Home: What Does It Look Like To You?

Home

“Home” is a word with many different definitions. Over the weekend, I visited Dictionary.com to study them…

  1. A house, apartment, or other shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household.
  2. The place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.
  3. An institution for the homeless, sick, etc.: a nursing home.
  4. The dwelling place or retreat of an animal.
  5. The place or region where something is native or most common.
  6. Any place of residence or refuge.
  7. A person’s native place or own country.

What I want to talk about this evening is the fifth definition on this list, home as “the place or region where something is native or most common.” Although I was born in Chicago, the first home I remember is an apartment in rural Virginia. My father Gregg was a military policeman in the United States Armed Forces, a professed proud keeper of domestic peace. My mother was a registered nurse, a healer.

Our apartment had a bathroom door that locked from the outside, and one of my earliest memories is of being trapped in the small room. The doorbell rang while I was doing my tiny lady business and I heard the unmistakable click of the lock as one of my parents ran to greet the caller. I’ve never figured out which one of them actually turned the handle and it seems unlikely this particular mystery will ever be solved.

After what felt like several minutes of banging on the door and crying, I was freed by my laughing mother. She claimed I had tripped the lock myself, silly girl, and what’s the sobbing and fuss all about? I was preschool aged but immediately befuddled. My mommy wouldn’t lie to me, right? I knew what I heard. I wiped my tears and filed the incident away. I was good at that.

Much later I learned from my father’s family that dad had been conducting light traffic in the drug trade to supplement his soldier’s salary. Society’s respected veteran and his wife locked their toddler in the bathroom to service a customer. Because neither of them admitted to it during the course of our relationship, I’ll never know for sure if the maneuver was for my safety or just to keep me out of the way.

It was established early on that home was absolutely for me, “the place or region where something is native or most common.” We moved several times throughout my childhood but each environment was characterized by the same features: emotional and physical threats with lots and lots of untruth.

My parents fought – loudly, violently and often. When I was 8 years old, I was huddled on the stairs that led to a second floor bedroom. I was trying to prevent my little sister from seeing what was unfolding. Usually she was only too happy to oblige but I always felt the need to act as gate keeper and watch to the bitter end. As if by sheer force of stare I could protect my whole family from destroying itself. As if I would know the exact moment to intervene and save everyone. On this evening, my father screamed three words that changed me forever:

“You trapped me.”

Although only a third grader, I knew instantly the trap was me. I could do math and figured out my mother was three months pregnant when she and my father married. If Daddy felt forced into domestic unrest by external forces, the fault was clearly mine. I felt a sudden and quixotic rush of guilt as well as a sense of my own power. In a bizarre way, this new information only reinforced what I already felt was a duty to be hyper-vigilant for my family. I was capable of generating danger before I was even aware of it. That contrary gift had to be channeled productively.

The impression Gregg’s words left, deepened by natural inclinations of character and a desire to be loved, unleashed a firestorm of achievement-oriented activity. I wanted to be the best at everything, to keep climbing new heights, make Gloria and Gregg proud. It was so painfully and openly needy. I owed it to my dysfunctional parents to help them care more, and I was persistent in effort. After all, wasn’t their unhappiness and disinclination to provide for our basic needs my fault? I trapped them. I was hungry in more ways than one to show them that engaging was worth it. That I was worth it. As a bonus, I enjoyed the luxury of disappearing into industry. A mind and body always in motion don’t have time to hurt and despair.

The last time I saw my mom was in my early 20s. She committed extensive identity fraud against my sister and I before fleeing downstate. She’d been lying for years until a repossessed car and a locked drawer of never paid bills exposed the truth. She tried to change her story again and I slapped my own mother – hard. She walked out the door with her purse and the clothes on her back – and never contacted us again. I filled out a police report and the bankruptcy judge who discharged the case regarded me with tremendous pity. I gained a new understanding of home – the place where one can be victimized and abandoned in slow motion. And left to handle the cleanup.

