Letters of Intent: Page 2

Take my mom, for example. She was a feminist. I grew up with Ms. in the house and a “Sugar and Spice, Will it Suffice?” sticker questioning me and my two sisters from the bumper of her Oldsmobile. At age forty-five she went back to school unapologetically for her master’s and made it clear that she was doing something just for her, not us. Despite her attention to herself, she still felt drained. Her book group would read The Women’s Room, and she’d come home mad as hell, inspired to change the household politics again. When I was about fourteen, she informed us that there was no God-given reason that she was supposed to be cooking dinner for us every night, she didn’t particularly like cooking, and so she was retiring. (We adjusted, of course. Dad began making chili and homemade cheesecakes to unwind after a day at the office, and one of my two sisters even became a chef.) Like nearly everything during my zits and Guess jeans age, her protests merely added to my constant state of horror and embarrassment. I now realize, proudly, that she was successfully negotiating motherhood and personhood — and I anticipate parenting with the full knowledge that my child will be superhumiliated by me.

And what about women who aren’t just juggling the kids’ needs and selfhood but are fighting for an abstract ideal like freedom? For instance, I went to a Courage in Journalism Awards luncheon a few months ago. The honorees were all journalists from war-torn countries, women whose attempts to tell the truth required bravery and sacrifice. They were also, all of them, mothers. One woman from Zambia, Lucy Sichone, was forced into hiding after she covered a controversial story about the government. Running for her life with a baby strapped to her chest, her three older kids hidden with relatives, she still filed stories. When she received her award, she dedicated it to her children because “They had no say in their mother’s decision to become a journalist,” and they might even lose her because of her calling. I left the luncheon inspired by her utter bravery but also appalled by how selfish she seemed. She had children and didn’t put them, or their right to have a mother, ahead of her ideals.

Of course having the opportunity, as well as the character, to be heroic on the scale of Lucy Sichone is rare. It’s the more domesticated details of procreating, the little things that still manage to take up your whole day, that are the most worrisome for me. I remember being a child and how crucial it was to me to feel like I came first to my mother. She remembers not having a moment’s peace for ten years, not even in the bathroom, because one of us three girls was demanding her attention. (I recall, with a chill, a day when Mom came home to find my sister and me slack-jawed in front of the TV, the kitchen in ruins from a “snack” we had made after school. She surveyed the mess and us and said in a flat voice, “It’s the little things that will make me leave, you know.”) How did you cope with being imprisoned in your home with a couple of pint-sized overlords claiming food, comfort, and cleaning?

It’s been nearly five years since I left college. The night life is just beginning to lose its luster, and I feel like I’m in some new kind of puberty: fascinated and frightened by motherhood the way I once was about, you know, sex.

Are you there, Judy? It’s me, Jennifer. Bring on the wisdom.


Jennifer Baumgardner

Judy Responds

Yes, I’m here, Jennifer! And how I wish I had that wisdom to bring to you. But all I have is my own limited experience. There aren’t any easy answers. You already know that. And there certainly aren’t any right answers. I change my mind regularly about how I’d do it if I had it to do over again.

But to have children or not to have children has never been an issue for me. Like you, I always dreamed of being a mother. And I’ve never regretted having kids. Even at our most painful moments, and there have been many, no voice has gone off in my head saying, ‘Don’t you wish you’d never had them?” Or; “How easy your life would be without them.” Instead, I ask myself, when is the right time to have kids? Young, the way I did it, before I knew anything, before I knew myself? Or later, the way so many of your generation are doing it?

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