“I promise, I’ll be worth the wait,” a then-20-year-old Janet Jackson cooed to ’80s heartthrob Taimak as they nuzzled on a city rooftop, contemplating the next move in their fictional black-and-white video romance.
The year was 1986. “Let’s Wait Awhile” was the fifth hit single from Jackson’s breakthrough solo album, Control, which would confirm her as the female phenom of her famous family and catapult her to musical superstardom on her own terms. Long before Destiny’s Child extolled the virtues of being an independent woman, and nearly two full decades before Mimi would emancipate herself, Jackson convinced an 11-year-old me—along with legions of other soon-to-be women—that it was all right to take my time because ultimately, I should be in “control” of my destiny.
I followed at least half that advice as I eventually became an average American teen, aflutter with hopeless romances and raging hormones. Until a few short years ago, I felt as if I still had plenty of time to figure out the rest (funny how time flies when you’re having fun). But admittedly, when I consider my current options, “in control” isn’t the phrase that immediately comes to mind.
Then, last week, to the awe and delight of fans and media alike, sources confirmed a now nearly 50-year-old Janet Jackson’s purported pregnancy. Understandably—if intrusively—many gawked and speculated about how (and why) she’s biologically becoming a new mom in middle age. Others praised it as a sign of hope for women everywhere: At 49, Jackson is once again proving to be in control, having seemingly achieved the proverbial “all” that so many women are taught to aspire to—the career, the wealth, the (even more wealthy) husband and now … the family.
But as inspiring as Jackson’s fairy-tale ending appears to be, it’s not an outcome that most of her female fans—many of us now approaching middle age ourselves—can realistically hope for, if simply because most of us will never have her access to all of the reproductive resources that modern medicine has to offer. And while none of us should be looking to celebrities to help manage our own expectations, there’s inevitably something bittersweet about being reminded that this beloved celeb isn’t “just like us” after all.
Of course, it’s really none of our business how or why Janet Jackson is starting a family. But undoubtedly, fewer would raise an eyebrow were she adopting—as have Viola Davis, Shonda Rhimes and Angela Bassett—or even openly choosing surrogacy, as Tyra Banks recently did. And obviously, we have no idea whether or how long she and her husband had been trying. This announcement may have been a frustrating few years in the making, with little to no hope of success.
But what we do know is that Jackson has possessed the means to start a family at any point she might have wanted to in the past 30 years. She clearly feels that now is finally the right time, with the right partner. And isn’t that what it means to be in control? To have the freedom to choose, and to exercise our options when and where we see fit?
Or is choice simply a luxury that most of us can’t afford?
At 41, I’ve already lived a pretty full life. I’ve traveled the world as both a musician and model, enjoying a certain type of success largely because of my freedom to create, explore and roam. I’ve even managed to live in a series of spacious and well-appointed apartments in trendy neighborhoods in a major metropolis. Would any of this have been possible with children in tow? Maybe. Is it enough? I don’t know. But admittedly, I’ve always been more interested in partnership than in parenthood, which I still don’t feel brave enough to attempt alone. Perhaps Jackson felt the same, which is why she waited. Or maybe she simply had the luxury to.
Discussing this with a gentleman friend, I was reminded of the paradox of choice:
“The more options you have, the fewer decisions you make,” he said.
I can own the choices I’ve made to advance my career, mistakes I’ve made and men I chose not to stay with—even when marriage and children were imminent. But I also have to own the fact that even if or when my ideal partner eventually arrives, the window for me to biologically parent may already have closed. Without eggs on ice, is it worth waiting to see if all my stars at last align—even if it means forsaking my chance to birth a “mini me”?
For me, yes; but for legions of my peers, I know this isn’t the case.
These peers are equally dynamic black women, with ambitions that extend far beyond motherhood, and for good reason. Our generation has more options than our mothers had, who, in turn, raised the bar by exercising far more options than their mothers had before them. Our college-enrollment and entrepreneurship rates are currently at an all-time high (even if our chances of finding mates with whom we’re “evenly yoked” have become disappointingly low). We run corporations. We run empires. We’re realizing parts of our potential that were previously untapped by society at large. Due in no small part to our #BlackGirlMagic, the roles of women continue to be reconsidered and redefined. But have we recalibrated our expectations to fit?
Perhaps we also need to reconsider and redefine what it means to “have it all”—and in what order all of it is supposed to arrive. Because you can do everything “right” and still not get the life you think you’ve earned. Perhaps, as my gentleman friend also mused, we need to stop looking at our lives as checklists and consider them more “Choose Your Own Adventure” (another childhood favorite of mine, circa 1986).
For me, this means not only owning the life I’ve created—including my ambivalence about creating new life—but deciding whether it’s enough and preparing to pivot if not. It has also meant recognizing that there are many ways to parent, including adoption, fostering, mentoring, and/or simply being the best, most involved auntie or godmother I can be—which, in the end, might be enough for me.
For friends with different priorities, it has meant not waiting until they’re “ready” to have a child (for the record, I hear you never are). In the past year, no fewer than four of my close friends—all over the age of 38—have become parents. They’re pulling the trigger, whether partnered or not, with and without medical intervention. Parenthood is the adventure they are choosing, and I daresay, they are braver than I.
So maybe being in control isn’t about maximizing our options but setting our priorities. Maybe it’s not about having choices but making the hard ones. And maybe it’s about trusting that whatever the outcome, we are enough.
As for me? I still don’t know. But I promise, I’ll be worth the wait.
Postscript: Ironically, last week I was also introduced to Taimak—whom I was convinced I’d marry back in 1986. Now 51, he’s still buff and handsomely chiseled, bearing no trace of the adorably pie-eyed “Bruce Leroy” persona he immortalized in The Last Dragon. According to a Google search, he has never been married and has yet to have children (so maybe I still have a shot, 30 years later), although a 2013 interview revealed that children were in his five-year plan. I guess he still feels time is on his side.
Maiysha Kai is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, fashion model, devoted auntie and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, single black bombshell who recently strutted into her 40s. She is also an expert at oversharing who chronicles her attempts at dating—and adulting—on 40onFleek.