Just an Aunt

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids - Meghan Daum 2016

Just an Aunt


Elliott Holt

WHAT DO YOU WEAR to a state psychiatric hospital? Nothing too revealing, says the visitor’s guide. Nothing gang-related or obscene. I am wearing black corduroys and a boyish gray sweater. Black Converse sneakers, no earrings, no lipstick. I’ve pulled my hair into one long braid. It’s a winter evening, not even six, but the sun is long gone. At the security gate, the guard who asks for my ID has a Russian accent. “Gavorite po-russki?” I ask as I hand him my driver’s license. Do you speak Russian? His eyes light up. “Da,” he says. In his mother tongue, he directs me to the hospital: right, then down Dogwood Drive—a pleasant name for such a dark, desolate stretch of pavement—through another security gate toward the new building with the copper facade. At the front desk, a chipper woman greets me. I’m here to help with a women’s writing group. “I’m sorry I’m late,” I say. “I got a little lost.” “You don’t want to be lost on Alabama Avenue,” says one of the armed guards with a knowing laugh. “No,” I say conspiratorially. “I guess not.” St. Elizabeths is on Alabama Avenue SE, on the other side of the Anacostia River from the Washington I know. I grew up in Northwest D.C., the leafy, sheltered quadrant of the city that is mostly white, mostly rich. This part of Southeast might as well be another city. The guards usher me through the metal detector and open my bag. It is not like being in an airport, though. The security guards are joking and warm: quick to establish a rapport with me. Perhaps they sense that I am nervous, or perhaps they just want to remind me that we are on the same sane team. We’re not like the ones inside, they seem to say.

Many of the ones inside this hospital are NGBRI (not guilty by reason of insanity). They have personality disorders and a history of psychotic breaks. They’re here because they are a danger to others, and to themselves. I’m not like the ones inside, but my own complicated psychiatric history is what brought me here, as a curious and empathetic volunteer. I have never been psychotic. I have never suffered from delusions or other breaks from reality. But I have long been crippled by dark moods, paralyzed by existential dread. I’ve suffered several major depressive episodes in my life, the most recent of which lasted nearly two years and was especially terrifying.

The fact that I don’t have kids is less the result of a decision than a collapse. I fell into a deep, dark depression at the age of thirty-six, when my fertility was already on the wane, and when, if I’d really wanted children, I would have had to make parenthood—with a partner or alone—a priority. I’m now very relieved that I don’t have children. I recently tried running with a jogging stroller, while babysitting my infant nephew, and found the process so awkward and slow that I vowed never to do it again. I don’t want my running stride—or anything else—hampered by children. When people ask why I don’t have kids, I sometimes say, “I’m forty; that ship has sailed.” Or I say, “I’m focused on producing books, not children.” Or, “I can’t afford to have a child on my own.” That’s all true; it’s just not the full story.

* * *

In my early thirties, I thought I wanted kids. Most of my friends were having children. (I hosted five different baby showers between 2006 and 2010, and attended at least twenty-five more. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on tiny outfits and charming bath toys.) Watching my friends marry and reproduce while I remained single and childless made me feel like a foreign exchange student: I could understand some of the language of coupledom and parenthood, but I was not a native speaker, and I was always trying to catch up in conversations. “Having kids gives you perspective,” a friend once said to me, smugly, in response to my worries about what he considered a minor problem. He wasn’t the first person to make me feel like my childless state was a character flaw. I felt pressure to have kids from every side. It didn’t help that I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood defined by parenthood.

I figured I’d be a good mother. As the oldest child in my family, I’d always looked after my siblings. I taught my youngest sister to read, to ride a bike. I was in the hospital room when my oldest niece was born seven years ago, and watching her swim into the world activated all my maternal instincts. I was thirty-three, and a month later, I broke up with my boyfriend at the time because he didn’t want kids.

I’m a devoted aunt. I now have three nieces and one nephew. I’ve changed diapers; I’ve read bedtime stories. I’ve gone to school assemblies and stayed up late wrapping Christmas presents from Santa. I’ve helped my nieces sound out new words in books and reminded them to chew with their mouths closed. The girls rely on me, for comfort and answers, as if I were a third parent. But when I’m in the throes of writing I don’t have to stop working to take care of the kids. I don’t have to apologize for staying at my desk for twelve hours straight. (I feel most like myself when I have a pen in my hand.) When I’m worried about money—like most writers I know, I’m always worried about money, and always trying to find more freelance work—I know that my financial instability isn’t going to hurt a child. I’m not responsible for school tuition or pediatrician bills. I can take off for a month at a time, to an artists’ residency or colony, without any guilt. It’s freeing to be an artist who only has to take care of making art. But most important, if I have another debilitating depression, I won’t endanger any kids. I’ve survived all my depressive episodes. But what if, someday, I reach a point at which the psychic pain is too much to bear?