When I was 30 years old, I checked my dad into a hospital for another mental health stint. Although I hadn’t lived with either of my parents in a long time, I was still “home” every time we engaged, my fight or flight responses at the ready. Surprises were rarely of the pleasant variety. But this one should have been good news. Turns out I’d never been a trap after all. Gregg told me I was the first realized, but fourth conceived child. He did not unburden himself out of the goodness of his heart. It was the act of a rebellious man unwilling to confront the consequences of his refusal to stay medicated. I was trampling upon the homeless, bi-polars perceived right to terrorize people in public places. And that required punishment. So he spat the truth in my direction. The first three fetuses had been aborted. They had discussed the same end for me, but ultimately decided to skip the clinic and get married. I was an arbitrary act. Let my story serve as confirmation that the mentally ill can still be tremendous, calculating assholes.

I was horrified, and hated him intensely in that moment. But in a way, the truth did offer a sort of freedom. I’d never heard that my sociopathic mother insisted she couldn’t get pregnant, and that my troubled father failed to question repeated, terminated evidence of her falsehood. I guess the former Catholic altar boy who still skipped red meat on Fridays couldn’t stomach a fourth trip to the abortion clinic. When my father told the whole truth – that three other babies could have been in my position – a whole new can of psychological fuckery opened. Why me? Why had I been born at all? And why were the people who brought me into the world such monumental pricks?

I was so angry and felt an odd sense of loss. My identity had been wrapped in the narrative of the unwanted, troublesome baby with a karmic debt to repay for 22 years by that time. My internal home – my mind – had been violated again by people who – let’s face it – just didn’t have it in them to love me. My mind was the place where I should have felt the safest, where I stubbornly protected my truths. Suddenly Gregg had upended the world order. It was never clearer, as I stood dumb with shock and rage in the emergency room of Good Samaritan Hospital, that I’d just been a fixture in the physical homes I’d inhabited with Gregg and Gloria. A weapon of psychological warfare. No great and mighty impetus after all.

It’s said often that knowledge is its own power. My home, my identity had been stuffed into a blender and pureed. I was already in badly needed individual therapy and in time would add group work to the mix. True story: Al-Anon can work wonders for all co-dependents, not just ones affected by substance abusers. Compulsive lying and gambling, hoarding – the manifestations of addiction are comfortingly similar in their own way. After so many decades spent in emotional isolation, community was key. But before I got there, the knowledge my father imparted to me that day at the hospital gave me the strength to turn around and leave him – for good. In my nascent, evolving home, Gregg, Gloria, their lies and psychological games were unwelcome. I was not the pre-birth harbinger of doom. I was an innocent baby, unfortunate in parental luck. I needed to learn who Becky really is and build her a newer, safer home.

In three weeks I will be 38 years old. I’ve had no contact at all with either of my parents in a long time, long enough to rewrite my definition of home. Remember that list I read at the top of this story? My life today, my living space with my partner Bob and our old shaggy dog Jude most closely matches number 6. The place of residence or refuge. I never understood my parents’ struggle with honesty, even before it started to negatively impact my very existence. I sailed from my mother’s womb as a blunt oversharer and will return to dust the same way I imagine. My natural inclination leans toward the belief that bad timing is more easily forgiven than deceit. I’m sticking with it. I’m capable of shame but I no longer wear it like an albatross stole. For whatever reason the house of relative strength and clarity I inhabit now was built with the materials it required. I can’t regret anything, even the pain.

My mind and my environment, full of quiet, unconditional love that I fought to attract and feel deserving in receiving, is home today. I’m trapped by nothing but the certainty that I’m exactly where I belong.

Advertisements

Passion is One Determined Bitch

This post is featured on http://www.nikkinigl.com as part of her #WordsByWomenWednesday blog series. 

My name is Becky Sarwate and I am a writer with an entrepreneurial, personal flair for the dramatic arts.

At two years of age, I stood on a theater seat and invented sing-a-long Xanadu long before crowd participation movie screening was a thing.

