In any case, when we got our seats, a few of the women from the group were seated near us, and soon another came by to talk to her friends. She had a baby with her, and I offered her my seat. We chatted a bit as I balanced on the arm rest. She was a pretty woman with a black bob sheitel, and looked young, around my age - I didn't think she was older than thirty. I asked her if the baby was her first. My jaw almost hit the ground when she said, "No it's my tenth" . . or eighth, or twelfth - I don't remember exactly, but it was some really big number. Then she asked me how many kids I had. I told her we didn't have kids yet. She looked at me and asked point blank, "Isn't your life meaningless without children?"
The question bothered me more than a tactless-question-from-a-stranger-on-a-plane should have. I had recently been told by my OB that I may not be able to get pregnant naturally, and, in my mind I was second guessing everything. Mr. CL and I had been together since I was 19. We dated for about six years before we got married and decided to start a family two years after that. Mr. CL is the practical one of the two of us and balances my head-in-the-clouds daydreaming disposition. He wanted to make sure we were done school, and had all of our ducks in a row before getting married, and certainly before we would start having children. Nevertheless, after hearing the doctor's news, and plagued a bit by my mother's stories of how she struggled to get pregnant, I questioned whether we should have waited so long. Maybe we should have gotten married sooner? Maybe I would need years of fertility treatment, but had we started trying earlier I would have had kids by now? Maybe I'd missed the boat and would not be able to ever conceive? Maybe the Aish way of life was right? I mumbled some lame answer to the woman on the plane, but her question gnawed at me the rest of the trip.
It shouldn't have. It shouldn't have for several reasons.
1) Asking about "meaningfulness" implies that the question being asked is a philosophical one, but her question was actually a psychological one. What she was really asking was how can I derive meaning or feel meaningful without children. At the time, the question stung because it hit a psychological chord, but had she asked at a different point in my life, the question would have registered as ridiculous (i.e. did she really derive her sense of meaning solely from her children?). My tacit agreement/consideration of the lady's question, stemmed from my stress around the idea of not being able to attain something that I desperately wanted, and that was also - for me- tied in with my sense of womanhood. When the doctor told me I would have trouble conceiving I felt betrayed by my body, and, a few years later, when we did struggle to conceive, that irrational feeling of betrayal reemerged.
2) We got pregnant with Mini CL right away. (Which Mr. CL attributes in part to the volume of pheromones from those ladies on the plane.) And although that doesn't change any philosophical arguments about whether or not life is more meaningful with children, psychologically it did change things for me. While pregnant, the lady's question still haunted me. (Maybe I had wasted my twenties? Maybe I would have the deep sense of fulfillment that she seemed to if I had had lots of children by now?) But, once I had had Mini CL, and the reality of all the amazing things that having a baby entails was combined with the reality of the not as amazing things (a long and excruciating labor, difficult postpartum recovery and what in retrospect I think was postpartum depression, barely functioning on little to no sleep, and not knowing when said sleep would happen, negotiating lack-of-sleep induced stress as a couple, then temper tantrums etc.) I realized that prior to having kids I had not an iota of a clue of what life was going to be like to be a as parent. Not. A. Clue. . . . . What can I say? For us, parenthood was definitely a culture shock. On that plane, drowning in self doubt, I didn't know yet whether the mother of many role would be one that I'd love because I did not know yet what it was like to be a mother. Now that I have two kids, I have a better idea.
3) Before I go on: PLEASE do not read that the wrong way. I am EXTREMELY grateful for my kids, and love being mom to both of my wonderful, and perfect, and funny, and beautiful, and all around awesome kids . . . who are geniuses, of course!! (Even when they give me a run for my money and refuse to get into the car, or sleep through the night.) But, would I be content if mother was the only title I earned? No. My fulfillment comes from my children AND from the other aspects of my life.Once I had my children, I was very grateful to have had them when I did. I am glad my husband in all his wisdom insisted I finish my degree before we get married, and now that my mat leave is coming to an end, I am ready - so ready - to go back to work, and am happy to have work (that I enjoy) to go back to. In other words, because things have turned out okay, and because I had romanticized life with children, and because I find fulfillment in my career, my hobbies, my interactions with family and friends, travel, and in other aspects of my life, the answer to all my "Maybe" questions on the plane is: no.
Especially now that I know the hard work it takes to raise children well - even at the best of times, I really am impressed by people who have so many children. Kudos to that lady for being able to find a deep sense of fulfillment in motherhood alone. Nevertheless, her life is not for me. And yes, I know she is in part a product of her environment/upbringing as I am of mine, but ultimately our lives are both meaningful to us because we deem them meaningful. And, within the contexts of our lives, we assign meaning. Also, in my opinion, a sense of meaningfulness reflects a psychological state of contentment, and - psychologists correct me if I'm wrong - most mentally healthy human beings seek contentment. And - it should go without saying - contentment is not an exclusive byproduct of having children.
The last few weeks have been hectic. In part because of Passover, and in part because Baby CL started daycare - my big little girl! (And, in my experience, transitions from one place to another are always more labor intensive than either place alone.) Starting work will probably mean I won't be able to blog as frequently, but I am going to make an effort to keep the blog alive and post as much as I can. I hope you will continue to watch this space. On that note, the combination of being imitation-frum for Passover and starting Baby CL in daycare, got me to revisit a question I had wanted to ask the lady on the plane, but didn't have the nerve. So - yay for anonymity on the internet, and that Question! will be my next post. . . .
*Dating advice from Mr. CL - he swears by this theory: If you are a man who is below average in looks - let's say between a one to five on a scale of ten, the best way to score a woman of average of above average looks -i.e. a seven to ten - is to become religious.