Baby vs. Book

Do I actually want another baby? Or am I just so full of fear over the prospective publication of my debut novel that I want the purity of focus that caring for a newborn affords? 

I love babies. Always have. I love their smell, their noises, their frantic mewling when they need food, the erratic jerks of their little limbs when they fall asleep, the slack-jawed look of them when they are milk-drunk. They are the best, which is perhaps why we have four kids.

We are nearing the end of the age of obsessive need, nearing a time when all four can play outside on their own without needing someone to watch over them like a hawk.  And yet, my mind for the last few months has been obsessed with the idea of having another baby. I cry whenever I see a newborn, which is very awkward for the random strangers to whom those babies belong.

Logically, I can understand that this is crazy. I know that the comedian Jim Gaffigan was right when he described having a fifth baby this way: “Imagine you’re drowning. And then someone hands you a baby.” Frankly, I feel this way about the four we already have.  We are barely holding our heads above water. But still, the desire is there.

But desire can be misleading. Is it a baby I want? Or a small piece of certainty in an uncertain world?  I’ve begun to suspect it’s the latter.

Like everyone, my life is insanely busy: Four young kids, aging parents, and too many commitments will do that to a person. Perhaps the most terrifying fact of my life currently is that my debut novel, Holding On To Nothing, which I’ve been working on for so many years is finally coming to fruition. I’ve been gestating this book for longer than any of my kids have been alive (the oldest is eight; you do the math). I had given up hope that this particular book would see the light of day. But, here it is, on its way.

Unlike with a baby, there are so many parts of its potential success in the world over which I have no control. I go to bed every night wanting to make sure I have done everything I can to get it out there, but there is always more to be done. If I don’t send it to this reviewer, write this accompanying article, get it in front of this book blogger, it might fail. And even if I do those things, it might still fail. But wait: what is failure or success when it comes to a debut novel anyway? What are the metrics by which I judge this process? I don’t know.

But if I was pregnant, or had a baby, I could ignore all those things. My life would be even messier than it already is, but it would be ok: I would have an excuse for it. My entire life’s focus would be on keeping this baby alive, fed, and changed.  The purity of that devotion is intoxicating. I could ignore all the shit on my unwritten-down to-do list and no one—least of all me—would judge me for it.

The needs of a baby are a knowable constant.  Feed her, change her, rock her. Every baby is different, of course: colic, personalities, illnesses all affect the care equation. However, while I didn’t know this when I had one, or even two kids, I now know that if you put in the time, do the work, you have done what you need to do. My raison d’etre has never been more distilled than when I was the sole incubator and food source for an entire human.

Writing and bringing a book into the world are not knowable constants. I am struck every day by the fear of failure or, maybe even worse, success on one dimension but failure in others (people hate it or feel I got something wrong, for example). No one reviews your baby (to your face, anyway). You go to bed for those few short minutes every night knowing you did what you needed to do, what you were called to do.

I just want that certainty again, an assignment I know I can complete. The issue, of course, is that babies grow up. They become creatures full of unknowable constants. They need everything, but what or how to deliver it is a mystery.  They become a creative endeavor, much like writing a book and putting it out into the world: you pour your heart and soul into it, give it everything you got, and what emerges is a mystery whose ending hasn’t been written yet.

And so, I’ll hold the babies of friends.  I’ll play with my kids and try to deliver on the emotional mothering they need now, as opposed to the physical mothering of the early months. As always, I’ll try not to yell. Most importantly, I’ll try to remember that my craving for certainty during the process of publishing a novel is certainly no reason to do a fool thing like have another baby.

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