At age four, I produced my own version of the 95 Theses – a compelling treatise listing the reasons why I should no longer have to share a room with my slob of a little sister. While my case was ultimately dismissed, the panel of jurors, i.e. my parents did commend my creative and persistent effort.

At 14, I began documenting my life in diary, the analog blog if you will. In addition to chronicling my crushes, academic and social successes and failures, I also found a safe haven to tell the story of my family – an abusive, addictive, truth distorting narrative that required children to serve as brainwashed co-conspirators in their own deprivation. The journals where a safe space for keeping reality in play. I write almost daily in these private pages still, 23 years later. Dozens of books illustrating my inner life…and evolution from a large scrawling, exclamation point loving, scared little thing into a woman who’s taking her stories to the public.

This wasn’t how my life was supposed to go, according to society’s rules, and reinforced by the sociofamilial culture in which I was raised. I’ve already mentioned trouble at home – a bipolar, hoarding father and a soulless mother who literally and figuratively ashed four packs of cigarettes a day on top of the pile of neuroses that drove my immediate family to the fringes of society. Add nine years of repressive Protestant primary education, depression and the urgency to survive and get out of my home into the mix, and I set my career sights on a different path.

I needed money and stability. I was never having the IRS seize my bank account again, as they had in 1992 after my eighth grade graduation. My parents had stopped paying their taxes for 10 years and I was a minor. When I was 22 years old, my mother committed massive identity fraud against me and fled after I worked up the courage to file police reports. I found myself in bankruptcy court, $23,000 in debt at the ripe old age of 23, on my own finally and completely from that point forward. I couldn’t afford poetry, journalism and the luxury of my own creativity. That’s what I believed.

 

2014

2014

 

I spent 10 years after earning a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of Illinois trying desperately not to tell my stories. I wanted to change the arc altogether. Through two failed marriages and a progressively soul crushing career in corporate operations (as the daughter of a hoarder, I turned out to be great at organizing and project management), I stopped listening my own voice altogether, let alone writing down anything it had to say. I wanted to be the perfect wife, the well-paid corporate ladder climber, everyone’s favorite party guest. I wanted, at long last just to fit in.

But here’s the problem – I didn’t fit in at all. And I knew it. That job made it hard to imagine getting up every morning with anything approaching inspiration. The same applied to the confining second marriage in which I placed myself, an entanglement I only realized after years of individual and group therapy was perfectly designed to duplicate the familiar dynamic I had with my parents. Dominate me, make me feel small. In silent martyrdom, at least I know who I am. I never had the chance growing up to figure out who I was if not nailed to the cross of some familial cause. I wasn’t sure I had the courage to try as an adult.

September 2015

SEPTEMBER 2015

 

BUT. But. But. That voice. The one I tried so hard to choke, that instinct that told me I was on all the wrong paths when I well knew what the right ones were. If only I’d channel that toddler Xanadu singalong star. That voice was always there. And it wasn’t always very quiet. In fact it was often so loud that I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t focus, couldn’t feel anything but that panicked animal escape instinct I felt as a kid. Weary of captivity, my gut instincts refused to go back into the cage in which I’d shut them. Very inconvenient at the time, but enlightenment doesn’t always arrive when we’re looking. I underwent a personal revolution brought about by a resurgent roar of the voice, and four different, but equally important influences:

ONE: A big push from my younger sister who was a constant, positive thorn in my side after I earned a Master’s in English Lit in 2007. She knew all about my secret dreams – and wouldn’t let me forget them (even if I could). This woman was in the trenches with me, every painful step of the way. No one knew my shortcomings, fears and hang-ups better. Yet she believed in me and lifted my passion as high up as she could to help me start to view it as something possible.

