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GUEST BITES TOWN

NOTES FROM A SOLSTICE : Leaving Behind the Maternal Instinct for a Universe Without Children

August 30, 1992|Joan Frank | Joan Frank is a San Francisco writer. Her book of collected essays, "Desperate Women Need to Talk to You," will be published by Conari Press.

My young co-worker just burst out of her office wearing The Look again.

Eyes aflame, lips tight, she charges past me to the typewriter and cranks an envelope into the carriage. She's just hung up on her ex-husband.

She whirls to face me.

"If any of your friends ever complain to you about being single and childless," she begins, in a tone of such clenched control that it sounds tender, "tell them that they are blessed with their freedom."

Go on, I offer, making myself very still.

Her voice rises. "Because having to deal with the shrapnel of divorce--with a child between you--creates this--huge-- thing ," she gasps. "A thing that you're burdened and belabored with for the rest of your life!"

She's ready to go on Oprah. Don't do it, don't do any of it, she scowls. My colleague cherishes her little girl, of course, but the price is gut-busting. What you have is bliss, she informs me. What she has, she asserts crisply, is hell.

I know she's right. Not only do I have ample evidence--friends and relatives everywhere dealing painfully with ex-mates who are their children's fathers. But I also happen to be distancing myself from parenthood, a grad student in the School of Curmudgeon. Which is to say, I'm older. The temptation she warns against is slipping the bonds of its prime-time slot. I'm getting settled in my ways, attached to comfy routines--I, who slept in pastures, stowed away on charter planes, made my morning toilette in gas station restrooms; I, whose every earthly belonging could once fit behind the back seat of a VW bug.

I love pure silence now, and the fact that I can have a grapefruit or three orders of chow mein for dinner, stay up late and come and go as I please. I am passing through a kind of solstice, from a time when the craving for mamapapababy pulled me the way the Sirens pulled Ulysses or the moon pulls the tides. For various reasons, I escaped the sucking vortex, called Making a Family, that most humans do hard time in. Once this was sorrowful loss. Now I'm thankful for my solitude.

Even so, every time a baby enters the picture--in a basket, on a shoulder--heaven help me, I do that thing that women do. "Oh, look," I breathe, " a new baby ." Everything stops--except the overpowering urge to go directly to the infant, put my nose to its fat, velvety, melted-candy-smelling little neck and inhale deeply, murmuring and nuzzling.

It's a reflex. Even my bitter office-mate still goes gooey at the sight of babies. Most women do, except those just released from mommy prison. "Doesn't do a thing for me," snapped a recent dinner companion, who has just finished rearing two. She took one look at the holy infant being paraded through the restaurant and jerked her head back around so fast that I thought it would snap off. Here was clarity. Here was certainty. Here was burnout.

For me, it's come to this: When I phone my best friend who tells me her mothers' group scolded her for feeding her son politically incorrect juice, whose big weekend consists of visiting her parents (because they can help), who over a tinkly music box apprises her little cosmic gift, "No, mustn't slug Mommy's face"--suddenly I am biting my lip to keep from announcing my apartment's just caught fire so I can hang up quickly, in case you can get pregnant from talking to a mother on the phone.

The bloom is off the reproductive rose. Being a doting auntie is as close as I now care to come. Yes, it sounds loutishly self-satisfied, and, no, children aren't to be mused over like the merits of clip-on earrings. I never thought I'd be saying this, but go ahead and have your rich epiphanies that you wouldn't trade for immortal life. I'll be in the stands, waving.

And yet I now see why it is still probably better to have babies young. Even if you do end up in six or seven years slamming the phone down daily on your ex, your stomach's knots in knots as you cajole and browbeat the fool you once swore you'd spend your life with to cough up those support payments.

When else would you have the energy?

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