Rock bottom in a relationship that I tried desperately to make “the one” arrived when I sat crying in my therapist’s office, despairing over the fact that my boyfriend had planned another vacation without me. We had been together for a little over a year, and I, then 35, was eager to move things to the next level. There was just one problem. My 40-year-old boyfriend wasn’t on board. Although he claimed to love me and want a future together, he had a habit of making plans without consulting me. Like hiking the French Alps. Or jetting off to the Cape for a weekend visit with his parents.
“Why is he so inconsiderate?” I sniffed. “I ask for so little.”
“Why is that?” my therapist inquired, not missing a beat.
The question was so revelatory — so painfully obvious — that I burst into laughter.
That relationship ended soon thereafter, after he dragged his feet on our plans to move in together, and I finally took the hint. And not long after that, I graduated therapy, discovering that I was considerably happier without a bad relationship weighing me down.
But her question gnawed at me.
She had put her finger on an uncomfortable truth — something that I didn’t want to admit, even to myself. A lifelong feminist, the notion that I approached a relationship as anything less than an equal partnership was unthinkable. But I desperately wanted a child. And as a result of that longing, which heightened with each passing year, I became a woman who spent an inordinate amount of time trying to please men. By asking for so little.
As the daughter of a biologist mother and a psychologist father, independent womanhood had been taught to me from the cradle; gender equity modeled to me by my role-sharing parents. They both worked, cooked and played active parenting roles. My mother shuttled me to piano lessons. My father ran the PTA.
In relationships, I expressed strong opinions — on politics, movies and where to go for dinner. Aside from Mr. French Alps, whom my friends found insufferable, my boyfriends were always nice guys. I was never the type to fall for a bad boy or lose myself in a relationship. I maintained a rich circle of friends and plenty of personal interests, whether I was dating someone or not.
Desperate to avoid being viewed as what I was — a woman in her mid-30s with a ticking biological clock — I did everything I could to prove I was something, or someone, else. Rather than risk being perceived as the “pushy girlfriend,” I tried to get the guy — and hence the baby — by demanding nothing. I never initiated “the talk.” I vowed never to say “I love you” first. I worked hard to be accommodating, flexible, reasonable and understanding, even when I felt slighted or neglected. It was him, not I, who set the schedule and pace for the relationship. Moving too slowly was better than starting from scratch.
But sublimated feelings have a tendency to erupt. A while after Mr. French Alps and I had broken up, I was dating someone new, a divorced father of three. It was early, and I was trying to be casual, go with the flow and enjoy getting to know him. But over margaritas one sunny spring day, he asked me a question for which I was totally unprepared: “But what do you want?”
To my shock and dismay, I burst into tears, heaving ugly sobs and eliciting concerned stares from neighboring diners. Uncomfortable minutes later, when I had finally composed myself enough to form words, I had no choice but to speak my truth.
“I want to have a baby,” I said.
I wish I could say I was transformed in that moment — that by finally being real, everything magically fell into place. It didn’t. While he didn’t flee — from the restaurant or from me — we didn’t sail off into the sunset together, either. Although he wanted me to have everything I desired, he also knew he wasn’t the person to give it to me, and we parted ways, painfully, months down the line.
But by being honest with a partner, I was finally able to start being honest with myself — and to begin building the life that I wanted, rather than trying to extract it from someone else. That surprise outburst was the first step of a process that brought me to where I am now: a single mother of a 2-year-old son.
I don’t remember much about the moments immediately following my son’s birth; it’s all a haze due to exhaustion, relief and my son’s intense screams. It’s my mother who reminds me what I said when the nurse first placed him on my chest.
“I’ve waited so long to meet you.”
I know that it’s impossible to shortcut life’s journeys, and I feel nothing but gratitude for the direction that mine — now ours — has taken. As any parent knows, the child you have feels like the one destined for you.
But I wish now that I had wasted less time trying to please men who didn’t want what I wanted and more time focusing on — and articulating — my own needs. I could have spared myself the feeling that haunted me for years: that life was something that was happening — or not happening — to me.
And I could have realized sooner that there are many ways to build a happy family.