Published on June 24th, 2019 | by Ranjani Rao8
Why do people have children?
We took our seats in the air-conditioned comfort of a medical center crowded with patients. My daughter skimmed through an old magazine while combing her fingers through her waist-length hair. It was naturally black, except for the bottom half, which was colored an unnatural shade that I referred to as swimming-pool blue. Anxious about the impending MRI, I looked around the room; an old woman in a wheelchair stared listlessly at a wall, a teenage boy with his foot in a cast played a game on his phone, a young couple seemed engrossed in a heated conversation. A toddler jumped out of his stroller and stumbled over my outstretched leg, trying to make a quick getaway from his hassled and heavily pregnant mother, who apologized with a wan smile as she followed him around.
“Why do people have children?”
My daughter had a habit of asking unusual questions.
“Mommy, did you ever want to be a dog?” she once asked on the way home from preschool. She was thinking about the television show Clifford the Big Red Dog, where a kid wishes to switch places with Clifford and enjoy the carefree life of pets.
I tried to respond honestly.
“No. But I often wished I was a boy?”
“Maybe because I have two brothers and I thought it was more fun to be a boy.”
She pondered my response for a few minutes.
“But if you were a boy, you couldn’t be my mommy.”
She had unwittingly stepped on a raw nerve. There had been a time in my life when I had not been anyone’s mommy. My tryst with infertility had been the most excruciating experience of my life.
She first voiced the question about why people choose to have children when she was thirteen, during an exhausting birthday party. I had been amused by the chaos of more than a dozen kids crying, having a tantrum, or hopping about on a sugar high as their harried parents chased them around. She had been horrified. That single episode had resulted in an unexpected upside. Unlike teenagers on American TV shows who are made to care for a sack of flour (or an interactive lifelike doll) to deter them from early unplanned pregnancy, all I had to do was to take her to social gatherings that included small children.
Now, at twenty, wasn’t she old enough to understand the primordial drive to procreate that resides within many women and overtakes all rational thought for some, like me? Probably not.
More than two decades ago, I had tried to answer the same question, posed to me by the kind doctor who performed the medical tests required for my green card application, a few months after my twenty-eighth birthday. She had enquired about the blue-black bruises on my arms caused by frequent blood draws that I endured each month for my infertility treatment.
“Isn’t it enough that you have a PhD and a good job? Why are you spending your retirement money on trying to have a baby?”
In all fairness, I couldn’t expect the doctor to understand how, coming from a culture where marriage and motherhood went hand in hand and mothers were elevated to iconic status, I considered not having a child a personal failure. No amount of academic degrees or material gains could make up for such a colossal loss.
“Where I come from, having children is the retirement plan,” I had glibly replied. She just shook her head.
My daughter’s arrival had completed our family. Like most first-time parents, from the moment I touched her tiny fingers and looked into her piercing black eyes, I was flooded with cascading waves of humility, vulnerability, and awe. The simple act of walking with my child’s hand in mine brought me immense pleasure and joy. The turmoil of infertility and the trauma of treatment had been totally worth it.
When she became old enough to understand, I told her the story of my quest for motherhood. With each passing year, moments of delight alternated with terror as I sought to keep my child safe in a rapidly changing world that included radical changes to our family structure. For the first six years following her birth in California, we had been a family of three. In the next decade in India, following my divorce, we were a mother-daughter duo. And we now live in the tiny city-state of Singapore, in a blended family of four that includes my new husband and his daughter.
My reasons for wanting to get pregnant had been driven by innate biological programming and cultural expectations, but those forces had little to do with being a mother, which turned out to be the transformative experience of my life. My daughter’s presence had provided focus and meaning, and her support had helped me rebuild my life. In the process, I learnt to care not just about my child but also about the world that she would inherit.
How could I formulate all of these thoughts into a short, coherent, and convincing answer?
Before I could respond, the nurse called out my name. I followed her to the large brightly-lit room dwarfed by the enormous machine with its long tunnel. My claustrophobia kicked in. The MRI was for my hip; surely I didn’t need to be wheeled all the way in? I stretched out on the table as instructed, put on headphones, and slid deep into the tunnel.
“Get me out!” I screamed.
The technician pressed a button to retract the table.
“Are you OK?”
“No. Why do I have to go all the way inside the tunnel?” I asked, my voice shaking.
“That’s the way it’s done, Ma’am,” she replied politely and firmly.
“But it’s only for my right hip,” I countered.
“Are you claustrophobic? You should have told your doctor.” I could sense her impatience.
Without the MRI the doctor could not suggest treatment for the pain that had plagued me for two years. All MRI machines followed the same protocol that involved sliding all the way into a narrow tunnel. What now?
“Can you please call my daughter? She is in the waiting room, the Indian girl with blue hair.”
I sat up and took a few deep breaths as the technician reluctantly left the room.
“What happened?” My daughter seemed surprised and concerned as she entered.
“I need to get into the tunnel. Can you hold my hand?” I asked.
The technician fiddled with the buttons and handed me the headphones. This time, as she slid the table slowly into the narrow cave, I kept my eyes closed and my breaths long. I lifted my left arm above my head and held my daughter’s hand, reassured by the pressure of her long tapering fingers.
For the next forty-five minutes, the machine roared and grunted, the table tilted this way and that, in the midst of what felt like a construction zone, with a hundred hammers striking the machine every few seconds. But I kept my eyes closed, knowing that this torture would end soon. Occasionally I tightened my already fierce grip on her fingers. And then it was all over. The table slid back and I was out.
I stood up, a little wobbly but relieved. My daughter finally released her hand. She waited outside as I changed.
“Yes. You asked me why people have children, right? This is why. So that they have a strong, young hand to hold when needed.”
She did not reply, but as we left, I saw her pause for a brief moment outside the waiting room, which was still crowded with the old, the young, and the very young. Then she turned and took my hand in hers as we walked to the elevator.