This journal is not the kind I usually buy. I stopped at CVS on the way home, telling myself they’d have the perfect thing, talking myself out of a drive across town in evening traffic to pick up a Moleskine at Barnes and Noble. And they did have the perfect thing. In the far back corner, beyond the calendars and folios: One singular hardcover notebook with clean, thin lines. Enormous. Outlandish. Almost girly. DREAM BIG is stamped onto a cover I can barely hide under my arm. This is not an unassuming notebook. I’ve never bought one like it.
But then, I’ve never had a dream this big.
I wrote those words in 2019, when I finally discovered the answer to a question I’d been asking on and off for a decade: was I going to try and become a parent?
The question had eaten away at me for ages, especially after I came out at 30. It lurked in the corners of my mind as my straight friends married and began to have babies. It popped happily into my daydreams when things in my life were going well — and crept into my nightmares when things were going badly. I’d known since I was eight years old that I wanted to have kids someday, but I’d known for even longer that the world is a strange, uncertain place. And so for years, I’d asked my loved ones: How do you decide? How do you know it will be okay? How can we keep our babies safe?
It was my mom who told me, over and over again: You don’t know. You can’t know. You do your best. Things in the world have looked dire so many times. No one in history has ever had guarantees. It will be okay.
She also said one thing that I absolutely knew was true: You’ll be so good at this.
I trust her. And so, by the time I bought the notebook, I was ready. The answer was yes. I was going to try to have a baby.
The notebook was the easy part, of course. Many parts were not easy. There was the alarming gynecologist with the Bibles in her waiting room. The referral to the fertility clinic, two hours out of town because I live in rural Northern California. There was a kind doctor with an ultrasound, who noted my slightly heart-shaped uterus, but said it would probably be fine. I started searching online for a donor, a terrifying process in its own right, but I was doing it. I was ready.
And then it was March 2020.
Living in your hometown is a funny sort of time travel. When I imagined having a baby without a co-parent, I imagined my kid might have a childhood not so different from my own. I imagined giving birth down the hall from a hospital waiting room teeming with family. I imagined getting the dishes done while my child was bathed in love and care by their grandparents. Later, there would be long afternoons spent playing with their cousins. I grew up encircled by my family, and I knew my child would do the same.
But then the pandemic turned everything I thought I knew completely upside down.
In the long spring of that year, family members who lived just miles away became floating heads on a Zoom call. My mom and I could go for walks, ten feet apart, but we couldn’t hug or share a meal. I read books to my niece over Face-Time. We were all marooned in a sea of social distance, and no one so much as my friends with children.
Then there were the hospitals, which had suddenly become very scary places. Triage tents were erected in front of our local ER overnight. My worst nightmare, the thing that kept me careful, was the idea that I might have to drive a parent with Covid up to the doors of the hospital — and that I might never see them again.
Everything I’d feared about the world in my most uncertain moments — that it could change on a dime, that unspeakable things could happen, and probably would — all seemed true.
What room was there, in this new world, for a baby?
The question was never, did I want you. The question was always, could I keep you safe.
I was a kid who paid attention. When my grandpa watched the news, I hid behind him in the doorway, soaking up all the ways the world could hurt me. At the age of five, I developed my own evacuation plan for a house fire. At ten, my friends and I discussed what we would do if we were kidnapped like Polly Klaas.
Becoming a teenager did not staunch my imagination for how things could go wrong, but that sixth sense for catastrophe made me a terrific babysitter. It was my whole job to make sure that the kids on my watch were safe and loved. I was the one with a first-aid kit in my backpack, the babysitter who was great at pretend play and would always suggest bubbles over bikes. I could predict and prevent almost any accident. Once, when a dad asked me if I could “try to get his toddler on her skateboard today,” I laughed in his face.
Parenting, of course, is a very different gig. It’s a parent’s job to foster independence, to allow minor accidents to happen. I’d always known that becoming a parent would mean lesson after lesson in letting go. It would mean seeing what could happen, and then letting it happen anyway, skinned knees and all. I had tried to prepare for that. But then the pandemic happened, and all the ways I thought I’d prepared flew directly out the window. What would it be to bring a new person into that? How would it be for them? What would it do to me?
Make no mistake. I doubt the world; I doubt myself. But please know that I have, that I have always had, all the faith in you.
On the day in January that I got my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, my appointment was scheduled for 6:30 am. I rose in the dark, drove to the clinic in disbelief. Nobody knew where to line up. Everyone looked somehow both tired and giddy. It had been ages since I’d been around that many people. I got my shot, waited my 15 minutes, and drove to the park just in time to catch the sunrise. It was a mild morning. Hiking up the hill to that memorial bench with my coffee, such a heaviness lifted from my shoulders. All things felt possible, or like they might be, soon.
All things did not end up being possible, of course. The vaccine was not everything. But it did help my life to open back up in important ways. I got to hug my mom again. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 dropped, at least in between waves, and certain visitors were allowed in the hospitals again. Some days, even with all that had changed, even with all that hadn’t, I could see a way forward. Some days I could see a path to parenthood again, in a way that I hadn’t in that horrible first spring of the pandemic.
You may ask about your conception over breakfast, or on the way to school, and it won’t be the hardest question to answer. But what about when you ask me why your heart hurts? What if you ask me about the state of mine?
One warm night last week, I put on a 1997 playlist and did something I hadn’t done since high school: I got in my car and started driving just to drive, just to think, just to feel like I was going somewhere. I turned toward home — not where I live now, but the house in the canyon where I grew up — and I stopped having to think about the road. Something deep within me knew every hairpin, every s-curve. The playlist stalled out when my reception went down to one bar, and I started singing Meredith Brooks, badly, out the open window. The thinking parts of my brain were free to wonder why everything looked so different, so airy, why there were fewer houses, why the houses that did line the street were new. I shouldn’t have been able to see the creek from here, but there it was, water tumbling over rocks.
I saw some trees still standing, trunks black with telltale char, and I remembered: this all burned. Was it the Camp Fire in 2018, or the smaller ones in the years after? I’m not sure anymore. But the houses I remember, the thick woods that hid and cooled the creek, were gone.
Everything changes. Even as I write this — even since I pitched this — everything has changed again. When was it that we got the news about Roe Vs. Wade, about the Supreme Court? Was it two weeks ago? Was it three? How time stretches in adulthood, and in a pandemic, doubly so. How long since Florida passed the bill making life harder for LGBTQ+ kids in Florida? How long since Texas made it harder for kids to get gender-affirming health care? How long since the last tragedy involving a gun? How long ago was high school, when I’d get in my car, filled with the gas I paid for, and felt free for the very first time, the world stretching out in front of me, as full of promise as the deepest breath?
I’m not the same person that I was when I first drove this road as a teenager. I’m not even the same person who decided I was ready to have a kid in 2019. Is the version of me that said I can do this still even in there?
I hope that I am.
Dear baby: This is not a kind world, but there is kindness in it. This is not a just world, but there are moments of great joy. I do not have hope for the world, but I have hope for you.
Maybe that’s enough.