“What’s my diagnosis?” I asked my shrink last year. It’s a question I’d been afraid to ask for years. I’ve seen many psychologists and psychiatrists. All doctors put a code, representing a diagnosis, on the insurance bill. But I’ve never wanted to know what those codes mean. When I was an adolescent, one doctor deemed me “anxious/depressed.” I imagined myself hovering in that slash, a fluid boundary between worry and melancholy. But in the intervening years, I’ve been reluctant to find out if that diagnosis is still true. I know I’m anxious and inclined to get depressed, but I’m always afraid that something worse is lurking in the recesses of my brain. What if, God forbid, I have a personality disorder and don’t know about it? “Depressed mood, with adjustment disorder” is what the doctor told me. Which basically means that I’m not good at transitions. It makes sense, the doctor said, given the lack of stability in my childhood home. I need consistency in my life. As far as mood disorders go, mine is mild. “Do you think of yourself as mentally ill?” my doctor once asked me. “Don’t you consider me mentally ill?” I said. “No,” he said. (That was news to me, but I’ve always been my own worst critic.) But I lack the resilience necessary to cope with change. Moves, breakups, and other life changes can lead to depression.

It was a breakup that precipitated the deepest depression I’ve ever experienced. I can’t explain why the end of that particular relationship caused me so much pain. It was partly because I had allowed myself to believe in a future with that man. He often began sentences with “When we get married…” He said, “Having a child with you would be a wonderful adventure.” But the breakup was also devastating because I’d lost so much of myself with him. The romance fed my ego—no one had pursued me more aggressively, or made me feel so desired—and when it ended, as suddenly as it had begun fourteen months earlier, I felt crushed and disposable. I also felt humiliated. Our relationship unraveled partly because I dreamed of marriage and children and he, who already had a child and was going through a divorce, understandably cooled on the idea of both. It wasn’t his fault that I had unrealistic expectations. I was nearly thirty-seven, and knew that if I wanted to be a mother, I didn’t have time to waste. But when he broke up with me, I fell into such an abyss that I wasn’t sure I’d ever pull myself out.

I understand now that what I suffered then can only be described as a nervous breakdown. I was nervous—so nervous I couldn’t eat, and lost nearly twenty pounds—and I was broken. Not just my heart, though that was the location of the original crack. My brain felt broken, too. I couldn’t think clearly; I couldn’t sleep. I was sure I deserved this punishment. Of course he left me, I thought. Why would he want to be with me, when he could find a more stable, perky partner? At night, I often took the Klonopin my doctor had prescribed for insomnia and hoped that I’d never wake up. I was so depressed that I couldn’t get out of bed to brush my teeth at night. Let them rot, I thought. I no longer cared. I dreamed regularly of my teeth crumbling and falling out, a symptom of my body’s decay.

In those days, I took a lot of scalding baths. I’d grab a book—books have always been my most reliable companions—and sink into my claw-foot tub. I read until the water turned tepid, then dropped the book on the floor and catalogued my sins. I leaned my head back and let my hair spread like seaweed. Underwater, I imagined that I was swimming—I am a strong swimmer, even in oceans—but there were moments when I realized how easily I could drown. I could just let go. Let my body fill with water, let it green with bloat.

Virginia Woolf’s suicide note read in part: “I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another one of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.” Every time I read that note, I’m glad that Woolf didn’t have children. (She was, like me, a doting aunt.) But I’m also relieved that I’ve never heard voices. I like to think that I have never crossed from pain to madness, though there have been times when I felt like I was losing my mind—losing its clarity and focus. And in my darkest depression, there were days—months, actually—when life seemed so dire that I understood exactly what Woolf meant when she wrote, “I can’t fight anymore.”

I didn’t give up on life because I couldn’t bear to hurt my family. And because I adopted a dog who got me out of bed in the morning. I had to walk him; I had to feed him. He loved me unconditionally, and taking care of him saved me. As I clawed my way out of the dark hole (with help from my sisters, a therapist, antidepressants, and long walks in the woods with my dog), I vowed never again to let my happiness depend on a romantic relationship. I realized that I cared more about writing a book than about having a baby. I stopped thinking about love and instead focused my energy on finishing my novel. I haven’t been in a relationship since that one ended, but I did publish a book.

