Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids - Meghan Daum 2016
The Hardest Art
ONE DAY IN 2008 I was hiking up a mountain path in Greece when I met a farmer descending the path on a mule. The brim of his handwoven straw hat was unusually wide; in the broiling midday sun all but his feet and his hands on the reins were sheltered within a bell jar of shadow cast by the hat. The farmer, likely in his sixties, had Windex-blue eyes and a plush mustache the white of crushed ice. At its tips, left and right, the mustache swung jauntily upward into two little points. He was riding sidesaddle. From the opposite side of the saddle hung a large white sack.
The farmer looked surprised to see me there on this remote footpath. He stopped the mule and said good afternoon to me in the singular informal form. Because he was probably twenty years my senior, I said good afternoon in the formal plural form. He considered me for a second, then began asking me the standard questions elderly Greek farmers always ask: Where are you going?
To the church of Agios Nikolaos of the Air, at the top of the mountain.
Where are you from?
The United States of America.
Flies waltzed noisily in the mule’s left ear. Are you alone?
Do you see anyone else here on this path with me?
The farmer’s sudden burst of laughter made the cylinder of shadow jitter around him. Are you married?
That was a lie, but in Greece, more than in any other country I’ve ever been to, marriage functions as a sanctified shroud and shield.
Do you have children?
Usually, to save time and trouble, I would lie about this one as well. But because I liked the farmer’s face, I told the truth: No, I do not have children.
He shrugged, raised his chestnut-brown hands toward the overhanging sun, and with a surprisingly tender blend of pity, sympathy, and resignation, he said, “Ότι θείλει Ο Θεός. Whatever God wants.”
It would have been impossible for me to explain to him that my not having children had nothing to do with what God wanted and everything to do with what I wanted, for in Greece (I might as easily say “for in the entire universe”), a woman who doesn’t want children is anomalous, aberrant, and suspect. To choose not to have children is to stretch too far outside the inherited rule that procreation is both a biological and a civic requisite for full and proper membership in the human race. Conversations about this with elderly Greeks more often than not prove circuitous and fruitless, and so I lifted my own hands slightly to the sky and said, “Right. God’s will.” When I asked the farmer whether he had children, his answer was, surprisingly, no. His reason: I never found a wife.
Before we parted, I asked the farmer what was in the sack.
“Mizithra,” he said. Goat cheese.
“Did you make it yourself?”
He grinned and the points of his mustache pricked at the jutting cheekbones above them. He waved his hands at the wheat fields and olive trees. “Do you see anyone else here who might have made it?”
We laughed and moved on.
* * *
My decision not to have children came at the end of a long, complicated, and sometimes fraught process of discovery that carried me as close to having children as a woman can possibly get. For most of my life I believed I would have children. When I was younger I used to imagine what my children would look like, and those pleasant imaginings made me love them so much that when I finally snapped to I would actually miss their faces. Even after embarking on a career as a writer, a job that consumed me with a lot of international travel followed by long bouts of work that left time for little else, I continued to think of my children as a certainty of my future. I never stopped to consider, though, how the certainty would become reality or how a person like me—solitary, oversensitive, impatient, obsessive, easily abraded, and extreme—would manage to be a mother. It would, I thought, just work itself out.
Then, when I was thirty-seven, I read by chance some statistic about the drastic decline in fertility in women after age thirty-five and began to panic and fret about it. At that time I was living with a man I loved. We had never discussed having children and had in fact done everything in our power to keep from having them. When I raised the subject with him, he evaded it. He wasn’t ready. He wasn’t sure he ever wanted children. To placate me, he would say, “Soon,” and after a few months he would still have decided nothing. Two years went by that way, and I realized that by dragging his feet he was passively asking me to choose between him and my chance of having children. He had a right to ask me to choose. What he didn’t have a right to do was string me along and simply ignore the question. That felt extremely disrespectful to me. Finally one day I demanded a definitive answer, and when I got yet more avoidance and evasion, I slapped his face hard enough that my hand tingled. That was satisfying for about ten seconds, and then I felt like a pig. I, too, was responsible for this. I was so absorbed in my work that I had let the years go by without considering how I would actually get children or, far more important, what was really involved in raising them. “Soon” was as much my answer as his.
