Discover more from Cruel Summer Book Club
The young mothers I look up to
What my married friends have taught me about being a woman
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Once upon a time, there was a college student named Jillian. She was 18 when she arrived at University of San Diego, a pristine campus that shone like a Spanish castle on top of the hill, visible to everyone for miles around. Jillian was a good student, but she loved hanging out with her friends and going to the beach much more than studying. Her junior and senior years she lived on Mission Beach, steps away from the sand. She took a surfing class and bought roller blades she’d use to fly down the boardwalk. She joined a sorority and made lifelong friends. She was the managing editor of the university newspaper, went out to the bars several days a week, and had her first real boyfriend. Then she went to grad school at Syracuse, moved to New York City, and grew up.
She was me, for four years, but she feels so far away now.
This week I spent a long birthday weekend in my college town of San Diego. It’s been about eight years since I last visited—it’s changed a lot, but the lackadaisical, sunkissed beach vibes remain. I stayed in the home of a former sorority sister who’s now married with two kids under three. Her home is buzzing with love and children’s laughter and bubbles in the air chased by an energetic French bulldog. A loquat tree colors the front yard in pellets of sunshine, palm trees burst toward the sky in the backyard, and from my studio I could see the ocean through the morning fog. The smell of those beach mornings viscerally reminded me of the happy, carefree years I spent in San Diego, very much still figuring out who I was and what the rest of my life would look like.
On Friday three of my sorority sisters—all of whom are married with two little kids, one with a third on the way—took the day off work to tromp through nostalgia with me. (It’s bizarre to me nowadays that I was ever in a sorority—another curiosity of who I used to be—though I love the amazing women I met there.) We ate lunch on the patio at Olive’s in Mission Beach, our old hangover standby for breakfast burritos and smoothies. We walked up the boardwalk with our masks on to a bar we spent many a night taking shots of tequila in. We made our way back to the beloved dive bar where we waited in line every Thursday night for dollar-you-call-its. (We used to pregame $1 Long Island Ice Teas with shots at our nearby houses. Can you even imagine?) We giggled as we recalled college memories and shared intel on the people we no longer speak to, but only see glimpses of on the internet. It was a perfect day.
The day before, I received a birthday call from a recently married friend who’s my age and pondering whether or not to have children. I told her I’d be hanging out with my married mom friends and she said, with urgency in her voice, “Ask them if having kids is worth it.” I laughed and told her only she can figure out the answer to that question, but I know exactly what she means. I’ve asked myself the same question for years now.
I spent most of my twenties in New York City, where, even when I finally left the city at 32, I had one married friend and zero friends with kids. On social media and occasional visits home, I watched my California friends from my Catholic college get married and have kids young. Young by my own standards, anyways, but pretty much on par with the rest of the country—U.S. women now get married for the first time, on average, at 27.9, men at 29.7, and the average woman becomes a first-time parent at 26, according to the U.S. Census. My college girlfriends and I have all gotten closer over the past couple of years, largely thanks to Marco Polo, an app where you can send a friend or group of friends video messages that everyone can watch and respond to at leisure. I like to call it the perfect pandemic app. Marco Polo allowed me to see an alternate life path up close.
Though I climbed the full-time corporate ladder just like my mom friends on the West Coast, we lived in alternate realities. As a certified Peter Pan woman, I told them my dating and party stories, lying on the couch recalling late nights at drag shows in Bushwick and the next day’s epic hangovers—a lot like our college days. Meanwhile, they were planning elaborate weddings, some of which I attended. A couple of years later, they were all pregnant, then sharing the joys and pains of first-time motherhood. As their families expanded, we got into deep discussions about marriage and balancing ambitions at work with their desires to be wonderful mothers, responsibilities to be good wives, and, most of all, their eternal exhaustion.
As I turned 30 and still had no idea whether I wanted to get married or have kids, I worried. Why didn’t I know by now? Was there something wrong with me? What did it mean about me if I’m a woman uninterested in marriage or children? Meanwhile, I voraciously educated myself on heterosexual marriage and modern parenthood through a feminist lens, and I listened to my friends who were mothers and wives more carefully than ever.
My California friends filled in so many of the real-world knowledge gaps I have about what it means to be a modern woman. They taught me so many practical things about what happens to a woman’s body after she has kids, what a C-section is like, the hell of those first six weeks postpartum. (Did you know your nipples just stay long and pointy for the rest of your life after you breast feed? I sure didn’t!) I watched on Marco Polo as their kids got sick and made trips to the hospital, or they had to act as single parents while husbands went away on military deployment or extended work trips, or grappled with their evolving sexualities after many years of marriage. We talked about poop more than anything else, a daily theme for all parents with kids in diapers. I was most grateful for their raw honesty—there was no sugarcoating, no ending tough conversations about long days with kids with “But it’s all worth it in the end for these little angels!” And they shared so much joy too: the wonder they felt when their kids learned a new skill, the inside jokes you get to create with your child when they’re finally toddlers, the life-affirming experience of watching your baby become someone with a blooming personality.
At 33, I’ve come to a place of peace about marriage and motherhood in my own life. The truth is I don’t know if I’ll ever get married or ever have children—it depends on how my life unfolds and whether or not I meet the right partner. But I do know that marriage and motherhood are not priorities for me. I feel incredibly grateful that the particular ache of being a single woman over 30 racing the clock to have a traditional family life does not rest on my shoulders. I’m thankful for parents who told me growing up to never even think about getting married until I was 30, who don’t pressure me to give them grandchildren. I’m grateful to have had a mom who waited eight years to get married, then another three years to have me, at age 31—a much older than average first-time mom in 1988.
What is a priority for me is having a healthy, longterm romantic relationship. I know I want lasting, equal love in my life, and I will continue to prioritize having an open heart. Because I am a single woman, my other priorities are largely self-focused, other than showing up for my family and friends and enacting the values I hold close within the world. Because of the young mothers in my life, I understand well that the time and space I have for self-examination and self-fulfillment is a privilege. I know that one day I will have pressing responsibilities to others, so I must relish the time I have all to myself now. I feel empathy for parents everywhere, the myriad selves they have to be and give—but especially for mothers who, among all the daily battles they face at work and at home, still fight deep-rooted systemic misogyny, and societies that hold them to a different standard than fathers.
While my friends and I were walking the Mission Beach boardwalk, I mused about the people I have been—a child outside of LA, a college student in San Diego, a graduate student in Syracuse, a twenty-something in New York City, and now, a 33-year-old woman on the verge of starting an entirely new life and freelance career. “I’ve lived so many different lives,” I said. “But you’ve always been you,” my friend replied. She’s right about that. As I’ve changed cities and jobs and relationships, I’ve always made room for the people and things that are most important to me, as have my friends who decided to get married and have children. As women maybe we can’t have it all (guess what: no one can!), but we can have what we want most. My gaze will always rest there.
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