TWO: The death of my best friend from ovarian cancer in April of 2009. Jesika was a woman who always pushed me. I didn’t think we could fake ID our way into the Esquire movie theater in 1992 to catch the weekend premiere of the R-rated Whitney Houston classic, The Bodyguard. But she looked me in the eye and said, “You’re as mature as you think you are.” This was the second sister who sighed before asking me if she had to start trolling for homeless people. She wanted to be first to buy the issue when I proudly announced my first feature in StreetWise newspaper. Then she handed me a cosmo and told me to drink up. And this was the woman who died after a tragically brief 17-day battle with ovarian cancer at the age of 30. Before she got to practice law, her own career passion, or marry her longtime boyfriend Kevin, the love of her life. I owed it to this agitator, rebel and unfailing supporter to take advantage of the life I still had.

THREE: A painful divorce from my second husband, a man from a conservative Hindu family. Among many wrenching decisions, he asked me to choose between our union and my fledging authorial aspirations. I chose the latter. Sometimes I still can’t believe I did it. But I had to make that decision mean something. I had to prove those retreating taunts that I would fail, wrong – to myself and to him.

FOUR: The discovery of mentors, mostly female, who could shine some guiding light upon the new path I was walking. Such as Suzanne Hanney, the Editor in Chief of StreetWise, who gave a novice, 30-year old writer with no journalism degree, experience or bylines a shot at six cover stories in 2009. Just because she emailed and asked for a chance, and that email was well-written.

And you know what? It turned out that I could write freelance for publications and causes close to my heart – politics and media criticism for Contemptor, theater reviews for EDGE Media Networkmy own personal branded website and blog – without giving up that stability I once treasured above all else. I just had to stretch my mind a little bit. It was women who taught me this, offering different models of success that allowed them to have their own version of It ALL.

Real estate and personal finance expert Ilyce Glink hired me as a web content writer for her brand and small digital publishing company in 2011. She achieved the work/life balance by having her husband (an attorney) handle the legal stuff while she was the face and brains of the business. I have a great female mentor at my current day job. While I blog, write emails, web content and sales materials about the complicated and serious world of credit, anyone who comes across my work still finds my voice. I have a paycheck, health insurance and stability but I lean in my own way – writing about challenges and solutions I once desperately sought answers for myself – identity protection and credit health.

I do not have JK Rowling’s money, David Sedaris’ fame or even the journalistic reputation of Gail Collins. But in finally standing still long enough to listen to and heed the voices in my head, in finding a way to pursue my gifts in a way that satisfies all of my needs, I am following my passion.

What I have learned – at a painful and exhilarating cost – is that we almost always know what the answers are. We really do. But our upbringing, society’s presumed laws, individual experiences and deprivations, education and self-esteem – all of these forces interact to build soundproofing of various thickness between ourselves and our truth. After all, we wouldn’t get much done if we were always off chasing the whims of the id. But a little id goes a long way ladies. Don’t fear it.

The Comfort Zone (September 15, 2015)

48 hours ago. I’m writing the first part of my story from the middle of a 26-glacier tour in Whittier, Alaska. Although afflicted with acute motion sickness, I’m pumped full of Dramamine, roaring through Prince William Sound on a catamaran. Moments ago, with cold 65-MPH winds whipping through my hair, I was hamming it up with victorious lunges on the upper deck for my friend Beth’s camera, channeling Saturday Night Live sketch character Mary Katherine Gallagher. Did I mention I’m incredibly fearful of the ocean? Superstar indeed. As I write while breathing the sea air, I feel fucking invincible. I am a conquerer – of myself and my demons. The toughest terrain of all.

The choppy waters of rural Alaska are decidedly not my comfort zone. By nature, I’m at home in the concrete jungle, born at Northwestern Hospital in downtown Chicago, graduating from high school at an inner city institution where metal detectors greeted me in the morning and members of the Chicago Police force jostled alongside students during passing periods. I was riding the El unaccompanied in junior high and the lakefront, Lincoln Park Zoo and other Chicago landmarks comprised the biggest, most dynamic backyard for which I could have asked. The ghosts of Carl Sandburg, Frederick Olmstead, Frank Lloyd and Richard Wright, as well as the modern influence of media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey, provided a trove of inspiration.