The man and I split up, which always takes longer than you think it will—the months of wavering and reversing, the fresh avowals that it’s over, followed by periods of not communicating, then the backsliding, the nights spent together that are better than any of the nights that went before, and finally the slow creep to knowing once and for all that it really is completely finished. Once we had finally split up, I knew that the chances of meeting someone else I could love who would also want children and want them in the same hurry that I was in were slim. I considered all the various ways a woman could have a child alone and finally, when I was forty, I went to an introductory meeting at a clinic in Boston that acted as an agency for various national sperm banks. I was the oldest woman in a room of eighteen women. Half of them were lesbians, many were single, and two of them were married to men with very low sperm counts. We were given an array of facts and statistics, as well as some very direct answers to our hesitant questions. Only 12 percent of women over forty become pregnant with frozen sperm. As women age, their eggs develop harder shells and sperm have more difficulty penetrating them. The oldest woman to become pregnant in the history of their program was forty-three, but that was a rare case. No, the donors were not homeless men who stumbled in off the street. The majority were graduate students putting themselves through school. Yes, the men were thoroughly screened for their personal, genetic, and health history, so really there was nothing to worry about.
I imagined them coming to donate sperm, those graduate students I was always seeing on the streets of Boston. The city was full of them—gangly MIT students with astrophysical pimples and unwashed bangs hanging damply over their thick-lensed eyeglasses, young men whose narrowly focused scientific genius rendered them socially imbecilic. Did I want one of them for the father of my kid? And money aside, what made these boys want to donate their sperm in the first place? How could they not feel awful about splashing out scores of kids they’d never know just for a couple of bucks? That, to my mind, was the biggest strike against them—the insouciance, the genetic profligacy, the carelessness.
Myself, I would not be able to give away even one of my children, let alone dozens. We learned that there was a limit to how many children a donor could legally generate. Twenty. There were states in which the sale of a donor’s sperm was forbidden because he had already impregnated too many women in that area. Obviously the more anonymous children you have in one geographical region, the more likely it is that they’ll meet in math class, fall in love, and enter unwittingly into a relationship. And all of that could happen without the biological father’s ever knowing a thing about it.
As I’ve said, I am impatient. Colossally so. I sorely resented the tedious logistics of the artificial insemination process, the medical appointments that had to be made and endured, the registrations with the sperm banks, the choosing of the donor, the conferences and consultations, the blood tests, the four hundred dollars shelled out for a vial of sperm, which is probably the cheapest substance in the world and one that most men are happy to dispense for free, the three months of taking my temperature every morning to determine the exact date of ovulation, the waiting for the results. The whole thing was a mountain of impersonal, clinical complication. I loathed the thought of climbing it. Nevertheless, I wanted a chance. I felt that I couldn’t go forward with my life without at least trying to bring my child into the world.
I began to study donors’ profiles, handwritten answers to questions so detailed and in-depth that it could take half an hour to get through one of them. I learned the donors’ height, weight, hair color, ethnicity, number of siblings, medical history, medical history of all known relatives, occupation, education, SAT scores, and more. Many of them surprised me with their honesty. There was the guy who admitted he’d had pubic lice, another who was married and had three children, another who was depressed after a traumatic event but was now “okay,” the guy with the “mentally retarded” sister, the guy whose father died in the Spanish Civil War, another whose mother died in a hunting “accident,” the one whose father had trouble with drugs, the one who had a brother who died four hours after birth, the one who had cancer, the one who had poor eyesight, the one who had been in prison for drunk driving when he was young, the one who was a security guard and clearly didn’t know how to spell.
Some of the men interested me because of their family histories, others because of their own. The men who said that there had never been any problems of any kind in their lineage I didn’t believe and rejected quickly. I preferred those who admitted to some drug use, poor eyesight, bad teeth, suicide, or a propensity for diabetes. Because I knew that the healthiest child comes from the widest mix of genes, I rejected the donors who were ethnically similar to me: all of the Irish, most of the English and Scottish, and a good number of the pale-skinned Northern Europeans. Because I knew that art was a terrible way to make a living, I leaned toward the scientists, the mathematicians, and those who had the highest level of education. I read their personal essays carefully. If the essay was no good, I put the whole file in the reject pile.
