It was Andy's idea to adopt a cat. I still remember the bright Saturday morning four years ago when we went to the animal shelter. Married two years, we yearned for something we could care about together. When we first saw our girl, she was locked up in a drafty, bare cell with a tattered cardboard box layered thinly with litter. She stirred from an old metal chair and came towards us. Svelte and petite, she was a Siamese princess. Her large, aquamarine eyes were set on a small face, triangular in shape, accented with a proud nose. She had shiny whiskers and rich cocoa-colored fur that grew darker on her legs, ears, tail and face. She reminded me of a seal pup.
"Oh," I whispered, arrested. Andy felt it too, our connection with this cat.
Then she said hello. "Annh-aaaa. Aaanh-aaaa."
I took a step back. She sounded nothing like a cat, more like a crying baby.
"Annh-aaaa. Aaaanh- aaaa." She meowed again. I reached out tentatively through the cold, steel gaps, and she rubbed her warm, soft face against my fingers.
When we went inside her cell, she nudged her head against our feet and wove around our legs all the while speaking in her strange, scratchy voice. With her black mask and matching knee high boots, she looked like a glamorous spy, masquerading as a cat. As we watched her, I got a shortness of breath, that feeling you get when a realization hits you and you know it to be true through and through. I grabbed Andy's hand.
"Let's take her home and take good care of her," I said.
Andy laughed and wiped my sweaty palm with his cool fingers. "What if she doesn't learn to use the litter box?" he asked, his eyes teasing. "What about all those spontaneous trips you want to take? What about not wanting the extra responsibility?" Earlier, I had raised all these reasons against getting a cat, but as I looked into those almond-shaped eyes, I felt no fear, only a willingness to take care of her.
Andy laughed again, sounding as happy as I felt and asked, "What should we call her?"
Miso has a sweet, if spirited, disposition. She likes to keep my lap warm. When I call out to her from a different room, sometimes on a different floor, she slinks her way to me. When she is in the mood, she is a chatterbox, demanding that I have a conversation with her. She is an essential member of our little family, providing a calming and playful presence. She also knows when to make herself scarce. Whenever my mother visits, which is once or twice a year, Miso hides under the bed. She knows my mother has no use for her.
"Come on out, Miso," I say during these visits. "Don't be scared." I lie on my stomach, reaching as far under the bed as I can, my fingertips barely touching her fur. I try coaxing her with treats, shaking the box of stinky pellets she usually comes running for. She hunkers down, stares back, unblinking.
"That cat of yours is scared of her own shadow," my mother says.
I stand up and shake myself off. My mother wrinkles her nose. "All this cat hair, it's making me itchy all over. When are you going to get rid of that thing?"
"Don't say stuff like that." I frown. "I love her. She's my baby."
My mother retorts, "How about a real baby? Am I ever going to be a grandmother?"
I sigh. "We talked about this already, Ma. Andy and I just aren't ready."
"You always say that," she says, shaking her head. "When are you ever going to be ready?"
How can I explain to her that not ready really means not interested?
Andy and I were twenty-six when we married. We met sophomore year of high school in Taiwan. It was a unique bilingual school, designed for Taiwanese kids who had grown up abroad speaking English. Our graduating class consisted of nine seniors, three guys and six girls. I like to tell people that Andy's chances were pretty good, considering.
But in truth, I am the lucky one.
The year we got married, we went back to our high school to visit with our former teachers and to bring them sweet cakes wrapped in red paper, as is the custom in Taiwan to announce one's marriage. Our teachers remembered us well and were tickled to see us together after a decade. We told them about our lives in San Francisco, about Andy working at his software start up and my life as a young associate at a large law firm.
One of our favorite teachers said, "So you guys are DINKs."
"What's a DINK?" Andy asked.
"Dual Income No Kids," our teacher said. "Being a DINK is great. Enjoy it while it lasts!"
