Monday, October 13, 2008

Now or Later

(This was previously posted on Kimchi Mamas.)

We had been sitting next to each other for the past four hours, and we were about to go into the final hour, the home stretch. We had spent the past week together, vacationing in Hawaii. There we were in a row, me, then my mom, then my dad. My dad was conked out, snoring with his mouth open. My mom prattled as she usually did, telling me this or that story, sharing her snack of roasted nuts and rice crackers, occasionally flipping through Airways Magazine.

"So," she said. "You're planning to get engaged, aren't you?"

"Uh hum, we probably will. We talked about it, so we'll see how it goes."

She had met Jeff for the first time a week ago over lunch. She had watched me talk to him nightly during this vacation. She had asked a question here and there about our relationship, his background, his family.

She nibbled on a rice cracker. Then, she said it so nonchalantly that I almost missed it.

"Well, then, why don't you try to have your baby now?"

I looked back at her. "What?"

"Try having your baby now. Why wait?"

This was my mother speaking. The same mother who prohibited me from having any boyfriends all throughout school, including law school which I attended until my late 20s, who was horrified by the stories I told from college of girls showering with their boyfriends, who believed men and women should never cohabit before marriage. Before their visit this time, I had, like a silly schoolgirl, made Jeff remove all external signs that he lived with me. Quite silly, since I was already 35. For all I knew, my mother thought I was still a virgin. Or so I thought.

So who was this woman urging me to have a baby out of wedlock? And with a man she had met just once? And whom I met just five months ago. And a non-Korean at that. Surely, this was not my Korean mother.

She's had her notions before. Like the time she got a friend of hers to mail in her nephew's resume in time for one of my short visits home. When it arrived, she and my dad huddled by the lamp to examine it, beaming with the excitement of kids receiving their happy meal toys, before announcing to me that there may be someone suitable for me to meet. As they encouraged me to look over his resume, they pointed out no less than six times that he got his graduate degree from Columbia.

Or that other occasion when a random guy called from a 212 number and announced, "Hi, this is Paul… Paul from Harvard? Uhh, didn't your mom tell you about me?" Another nephew of some Korean woman my mother knew, who had been given my San Francisco phone number. My mother had taken the liberty of telling him that I would soon be moving back to New York.

So, we've had our different approaches to relationships and sexuality. But I had always assumed that I was reliably to her left on these issues. Until this moment.

"Mom, I'm not going to get pregnant before we get married! We're not even engaged yet."

"Well, just think about it. You're not that young, you know…"

So, there it was. Practicality above all else. Maybe this was my mother after all. Practical advice from a woman who had all three of her children in her 20s and could not imagine starting a family so late in life. A woman who insisted that I marry a Korean-American who came from a good family, who earns a higher income, who has a graduate degree, yadda, yadda, yadda... That is, until I entered my 30s as a single woman and then she decided that any male would do. Turns out the absolute values she projected came with expiration dates.

Needless to say, I dismissed her suggestion out of hand. I was only 35, and as I saw it, well within my fertile bounds. And no way was I going to risk carrying a child before we were legally wed. Besides, weight gain, expanded waist, and morning sickness just weren't compatible with my idea of a perfect wedding.

Now, two years later, I look back on that conversation. Two months after this conversation, Jeff and I got engaged. Eight months after that, we were married. Now, almost a year into our marriage and four months after a miscarriage, I wonder if I am running out of time, especially to meet our hopes of having two or three children. Now, I am pregnant again, but I am beset with worries that this one too could end in a miscarriage.

Not to say that I would have taken her advice knowing what I know now. I would still have opted to take my chances - and turned to fertility treatment, if necessary. But I have wondered about our different outlooks - me, who was looking forward into a future unwinding slowly with so many possibilities - and my mother, who was looking backwards, counting my numbered days and fearing the blockades already in place. I could not have imagined getting married in my early 20s and having three children by the age of 28 with no means of supporting myself. In me, my mother sees a woman near the end of her fertile years just starting to work toward having a family.

And the irony isn't lost on me. I grew up watching my mother negotiate her realm of motherhood and wife in this foreign country, often taking the backseat to my father's decision making and power. Her battles and losses fueled my desire to secure a career, to fortify myself with a degree and independence, to ward against just motherhood. And here with are, me securing what she didn't have, and her fearing what I may miss. With both of us praying at this late hour that it isn't too late to have it all.


  1. I love this story. It proves that their primary goal in raising us is to have grandchildren. I'm convinced. To this day, every time I tell my mother I have good news, the first thing she says is, "You're pregnant!" She started saying this when I was 29, unmarried, in graduate school, totally broke. She still says it now that I'm 42, have two kids, and am married. They can't help it.

  2. Hmmm, wonder how we'll be as we get older. The fruit doesn't fall far from the tree.

  3. I am a lawyer whose wife miscarried after many years of trying after the birth of our daughter. Nearly 14 years separates our daughter from our son. And we still get treated as if decisions regarding the kids are theirs to make. Still, they are wonderful grandparents to all 17 of them. Hopefully, we become like them -- blind to the fact that our kids are grown and decision makers on their own, but loving enough that the grandchildren see all the wonderment of the older generations.