Most decisions in life you can ultimately go back on. Real estate, job, marriage, hair colour; I’ve shamelessly reneged on them all. But not a baby. Once you have one of those, you’ve officially crossed over to the Other Side. You are now a parent—a transformation so mind-and-body altering that nothing in life prepares you for it. Even if you drop your newborn off at the nearest social services office with a note that reads, “Sorry for the imposition, but the woman who bore me is a well-intentioned incompetent” (and believe me, I thought about it after my son, James, now one and a half, was born), you will always be a mother. Now you know that no matter what you do, someday, someone will almost certainly end up in therapy because of you.
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Back in the old pre-kid days, my charming commitment-phobic boyfriend and I liked to play a game called “Add a Baby.” It involved just that: Take any situation, add a baby and imagine the results:
Out for dinner at your favourite local bistro? Add a baby.
The game, if you haven’t already figured it out, is designed to illustrate the obvious: Babies have a curtailing influence on freedom and certain types of pleasure. They add more stress to already stressful situations (traffic jams) and know precisely how to suck the fun out of previously enjoyable ones (a snooze on the beach? Bahaha!). But I will tell you about the game I play now. It’s called “Subtract a Baby.”
I think you can probably guess how it works.
The decision to become a mother is so irreversible that it’s impossible not to imagine the road not taken. And having thought about it at length (usually half asleep in the bath), I have decided my childless life would have been a very good one indeed. I would have travelled well into my 60s, done triathlons and acquired a pair of aggressive Bengal cats. I’d have gone through a lesbian phase and written a series of books that required me to live in some mad, exotic war-torn place for research. I would have learned how to scuba dive, play the piano and speak Swahili. I would definitely have mastered a headstand in yoga by now. I might not be quite as thoughtful or prone to crying in movies, but I’d be thinner and wittier and, of course, well rested.
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Sometimes I get lost in these fantasies, and then I’ll think, with a sudden heart clench, what if I’d not had him? How sad and lonely I’d be! I would have missed out on kissing his silky hair and watching him jump in puddles and feed a goat his mitten at the petting zoo. I’d never get to lean close and inhale his baby smell while he slept—one of the deepest pleasures I’ve ever known, better than champagne, sex and the drugs they gave me for dental surgery combined.
The truth is, if I hadn’t had James, I wouldn’t have known how amazing he is. There’s sadness in this, but also some comfort. It wouldn’t have been a loss not to have had him, exactly, but I think I would have wondered what if?—just as I do about my childless self.
What I’ve mostly realized since becoming a mother is that the logic behind “Add a Baby” and “Subtract a Baby” thinking is fundamentally flawed. Just like you can’t truly know what it’s like to have a child until you have one, once you have a child you can’t (really) imagine life without him. So it doesn’t really matter if he’s keeping you up all night or ruining what would have been a perfectly lovely lunch. You’re a mother now, and it’s irreversible. Who would have it any other way?
Leah McLaren is a Canadian writer and novelist living in London, England.
A version of this story appeared in our July 2014 issue with the headline "Subtract a baby," pg. 36.
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