Eventually, I narrowed them down to one. A six-foot-tall blue-eyed Iranian American. He played the trumpet in some philharmonic orchestra near San Francisco, was getting a PhD in nuclear physics at Stanford, seemed to have a relatively healthy family history, and, best of all, his essay was well written, thoughtful, and witty. I bought a vial of his sperm, then wondered how I could guarantee that when the sperm was delivered at my door it was from the right donor. What if I ended up not with the Iranian sperm but with some Outer Mongolian sperm I hadn’t asked for? (The four hundred dollars I paid for the sperm was nonrefundable, by the way.)
I loathed the whole process and went through it in a trance of blind obedience and baffled disbelief. It was surreal. Pregnancy was supposed to happen naturally, harmoniously, and without much effort, but here I was doing it in the most complicated way possible. And of course, since I had allowed myself to come this far, I was finally forced to think about how I would raise the child all by myself.
* * *
Philip Larkin averred that he disliked children because of “their noise, their nastiness, their boasting, their back-answers, their cruelty, their silliness.” I, too, dislike these qualities in children. (Who doesn’t?) Children can be wicked, insane, insufferable little shits. And yet I love them. I love them—especially the small ones—because of the way their emotions dance and glow on the surface for all to see. They have neither the guile nor the wile to hide how they feel. Very quickly, you know who they really are.
I love a child named Nat who’s three and a half years old. When I show up at his house to visit his parents, he runs to the door and says, “Rose, may you play with me?” Usually I do. We stomp up the stairs to his parents’ bedroom to watch My Little Pony, a TV show that is less thematically peculiar but more chromatically lurid than the Teletubbies. This particular show is about a pack of pastel-colored cartoon ponies with wings. They fly in a floating, hovering fashion, bobbing up and down in the drugged and dreamy way of merry-go-round horses. At Nat’s request, I sit on the bed to watch. He stands close by me with a stuffed replica of one of these ponies clutched in his hand. He tells me her name is Princess Celestia. She has hair the color and texture of cotton candy. Her body is encased in a shiny quilted fabric, like an astronaut’s suit. Nat says, “She has a unicorn horn.”
So she does. It’s like the narrow end of a parsnip jutting out of her forehead. “Oh,” I say, “she’s a unicorn.”
“No, she is a pony.”
“But some of these ponies have a horn.”
“Yes, Rose,” he says, as though there’s hope for me yet. “A unicorn horn.”
“So, that makes them unicorns.”
The smooth little face folds in displeasure. He steps toward me and gives me a brownish frown to show me I’m spoiling his evening with my obtuse incomprehension. “NO! They are po-nies!” His eyes seem to swell in his head in a way that suggests tears are imminent. Quickly I relent. “Okay, then. I get it. They are ponies with unicorn horns.”
Soothed, Nat goes back to staring at the TV, mesmerized, transported. As the ponies sway over the poppies, he tells me their names: Twilight Sparkle, Rarity, Prince Blueblood. I begin to understand that those who have horns can’t fly. “And that is Ribbon Wishes,” Nat says. “Her brother is Somber Lightning.…”
It gets tired fast. There is only so much My Little Pony a reasonable adult can stand. After a respectable period of time, I stand up and suggest that we take Celestia downstairs and join Nat’s parents in the kitchen. “No, Rose!” he shrieks, hopping up and down on the bed. “Don’t leeeeeeave! Watch My Little Pony with me!” He jumps to the floor, grabs my hand, and leads me back to the bed, and when I sit again he puts an arm around my neck in what is part hug, part half nelson. He breathes on my nose. He is desperate to keep me here, desperate to share his interest with someone.
“Look, Rose, look! That’s Sweetie Belle! See? Look, Rose! And Flim and Flam and Princess Luna and Sunset Shimmer and…”
The frantic geyser of chatter is calculated to hold me firmly in the room. It brings to mind a passage in literature that struck me with the force of its truth when I first read it. Exhausted after two weeks of minding his five-year-old son entirely by himself while his wife, Sophia, was away, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his journal:
The old boy is now riding on his rocking horse, and talking to me as fast as his tongue can go. Mercy on me, was ever a man before so be-pelted with a child’s talk as I am! It is his great desire of sympathy that lies at the bottom of the great heap of his babblement. He wants to enrich all his enjoyments by steeping them in the heart of some friend.
