By Eve Rosenbaum
This is the third post in our What is Family? blog series in honor of the season. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.
I spent two hours smoothing down buns with hair gel and bobby pins, fluffing tutus, and trying to keep their costumes free of crumbs and crayons as we waited to be called to the stage. I had never imagined myself as a backstage mom, and yet I had written my name on the list, volunteering to keep ten three-to-five-year-old girls alive and stain-free at the year-end ballet recital. My daughter was the youngest, nearly four, and the shortest. After herding them into the spotlight, I stood in the darkened wings, watching her in her white and pink costume, the one she’d been desperate to try on for weeks, gazing at it hanging in clear plastic on the closet door. She had been rehearsing for months. In less than three minutes it was over, and I guided the girls backstage once again. My daughter announced that she was now a ballerina.
It wasn’t just that I had never imagined myself as a backstage mom. Really, I never wanted to be a parent at all. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community, I always expected my life would progress down an orderly and pre-determined path: high school then marriage then kids then … well, I wasn’t entirely sure what came after kids. More kids, probably. I saw my friends being steered into this life and, at first, I joined in their conversations about who would be first in our class to get married, where we would live. On Sabbath afternoons, we would walk to the houses of girls we knew who were already married with babies. I admit, for at least a couple of years, I wanted it too. My own home life was chaotic and sometimes violent, and I could imagine creating a home for myself and a family that would be nothing like where I came from. I could get married at nineteen and never look back. I could be that kind of girl.
By eleventh grade, that dream was dead. I resolved to never get married or have children, as I was positive that a traditional life would make me lose myself to the endless drudgery of carpool and cooking and keeping a kosher home. I was slowly drifting away from religion and by my last year of college I was firmly, determinedly secular. I realized that as much as I didn’t want to bring children into a traditional religious home, I also couldn’t imagine raising a child outside of Orthodox Judaism. Remaining childless seemed like the best, most responsible choice. Besides, I had never really wanted to be pregnant, had never fantasized about the joys of giving birth. I thought about adoption as a distant, distant possibility.
And then I met my partner. It was my second year of graduate school, her first day. She had just moved to town and by October we were dating. I knew from the start that she wanted children. As our relationship turned serious, I had to decide whether I could truly become a parent, and whether I even wanted to reconsider. Religious issues came up almost immediately: Jen isn’t Jewish and she would be the one to give birth. I hadn’t wanted to raise a secular child; could I raise a child who wouldn’t even be Jewish? At twenty-two I felt too young to make these decisions but they seemed so distant. Jen and I talked in hypotheticals, imagining our future daughter. We would name her Madeline, we decided, and we would buy her a red coat with black buttons and teach her about art, about the world. We were playing, and this amorphous child became very real to us. I could almost see myself as her parent, a child I hadn’t given birth to but would love unconditionally regardless. She flitted through our conversations like a dream bird, and I told myself how easy it would be to parent this imaginary daughter.
By twenty-six, our daydreams turned serious and our conversations now included topics like fertility monitors, sperm banks, and birthing plans. I knew I wanted the biological father to be Jewish, even if under religious law the baby wouldn’t be considered Jewish. All we knew about the anonymous donor was that he played guitar and clarinet, liked to bake, had seasonal allergies, and that he juggled. We started calling him Jewish Juggler.
Three months later Jen was pregnant, and what had seemed like a game before was immediately, unavoidably, real. Now my family acted strange on the phone. My brother said he didn’t know if he could ever speak to me again. He had to think about it, he said. My parents reminded me that I could never bring this baby to their house, to their community, because as far as their friends knew, I was still single. They wouldn’t display her pictures next to their other grandkids. My sister said, “What did you expect?”
As we prepared for the birth, our conversations turned to the imaginary once again. We would name her Madeline, like we’d decided years before. Jen painted turtles and fish onto canvas for the nursery. We bought feetie pajamas and kimono-wrapped onesies and a tiny striped hat with a bee stitched into the front. I was terrified. My doubts about becoming a parent resurfaced, my anxiety about raising a non-Jewish child, one who wasn’t even biologically mine. Would I love her the way a parent is supposed to love a child? Would she grow up and resent having me instead of a father? I had never been one of those girls who smiled at babies or even noticed them. Could this one be different, even if she didn’t look anything like me? I was scared the answer would be no.
In May, after three days of labor, it was time to get her out. Jen was running a fever. I stood near Jen’s shoulders, watching the baby emerge, watching as a team of doctors pulled her quickly away and started running tests. It was a blur. My legs were numb. I thought, “I didn’t get to cut the cord,” and “This is not what’s supposed to happen.” They started wheeling Madeline out of the room and Jen urged, “Go with her.”
I followed. I didn’t leave Madeline as they cleaned her off, hooked her up to machines, put a breathing tube in her nose. She looked so small, so bruised and purple. She looked grouchy. If she could speak, she would have lectured me for making her go through something so unpleasant. I stood back while doctors and nurses hovered around her. I had always known that babies were small; even that much was obvious to someone as oblivious as I was. But I never realized just how small she would look on that table, arms swaddled tightly against her chest, fists tucked under her chin.
In that moment, it was just me and her. I realized that it didn’t matter what my brother thought or who her biological father was, or even if she shared my genes or liked the same television shows that I did. Bringing her into the world wasn’t about pleasing my parents or following a set path of how my life should turn out. In that moment, I knew that it was about protecting this child, keeping her safe and thriving, keeping her alive. Even at only a few minutes old, I could see how determined she was to live and I knew that her life was my responsibility. I was a parent; more than that, I was her parent, no matter how complicated.
Madeline was in the ICU for a week before we brought her home. Only Jen’s name is allowed on the birth certificate, but there’s no doubt she is my daughter too. As I stood in the wings watching her first ballet recital, I understood that being a parent isn’t just about sharing your DNA. It’s about opening the world for your children, showing them your passions and helping them develop their own. I will teach my daughter everything I can. It’s been a privilege to learn from her in return.
Eve Rosenbaum is a writer, editor, and occasional academic in Iowa City. You can find her on Twitter: @everosenbaum.
To read all of the essays in this series click here.