But what of having children — or getting married, for that matter — before establishing oneself? That is: What to say to the young person who might consider those kinds of commitments if not for the finality of it all, the sense that she may be making somebody else before knowing who she herself really is? The standard-issue airline safety warning comes to mind: In the event of an air pressure change inside the cabin, secure your oxygen mask in place before you attempt to assist other passengers you may be traveling with. They don’t say or you’ll both be screwed. But you know that’s what they mean.
The thought certainly crossed my mind. When I got pregnant, my husband was a fledgling attorney and I was a greenhorn journalist; a big night for us entailed walking to the local Popeyes to pick up a box of biscuits and a couple tubs of red beans and rice. Our basement apartment had orange and yellow walls, and a single window-mounted air-conditioner with a permanent death rattle. In my memory it is always summer there, because every day passed with that languor of summer, the thrill of limitless possibility softened by a sense of no particular hurry. We both knew we were still waiting to become who we would be. This was all prelude.
And then we found ourselves in a darkened room in an obstetrician’s office, nervously watching an ultrasound flicker to blurry significance on a screen. The doctor pointed out a pale oblong smudge in the black field of my uterus. It looked like the ghost of a peanut. And then he adjusted some knob on the machine, and the wisp had an echoing heartbeat. Somehow, even after the surprise of the pregnancy itself, I still had the capacity to be stunned, and I was.
We spent our first tranche of anxiety on material concerns. Would we need a bigger place, and if so, how would we afford it? How much could we possibly save before D-Day? How would we pay for prenatal care, seeing as I was still on my mother’s insurance, which did not cover maternity care for dependents? Our jobs weren’t steady. We had no idea when or if they would be, or if either of us were really in the right line of work. Worldly possessions, self-understanding and confidence were all in short supply.
Then she was born.
One of the things they don’t tell you about having babies is that you don’t ever have a baby; you have your baby, which is, to you, the ur-baby, the sum of all babies. The moment they laid her damp rosy body on my chest, I knew she would envelop my world. I had worried about that very thing. In Sheila Heti’s novel “Motherhood,” the narrator, a cynical writer contemplating whether to have kids before it’s too late, laments the absence of new parents from their friends’ lives, a phenomenon she calls “that relieved and joyful desertion.” “When a person has a child,” she writes “they are turned towards their child.” The risk of falling off the world haunted me. When you have a baby, you do turn toward your child — that “relieved and joyful desertion” may eventually affect your friends, but it first affects yourself.
What I didn’t understand — couldn’t have, at the time — was that deserting yourself for another person really is a relief. My days began to unfold according to her schedule, that weird rhythm of newborns, and the worries I entertained were better than the ones that came before: more concrete, more vital, less tethered to the claustrophobic confines of my own skull. For this member of a generation famously beset by anxiety, it was a welcome liberation.
Being young, or young enough still not to know yourself entirely, and then feeling the foundation of your nascent selfhood shift beneath you — perhaps that’s exactly the sort of momentous change that makes the whole enterprise so daunting. Yet there I’ve given up the game: With the exception of — perhaps — a few immutable characteristics, you are not something you discover one day through trial and error and interior spelunking; you are something that is constantly in the process of becoming, the invention of endless revolutions. You never know who you are, because who you are is always changing.