I should have been content staying energetically still in one, huge, diverse and creative mecca. That’s what they said. What right did I have to want more? Yet want more I did, having been born with what one might call a restless spirit. And I denied it for a long time. For too many years, I accepted the projection of others without question, permitting myself to be labeled as one for whom nothing would ever be “enough.” Pick your place and occupy it – literally and figuratively. What was good for my great-grand working class German and Italian parents should have been sufficient for me. They hadn’t crossed oceans and fled poverty to produce a fly by night hippie with an acute case of wanderlust. Consistency and routine meant stability and anything else was just ungrateful and irresponsible – an unacceptable aberration.

I wanted too much. Even I believed this. My desires and curiosity outstripped my socioeconomic station, my gender and despite being labeled a gifted student, even my intellect. As a little girl, it was ok to have dreams. Fantasies were healthy, but it was better if they stopped way short of disruptive – the princess waiting for rescue, the bride-to-be with a pillow case veil, the happy mother tenderly watching over her brood of baby dolls. I could devour the popular choose your own adventure novels of the 1980s, but I could not have it all. It wasn’t possible. It was greedy – maybe even dangerous.

Lord knows I tried to make “normalcy” enough. But my ambitions were stubborn and kept defying me. During my high school years, I was a member of the Chicago Children’s Choir and was fortunate enough to travel and perform with the group across such far flung locales as Poland, Russia and South Africa. I was told by so many adults that I was enjoying a once in a lifetime experience. But there’s nothing quite as subversive as books, travel and an romantic imagination. I ate watery borscht at a dormitory in Ekaterinburg, called my younger sister from a pay phone at the summit of Table Mountain and fell in love with a boy on a balcony as the lights of Warsaw twinkled behind us. With each soul quenching expedition, a little voice in my head asked, “Once in a lifetime, huh? Says who?”

My parents indulged my underage journeys, mostly because it cost them nothing financially. The scholarship kid. I’d sew those oats then settle down into regular, whatever that meant. After graduation, I headed off to Champaign, Illinois, a sea of suburban white people, corn and fraternity/sorority convention. As the pent up tidal wave of a dysfunctional home and the smallness of my new world washed over me, I descended into drinking, drugs and other dangerous behavior. The adventures of the past were behind me, all there ever would be. I can admit now to a passive effort at killing myself from depression and boredom. Ironically I’d become too complacent to participate in my own self-destruction. I deferred to substances to finish the job. But perversely, my tolerance for numbness only grew. I earned a degree in English Literature, minoring in Psychology but all I really learned was how to fake it. I read the works of Shakespeare, the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, but I wasn’t brave enough to follow their examples and live a multi-dimensional life of my own creation. It was just too scary and heretical.

Let’s jump 12 years, two failed marriages, 6 administrative and/or corporate operations positions and one suicide attempt ahead. To what most of us know as rock bottom. As I surrendered myself to personal therapy, Al-Anon and other resources for the clueless, fearful co-dependent, one truth was abundantly clear: this shit? Not working at all. With nothing else to lose, it was clear there was only one option left if I was going to keep living. Different. Denying my inner anachronist was no longer tenable. If I was going to make it in this world, it was more than past time to let my freak flag fly high. If I was going to be at all, I needed to try to have it all. And I understood that in both the short and long term, fighting for my right to live as I must was going to be uncomfortable as hell.

This is me today. From 8:30am – 5pm, Monday-Friday, I indulge my competitive, scorekeeping self, the WASP-raised Becky that requires financial solvency as a jumping off point for safely underwriting fantastic departures from the norm. I’m a Sales Communication Manager at TransUnion, a global information solutions company that serves businesses and consumers in 33 countries worldwide. I help my department reach lofty revenue targets by crawling inside the customer’s head to develop strategic marketing plans. It’s storytelling meets psychology. Hello practical degree application.

