The Best Life Plan – by Rebeca Dunn-Krahn

“I don’t care what order you do things.”

I couldn’t believe the denial. My mother’s side of the family wasn’t overly conservative morally, but to pretend that there wasn’t a strong pragmatic support for this staid and predictable approach to life was insane. They were Mennonites, for heaven’s sake.

“Well, I wish you had told me earlier. I could have had a lot less agony over getting knocked up before I finished my degree.”

 

family2My six-year-old let me down easy. “Mommy”, she began, one early fall afternoon as I was chopping cabbage for supper. She was drawing at the kitchen table, but now she put down her marker and turned to me with concern. Her long blonde hair was in messy braids. I never could get them to last a whole day. “No offence, but I don’t think I’m going to do it your way. I’m going to do it Jennifer’s way.”

“Jennifer’s way?”

“You know, how Jennifer’s doing it. She’s finishing her degree and then she’s going to do her Masters and then her PhD and then after that she’s going to get married and then after that she’s going to have kids.” Sophia was home from school that week due to a teacher’s strike, and learned the word “PhD” by hanging around while Jennifer and I were working.

We were doing a video project together for school. Jennifer and I would both graduate with Bachelor of Science degrees that fall. That was where the similarities ended. She lived with her parents in their house up the street. I lived with my husband and daughter in the house we (newly) owned and was expecting my second child. So I had an idea what Sophia meant by “Jennifer’s way.”

“Oh I see. That’s a good way to do it.”

“You’re not offended?”

“No, why would I be offended?”

“Because I like her way better than your way.”

“Well, I wouldn’t exactly call it my way…”

I had to tread carefully. Even though I was glad Sophia was born and happy with life as her mother, it wasn’t my plan or my way. I was surprised she thought it was. I preferred Jennifer’s way and wanted that for Sophia.

“But it is your way. Your way is baby first. Then finish your degree. Because that’s what you did.”

Kids have a funny habit of thinking that your actions should match your values and beliefs.

“Well, I like Jennifer’s way too. I would be really happy if you did it the Jennifer way.” I wiped my hands on a tea towel and sat down at the table. Sophia picked up her marker and continued with her drawing of a ballroom full of people dancing.

“Why are they wearing masks?” I asked.

She pointed to the top of the page, where she had drawn a sign that said “Robbers Ball.”

“Ohhhh, they’re robbers. I get it!”

What I did not say was that I imagined Sophia doing things “right” would absolve my long-ago sin. That I would be proud to have a kid who was doing things properly, even if I had slipped up. I had come from behind and look at what I’d accomplished, world! Family, look at this! We’re back on track. We bucked the trend. Just because I got knocked up young doesn’t mean my kid will.

“Jennifer’s smart,” I said after a moment. “And her hair is pretty.”

“That’s not important, Mommy.” This child was the kind of raving feminist you had to be really careful around. Any hint of placing undue value on a woman’s appearance would get my hand slapped. In Jennifer’s case, it was hard to keep kosher. Her bum-length hair, bright red and spiral-curly, always looked perfect. Her figure and makeup were perfect too, which meant I often thought about her appearance when I thought of Jennifer.

“You’re right. What’s important is that she’s smart, works hard and has a good plan.”

“Yeah. So….you’re not…sad?”

“Sad? No. You’re going to live life the Sophia way, not the Mommy way. If the Sophia way is the Jennifer way then that’s great!”

She smiled. “Yay.”

“Just don’t be like those guys,” I said, pointing at the waltzing bank robbers, surrounded by sacks of stolen money.

Now Sophia is fifteen and carving a path different from both mine and Jennifer’s. Halfway through grade ten, she withdrew from the high school that Jennifer and I both attended, though not at the same time, and enrolled in a distance education program in order to have more time to pursue her art. My mother doesn’t approve. I came home one day to find her lecturing Sophia at the same kitchen table.

“Well, it’s just a bad idea. You’re going to be very lonely.”

“Mom, she’s an introvert. She hates the social aspect of school.”

“Oh, are you home?”

My mom visits the children every Wednesday afternoon but this visiting often looks more like running errands or typing up the minutes for her square dancing club meeting than real grandmother-grandchild bonding time. Her laptop was open at the table and my son was playing video games in another room.

Sophia wandered off and I sat down to chat about my cousin Julie’s recent wedding. Julie is younger than me and lived with her boyfriend for several years. They own a townhouse together and both work at the liquor store.

I wondered what motivated her to get married, rather than just continue living together. “I think it’s because she wants to have kids,” my mom explained.

“Wow, someone in the family is actually doing things the right way!” I said.

