Not What She Expected

For years all she sought was a quiet place to work. Then, to her amazement, she discovered that solitude wasn’t the thing she wanted most. Here’s how she pursued her heart’s desire.

  • Diana Abu-Jabar

I learned how to write at the bowling alley. At age 11, I took my two little sisters and assorted younger cousins to Flamingo Bowl almost every weekend. I kept track of points and, more crucially, kept the kids safe despite their tendency to hurl most of their body weight (along with the ball) down the lane. Children shrieked, and pins thundered. In my mind, however, there was silence. I had developed the habit of something my auntie called “half-mindedness”―partly attending to whatever was going on around me while the rest of my brain was engaged in reading and writing. Even though I held a scorecard and a pencil nub, I was flying between planets in The Little Prince, attending dances in Pride and Prejudice, and going on adventures entirely of my own imagining. The children, frankly, were a bit of a distraction. I managed to babysit them and write at the same time, but in so doing I absorbed this message: I could dedicate myself either to meaningful work or to having kids, but it would be nearly impossible to do both.

That was a lesson I also learned at home. My mother and father were young, enthusiastic parents. They had just entered their 20s when I was born. Children defined their new marriage and their lives as adults. Their daughters were their joy and legacy, the center of attention. Limited resources necessitated difficult choices: My sisters and I shared beds, we had a black-and-white TV in an age of color, and restaurants were a wild extravagance. Both my parents worked and worked at jobs they found unfulfilling and, when they were home, seemed to nap constantly.

I wanted something different. Namely, a satisfying career―and the freedom to move and to take risks, to be unencumbered. I dreamed of distant travel, elaborate dinner parties, and the world’s most secluded study. Kids didn’t seem compatible with these goals.

Many of my literary heroes had no children: Katherine Mansfield, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty. Virginia Woolf was childless, and her famous declaration on the importance of a room of one’s own made me feel she was even rather chilly toward houseguests. From these authors, I gleaned that the pursuit of one’s passion subsumed all of one’s energies, leaving little behind.

 

 



At age 30, my efforts paid off when I learned my first book was going to be published. I burst into tears; it was a happiness unlike any I had known. Not long after, a male colleague at a dinner party warned that, if I wanted to have a child, there wasn’t “time to spare.” But I did have time. I didn’t want children. And I married a man who felt the same way. Instead, I taught and wrote. My husband and I held dinner parties and traveled, trying out those early dreams.

But as my sisters began to have kids and I greeted my new nieces and nephews, something shifted. I believed that being an aunt would be the perfect fit―all glory, no guts. It was lovely to have children to spoil without having to worry about the daily realities of parenting. But to my surprise, aunthood brought its own sort of discontent―a subtle, quiet appetite for more. After public readings, I was frequently asked if I had children―for no reason that I could discern other than my being female. One day a woman in the audience blurted, “Diana’s books are her children!” I knew she was trying to be helpful, but I felt a twinge of discomfort. I wasn’t sure I wanted my books to be my children.

I started registering clear signs of ambivalence. My husband and I acquired Yogi, a little Italian greyhound. And I promptly developed a telling habit of flipping Yogi on her back in my arms while cooing, “Be the baby.” She helplessly let me cradle her while my husband rolled his eyes.

I turned to books for guidance. I read in a biography of Julia Child that, despite a life of fame and excitement, she may have regretted not having children. I felt those words reverberate in me. Still, I was in my 40s by that point. There were risks associated with late childbearing, of course. What felt more daring still was challenging my own idea of who I was: I had never thought of myself as a mother, and it seemed a little late to make such a drastic change to my identity.

But, I realized, I had changed already; it had happened so gradually I almost hadn’t noticed. My work had given me great satisfaction, but there were parts of me that it didn’t reach. I found myself thinking back on those times at the Flamingo Bowl. I didn’t want only the solitude of work. I yearned for more joy, more clamor, more life in my life.

 

 


My husband and I began to discuss the possibility of having children. He had found, to his surprise, that he enjoyed being an uncle, discovering the pleasures of play and making merry. He allowed that he too had felt a deeper pull to create a family.

For me, the transformative moment came, oddly enough, through my work: I had been writing a memoir that was, in part, a wish to understand my life without children. But one morning I started working on a novel about a woman who had grown up without any biological family, who stands starkly alone in the mystery of her own identity. While researching the book, I started chatting with a mother and her eight-year-old daughter in a café. It came up in conversation that the daughter was adopted. After showing me her crayoned drawings, the girl turned to her mother and very delicately wrapped one arm around the woman’s neck. I watched, bewitched. And I walked away with a new dream, feeling all but certain that I wanted to adopt my own child.

I was terrified: The more important the decision, the more frightening it is. I collected quotes on taking risks. When we began the adoption application process, I cut out a quote from journalist Dorothy Thompson, who said, “Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live.”

And then, this past January, my husband and I brought home our one-day-old baby daughter. As we drove away from the hospital, I told my husband in a wondering voice, “There’s a baby in our car!” Even after all the preparation, it seemed nearly impossible. Throughout the first weeks with her, my husband and I stared at each other in sleep-deprived astonishment, laughing and asking each other, “Do you feel like a parent?” And slowly the answer shifted from Um, maybe? to Yes. Absolutely yes. We named our daughter Grace; it’s an old family name, but also a word for possibility and renewal. Through Grace, we transcended our old fears and perceptions of ourselves that no longer fit. We discovered that life could be so much bigger than we had imagined.

Gracie is sitting on my lap as I proofread this essay. It’s possible that my work has slowed down somewhat, but I also think that I’ve gotten more efficient, cutting away nonessential tasks. Life pours into new containers: I write during nap times and mull over plots during feedings. Gracie and I are half-minded together, dreaming together; she reclines on my lap and reaches for the pages of her cardboard book. To my joy and surprise, I’ve learned that as important as it is to have space to work in, I don’t always have to do it all alone. Sometimes a tiny new perspective is the best inspiration of all.