Point of View

Freedom 44? I had my children early — that means letting go early, too

"I bucked the system, and it mostly worked out fine," writes author Elisabeth de Mariaffi.

This isn't the sort of speech I'd give to a class of Grade 9 girls

Elisabeth de Mariaffi wears her daughter Nora de Mariaffi's graduation cap. Nora let her keep it. (Submitted by Elisabeth de Mariaffi)

The night I left my daughter, my oldest child, at her new university dorm, I walked from what now seemed a very empty hotel room near Montreal's Gare Centrale all the way up to Mile End.

Worried that I'd feel at loose ends, I'd texted a friend, another writer, and basically invited myself over for a drink. It was a long walk but the night was warm and lovely, and lively, everything you expect in Montreal.

My friend had, at the time, an eight-week-old baby. I sat with him and his wife on their patio with the baby sleeping inside for maybe half an hour, not wanting to deprive them of any valuable sleep time themselves, before setting off home along St. Denis, where I watched students — just by a year or so older than the girl I'd just let go — carrying their bicycles, with great glee, up the curving iron steps of their brand new fire escape.

It was a mindbender to see my friends at the opposite end of this long and amazing trip, a two-month-old baby in a bassinet, my own baby starting her bachelor of fine arts degree.

Elisabeth de Mariaffi holds Nora de Mariaffi. (Submitted by Elisabeth de Mariaffi)

It shouldn't have been: the schedule I set for my own motherhood was never in step with my peers. I should have been used to it.

At 23, I decided to have a baby. The father was someone I'd known only a few months, but I had the optimism of my age and, I think now, valid misgivings about the sheer vastness of possibility I was told lay before me.

Out of school for the first time in my life, I don't remember consciously thinking the immensity of the future scared me.

What I do remember thinking is, "How many more times can I go to the bar?"

'I decided to do the most radical things I could think of'

Motherhood is an impulsive act, no matter how much you plan for it.

No amount of daycare wait-listing, RESP squirreling or what-to-expecting can prepare you for the reality of a whole human being who is not you, who is in fact completely foreign in strange and wonderful and sometimes irritating ways, yet for whom you will now be required to lie down on the train tracks.  

Elisabeth de Mariaffi stands with her son Desmond Stephens and Nora de Mariaffi on the Elizabeth Bridge in Budapest. (Submitted by Elisabeth de Mariaffi)

I'd been a star student, on staff at my school's large, independent newspaper. When I got tired of writing, I became president of the board and learned how to run a business.

Everyone expected me to head straight to journalism school, or grad school, or do the requisite year abroad.

But after a childhood spent travelling all over Europe, I didn't need to see the Eiffel Tower. I'd already lived outside of Paris for a whole summer at 16 — too young, by the way — as an under-the-table au pair.

I decided instead to do the most radical things I could think of, the things no one could expect. I shacked up with a guy I barely knew. I gave up writing features and started writing poetry. I had babies young.

This is not the prescribed course of action.

'I bucked the system, and it mostly worked out fine'

In a society that is always telling women what to do (tidy up, lean in, be present, go wild, eat clean and for god's sake, be happy) and how to do it, I bucked the system, and it mostly worked out fine.

There's a lot to recommend having kids when you're young. I was always on the floor with them, and I didn't feel bound by middle-class expectations. I chucked my kitchen table and replaced it with a child's picnic table and voilà, the kitchen was now also an art studio.

Did the marriage last? Oh, hell no. But that wasn't the end of the world, either.

There's a lot to recommend having kids when you're young.- Elisabeth de Mariaffi

There are downsides. The usual stuff: financial, although, it's true what they say, babies don't really need all that stuff they try and sell you. I developed a keen scent for fine hand-me-downs. At the park, it was mainly me and the nannies. At co-op nursery school, I was the youngest by almost 10 years.

Once, another mother cut me off in conversation when she learned how old I was, laughing, 'Oh, you're just a baby.' To be clear, I had two children and a mortgage. I am, today, still younger than she was in that moment.

Biggest worries became best decisions

The plan was this: two kids before 26, build my career from home while they're young, then lean into it once they're off to school.

Looking back, that's more or less how it went. However, I don't always mention the sweet naiveté of the way I imagined life as a writer, before that first baby came (picture it: the serious-faced young writer, a quiet and content baby propped on her lap as she types brilliantly away with both hands), nor the piercing anxiety as I watched my university friends come into their own as lawyers, editors, international aid workers even, while I was singing Itsy Bitsy Spider.

Having children young means learning to let go early, says Elisabeth de Mariaffi. (Submitted by Elisabeth de Mariaffi)

So many of the things I worried about most ended up being the best decisions I ever made. Was I too young to have a kid? Nope. We had a grand time growing up together. Would the divorce shatter them? Nope. We all expanded and they watched me learn to set boundaries. 

We moved cities twice: isn't that stressful for kids? Not that I can see. We learned together to reinvent ourselves, and now they've done what very few Ontario kids get to do — see the country, and its politics, from two vastly different points of view.

We arrived in St. John's and blended our family with my new husband's, and there was never a slammed door.

Just lucky? Maybe.

'I caught up'

Everything feels more fraught in the moment. The short version is: I caught up.

If mothering has taught me anything, it's that there's no one right way to do things.

I built a freelance career by following my own plan. I published three books by the time my youngest graduated from high school.

I'll be 45 in December.

De Mariaffi had published three books by the time her youngest graduated from high school. One, How to Get Along with Women, made the Giller Prize long list. (Ayelet Tsabari)

This isn't the sort of speech I'd give to a class of Grade 9 girls. I've told my own daughter to let herself hit that overwhelming moment and just ride the wave for a while: you don't have to lock yourself to anything.

But I also think we've barely begun to explore how a fully integrated workforce might look. The option to have children earlier and build your career on the way is just as relevant and doable as the current model, which seems to me both exclusionary and masculine.

We spend a lot of time debating motherhood, but children, if you want them, are just part of your humanity, the way that work is part of our humanity, the way that making art is part of our humanity.

Now what?

Last week, my news feed was filled with women just like me, in their 40s, dropping their kids off to their very first day of school. I dropped my second child off, too, but with one important difference: I dropped my kid at Dalhousie, not kindergarten.

Stephens began university at Dalhousie this fall. (Submitted by Elisabeth de Mariaffi)

This part of the plan feels less certain. The idea was to be 44, with two kids away to university. Well, here we are! Now what?

If you'd asked me 10 years ago, I might have given you a bigger answer. Six months of backpacking, the trips I never took in my 20s.

But in the moment, as I've said, everything feels more fraught: with two kids at school, there's a lot of tuition to pay. Along the way I've picked up two stepsons who might justifiably wonder at my absence (as would my husband, no doubt).

But even if I were still on my own, it feels a bit early. I've likened it, this week, to how I felt when my youngest hit Grade 1: a year for transition, to recalibrate, to decide what comes next.

My oldest friend from my own university days called me up in September. She's booked a week off next spring, for us to go biking in the Netherlands. The tulips in May: I'd sent her a picture a few months ago, pining. It's not a long trip; it's not six months with a backpack.

But right now, it feels just right.

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About the Author

Elisabeth de Mariaffi

Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s most recent novel is Hysteria. She makes her home in St. John’s, N.L.