Being a DINK is great. In our six years of marriage, we have enjoyed an intimate and indulgent relationship. We have had plenty of time to focus on our own pursuits without being saddled with parental responsibilities. Andy started a new venture. I switched from law to writing, something I had long dreamed of doing. We've traveled to far and exotic destinations - Shanghai, Paraguay, Paris, Florence, Bali, Tokyo - all without excess baggage. When flying, we cross our fingers, hoping not to sit next to passengers with babies. When we see them, these poor mothers or fathers, toting their suitcases, searching for the right seat, all the while trying to calm their fussy child, we sigh, relieved not to be them. We toss each other looks that ask, why, oh why, would anyone bring that upon themselves?
At the end of our travels, we return to a civilized home, no baby vestiges anywhere. No poopy diapers or squishy pacifiers underfoot. No brightly-colored toys strewn about, just clean couches, stylish glass tables, and sleek bookshelves. No screaming baby, just a happy Siamese cat welcoming us home. Miso greets us at the door, winding round and round our legs, meowing insistently. She quiets when I pick her up and cradle her. Andy rubs her forehead, cooing to her. Then, when we are done, we put her down. She sashays off, leaving us to unpack in peace.
Recently, we gave Miso a bath, something we do every so often. She protested loudly as we held her captive inside an enclosed shower stall.
"It's okay, it's okay," I kept saying. "Won't you stay still, sweetheart? Mami and Babi just want to make sure you're clean."
"Here Miso, want a treat?" Andy shook the box of stinky pellets to distract her. But it was no use.
"Annh-aaaa! Aaaanh- aaaa!" she cried, frantically struggling out of our grasps. Crouching awkwardly, Andy held her in place, while I rubbed her down with shampoo.
I held her, and he rinsed her with warm water. Miso stuck her paws out rigidly, trying to claw herself away from us. It was awful to see her so vulnerable and upset. Our ankles numb from crouching, we shifted to hands and knees, getting wet and soapy in the process. Here we were, two strong, rational, capable adults, unhinged by this seven-pound creature we could barely manage inside an enclosed space.
Finally, we wrapped her up in a large towel, and she quieted. Andy held her in his arms, turning her belly up, while I moved the blow drier over her, careful to make sure the heat wasn't on too high.
"She's one spoiled, perfect cat," Andy said, holding her protectively.
I nuzzled her forehead, which smelled like a cross between corn chips and chai. She hid her face inside my arm.
Later, after we cleaned up, we found her lying by the patio door in our bedroom, purring in a path of sunlight.
"Hmmm, I feel a nap coming on," I said, lying down next to her. Andy sat by us, petting her soft, shiny coat.
"Let's all get into bed then," he said, getting his laptop. "You two can get your beauty sleep while I do some online research."
I smiled. "Aren't we the happiest little family, Miso?" Her tail fluttered.
My mother often says to me, "You can't live in the honeymoon phase forever. Just when are you going to get serious about starting a family?"
And she is not the only one pressuring us. Though not as direct, my mother-in-law has made insinuations as well. During one visit, we chatted in the guest room while Miso watched us through half-open eyes from a sunny corner. My mother-in-law told me stories about Andy's childhood.
"When Andy was a boy, he had layers of muscles all over his arms, legs and torso," she said. "We called him our very own Michelin Man." I laughed. She continued, "He was very active, not just physically but mentally. He liked to figure out how things worked, and often he wouldn't stop until he got to the bottom of something. Once I came home from work to find that he had completely dismantled my food processor. The screws, the motor, and various metal parts were lying all over the floor. He had gotten a hold of the tools and somehow found his way inside the thing. Of course he had no idea how to put it back together. I was so mad!" She laughed.
I can see the little boy in the man I married. Andy still engrosses himself in things: computer programs, recipes, books, gadgets, our relationship, world economics, life's various complications. There is something deeply assuring in the way he took time to figure out how things worked. The world feels like a safer place with him as partner.
Then my mother-in-law said, "You know, my aunt has a daughter who lives in New York. Maybe you can meet her sometime."
This was random. What did this relative have to do with Andy's childhood?
"She is a Chinese herbal medicine doctor," she continued.
"That's nice," I said.
"She is very good with women struggling with infertility," she said. "I can give you her contact information if you'd like."
