Waiting for Daisy
By Peggy Orenstein
Bloomsbury Copyright © 2007 Peggy Orenstein
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-59691-017-1
Chapter One TO HAVE OR HAVE NOT
* * *
My first birthday, Thanksgiving 1962. My aunts, uncles, and cousins are all in attendance. I am wearing a blue velvet dress, my chubby legs stuffed into white tights; my feet, which have yet to master walking, strapped into patent leather Mary Janes. A few pale, wispy curls are beginning to sprout on my head, though I don't have any hair worth mentioning. My mother has compensated by taping a blue bow to my pate, which I periodically rip off and stuff into my mouth.
As a Bell & Howell whirs, I tear into my birthday gifts, more focused on shredding the brightly colored paper than on the toys that lay within. My father steps into the frame, his hair still black, his face hopeful. He is seven years younger than I am now. Clearly excited, he presents me with my first baby doll, placing it in my arms. I am his only daughter. I glance at the doll, frown, and fling it out of sight. He fetches it and once again, patiently, sets it in my arms. This time I begin to cry and hold the doll by its foot, dropping it on the floor. My father tries one more time with similar results; the camera jerks and the image sputters.
What happened then, during those undocumented moments? Someone must've continued to cajole. Someone must've expressed disappointment. Someone must've demonstrated what was expected of me. Someone must've said, "Don't you want to be a mommy, like Mommy?" Because when the film rolls again, I gingerly cradle the baby doll, still sniffling a little, seeming anxious. I look up eagerly for approval from my parents, who are squatting next to me. This is my first foray into motherhood.
At eleven, I befriended Tibetha Shaw, who had untamed orange hair and was the only girl in the sixth grade of John Burroughs Elementary School to wear black all the time. Her mother, unlike those of the rest of my friends, worked outside the home and had an apron that read HOUSEWORK IS BULLSHIT in three-inch capital letters. At the Shaws' there was dust on the furniture. There was no adult supervision after school. Tibetha and I gorged on store-bought cookies and pored over Ms. magazine, which had recently resurrected the comic book icon Wonder Woman. Inspired by her, we fastened towels around our necks with clothespins and-in every working mom's nightmare of what the kids are up to in her absence-climbed a ladder onto the roof of the garage. The distance to the next building was slightly longer than a leggy eleven-year-old's stride, yet we took deep breaths and leapt-screaming, "WONDER WOMAN! WONDER WOMAN!"-flying from roof to roof and back again, towel capes streaming behind us. It was my first foray into feminism.
My understanding of the women's movement may have grown more nuanced over the years, but that sense of exhilaration remained. Feminism provided me with an escape route, an out from my parents' limited expectations, a chance to define for myself the person I wanted to be. Yet, even while soaring through space-whether the rooftops were real or metaphoric-I was conscious of the drop, never quite sure how far my towel cape would carry me. As an editorial assistant at Esquire magazine, I was peanut gallery to 1980s literary New York, an extra at cocktail parties for the likes of Jay McInerney, Tom Wolfe, and Tama Janowitz. Occasionally, while stuffing myself with free hors d'oeuvres (popping a few in my purse to supplement my $250 a week paycheck), I'd notice that there weren't many mothers in the room. There were few among the editors I worked with either, and virtually none among the writers. The same was true several years later, when I moved on to San Francisco. Their absence left me vaguely uneasy; was this evidence of progress-women no longer needed children for fulfillment-or its opposite? Could it be that things hadn't changed as much as I'd thought? And if they hadn't, in which world did I belong? "I'm not sure I want to have kids," I told my friends. "I'm not sure I want to have kids," I told my gynecologist. "I'm not sure I want to have kids," I told my editor. (She fixed my manuscripts, why not my life?) They all gave the same reply: "Don't worry about it, Peggy, you have plenty of time."
I believed them; I was in my mid-twenties. I thought I had all the time in the world.
I fell in love with Steven Okazaki on a postcard. We'd gone on one date, an after-work drink that deepened into dinner, but it hadn't gone well. I was newly out of a bruising relationship and knocked back a couple of Stolis to calm my nerves. Here's something to know about me: I can't hold my liquor. As my rational self watched from a helpless, anesthetized distance, my soused evil twin ran her mouth, spewing bile about former beaux and announcing, "If you're looking for anything serious, I'm not interested."
Luckily, he didn't believe me. "Women always say that kind of stuff when they like you," he'd joke later. We hugged goodbye awkwardly in the parking lot. A documentary filmmaker, Steven was leaving the next day for a shoot on the Big Island of Hawaii. "Call me!" I chirped, though after my performance that evening I figured I'd never hear from him again.
Then the card arrived, a photo of the lava flow on Mt. Kilauea. On the back, a note, jotted as if we were mid-conversation.