I’m also a parched academic, with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, musty books and journals. In 2007, I earned an MA in English Literature from Northeastern Illinois University and retain strong campus ties as a student mentor and frequent collaborator with former professors. In 2012, I was honored with the NEIU English Department’s first-ever Alumni of the Year Award. My freelance work as a Chicago market theater critic for EDGE Media Network is an extension of my passion for literary scholarship, and also works as an affectionate nod to that dreaming, journaling little girl who longed to spend life in the library stacks.

But that’s still not enough. To be 100 percent authentically me is to acknowledge the stubborn, truth-seeking journalist, chasing stories while building a creative network for communicators of all professions. I’m the 49th President of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association, founded in 1885 and celebrating 130 years in 2015, as well as the Recording Secretary for the National Federation of Press Women. I’m a five-time national award-winning reporter, blogger, newsletter editor and critic who’s written for Contemptor, Politicus USA RootSpeak magazine, NewCity, Make It Better and StreetWise. I author a personal blog and publish my collected works at beckysarwate.com.

Finally, I’m an urban romantic and devoted family woman, still smitten with my younger sister Jenny after 35 years and quite possibly the most immature, silly aunt walking the streets. I realized along the way that parenthood is not for me, because as Toni Morrison memorably wrote for the title character of her novel Sula, I realized the thing I really need and want to make is myself – a beautiful product wholly unfinished.

I remain a born and proudly raised city slicker, residing in the Ravenswood neighborhood with my partner Bob and our menagerie of pets. But I step out of this world often as an adult who’s finally accepted stagnancy as my natural enemy. Maybe I should save for retirement, but I’ve made my peace with living for now because later is…later man. I can’t wait for the hypothetical. I want all I can have, right now. So instead of monitoring mutual fund performance, I’ve strapped on a sari and toured the temples of India, tentatively tiptoed to the Israeli/Lebanese border, cried overwhelmed tears of joy at Westminster Abbey and run the national finals of the Great Urban Race across the mountains of Vancouver.

No one ever told me I could try it all, be all the women I am at once. It’s work and I’m frequently exhausted. I am judged, second guessed and predicted to fail at every turn – by myself as well as the world at large. It’s risky, scary and expensive to indulge all myselves – in every costly sense. But I know now what the alternative is. Despair. I’d rather be tired and stimulated than rested and yearning. That’s existentially dishonest and I know it. The balancing act isn’t easy but dammit it’s necessary because my essence has no single dimensions. Corporate shark, writer, community organizer, lover. I am all of those things and I MUST scratch all of the itches. That requires a constant battle with a familiar enemy – the comfort zone.

I won’t let ANYTHING stop me from grabbing life by the balls and squeezing every last incongruous, exhilarating and frightening drop. Not even myself. I am the urban woman who writes stories while wearing stylish sunglasses and speeding through Arctic ice floes. If that’s uncomfortable for me or anyone else, fuck it. I can’t be otherwise.

ICYMI – Recap of MOTHER/DAUGHTER RELATIONSHIPS: What Are They? (June 21, 2015)

“She died right after I left. I laughed and cried. Mom had gotten the last word.”

Julie Roberts

“She was depressed at home, but otherwise the life of the party.”

— Carla Nigl

“I didn’t think of her as a woman. Her fuss was understated – and ignored by me.”

— Elizabeth Marsh

“I understood more of what she went through when I had my own kids.”

— Elizabeth Gomez

Stories of daughterhood were as paradoxically unique, yet universal, as the women who shared them onstage on Tuesday, June 16. Part of the ABOUT WOMEN conversation considering what it means to be a woman shaped by the influence and love (or lack thereof) of another woman, the evening offered an open, judgment-free forum for reflection on the complexities – the joys, sorrows, pain and pleasure – of the mother/daughter relationship.

Although the vignettes shared by Carla Nigl (who also happens to be ABOUT WOMEN founder Nikki Nigl’s beloved mother), Eli Marsh, Julie Roberts and Elizabeth Gomez differed in geography, ethnic culture, socioeconomics and other variables, it was a truth universally acknowledged by the women in attendance that there is no size fits all interpretation of the bond. Although Roberts acknowledged, “Our mothers are often the first loves of our lives,” several of the speakers spoke of the scars the manifold experience can leave behind. As Roberts continued, “You never forget watching your father cry.”