Should I have been offended? Or just have found the whole thing hilarious? "Thanks, Mom," I finally said, deciding upon the latter. "If we end up having problems, I'll ask you for it."
Unlike my mother-in-law, my own mother was a stay-at-home mom. Because of her, my childhood is filled with many happy memories: a cotton cloth doll with a big smile and long black braids that my mother made by hand, which I carried everywhere until it had to be thrown out; my mother walking my sister and me to our piano lessons and picking us up afterwards; my mother serving chicken wings, banana bread, or fresh fruit smoothies to me and any friends I brought home after school.
I have other memories as well, less rosy ones. When I was little, nothing was scarier than seeing my parents angry with each other. A fight started with my father shouting and ended with my mother crying, followed by long periods of silence in the house. I would go to my mother and try to cheer her up. When she was upset, she vented. Her complaints were often variations of the same theme: "I take care of your father. I take care of you and your sister. I take care of everything around the house. But who takes care of me? I have given up so much of myself. What about what I want?" On occasion, when the fight was especially bad, she would say, "If it wasn't for you and your sister, I would leave your father and live my own life." I felt awful whenever she said this, so afraid that she might really leave us one day, but also guilty and confused that somehow it was our fault that she stayed. I saw motherhood as a trap, one that locked you into a life with those you loved, one in which you had little freedom to pursue what you loved yourself.
This is a big commitment, something that will shape the rest of our lives. It isn't something to be taken lightly. What if we screw up our children in ways that we won't even realize? Where and how will we raise them? What about all the crazy changes that my body will go through? Will I still have time to focus on my writing and all the other things that are important to me? Will I still be able to run ten miles or fit into my jeans? Will I still be me if I become a mother? And the biggest fear of all: how will a baby change my relationship with my husband? What happens when we invite chaos in the form of a baby into our blissful lives? With a baby around, our parents will inevitably become more involved. I can already see our peaceful marriage becoming something much more complicated. Our family will no longer be the comfortable couple-plus-cat unit that we have sustained for so long. We will fall into that in-between generation, responsible for the young and accountable to the old. Life will be noisier, messier, more out of control.
And yet people have been parents for thousands of years. Some have children to provide for them in their old age; others, because it is what is expected or because it just happens. We hear other reasons, like how having children is our chance to leave an imprint in the world after we are gone. Or this one: being a parent is the greatest adventure one can have. Or the most abstract of them all: having children is what one is born to do. Really? Try as I might, I cannot be compelled.
But lately it seems all the other DINKs we know, even the ones who swore up and down they couldn't imagine being parents, are renouncing DINKhood for parenthood. I know people in my everyday life who are either pregnant or trying to be. Thanks to Facebook, I even know about long-lost friends, many of whom have gone to the Dark Side. They proudly post signs of their newfound status: pictures of home pregnancy tests displaying the positive sign, pictures of the latest ultrasound, or pictures of their adorable toddler in her first Halloween costume. Friends of ours, married two, three years after us, are expecting their firstborn, and a few, their second. When we see them -- which happens now only if we visit at their houses -- our friends tell us how happy they are. They tell us what a miracle their child is. Then they describe the state of their sleep deprivation. They tell us having a baby is just about the best thing that has happened to them and that we're crazy not to want one. Then they tell us to enjoy the time we have now to do all the things we like because life as we know it will end when we have a baby. We hear a lot of mixed messages. But one thing is for certain. The conversation is all about babies, how angelic little Mia looks when she is sleeping, Tommy's so cute even when he's passing gas, and oh man isn't Aiden just the smartest two-year-old with all the words he knows already? Andy and I listen, making noises of awe when appropriate, all the while wondering how we can politely extricate ourselves.
Not too long ago, we went to dinner at our friends' house. John and Colleen, married less than three years, have a one-year-old. David has a big head with upward shooting black hair, Bert and Ernie style. His smile is all dimples and front teeth. Before dinner, he crawled about quickly, from the table to his mama in the kitchen; from the kitchen to the stairwell, where his parents set up a gate; from one place in the dining room to another. He was an unstoppable bundle of energy. All throughout dinner, he made incessant noise and banged whatever he could get his hands on -- a plastic spoon, cup, limp noodles, his own sock -- against the table.