Last night on the Big Island there was a bad storm. Several boats were beached and sections of highway were temporarily washed out. I was having dinner with a pig breeder and his family near a town called Honaunau. The sound of the wind and rain on their tin roof was nearly deafening. The farmer noted that the roads would get dangerous and maybe I should spend the night. He said, "You can wear my pajamas and sleep in the kitchen." I thought, "No way, man. I want my hotel room." As I took the perilous journey home, I felt ashamed but frankly relieved. One doesn't have to experience everything, does one?
Forget roses; I'm a sucker for a man who has a way with words.
We shared our first breakfast shortly after he returned, gazing starry-eyed at each other across our eggs in a Berkeley diner. Steven was tall and stocky with a shock of black hair that was just beginning to gray, diamond-cut cheekbones, and eyes as warm as anything I'd ever seen. I loved the scratch in his voice, the touch of his skin, his dedication to a life of purpose and creativity. I admired the confidence he had in his own vision; I was still a magazine editor then, unable to work up the nerve to quit and write full-time. Steven was not the man I imagined I'd be with-nearly ten years older, Japanese American, a gentile-but soul mates don't always come in predictable packages.
He mentioned he'd grown up with four sisters. "I always thought I'd have a big family," he said.
I cut him off. "Well, I don't know if I want to have children at all."
"Really? Why not?"
"Why do you want them?"
This was when I first discovered my future husband's habit of speaking in set pieces. "I guess I think of life as kind of like an amusement park," he said. "If you're going to go, you should ride every ride at least once. And having kids is like the big, scary roller coaster. You can have a good time without riding it, but you would've missed a significant part of the experience."
"I get sick on roller coasters," I deadpanned, then added, "Besides, 'One doesn't have to experience everything, does one?' "
He raised an eyebrow.
"Look," I said. "I don't want anyone to make any assumptions about me or how I'll live my life. I don't want to do something just because it's expected, because everyone else does it. Maybe I'll change my mind, but there are a lot of other things I want to do besides have children."
"There's no way I can have a baby now." It had been two years since Steven and I had married, since I'd moved across the Great Waters from my overpriced apartment in San Francisco to his rent-controlled one in Berkeley. I'd simultaneously taken the leap into writing; my first book, Schoolgirls, about the challenges young women face in their teens, had just come out to flattering reviews. Suddenly I was fielding calls from Good Morning America, Nightline, and Fresh Air; lecturing at universities; giving keynote addresses at national conferences. My agent-a forceful, older woman who'd opted against motherhood-warned me, "You have to sell another book idea right now. If you wait a year, forget it. No one will remember you." I'd dreamed of this kind of success since publishing my first story in my high school newspaper at age fifteen. But I wasn't fifteen anymore. I was thirty-two.
How could I possibly cut back to take care of an infant? Sometime later, Joyce Purnick, Metro editor of the New York Times (who did not have kids), would tell graduating seniors at Barnard, "If I had left the Times to have children and then come back to work a four-day week ... or left the office at six o'clock instead of eight or nine, I wouldn't be Metro editor." She was probably right, but how grim was that? Maybe I wanted children, maybe I didn't, but I wanted the decision to be a choice, not a mandate. Last time I checked, childlessness was only supposed to be a condition of career advancement for nuns.
My own mother was no help. She had married at twenty, moving directly from her parents' home to her new life with her twenty-four-year-old husband. Within five years she'd stopped teaching elementary school to raise her children. We shared so little experience that without a child myself, I sometimes felt as if we were, if not a different species, at least different sexes. "Your life is so unlike mine," she'd say. "I can't even imagine it." I longed for a mother who could be a mentor, someone I could turn to for wisdom and guidance. Her limits made me short-tempered. Stop being such a bitch, I'd tell myself, which only turned my anger to guilt. I'd rather not have children, I'd think, than have a daughter who someday felt this way about me.
That's too easy, though. It wasn't just hostility I felt around my mother, it was inadequacy. I had loved my early childhood with her. We'd spent long hours playing beauty parlor and tea party, baking holiday cookies. On Saturday nights I would swoon when she left with my dad in a cloud of Rive Gauche perfume, so glamorous in her fox-trimmed coat. I wanted to be just like her-a mommy just like Mommy. Thirty years later, part of me still did. Although I publicly stood up for working mothers and day care, I knew that, for me, motherhood meant one thing: being there for your children like my mom had been there for me. I believed the responsibility for taking care of children would, bottom line, be mine, even if I was the one who had to swap my dreams for drudgery. It didn't matter that Steven expected to be an equal parent. ("I'll make a great mom," he'd brag.) The issue wasn't whether I wanted to turn into my mother if I had a child or even whether I feared I would; it was that I believed I should.