Who could blame anyone, child or adult, for wanting to enrich his experience by sharing it with a friend, a caring witness? We all want that. We all want someone to say, “That thing you love is so interesting and worthy that I have to love it, too.” Children’s needs and desires are not so different from adults’ needs and desires; the only real difference is that, unlike adults, children are not yet bridled. They haven’t yet been forced to conform, to fit in, to behave. They haven’t learned to be ashamed of their emotions, to repress their spontaneity, to hide their flamboyance and truth. They have not yet learned to navigate the world with the constant torpid pretense that they feel far less than they really do. They are inveterate liars and yet they are refreshingly truthful. When a five-year-old child comes into the classroom and says to his teacher, Mrs. Smith, why is your face so flat? the question is innocent, direct, and not entirely unreasonable. Smith’s face is flat, and the boy wants to know why and hasn’t yet been programmed to hide his curiosity and his true feelings about her notable and—to him—slightly disagreeable physiognomy. If Mrs. Smith is quick, she will say, Well, Jimmy, we all have to accept the face we were born with, and then, after a long pause during which she pointedly studies his face, she will add, Even you! Then Jimmy’s face will fall because he will be forced to reflect on the fact that others can see and judge his face as he has judged Mrs. Smith’s. And if he is like other children, he will run nervously to the nearest mirror in order to see exactly what other people see. Is his face acceptable? Is it safe? Does it adequately represent who he is? There begins the insecurity, the uncertainty, the self-consciousness, the lifelong war with the world at large. Childhood is the dawning of understanding that the world is set up in ways that would force one to bend or subjugate one’s own will to the will of society. This is why I love children: I feel for them. And this is the main reason I don’t have them. I, who found the will of society so oppressive in my own childhood, sympathize too much with their painful predicament.
I’m strong in many things, but when it comes to children and their struggles I have no strength. I cannot stand to see a child I love suffer. When I see my teenage nieces and nephews cry because of some insult or slight or rejection, I feel a terrible cold pain that turns hot and then cold again in the span of a few seconds. It’s a sickening feeling of helplessness mixed with a feeling of responsibility that I know I could never live up to. I often ask my brothers and sisters how they let their children go off to school alone in the morning in a world full of bullies and pederasts, drunk drivers and drive-by shooters. I would not be able to let my child leave the house without a helmet on his head until he was thirty years old. I would have to follow him around everywhere he went, safeguarding him from everything that could cause him harm or suffering. I would be unhinged by the dangers he faced and would be so overprotective I fear I would destroy him and myself in the process. One day my sister’s son (who understood he was gay but was still desperately trying to hide that fact from the world) came home from the fifth grade in tears because some boys from his class had followed him home and thrown stones at him and called him “faggot.” My sister, a tall, powerful woman with a formidable sense of justice, asked her son which boy was the ringleader in this sordid attack. As soon as my nephew named the boy, she jumped into her car, drove to his house, and rang the doorbell. When the boy opened the door, she said, “Hi, Bobby. Is your mother home?” Bobby said no, his mother was not home right now. Unable to address his mother in the civil manner she had intended, my sister took the next best option. She seized Bobby by his shirtfront and gave him a shaking impressive enough that a couple of buttons popped off the shirt, his teeth clacked, and the baseball cap flew off his head. When she was done with that, she held her index finger half an inch from his quivering lip and growled, “Don’t you ever touch my son again!”
To my mind this punishment was much too light. Had it been my son who was harassed and taunted, I would have given Bobby a taste of his own medicine and stoned him to a slow, painful death. Though the thought alone is grossly inappropriate, twenty years later, I still occasionally have a desire to stone that boy.
Children learn quickly that they can expect unconditional love only from their parents. To reassure themselves that they are secure in that love, they test it, push it, measure it, and test themselves against it. The parent is the only person they can cross and vex with such volume and constancy without getting an injunction to go to hell and never come back. My brother, frustrated at his four-year-old son’s behavior, said to me once through gritted teeth, “Sometimes you wish you could take a bullwhip and snap your child’s cheek with it.” He thought about this for a second as he watched his son ruin his expensive new school shoes by wading into Narragansett Bay with them, though the boy had been admonished six times not to do this. And then my brother said, “But of course, you can’t whip your kids. You love them too much. You have to love them, no matter what asshole things they do. The whole thing is evolutionarily set up that way.”
