Existential Angst, Just in Time for Mother’s Day

I almost didn’t have children. I can hardly say that sentence aloud now, now that […]

I almost didn’t have children.

I can hardly say that sentence aloud now, now that I am a mother, without choking on the words.

I almost chose not to have children.

I did not want the world to have more of me in it.

When I say that aloud now, people laugh, as though I’m joking. I’m not joking. And I wasn’t joking then, or being unnecessarily self-deprecating. I did not want the world to have more of me in it, and I did not want to put another person through the experience of being me. One of me seemed like plenty.

The luxury of later marriage (or, at least, later than my parents’ generation) and reliable birth control meant that my husband and I could delay parenthood until we were ready for it, or at least until I was old enough to have an existential crisis over it. By the time we were having the conversation, I was old enough to really understand how genetic traits show up with ferocity in each generation. I wasn’t just talking about grandma’s nose or an uncle’s hairline. I was talking about depression, anxiety, addiction, and the general human condition of being annoying. I saw these traits get copied and replicated, and it terrified me. What would a world do with another me?

“Every child is born with problems, and you just love ’em the way they come to you!” So the conventional wisdom goes. That missed the mark by a long shot. If everyone is born with problems, then why would I want to create another person with problems? But this insight is what people tell themselves when they aren’t filled with self-loathing and existential dread. It seems to work for those folks. It wasn’t working for me. (If you’re feeling sorry for my husband by now, you should know that I’m a damned delight at parties and I can cook like nobody’s business, so save your pity. He’s FINE.)

Why not just remain child-free? I suppose we could have chosen that, and I don’t take that luxury for granted. I grew up among Amish people in rural Wisconsin, and their lifestyle was a constant reminder that we are really only a few generations removed from the subjugation of women for the purposes of populating a farm. I recognize my angst as a privilege.

We weren’t having the conversation about children because we felt like everyone expected it of us, or because we felt like we had to. Deep down, I wanted to be a mother more than anything I’ve ever wanted before. It was a want bordering on a need. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to feeling a calling. And yet, I was torn. How could I make another one of me?

We discussed adoption, and saw our friends struggle through adoption processes. We turned toward one another, and then I talked about it with anyone who would listen, practically begging them to tell me what to do, so I could blame someone else when I didn’t like the outcome. (See? Don’t I sound fun?) I came just shy of asking friends with new babies, “Why the hell did you do that?”

It was in this intense questioning phase that we had dinner with the Rev. Dr. John Kerr, a priest and scientist friend who is a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists. He didn’t laugh at me. He didn’t try to convince me to have children. Maybe most importantly, he didn’t try to convince me of my own worth. Instead, he listened carefully, and understood me. And then he comforted me with science. He told me that evolution means that all of those “undesirable” genetic traits get less bad with each generation. This explains in part why I’m a wreck, but maybe not nearly as much as my grandmother was. This could also be explained by better living through science: medication and psychotherapy and better-informed parenting didn’t hurt in this process of evolution, either, and that was also a way of comforting me with science. But I latched on to the genetics of evolution. These less desirable traits get less pronounced in each generation, according to this scientist-priest. There was hope.

Then, John turned to both me and my husband, as we both sat across from him at a restaurant table. “Do you think Neil wishes that you were a different person? Or that you didn’t exist?”

I hadn’t thought about that. My husband wanted, or maybe needed, a me in the world. John pointed out that whatever odd combination of traits and quirks our child might have, there might be another person “out there” who wants and needs that very specific set of needs and quirks.

Now we send John a Christmas card every year, complete with our two children’s smiling faces: our oldest, a stunning replica of his father, and our youngest, another “me” in the world. I write a note at the bottom of our card to John, thanking him for our family. If it hadn’t been John, it might have been something else that reassured me that everything was going to be just fine, but I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit was among us as this man of God spoke words of science to me at that restaurant table.

Our firstborn was born a few years after that restaurant conversation with John Kerr. The joke was on me: instead of producing another “me” in the world, I hadn’t even considered that we’d have a near-exact replica of my husband. With dark hair and perfect eyebrows, Rowan came into the world as an old soul, scholarly and serious and careful and quiet. “He takes FOREVER to put his snow boots on,” his Minnesota preschool teachers told me, “but he never gets frustrated.” Seeing my husband’s personality in three-year-old form gave me more compassion for his, um, deliberate way of moving around the world, and more appreciation for his quiet calmness. I’m so glad that there’s a copy of Neil in the world, with an underlying layer of me, too. He loves birthdays and order and lists, just like I do, and seeing him confidently and joyfully amble through the world has made me feel like maybe having a little bit of me in the world might not be the worst thing for the world.

Three years later, the mimeographed version of me came into the world. The umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck, twice. (That’s exactly how I came into the world, too.) He had colic. (So had I.) He is also legitimately hilarious, and not just with fart jokes and armpit noises. He is deeply compassionate. He is both his own stormy sea and also the calm in the middle of the storm, all at the same time. He might have perfect pitch, and he can mimic an accent like nobody’s business. He loves to tell us stories. He is fascinating.

This year has been rough for my mini-me. He has had strep throat infections six times in the past twelve months (once during Hurricane Harvey, in Houston). He is more stoic than either his father or I have ever been, and he does not complain about being sick. We told him that he might have to have his tonsils removed, and talked a little bit about what that might be like for him. He asked questions — good questions — out loud. (I would have perseverated silently instead of asking my parents these questions. I was afraid to swallow a pill until middle school. I would have lost nights and nights of sleep and given myself a stomach ache.) He is excited about the possibility of having a dream while under anesthesia. He announced proudly that second grade might be his first school year without the benefit of tonsils. We looked up the purpose of tonsils on the internet together.  His ease with this information might be all I need to prove John Kerr’s assurance to me that evolution is present in these small, almost undetectable changes. Maybe there’s some better living through science there, too, as we learn how to parent the miniature versions of ourselves better with each generation. But there has to be more to it than that.

I really believe that this scientific progress is also God’s grace. I do not deserve this easier version of myself. I can’t take credit for my kid’s ease and bravery, but I admire it and I’m grateful for it. Last week in church, we sang one of my favorite hymns, Earth and All Stars. The refrain, “He has done marvelous things!” rang out as my oldest was joyfully carrying a candle down the steep steps from the church altar and into the world. I looked down next to me in the pew and watched his younger brother carefully coloring a birthday card for his friend. I’m so grateful for this calling to be their mother. The fact that these new people exist at all, much less in such delightful little forms, fills me with wonder. God has done marvelous things.

No matter how many genetic mutations make our lives a bit easier with each generation, I know we can’t expect kingdom perfection on Earth. The mere fact that the poor kid had six strep infections in twelve months ought to be proof of that. But I feel like these small steps toward less-awful are temporary glimpses into a heavenly kingdom. It’s easy to miss this preview reel for what it is, which I believe is a gift of God’s love and grace toward us. I’ll take it, gratefully.


3 responses to “Existential Angst, Just in Time for Mother’s Day”

  1. Sarah Condon says:


  2. Connor Gwin says:

    Yes mam. This one got me right in the heart.

  3. […] Carrie Willard recalls the existential crisis of having children that would reflect her own struggle…. “It was a want bordering on a need. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to feeling a calling. And yet, I was torn. How could I make another one of me?” […]

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