John Harvard's Journal
The Undergraduate: Baby Talk
About halfway through freshman year, one of my roommates made a startling confession. “You know, before we all got to school…I thought you had a baby.”
My roommates and I were draped across the futons in our common room, and as she said it, she burst out laughing. Everyone else followed, but I stayed silent.
“Wait. What?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“Well, you had that Facebook album just called ‘BABY!’ and someone left a comment on it saying, ‘I didn’t know you had a kid!’”
“Uhh. That’s my 40-year-old half-sister’s son,” I finally said. “And the commenter was my friend Anthony, who sat next to me in math class for three years. I’m pretty sure he’d have noticed if I’d had a baby.”
She held up her hands, as if accused by the law. “I know. I figured that out when you showed up to school and didn’t have a kid,” she responded, still laughing. “My brother and I just had this theory that you were a teen mom and you wrote a really moving essay about it, and that’s how you got in. It was sort of a joke, but, I mean, you are from Louisiana….” She trailed off, unsure whether she was still in friendly territory or had overstepped the line.
I laughed, because what else can you do when your freshman roommate tells you she thought you would show up to Harvard dragging a baby carriage up the stairs of your freshman dorm, saddled with a carry-on diaper bag, a suitcase full of formula, and a baby on your hip?
My laughter turned a little more genuine when I tried to picture it myself. I’m not exaggerating when I say I completely lack whatever complex mental or chemical processes comprise “maternal instinct.” When my half-sister first handed me my newborn nephew, the BABY! from my Facebook album all those years ago, I looked into his beautiful steel-blue eyes, took in the reality of his teensy button nose and his little yawning mouth, and promptly shoved him toward my father.
He looked at me, concerned. “Is something wrong?” he asked.
“No. No. I mean, no, I just didn’t know what to do with that thing.”
Four years later, not much has changed in that department. I teach civics to fifth-graders in Allston once a week, and I’m quite fond of all of them. They are witty, insightful little people who drive me insane in their own individual fashions, but who also sometimes restore my faith in humanity. At the same time, I appreciate the statutes that prevent me from making physical contact with them, if only because this has legally justified my awkward, two-pat-on-the-shoulder response to the few instances in which they’ve rushed to greet me or seek comfort from me. (This mostly happens in attempts to trump up charges of meanness against classmates.)
At school, even my friends in serious relationships think mostly like me: for most of us, having children, and even marriage, are entirely abstract ideas at this point. In conversations with my roommates, it’s about Pinterest boards full of bridesmaid dresses or arguments on DJs versus live bands. “When I get married to Justin Timberlake” is still a pretty common way that these dreams take form, whether or not a flesh-and-blood significant other is in attendance. We have no idea whom we’ll marry, or when; we just like the idea of planning a big party with an open bar that all of our friends will feel obligated to attend.
When conversations about marriage and having children turn more serious, we talk of the unrealistic expectations set up for us by the media. We share blog posts about how race, class, and womanhood are represented in TV shows from Girls to Scandal. We’ve read books like Lean In, and if we haven’t, we know how to talk as if we have. We ultimately agree that we want to be established in our careers before we can really consider starting a family. But we also know how to critique Sheryl Sandberg’s book: that her claims about how women should assert themselves in the home and in the workplace are mostly applicable to a narrow subset of the population—women with lots of education, lots of money, and lots of privilege.
It was hard for me the first time I realized that, when I graduate from Harvard, I will certainly fall into two of these categories, even if I’m never rich. I couldn’t—and still can’t—help feeling sometimes like I’m betraying a part of myself, no matter how much I know that I sent off my application to Harvard with every hope of receiving a letter in the mail that would set me free from spending the rest of my life in Covington, Louisiana.
At home, well, things are not like they are here. My friends and I made a list, the week of high-school commencement, of the 10 mothers who would graduate with us the next day. As if some great water had broken, baby and wedding announcements have continued pouring into my Facebook news feed since then. But now, even some of us who went to college are getting engaged and—or—pregnant. The week of high-school commencement, my friends and I made a list of the 10 mothers who would graduate with us the next day.