As I got deeper and deeper into the artificial insemination process, I was beginning to realize that it was precisely that unavoidable, slavish, evolutionary devotion that worried me. I knew I would not be strong enough to resist it. I would become, to my discredit, entirely servile. I would become my child’s victim, and, as a result, he would become mine. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia, detailed the parental qualities necessary for good child rearing: “Infinite patience, infinite tenderness, infinite magnanimity—no less will do, and we must practise them as far as finite power will allow.” She was right, of course, but what she was defining is no less than a superhuman state. I know there are people who can actually achieve that state. I also know that I cannot. I’m not half super enough. I’m too sensitive and nervous. Small things can upset me for days. I am a person who, by design, spends an inordinate amount of time alone, because too much constant contact with other people unsettles me. It’s impossible for me to work if another person is in the house with me. I am distractible and easily thrown off key.
All this perhaps sounds precious, childish, and self-indulgent. But it’s the opposite, believe me. It’s a confession of a discouraging, adult piece of self-knowledge. I am self-doubting, and laden with guilt. I would never be able to say to my child, “Go away for two weeks while I sit at my desk.” (In fact, I would find it difficult to say to my child, “Go away for two hours.”) To abandon a child in favor of one’s personal desires or ambitions, as many male (and not a few female) parents have done, is, in my view, to commit the worst sort of crime. The one who brings a child into the world has a responsibility to give the child everything, to put the child before all else.
* * *
One day, soon after I turned forty-one, my doctor called me while I was driving to pick my niece up at school. I was pregnant. I stopped the car in the middle of the street to listen to her. She persuaded me that it was true, said, “Boy, did you beat all the odds,” and suddenly I found myself incredibly confused. Pregnant? What did that mean? I felt as I imagine people feel when they win the lottery—thrilled by this huge thing but not quite able to take it in and not sure exactly how it will change their lives. After all that time and work trying to become pregnant, one would think I’d have been prepared. I wasn’t. That first day I was delighted, beside myself with happiness, wandering around the house in a pleasing fog of anticipation. And yet the next day I woke up horrified. I got out of bed and stared out the window at the elementary school across the street from my house and thought, This is a big mistake. But then the next day I was thrilled again, barely able to keep myself from telling complete strangers about it. And the next day I was horrified.
It went on like that for weeks, my mood about the pregnancy swerving wildly from elation to horror. I went to the doctor for a checkup, and when she asked me if I wanted to hear the heartbeat, I was surprised to realize there was a heartbeat so early. I put on the stethoscope and listened, and my head actually reared back a little when I heard how loud and ambitious that half-Irish, half-Iranian heartbeat was. It was a crisp, rapid thumping, like a soldier’s boots marching purposefully across a wooden bridge. It startled me for a second, and then I understood that the tiny fetus, no bigger than a walnut, was doing all it could to survive. Which made me adore it and thrilled me more than ever.
The very next day, though, I was decidedly unthrilled. I was worried, doubtful, anxious, and on the verge of tears all day. Now the child was real, and it was dawning on me that while worse people than I have been mothers, I was not suited to the task of raising a child, especially by myself. Days went by and I went on schizophrenically careering between happiness and dread. Finally, after thirteen weeks, I had a miscarriage. My disappointment was acute. All that miraculous genetic and biological complexity that would have flowered into a being with a distinct personality was brought to a premature end. It seemed to me no less tragic and colossal than a universe coming to an end. I was devastated by it for days. But when my doctor eventually asked me, with palpable zeal in her voice, if I wanted to try it again, I said no with complete conviction. I’d had to come nearly face-to-face with my own child to know that I did not want to be, nor believe I could be, anyone’s mother.
I wish I had more equanimity, but I can’t be someone I am not. Life is such a complex, treacherous matter, so quickly lived and difficult to experience fully precisely because it is so crowded with diversity and choice. I decided to live what was left of my life in my own extreme, lopsided way and spare my child my worries and neuroses.
Parenting is, I think, the highest art. And the hardest. Few people master it. For me, it was a moment of clarity and foresight when I realized that those footsteps I heard marching boldly across the bridge in my doctor’s office that day would one day be marching beside me, and that my overpowering desire would be to carry the child in my arms forever so he wouldn’t have to walk. I can’t know how it might have turned out if I had persisted and finally had a child, but I am fifty-three years old now and I do know this: when I find myself walking up a mountain path alone, I have no regret.