I got pregnant just six months after I was married. While most moms-to-be gush with joy when they learn they’re going to have a child, I instead tried to hush the guttural scream in my head. I remember my husband beaming brighter than the blue positive sign blaring up at us from the pregnancy test I’d just taken, but I was mortified.
This was not the plan ― at least not my plan.
Numbed with dread, I shifted into autopilot and made an appointment with my OB-GYN. Women brimming with maternal warmth filled the office’s lobby. This only made me more anxious. I didn’t understand how this could happen when I’d diligently taken my birth control pills.
Nothing against kids or the people who had or wanted them, but I didn’t. Ever. Even as a kid, I didn’t like kids ― not even Cabbage Patch Kids. The idea of being responsible for someone else ― and possibly ruining their life ― was terrifying to me.
As I sat there in the waiting room, I hoped with all of my heart that there had been some mistake. I had taken a drugstore pregnancy test ― surely those can’t be trusted, right?
“Congratulations!” The nurse squealed after the results of my test had returned. Her smile quickly fractured into a frown when she noticed my lack of enthusiasm. “Or not,” she mumbled. I felt bad for not wanting what everyone else seemed to naturally want.
Not two weeks later, I awoke with what felt like fire burning down my leg and I realized I was lying in a pool of blood. We rushed to the hospital and discovered my life was in danger. It turned out I had an ectopic pregnancy, which is when overeager sperm races straight past the uterus and up the fallopian tube to fertilize an egg that’s still descending. I learned that my fallopian tube was just minutes from rupturing, so emergency surgery was performed.
The fetus did not survive. I couldn’t believe what had just happened, and I took it as a sign that I was right about not being cut out to be someone’s mom. In fact, when the doctor explained that because I now had only half an ovary and one badly damaged fallopian tube, the likelihood of me ever getting pregnant again was, in his words, “nil to none,” I was relieved.
Less than a month later, I got pregnant again. Except this time, it was different. I was different.
I felt that if this baby-to-be had still found a home inside of me even after everything I’d been through, then maybe motherhood knocked twice for a reason. But me? A mom? I was too jagged, too broken, too cold. Still, I promised her then and there that I would do whatever I could to be the best version of myself for her (don’t ask me how I knew she would end up being a girl ― I just knew). And, yes, I was still scared out of my mind, but this time I didn’t feel so alone. The way I saw it now, I had her and we were doing this together.
On the way home from the doctor, I popped into a children’s bookstore and bought a few books. That night I began to read to the baby growing inside of me, and I read to her every night thereafter. I felt silly at first, reading to someone I’d never met. I wondered if the sound of my voice soothed her or if she just preferred that I shut up. As time went on, I was no longer reading to what I would have referred to as a parasitic bean just months earlier. Now I was talking to my child-to-be, Annalisa.
I know most parents say this, but my daughter stole my heart the day she was born. Just like in “The Wizard of Oz,” my world went from black and white to full-blown color the instant she appeared.
That being said, having a child is the most daunting thing I have ever done. I’m the girl who’s known as the serial houseplant killer. I worried that if I couldn’t keep a plant alive for longer than a month, how was I going to take care of a baby? To make matters more complicated, unlike plants, newborns are fleshy blobs of Jell-O that move. Simply learning to hold her was a master class for me. But eventually, it all fell into place. And as Annalisa learned to walk and talk, I realized being a parent means being a life guide to a tiny human desperately trying to figure out how to navigate this world on their own. My job is to point out the shortcuts and pitfalls so her journey can, hopefully, be smoother than mine. And, while I acted as her guardian and her guide, she taught me the power of giving a little to get a lot.
I soon learned that newborns are a struggle, but life with a toddler is like living the seventh circle of hell. At 18 months, we began potty training her and it was a full-on battle of wills ― her against me. I started off offering her encouraging support by patiently coaxing her to do her thing, but she refused. I quickly crumbled and tried bribing her, making idle threats and, when none of that worked, groveling. It wasn’t until I surrendered and said, “I give up,” that she flashed a smile so contagious it was creepy. Then, with her favorite book tucked under her little arm, she marched right into the bathroom and used the potty for the first time like a big girl. I may have lost that battle, but we both definitely won the war by simply allowing her to do it her way.
From there, I discovered what made “the terrible twos” so terrible: a child’s need to practice their talking ... a lot. Once she started, she never stopped. Worse still was the fact that her talking was mostly made up of endless awkward questions. Ignoring her only made her raise her volume because she assumed I just couldn’t hear her. What her constant quizzing revealed to me was that her mind wasn’t some vessel to be merely filled, but rather a fire that needed to be kindled. So I decided I would always be honest with her. Even when she asked me about Santa Claus, I told her the truth. Opening up in general has never been easy for me ― in the past, I found that my secrets kept me safe ― but in answering her questions, I was not only building an unshakable bond with my daughter, I realized I was interacting more genuinely with everyone, me included.
Annalisa also taught me to be more self-aware, because kids pick up on everything even when we think they’re not paying attention. It was cute to see her toddling off in my shoes or listening to her parrot my phrases as if they were her own, but then I realized I was catching my first glimpses of her moving toward becoming her own person. The pressure kids feel to grow up quickly ― especially these days ― is real. As my role as her mother continued to grow, I became more mindful about everything in my life, which in turn made me less reactive. That’s what an adult is: someone who thinks before acting, considers others’ feelings and discovers it is childish to pull power from our ego because true power comes from the heart. There were moments when I still could not believe that I was a mother, that I was in charge of keeping this little creature fed and safe and curious about the world. But I was grateful for all that I was learning and for who I was becoming because of it.
Throughout my journey as a mother, I’ve learned to cherish the value of “just one more.” There was a time when everything I experienced with my daughter was her asking for just one more: one more story, one more push on the swing, just one more hug. As Annalisa grew and became an adult, the “just one mores” morphed into “no more.” I am proud of the amazing woman she’s become, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t give anything for just one more “one more.”
And that brings me to my greatest lesson of all: letting go. Nothing brings me greater joy than to see the little girl who used to brighten my days with her tiny love notes now off to start her own journey. It’s bittersweet to have someone so deeply embedded in your heart move on, but knowing I gave her the very best ― albeit imperfect ― version of me makes the tiny voice in my head sigh.
I never thought I’d have a kid. I never wanted to. But I am so happy that I did. Of course, I would never encourage anyone else to do the same if they didn’t want one. Having a child is a very personal choice, and just because it worked out for me doesn’t mean that it’ll work out for others or that there will be something missing from their life if they don’t. I have plenty of friends who don’t have or want kids, and they are perfectly fulfilled and happy without them.
Kids don’t magically make life better. On the contrary, they not only complicate it, but they also require deep and often difficult sacrifices. And unfortunately, there are too many stories of people who had children and were not ready for it or were ill-equipped emotionally or financially or in other ways, and tragic outcomes can come out of that. Just because you can have a child doesn’t mean you should or that you will be a good parent.
In the end, my story is just one story out of millions of stories. This is my personal journey, and it has been nothing short of life-changing. It changed how I see the world and how I see myself. It taught me to love in ways I didn’t know I was capable of. And though my path to motherhood wasn’t a typical one, it ended up being the perfect one for me and, I hope, my daughter. Annalisa may have outgrown my lap, but she’ll never outgrow my heart.
Susanna Maddrigal, the author of “A Cat’s Tale,” is a former advice columnist for “Ask Susa” and the CEO of MADD Media.