Even in my hazy teens and 20s, drunk on life, love, poetry, travel (and some other stuff), I knew I wanted children. Yet, like the Hollywood stars in “12 Women With Perfect Responses for Why They Don’t Have Kids“, so many fellow academics seem to opt out of parenthood, instead choosing to spend their free time pursuing the things we were trained to do in graduate school: teach a lot, publish books, write poetry, and compose tersely-written articles for scholarly journals (on truly crucial subjects like why an author chose to use the word “anarchic” instead of “chaotic” in her short story. Yeah-super important stuff.). Those colleagues who have chosen to procreate, have one token child–a rare few have two or more. I felt like a Duggar telling folks in my department that I was pregnant with baby #3 (“Don’t you already have two kids?” is a question I got a lot) and when I pull into the faculty parking lot in my Honda Odyssey, I feel all the judgmental Prius eyes staring unkindly at my spacious third row.
While I so much agree with Gloria Steinem’s notion that “Everybody with a womb doesn’t have to have a child anymore than everybody with vocal chords has to be an opera singer”, and I am thoroughly entertained by Kim Cattrall’s feeling that kids “…(are) adorable and funny and sweet, and then I have a headache”, I can’t say that I actually relate to any of these sentiments. I have always adored children, and from a very young age, have had a strong desire to be a mother. Were cultural expectations of women as mothers deeply embedded in me or was it something else? Probably a bit of both….I’m convinced that my feelings of displacement in the world of grown ups was the reason I have always gravitated toward kids–and valued their existence so much that I always knew I wanted to have a few of my own. For as long as I can remember, children have always felt like home to me—and adults scared the absolute god out of me.
Unlike children, adults expect things from people—and that sense of expectation was very distressing to me as a child. They want kids to say hi to them, to give them hugs or kisses—or worse, to perform. As a fairly talented pianist (as a little kid, anyway), I was constantly asked to “play, Stella, play!” I only complied because of the tremendous joy it brought my father to watch his little girl impress his friends by knocking out a Mozart or Beethoven piece. Nevertheless, these expectations and sense that I was being evaluated, coupled with some of my own anxiety issues, made me DREAD contact with anyone over the age of 18. I didn’t want to play the piano like a monkey for my parents’ friends or tell them about what I was writing at school, or explain my part in the school play. Yes, I was one of those kids…comfortable on a stage, but frightened by regular interaction with grown ups.
I was one of those kids many adults didn’t “get”, and who got called “shy” all the time. Many adults would even ask me idiotic questions like, “Why are you so shy?” What a great question, random adult! Let me, a bashful 6 year old, explain the intricacies of introversion to you now. I’m not sure of the answer people expected to that question, but at best they got an “I don’t know” coupled with a shrug and a welling of water in my eyes. At worst, they got was a tsunami of tears that came from a place of fear, anxiety, and the inability to articulate those feelings. Needless to say, interaction with adults was very low on my “things I want to do” list.
To make matters worse, my parents were chronic socializers. If you know any Greeks, you know that they are passionate, warm, often cooking (amazing food), frequently yelling, and always spending time with, well, other Greeks. My family was no exception. All I wanted to do was stay home, read books, tell stories to my stuffed animals, hang with my immediate family, and play with my dolls. Instead, I felt like I was constantly dragged to another random person’s home where I would have to perform or socialize. My shyness didn’t bode well for me in this kind of hyper social environment. I always felt like crying when adults asked me simple questions like “How are you?”, and in retrospect, it’s obvious I had some social anxiety issues. I remember one incident when, after having arrived to a family friend’s home, I let my whole family exit the car first—and then locked myself in the vehicle to avoid having to go in and talk to people. It took quite a bit of time and coaxing to get me out of the safety of my dad’s maroon Buick. Let me be clear: there was nothing wrong with these people–or the rest of the adults I shied away from. I just always felt awkward around pretty much everyone (I will go to therapy one day to figure it all out, I promise).
Because I couldn’t lock myself in empty cars forever, I had to find a way to survive these social situations. Instead of leaving myself in “vulnerable” situations with adults, I tried to find the youngest child around and became his or her babysitter. Not only did that help me avoid talking to people, but I always felt comfortable with kids my age or younger. I admired the ability in children to play and be silly and not judge. They were naturally happy and selfish which was great because they didn’t ask me any questions about myself or make me feel like I had to somehow “perform”. Because of the lack of expectations, I actually did like “performing” for them whether it was reading to them, telling them stories, or even, yes, playing the piano. They were a captive audience, and would never ask me why I so bashful.
Come to think of it, my introversion and social anxiety somehow led not only to my inclination toward motherhood, but also to my chosen profession. I get to read aloud and teach my students all the things I know, and then I get to home and do the same with my babies (with the benefits of being able to kiss and hug them). When I tell people I’ve met in adulthood that I was an intensely withdrawn little girl, they are stunned. I suppose I come off as fairly chatty and eager to socialize now. Still, I frequently feel awkward at large social gatherings (especially at cocktail parties. Those are the absolute worst), and when I see children in any setting, I am immediately drawn to them. Little humans helped me overcome some serious issues in my life, and for that I am eternally grateful. So why wouldn’t I want to bring some of these small folks into my own life? Especially when they give me a great excuse now to disengage with adults when I’m bored, annoyed, or stressed by a conversation? (“Jube has to poop; The baby needs to eat; Giorgie is having a tantrum–GOTTA GO!”). And so what that I can’t devote as much time to writing and reading as I would if I didn’t have babies? That’s what sabbaticals are for, right?