"Sorry guys," John said. "Once there's a kid in the picture, dinner is more hectic."
"No worries, we're enjoying little David's company," I fibbed politely.
"He's such a smart kid. It's hard to get him to do anything he doesn't like," Colleen said while attempting to feed a spoonful of chopped noodle bits into his mouth.
"Is he a picky eater?" Andy asked.
"Oh very," Colleen said, her tone more proud than anything else. "We've been trying to get him on solid foods. If I am lucky, I can get him to eat a few bites while John distracts him at the table. But sometimes I just have to fall back on breastfeeding." She was balancing the kicky, noisy child in one hand and managing to cut up his bites with the other while John waved a bunch of colorful toys around.
"C'mon sweetie, won't you eat a bite for Mommy?" Colleen coaxed. David gave a happy shout and turned his head away, sending the noodles flying. Ever so patient, Colleen tried again. "Please, David?"
"Look David! Look what Daddy has!" John said, shaking one of the squeaky toy animals.
I cringed. Is this what we will be doing if we become parents? Our lives taken over by an unruly little creature that we will have to coax but nevertheless love?
David finally swallowed a bite. "That-a-boy!" Colleen cheered. We all did. David giggled happily. John clapped, and David imitated him, making everyone laugh.
"It's a lot of work," Colleen said. "But it's a lot of fun too. You guys will see."
"Oh, I don't think we're ready," Andy said quickly.
"You'll never be ready for this," John said, opening his arms around the splattered table, the floor strewn with noodles and toys, and around David who was now jumping up and down on Colleen's lap. "But having a child makes you see things differently, makes you realize how much love you are capable of."
"And it makes you stronger, better together," Colleen added as John reached over and gently brushed a few lose strands of hair off her sweaty face. Colleen smiled at him. "You'll see," she said to me. "Your biological clock will start ticking soon."
I have heard much about this biological clock. A girlfriend and I, both happily married and childless, will be walking down the street. We see a young mother pushing her baby in a stroller. My friend gushes over how cute the baby is, after which she says, "I am really feeling my biological clock these days. I see babies everywhere, and I am feeling this urge, like I need to get on the Mommy track." I have begun seeing babies everywhere too, but I don't hear any ticking. Or if I do, the ticking is all coming externally, from other people more in a hurry about my having a baby than I am.
The baby phenomenon must be global. Because my mother -- who was living in Paraguay until last year, and now in the Dominican Republic, who keeps close ties with family and friends in Taiwan -- updates me at least once a month on new babies, the grandchildren of people she knows from all these places.
"Mrs. Wong who lives in Taiwan is only a couple years older than me, and she's already the grandmother of two," my mother says. "When am I going to have my chance?"
Or she says, "I ran into Mrs. Lee pushing her granddaughter in the stroller the other day. I have never seen her so happy." She sighs.
My mother nags me so much about having a baby that I have set a rule. I call it the Grandma Wannabe Rule, which says she is to limit discussions of babies -- whether as a question, demand, plea, extortion, or anything that can remotely be construed as a hint -- to twice a month. She breaks the rule all the time. During a two-week visit with us last year, she asked if Andy and I were, as she calls it, "planning." She asked everyday, if not twice a day. She asked so many times, Andy finally came to my rescue. He said, "Sorry Mom, we aren't 'planning' just yet, but the good news is we are 'practicing.' In fact, we might practice some more tonight if you give us a chance." She turned red and didn't bring up the topic for a few days.
My mother still throws in a hint whenever she can. For Andy's birthday this year, she painted him a piece for his office. The painting is beautiful, a large 4 feet by 3 feet oil canvas of two striking trees in an open meadow. One tree has a thick, solid trunk. It casts an umbrella of healthy branches and lush leaves in various shades of green. The tree exudes vigor and strength. The second tree, leaning against the first, is slender and willowy, its curvy branches full of lovely golden and red leaves. It doesn't take more than a look to understand what -- or whom -- my mother intended the two trees to symbolize.
We loved it. Andy was especially thrilled and couldn't wait to get it hung in his office.