I think my cousin is doing the right thing. Raising kids is tough on a partnership. Being married is a teeny extra bit of insurance against breakup. It makes it harder to split, for legal, sentimental, and social reasons. So yeah, I think you should get married before you have kids, if you believe in marriage. Julie does, and I approve this message.

Having said that, she is the first to do things properly in this generation of my mom’s side of the family. Her younger brother Dan, our cousin Adam and I all strayed from the family rulebook in this respect. I was curious how my mother saw things.

“Don’t you think it’s funny how, on your side of the family, all of the kids have turned out to be screw-ups?”

“How do you mean?” my mother asked, turning her head sharply in surprise.

“I mean how none of us, except for Julie now, did things in the right order. We all got pregnant, or got someone pregnant, before we were married.”

“Well, that doesn’t make you screw-ups.”

“No, but we were raised to define it that way. We were raised to believe in the order of education then marriage then children. And none of us have done it the way we were supposed to.”

“Who says you were supposed to?”

“Ummm, you and your siblings?” This was exasperating! Was she going to sit there and pretend that her family’s code of values didn’t dictate a preferred order of events, to pretend that we were raised in an environment of anything goes, love is all that matters? What planet was she on?

“I don’t think we did. I didn’t. I don’t care what order you do things.”

“What are you talking about? You’re saying you don’t think it’s best to first go to university, then have a career, then get married, then start a family? That’s exactly what I was brought up to believe. And I’m pretty sure Adam, Julie and Daniel were brought up the same way.”

“Hmm, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s ever been very important.”

I couldn’t believe the denial. My mother’s side of the family wasn’t overly conservative morally, but to pretend that there wasn’t a strong pragmatic support for this staid and predictable approach to life was insane. They were Mennonites, for heaven’s sake.

“Well, I wish you had told me earlier. I could have had a lot less agony over getting knocked up before I finished my degree.”

I’m skeptical, but I have to at least entertain the idea that my mom is remembering things correctly. Maybe the unwritten rules and expectations of my childhood were phantoms. Maybe they came from outside the family. Maybe I made them up myself? Perhaps the same way that Sophia took the seed of feminist philosophy that I gave her when she was little and exploded it into a worldview that is way more militant than mine, I took the seed of my mother’s values and created a rulebook for life that was far more stringent and old-fashioned than hers.

Now I’m almost forty and many of my friends have small children or are trying to have children, doing rounds of IVF, looking for sperm donors or surrogates or cleaning their houses to prepare for the visit of the adoption application home study person. I feel far away from it all.

I also can’t relate to people who did things the “right” way and are nostalgic about their pre-parenthood days. They talk about things that I don’t know about: being a couple with another person where you both work full-time and you have no guilt or stress about it; days when the house was always tidy; long conversations with no interruptions; lazy, commitment-free weekends.

I don’t feel jealous though. I think they’re a bunch of whiners.

And it changes my view on what I missed out on in my twenties. The old me thought that this was an important stage of life that I missed, and would never be able to make up for. Now I’m not so sure. If there is a golden period of freedom and opportunity pre-parenthood, it seems a lot of people squander it.

Sure, some people get advanced degrees or travel or do important therapeutic work that lifts them out of difficult childhoods and forms a basis for their adulthoods. I like to think I would have been like these people, but I’m not so sure. Maybe I would have just partied a lot, or been like my friend who misses having the discretionary income to buy two Starbucks lattes a day. In other words, maybe I would have totally wasted it.

Or maybe I would have become super ambitious and resented having to put the brakes on my career to have babies later. One nice thing about having a kid when you have no earning power is there’s nothing to miss.

So I’m going back to the drawing board when it comes to “The Best Life Plan” and admitting that I have to erase everything I’ve got so far. The rules my mom claims never existed maybe never did, and Jennifer’s way may or may not be the best thing for Sophia or anyone else.

 

Rebeca Dunn-Krahn is a writer, software developer and mother of two. She lives with her husband and kids, five chickens and a cat in Victoria, B.C., Canada. 

 

2 Comments

on “The Best Life Plan – by Rebeca Dunn-Krahn
2 Comments on “The Best Life Plan – by Rebeca Dunn-Krahn
  1. ” If there is a golden period of freedom and opportunity pre-parenthood, it seems a lot of people squander it.” I couldn’t agree more. I had kids late (at 36 and 39), partly by choice, partly by circumstance. I traveled, tried to write, worked at some jobs I found meaningful (though was never focused on building a career), but didn’t really appreciate the value of my time until I had kids. I think that having kids young can motivate and focus a person. For me, I wish it had happened at around age thirty – kind of split the difference. Obviously there is no right formula for everyone but I do appreciate this perspective. Nice piece.

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