When I was growing up, having kids was never the big thing on my mind. Career. Art. Excellence. Success. Those were the things that kept my eyes on the future. Had you asked me at age 16, I’d have told you that even one baby was absolutely not a part of my plan. My mom assured me I would change my mind. I rolled my eyes. Heavily.
My mom was, of course, right. (Don’t tell her I said that.) As I grew out of my teenage angst, the idea of eventually having a family bumped its way steadily up my priority list. By the time I married Jonathan, raising kids held a common core in our future plans. But I was unprepared for how much being a childless military wife, in the meantime, would weigh on the decision.
My first taste of real military life was when I attended Jonathan’s first welcome home ceremony. Until that day, the most camo I’d seen in one place was when Cady Heron wore army pants and flip flops to school, so all the other girls started wearing army pants and flip flops too.
That welcome home ceremony, above and beyond the camo explosion, was at least seven kinds of terrifying for me. Six of which had to do with how foreign I was to the military lifestyle. (The seventh was using crudely drawn maps to find my way around Fort Campbell, which turned out to be a completely justified fear.) I went into that day with few expectations, simply because I had no frame of reference from which to…expect. A flying saucer could have landed in the airfield, from which a fleet of one-eyed martians could have led the post-war soldiers into the hangar by bedazzled leashes hooked to their kevlars, and that probably wouldn’t have surprised me much.
And although I didn’t have to adjust to anything quite so alien, the day still passed with an other-worldly feel. When I arrived on Fort Campbell, I found myself immediately doggy-paddling through a sea of wives and children. There were matching family t-shirts; there were big, handmade, sparkling posters; there were babies in diaper covers decorated to look like the American flag. Nobody else, it seemed, had come alone. And I’d never felt so out of place to be a 23-year-old without a big pregnant belly.
It dawned on me that, in this military world I was preparing to enter, the women were younger than I was, with two or three more children than I had, and still somehow had much, much better hair.
After that welcome home ceremony, however, I got in my car and drove back to my life in my trendy city, filled with trendy fellow 20-somethings who were also spending more money on happy hours than they were on breast pumps. But that city never felt quite the same afterward; I had officially entered a new, dichotomous stage in my life, in which I’d spend the next few years feeling young and unburdened, but simultaneously old and barren.
Not that I ever resented either lifestyle; I was just as happy at a family barbecue in Fort Campbell as I was bar crawling through Dupont Circle (minus the hangover and cab fare). But transitioning between the two so rapidly was making me a little sea sick, and a lot confused. By the time Jonathan and I were engaged, half my friends were taking bets on how soon I’d be pregnant, and the other half were taking bets on how soon I’d be able to shoot straight bourbon. (So far I’ve disappointed everybody equally.)
Deciding if and when to have kids, if you have the luxury to choose, is a very personal choice for couples. For Jonathan and me, the main reason for waiting has simply been time, and how little of it we’ve had together. We are only now figuring out how we live together, just the two of us, as a family. It took me the better part of a year to feel confident about the shade of nail polish I was leaning towards for my wedding; chances are it will take some time for me to feel confident and stable enough in the high-stress military lifestyle to bring a child into it with me. Because–in all honesty–being a mother when you’re a military wife means that, at some point, you’ll likely also have to function as a single mother. And, when my head is on straight, I’ve never felt the need to rush the decision.
But now that I’ve been a childless military wife for more than a year and we’re living in our first real military neighborhood, my head is rarely on straight about the subject. Which stems from a grown-up version of peer pressure that for some reason I’m not shaking off as easily as I did the teenage temptations. When I think about our timeline for having a family, I look around and sort of go…All the cool kids are already doing it.
Which sounds really, really stupid. I know. But when you’re surrounded by happy families and their screeching children every way you turn, the parts of your life that felt unburdened suddenly feel more…unfulfilled. I look around at my new peers, and the sweeping majority of them have brought life into the world; they teach, love, and care for growing human beings. It’s their job and their purpose. And it’s something I already know I want too–it’s just a question of when. So what, right now, is my job and my purpose? What am I doing with my life? Why not now?
And it’s sometimes a daily battle between what my surroundings suggest I should be, and what I realistically am right now. For example: I take my dog for two walks every day (because he’s still in that asshole puppy stage where he refuses to settle down until he’s too tired to function). And two times every day I exchange smiles and waves with a fleet of young mothers pushing strollers or chatting energetically with their toddlers. Then my dog rolls around in the same dead raccoon for the third time this month. And I wonder, as I shove my dog into the bathtub and try to avoid getting kicked in the face, how a woman two years younger than me with three children under the age of five maintains her perfect blond highlights.
Don’t get me wrong–I would never blame my uneasiness on these mothers, nor would I judge them for being confident human caretakers before I’m even able to keep my dog away from roadkill. In my experience so far, military wives are some of the strongest women out there, and some of the most loving, competent mothers I’ve met, regardless of their age. It’s my own self-deprecating comparison that screws with my psyche, and keeps me wondering on a daily basis if I’ll ever be able to squeeze myself into the mold of a military wife, childless or not.
Of course this comparison exists everywhere; the feeling of falling behind is practically universal, and I’m sure there are half a dozen self-help books for each of my specific anxieties. At the end of the day, when I can screw my head back on and lift it above expectations, I see it like this: If I want to do something mostly out of external pressures, then the time is not right to do it. I know that if I wait for all my uneasiness and insecurities to disappear, I’ll be waiting forever. But if I’ve learned anything about time from my most recent struggles with waiting, it’s that the right time will happen (it could be next month, or it could be in five years), and it will have nothing to do with what anybody else thinks or says. Except for Jonathan. Whose cooperation will make things a whole lot easier.
Do you struggle with fitting into your peer group? Do you ever feel like you should do or have something you don’t?