Sometimes, as Nigl and Roberts attested, a daughter is prematurely forced into a parent role by the ravages of mental illness. In other cases, girlhood serves as rigid and mystifying experience. Gomez was raised by an immigrant mother “who worked hard but shared little.” Yet what struck me about the stories was the unifying lack of bitterness. To a woman, the speakers confessed gratitude for the challenges they endured as a part of their upbringing. As Marsh said, “Even if the experience was terrifying, preparing for tonight was an exercise in healing.”

Despite the unique features of each speaker’s reality, the event’s attendees found much solace in shared experience. One of the strongest messages from the ABOUT WOMEN community has always been this: “You are not alone. We are not alone.” That truth was reinforced by the mother/daughter relationship conversation. Nigl offered an appropriate summation: “I wanted a mom like my friends had, but I found out later that no one’s family is perfect. No one’s mother was perfect.” Echoed Gomez, “She did what she thought was right. How can you be perfect when you’re always learning?”

As is completely appropriate with relationships so layered and diverse, there was no resolution. The vibrant dialogue about mothers, daughters and the personal implications of that bond is as old as womanhood itself. Yes engage it we must, in order to learn grow, and as ABOUT WOMEN founder Nikki Nigl proudly asserts, “Prepare to take over the world.”

ICYMI – Recap of TO HAVE KIDS or NOT TO HAVE KIDS: There Is No Wrong Answer (May 23, 2015)

On Tuesday, May 19, a group of powHERful women converged on Lakeview’s Pizzeria Serio‘s second floor to continue a conversation that ABOUT WOMEN founder Nikki Nigl began over a year ago. Speakers Rebecca Waterstone Halperin,Martii Kuznicki, Nora Fox Handler, Julie Roberts and Erin Waitz – women from different walks of life with varying experiences – took to the stage to share their stories of motherhood.

The question of whether to bear or raise children, despite a modern 21st Century world that affords women heretofore unthinkable opportunity, remains a sticky sociopolitical one. While recent decades have witnessed remarkable advances in family planning options and professional development for our gender, it’s impossible to ignore the loud and abundant opinions from all corners about what with we should do with our bodies and what our sex is “meant” to accomplish.

While having arrived at different personal decisions about what is right for them, the five speakers were united under a common theme of uncertainty. For those that opted to have children, there was ambiguity about career development, marital prioritization and in Handler’s case, concerns about a genetic irregularity that could impact childhood development. The speakers who were either unable biologically, or had made a conscious decision to skip motherhood, faced the possibility of regret or society’s judgment of them as “selfish.” The undecided, such as Waitz, are left to balance personal health concerns while trying to grow comfortable with the ambivalence.

While introducing the topic for the evening, Nigl informed the crowd that “To Have Kids or Not To Have Kids” was ABOUT WOMEN’s first repeat study alongside the ongoing body image conversation. Given the diversity of experiences shared by the speakers and attendees, it is easy to understand why. Either decision is, in its own way, a commitment. Kuznicki freely admitted of her choice to forgo childbearing, “Yes, I’m being selfish because somebody has to. I want to do me.” While Halperin spoke of the constant lack of control one must accept as a parent as such, “The best and biggest things are never what you thought they’d be – the feelings or the experience – and somehow that’s ok.”

I walked into Pizzeria Serio’s upstairs room that evening struggling with parental thoughts of my own. It was my distant, mentally ill 60 year-old father’s birthday and as I reflected upon my own tough upbringing, I wondered what drives people to make the decisions they do to bring lives into the world. As I suspected, the perspective and pressures are different for everyone, with more elements factoring into a decision either way than are found on the periodic table.

I didn’t come away with any definitive answers, because frankly, there are none to be found around this deeply personal and complex debate. But I did receive this stupendous piece of wisdom from Roberts, part of the evening’s amazing and brave panel: “No one is less because of what happens by nature or choice. No one.”