had been for the better part of the last 20 years. And then I felt bad that I was backpacking the countryside and switching boyfriends when she was tending to two kids, trying to get a new degree to stay relevant and managing a home.
When someone tells you what is the right time to have a baby, they are actually talking body time. Which is also fairly subjective, because your body is not readier just because it is younger neither is it less able because it is older. I never thought I would be able to dissect it this way, but there are three things in close competition in this whole phenomenon of baby-readiness: the biological clock, the career clock and the emotional clock. For the purpose of convenience, let me divide this into three time zones when babies are usually had: the 20s, the 30s, the 40s. The inbetweeners get the worst deal. And ironically, this is the time when most women are choosing to have kids- the early thirties.
The flip side to this is: women who have their kids in their twenties actually have a shot at getting their life back in their forties. On the contrary, women who have kids late have been there, done that, hopefully ticked off some items on their bucket list by the time the child comes along.
But no matter how much you factor in and how ready you are with a plan C, D and Z, a baby is one thing that will most certainly throw you off the loop and leave you wondering: is this what I bargained for? And worse, you will use your situation to feel that sense of entitlement because others did it to you and you will never forgive them.
Motherhood is the most irreversible thing that can ever happen to you. And yet it is the one thing that is the least thought through. Most women end up having babies either when it’s too early for them to actually evaluate what’s happening, or too late for them to have the luxury of thinking it through.
I can’t really tell you when you are ready for motherhood but I can take a good guess at when you are not:
- You are not ready because you have a stable job you love: The job will be the most difficult thing to navigate post baby, because it will always demand a rational side of you that will often run in short supply. Plus there will be more able, less baggage workers dying to take your place when you are busy planning night feeds.
- You are not ready because you have a willing partner: Once the sperm contribution has been made, partners often tend to run out the door and invent meetings and difficult work projects that keep them as far away from home as possible. If this is non-negotiable, you need to have that talk before you jump into sex on ovulation days.
- You are not ready if you think having kids is fulfilling. Or noble. You are better off winning medals at sport or cracking sales targets. There is nothing fulfilling about never knowing if you are good enough.
- You are not ready if you think having a child will take your marriage to another level: On the contrary, this will be the most trying time of your marriage, but no one will tell you that because reproduction just means more companies can sell you more things for the rest of your life. And there is a lot of money to be made.
- You are not ready because the child has two sets of grandparents intact: After the initial photo-opps, most grandparents are difficult to sustain as a constant presence in the child’s life and involve careful engineering or emotional blackmail of the highest kind.
- You are not ready because all your friends have babies: There is no guarantee that their babies will be willing play-dates or holiday-worthy. Or that you still like them.
- You are not ready because you have had a cat. Cats do not ask you to read the same book 19 times.
- You are not ready because you were a really good baby sitter for your friends: There is always an exit plan for other people’s kids. None for your own.
- You are not ready because you like children: Children as playmates and amusement devices and children as things to care for 24X7X365 are very different things.
- You are not ready because you have enough money: It is never enough. Remember the black hole?
- You will never feel grown-up enough to know what to do, be a role model, give hope and direction to a small innocent child who will never tire of questions.
- You are not ready because you have a stable marriage: There is no such thing.
I find the whole process of “waiting until you’re ready” to be a ridiculous idea, because it’s based on the premise that one can actually “prepare” for parenthood. It’s a baby. It’s as unpredictable as you are.
So where is this going? My two bits: You are truly ready for a baby when you are truly ready for yourself. Because the extremes of who you are and what you can or cannot endure fully sink in post motherhood. And it is not always a happy place to visit, because you never know what you are going to find out. But if you really want to have a child, you are as ready as you will ever be.
(A version of this post previously appeared in the White Swan foundation for Mental Health website here)