With Steven, I dodged the subject. "We'll talk about it later," I'd promise when he brought it up. "When we have more time." Or: "When I'm not traveling so much." Or: "When we're on vacation." Or: "At the end of the year." Or, simply: "Not now." There was no way he could pin me down. I bobbed, I weaved, I changed the subject, and if none of that worked, I gave him The Stare. "You have no idea how hard it is to get past that look," he'd complain, though of course I did. The Stare had taken me years to perfect: it was my force field, repelling all comers-my parents, lovers, friends, colleagues-who broached a subject that felt too raw to discuss.
The only time in twenty years that I ever had a fight with my friend Robin was at a girls' night dinner party on New York's Upper West Side, when I mouthed off about mothers who dropped their careers rather than demand that their husbands do the laundry. I was in town doing interviews for my next book, Flux, about how women make their personal and professional choices. A group of full-time moms I'd talked to that afternoon had claimed that staying home was a feminist right. I disagreed. "I don't know why women who make the pre-Betty Freidan choices think they won't end up with the pre-Betty Freidan results," I quipped.
"What about me?" asked Robin, sharply. She'd been a television news producer before staying home with her three kids. Her husband managed a hedge fund. "Is that what you think of me?"
I wasn't sure how to respond; the truth was, yes, I did feel that way about her, though I'd never say so to her face. My hesitation only made her madder. "You have no idea what it means to be married to someone who works twelve hours a day. If I kept working, I'd still have to do everything at home. It's just not realistic.
"I'm not stupid," she added. "I know the potential traps here. I knew what I was getting into. And I chose this."
"But how much of a choice is it," I asked, "if nothing else seemed possible?"
Nearly all of my girlfriends were having children, and one by one, like Robin, they'd dropped out of the workforce. The minds that once produced sparkling prose or defended abused children were now obsessed with picking the right preschool or competing to throw the most elaborate Pocahontas birthday party. Sometimes they seemed to me like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Who were these women and what had they done with my friends? Sure, a few were content, but most, if not exactly unhappy, seemed trapped-fretting over what they'd do when the kids were older, worried that they'd never escape the stroller set. I was disappointed by how readily they'd fallen on the sword of traditional motherhood, how reluctant they were to assert their needs, how loath to rock the boat of their husbands' careers. They weren't the role models I wanted-needed-them to be. These were, after all, women I loved and respected. If they couldn't make it all work, how could I?
My working mom friends weren't much better, perpetually exhausted and resentful. One commented that Steven and I had the best marriage she knew. "That's because we don't have kids," I said, laughing, but I meant it. Steven and I had a great time together, traveling to Hawaii, Asia, and Europe; going to the movies; spending the weekend in bed. He read the first drafts of my articles; I watched the rough cuts of his films. He was my best friend. Maybe a baby would bring us even closer, but that wasn't what I saw around me. So many women were smitten with their children while begrudging everything their husbands did or didn't do: Kids may have been the glue holding couples together, but they were also the wedge driving them apart.
And yet. There were moments when I could almost feel the weight of a child in my arms, when I sensed that if I looked over my shoulder while driving, I would see an infant seat with a curly-haired bundle looking back at me. I would imagine the songs we'd sing together, the games we'd play, the books we'd read. Pasting photos into an album, I would recall leafing through old pictures of my mother, my father, my grandparents. Who would see these? Who would care?
One night, when I was thirty-three, I walked into the living room of our rented house in the rustic (read: lots of weeds, aggressive deer, druggie neighbors) Berkeley Hills. Steven was lying on the couch reading Mojo, a British music rag for guys who own everything-on vinyl-that the Kinks ever recorded. The floor beneath him slanted steeply for reasons that in Northern California were best not to consider; he had put shims of varying heights under all the furniture to make it appear level. On the upside, the house was large, with three ample bedrooms, two of which were glaringly empty.
"What do you think of the name 'Cleo' for a baby?" I asked him.
He put down the magazine and sat up. "Peg, we don't have a baby."
"Well, maybe we should."
"Really?" he said, skeptically. "Is that what you want?"
"I don't know," I sighed. "Maybe we shouldn't."
He shook his head, dramatically picking up his magazine. "Let me know when you want to talk about having a baby and then I'll talk about names."
"Okay," I said, "so what do you think we should do?"
"I don't want to do it unless we both want to. I don't want you ever to say, 'You talked me into this.' And if you don't want to do it, I'll be fine. I won't have that many regrets." It was all very self-actualized, very reasonable, except for this: punting the decision back to me effectively let Steven off the hook. He, too, put a premium on freedom, the time to pursue creative work, to travel, and, in his case, to lie on the couch reading Mojo. This was a guy who had stayed single until he was forty; he wasn't so eager himself to take on the responsibilities and lifestyle of parenting. My indecision played neatly-maybe too neatly-into his own.
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