My mother said, "This is a living painting. I want to add to it as time goes on." Then in a hopeful tone, she said, "Maybe by next year, I can add fruits to the trees?"
Sometimes if I feel like getting into it with her, I ask, "Why do you want me to have a baby so much, Ma? Didn't you have a hard time when you had us, when we were growing up?"
"It wasn't easy," she says, "But look how well you and your sister turned out. You girls call me all the time. When I visit, you take me shopping. We go for tea. We talk about everything. Don't you want that for yourself when you're my age?"
I admit there is something here. Having a mother-daughter relationship, like the one I have with mine, doesn't convince me, but it does make me think twice.
One night, we have dinner out with friends, a double date with another DINK-y couple. We have an enjoyable evening without any baby talk. Instead there is much grown-up talk, about whether stocks are a better investment than real estate, about how to make a perfect steak in a cast iron pan, about how to deal with aging parents. Conversation somehow turns to pets. Before I know it, Andy is pulling out photos of Miso from his wallet. They are close ups I took and had laminated. He passes the photos around proudly.
Our friends make noises about what a pretty cat she is. Is she high maintenance? Oh no, not at all. She is very independent. And smart. And so adorable when she naps. She curls up with a furry paw as pillow and her nose burrowed into her tail.
"I wasn't sure about getting a cat at first, you know, with the extra responsibility and all," I say. "But it's amazing how quickly I got attached."
"You were attached from the get go," Andy says. "Remember when we had the shelter vet examine her before we brought her home? How when the vet gave her a clean bill of health, you burst into tears right there and then?" He pats my arm, as our friends laugh. "I mean Miso wasn't even sick. It was just standard procedure before letting us take her."
I remember that moment, the feeling I had seeing Miso, small and vulnerable, on the examination table. My tears were an instinctive response from the mixture of relief, overwhelming protectiveness, and joy I felt. This little bundle of fur was okay, and I would do everything in my power to keep her that way.
"She's so good with Miso," Andy says affectionately. "She insists that Miso has fresh water at all times. She has a schedule for brushing Miso's coat, trimming Miso's nails. Every night, they play so Miso gets plenty of exercise."
Well, we are all creatures of habit, and a structured life is a healthy one.
"It's not like you don't have your moments with her," I say. "You guys should see him. Every time she jumps on his lap, he gets this goofy expression, looking all relaxed and unbelievably lucky at the same time."
"Ha, you're one to talk. You're the one that Miso resembles!" Andy waves the photos for everyone to see again, pointing out the similarities Miso and I share: our small faces and high cheekbones; our talkative, energetic personalities; even how we both love soup. "The other night we made Tuscan bean soup for dinner," he says. "We gave Miso her canned food. We always make it extra wet with warm water because that's how she likes it. When we sat down to eat, all I heard for the first few minutes was slurp, slurp, slurp from both my girls. You guys should have been there, the resemblance was uncanny. When Miso was done, her bowl was totally dry with all these tuna bits left. I look over at my wife's bowl, same thing! All the soup? Gone. But the beans, bacon, celery and whatever else, all left in the bowl."
Everyone laughs heartily. But Andy and I laugh just a bit harder than our friends. I hear how we sound, like those parents who blabber endlessly about their children. We can't speak quickly enough to convey just how special our Miso is. And it dawns on me that Andy and I are already parents. There are, in fact, things about parenthood that we love, things that make us love each other even more.
Later, as we are getting ready for bed, I tell Andy I found a reason to have a baby, a reason I haven't heard anyone else talk about. It has nothing to do with leaving a legacy, the biological clock or having someone around to take care of us in our old age. It is simply a desire to experience parenthood with him.
In the silence, he thinks about it. And I think about it, holding his hand. We are on the threshold of something scary, our hands on the door knob, opening to a world of cradles, milk bottles, onesies, and who knows what else. Miso jumps on the bed, wanting to settle in for the night. I shift, patting down the blanket and making a nook with my arm. She paws her way around the blanket over my shoulder, my arm, my chest, and finding the perfect spot, begins making biscuits, opening and closing her paws, alternating them, kneading softly into my breast.