Becoming Jen

IMG_0119In observance of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d share this as a tribute for the many mothers out there– those who are biologically mothers and those who lovingly contribute to the lives of young people by mentoring, comforting, teaching, nursing… i.e. mothering. Many thanks to BUST Magazine for publishing the initial version of this story in July of 2016. I have since edited and added to it for my collection, Burning Sage. Also thanks to my girlhood friend, Jen, for allowing me to share this little glimpse into her beautiful family. 


Becoming Jen

In the fall of 1994, I was a new mom, a new wife, and a faithful fanatic of the brand new sitcom, Friends. I looked forward to Thursday night TV all week. I had just turned 21, and after a full day of changing diapers, watching Barney, and reading Shakespeare, I would glue myself to my grandma’s hand-me-down console TV in our first apartment and pretend I was carefree again. I imagined myself, along with my own friends, living it up in Manhattan, drinking from oversized coffee cups, and popping in and out of each other’s apartments. I imagined being thin again, wearing cute clothes, and sitting next to my husband on the couch in Central Perk as we all contributed to the most trivial and inane conversations. I imagined being Rachel.

Rachel Green was incredibly cute and fairly flawed. She almost let societal expectations undermine her self-worth and forge a path which, for her, meant complacency. But she didn’t. She didn’t go through with a loveless marriage, and she decided instead to make it on her own. She cut up Daddy’s credit cards and went from barista to fashion buyer. With her adorable new haircut that took Gen X-ers by storm, Rachel became somewhat of an icon to young women. This isn’t to say she was a perfect role model. Her spoiled upbringing, episodic bouts of whining, and at times, air-headed nature could set anyone on edge. But she was also kind of real—a young woman questioning privilege, battling her own inflated ego, seeking a way to remain true to herself and true to her friends. Watching her was a fun escape and actually made me contemplate the person I did and did not want to be. Learning about Jennifer Aniston over the years, or Jen as I like to call her, was even more interesting. Her attitude toward aging, beauty, charity, heartbreak, and motherhood left me in awe. It became clear that it wasn’t Rachel I admired; it was Jen.

Jennifer Aniston wrote an article for The Huffington Post voicing her frustration over incessant pregnancy rumors. She states, “For the record, I am not pregnant. What I am is fed up.” Jen is 47. You would think there would be a point when people stop prodding her, when they start minding their own business. I know too well they won’t. I imagine when Jen is 65 and I am 61, when our eggs have long since dried up, our friends, families, and co-workers (a.k.a. Mr. and Mrs. Well-Meaning) will ask, “So, when are you having a baby?” Her experience is different than mine, obviously. First of all, she’s a celebrity and is under the microscope every day; additionally, she has never had a baby. On the other hand, I’ve had one child and, on many occasions, have been made to feel like a neglectful parent because of my son’s only-child-existence. What unites us is that we are both apparently unnatural. Both freaks in a world that loves labels, and traditions, and categories.

Once upon a time, there was another Jen. I went to middle school and high school with Jen Wylie—my goofy, lovely choir friend. Jen and I didn’t often socialize outside of school. She did have one crazy party sophomore year that our classmates still talk about to this day. It looked like a scene right out of Sixteen Candles. Beer covered her parents’ floors, tables ended up broken, beds were, good God, besmirched. So when she got pregnant shortly after graduating from high school, we were all quite surprised; it was still assumed she was grounded for the rest of her natural life.

Her baby girl was beautiful—the perfect combination of Jen’s sweet face and the face of her husband, Roman, the older football god we all had a crush on growing up. She seemed happy. It was all working out. And she conveyed this to me with a phone call after hearing that I was pregnant. Baby gurgles in the background, I sat on my kitchen floor, tracing the patterns in the tiles with my fingers, listening to Jen explain everything I was about to encounter and asking me questions I had only recently pondered. Was I taking prenatal vitamins? Did I see the doctor yet? Did I hear the heartbeat? Some questions took me to the world of adulthood that I still couldn’t face. Would I need WIC or medical assistance? Bottle or breastfeed? Natural childbirth or epidural anesthesia? My mind was in a whirl. Wasn’t it just yesterday that I listened to New Kids on the Block with this girl? Wasn’t it just yesterday that I borrowed her lip gloss in choir?

Shortly after I had my baby, Jen had another. And then another. And then seven more. And then two grandbabies before the age of 43. She exudes a magical, maternal force that is, quite honestly, enviable. Her Facebook posts scream of her art—nurturing her gorgeous family. It is her gift.

Mr. and Mrs. Well-Meaning have stalked Jen’s life too, only with different questions: How do you feed them? Are they all from the same marriage? How much does your husband make? Because, you see, this other Jen is a freak too. Just like me. Just like Jennifer Aniston.

But here is what Mr. and Mrs. Well-Meaning, with all of their questions and concerns, don’t know: They don’t know our lives. They don’t know which Jen lies awake at night scared about decisions of the past, scared about screwing up the present—scared about regret in the future. They don’t know which Jen prays to one day cradle her first tiny person, or yet another tiny person, of her very own. They don’t know which Jen lives in certainty, confident and proud of her life choices. They don’t know which Jen is infertile, and is in turn, stung by feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness every time there’s a comment. They don’t know which Jen’s ovaries burn every time she holds a baby or if each day crossed off the calendar is another reminder of a window that inches closed, just a little bit more. They don’t know which Jen has suffered painful loss, and therefore, holds a much different appreciation of new life. The “concerned men” don’t know what carrying a baby for nine months does to a person. How a little piece of your heart is taken from you, leaving you a helpless bystander to a part beautiful, part cruel world that you hope will be kind and fair, but you know is certain to incite pain. They don’t know which Jen swallows down the pangs of envy whenever her friends send beautiful holiday cards of fresh, toothless smiles. They don’t know which Jen rejoices each day, or which Jen cries each night. And, most of all, Mr. and Mrs. Well-Meaning, with all their vague, but let’s face it, snarky and intrusive intentions, obviously don’t know how to shut their mouths.

The funny thing about this life is, it’s supposed to be our own. We’re supposed to be able to decide what’s best for us, pay our bills, and be kind to people without bowing to societal expectations, whether that includes having ten kids or none. When I see Jennifer Aniston in commercials and new movies, exuding confidence with her Aveeno kissed skin, I feel like a proud little sister. I know it sounds ridiculous; she doesn’t even know I exist. But I like to imagine that when she holds the children at St. Jude Hospital, speaks passionately about her work with orphans in Tijuana, and advocates for LGTB youth, her heart matches my own. Maybe she feels the same way I feel when my only child shares good news with me, when I sense that he’s hurting, when my students come to me with problems, and when they return to me well after they graduate. Maybe she feels like my high school friend Jen when her oldest daughter walks in the door holding her grandbaby or when her youngest cuts his first tooth.

See, I know a little secret that Mr. and Mrs. Well-Meaning fail to recognize: maternal love has nothing to do with what they’ve been told and the expectations of family and friends. It reaches far beyond the baby-bumps, 2.5 kids, and white-picket fences. Their well-meaning questions only serve as a glaring spotlight into their own lives—their own insecurities.