I’m at lunch with my family at a café in town during winter break, and I notice a table of women across the room. They’re done with their meal, and one of the women, a redhead, gets up and hugs the other two goodbye. She picks up the plastic baby-carrying device that sits next to the table and walks out of the restaurant, and that’s when I realize she graduated from high school with me.
She sort of looks like a grown-up, but I remember her birthday was after mine and I certainly don’t feel like a grown-up. I am almost incensed, because I remember all the gossip that went on in high school about the girls who got pregnant. My initial response is admittedly unkind: This is even worse! I think. My old classmates who are having children now are no longer just products of bad sex education, low expectations from teachers and parents, and teenage rebellion! They think they can have stable relationships and children at 21 and 22, before they have a degree or a job! My head fills with exclamation points.
Later that day, as I browse Facebook to avoid writing my thesis, three engagement announcements pop up on my news feed. I inspect them all with an interest that I suspect I couldn’t sustain if I weren’t supposed to be analyzing my primary sources. Suddenly, another former classmate posts a link to a blog entry entitled “23 Things to Do Instead of Getting Married at 23.”
Shots have been fired. I watch the combative comments pour in before I return to the article I was reading. “Really? Eating a whole jar of Nutella is better than being married at 23?” one of the comments begins, referencing number 17 on the list. “Spare me.”
The commenter has a point. I’m currently writing 70-plus pages that probably five people in the world—six, I guess, if my mom makes it through my whole thesis—will ever read, so I suppose I should understand what it means to have different priorities.
Still, there are some aspects of baby madness I can’t abide. One day over break, my older sister is getting ready to meet a good friend from high school, who has just come from his best friend’s baby shower. This one had a twist, though. It was a “gender reveal” party—a trend I’d never heard of before—in which the happy couple presents their guests with a cake, the outside covered in white frosting. But when the knife is brought down and the first slice produced for the waiting crowd—like magic!—the icing holding the layers together is pink or blue. Everyone celebrates the impending arrival of the baby boy or girl.
My sister and I talk about how annoying it is to prescribe gender expectations to your children even before they are born. We discuss it in the kitchen for a couple of minutes, before our mom provides the last word: “That is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. I was just so happy to be having my children at all!”
I wonder about having a child, whether it means you’ll be happy. Especially when you’re so, so young. The girls at home—a lot of their Facebook statuses include the same worries and sadnesses. While they’re pregnant, the morning sickness—and the apprehension—are unbearable. When they finally have their kids, the vomiting stops but the anxiety doesn’t. They write that they never get enough sleep. That the bills are getting higher, that it’s tough to figure out how to fill out insurance forms or find the right daycare. That they’re sick of people judging them for having kids when they’re young.
Mostly, though, what they post is pictures: of their babies, of themselves with their children, of kids with their fathers, of family trips with young grandparents on the weekend. As for the few good friends I’ve had who are now mothers—who mostly stopped being good friends, because I never knew how to talk to them about it, really—I’ve been paying attention for a couple of years now, and it’s actually amazing how fast they grow—the children, I think at first, but my old classmates, too—how quickly things change. In photographs, at least, everyone is all smiles. They look truly happy, at least for the moment caught in the frame.
I wonder if my roommates will ever actually see me toting a child through Harvard Yard. Maybe one day, I think. Maybe not. Certainly not now. After all, I haven’t finished my thesis, gotten a job, met someone I’d ever consider spending my life with, or even read Lean In yet. But when I go home after graduation, I want to meet my friends’ kids and pat them awkwardly on the head. By God, though, if someone invites me to a gender-reveal party I will—
Make some comment about loving your child no matter what, grit my teeth, and show up to the party, gender role-subverting baby gift in hand. Eating the cake, I suspect—whether pink or blue—will be hard to avoid.