* * *

My first visit to a mental hospital, in 1988, was not voluntary. I was in eighth grade and my parents thought I was suicidal. The memories of the night on which they committed me are vague: I’ve blocked a lot of it out. I know that I arrived at the hospital wearing a pair of new Guess? jeans. Jeans I’d begged my mother to buy, despite the fact that my parents didn’t have money to spend on designer clothes. I was desperate to belong, and belonging in those days meant wearing Guess? and Benetton. I was unusually skinny for my age: I weighed, at fourteen, just under eighty pounds. And the jeans, which were size 0, were held up with a belt. The belt, along with my shoelaces, and my jar of Noxema, was confiscated from me when I arrived at the hospital. Apparently, even a tub of skin cream can be a weapon of self-destruction in determined hands. Being on suicide watch means constant surveillance. Doors have to remain open; you can’t even go to the bathroom without supervision. And so I spent my first night, imprisoned, and awoke in the morning to find myself among patients who struck me as insane.

I was in the ICU, on a ward with five other teenagers and about ten adults. One boy, just a few years older than I, seemed manic. He showed me the scars on his wrists from a suicide attempt. A middle-aged woman saw the triangle logo on my butt and said, “Those Guess? jeans?” I must have said yes. (And I must have been holding the jeans up, since I no longer had a belt.) “You must be rich,” she said. I didn’t bother to explain that at my school, I wasn’t rich enough. The kids who were cruel to me (I still remember girls at a fifth-grade slumber party repeating, “You suck, Elliott,” as I cried inside my sleeping bag) were rich. My classmates boasted of vacations to Jamaica and Aspen. Their parents picked them up in Mercedes and Maseratis. My parents fretted about whether they’d be able to pay our school tuition. Since I was nine, my underemployed father had been saying things like, “I should just kill myself. You’d all be better off with the insurance money.” I was too young to know that he didn’t really mean it. My father is a brilliant, kind man and I never doubted that he would do anything for us. But he was lonely and overwhelmed, taking care of three girls on his own; my mother was rarely home.

My mother was nurturing and fun, but she was also in East Africa for four months of every year. She was a financial analyst at the World Bank, focused on infrastructure projects that took her on month-long “missions,” as the bank called them, during which she was completely out of touch. There was no Internet; there were no satellite phones. My two younger sisters and I were, in effect, without a mother a third of the year. While she was gone, my father retired to his bedroom early in the evening. “I’m going to lie down for a while,” he’d say. My sisters and I would find him fully dressed in the fetal position, asleep on top of the comforter. In the middle of the night, while we were asleep, he’d wake up and go to the grocery store. It’s painful to imagine him in the empty fluorescent aisles of the Georgetown Safeway at three o’clock in the morning, hunting and gathering in his own stunted way.

In committing me to the hospital, my parents called my bluff. I’d threatened to kill myself. When they told me they would take me to the hospital, I threatened to kill myself right there, in the kitchen, with a knife I grabbed from the counter. The knife was a prop, but I used it convincingly. I had dramatic tendencies. Like a lot of adolescents, I didn’t actually want to die. I wanted to be missed. My ideations were not about suicide, per se, but about the funeral that might be held for me. I liked to imagine my classmates, chastened; I liked to think that everyone who had been mean to me would be sorry if I were dead. That blurry night was the culmination of a terrible year. A year in which I was often in tears, and often in a rage fueled by grief. I missed my mother. I was socially ostracized; school had become so painful that I’d stopped doing my homework. I, who had always been a perfect student, was now so unprepared for my final exams that I was certain I’d fail. It was the end of the school year, my last year at the school I’d attended since I was four. I was anxious about changing schools. And I was desperate for help. “You’re sick,” my mother said. At some point that night, I stopped fighting. I sank down on the kitchen floor, let the dog lick my teary face. I don’t know which parent put the knife away. I know that I finally agreed to go upstairs and pack a bag.

In the psychiatric hospital, it was a relief to see the other patients as crazy. I must be sane, I thought, because I couldn’t recognize the behavior around me. In my first group therapy session with the other teens, I said nothing. I didn’t want to share my feelings with a roomful of strangers. The doctor told me I’d never get out if I didn’t speak “in group.” When my parents came to visit later that day, I demanded my release because I knew I didn’t belong there. My parents must have known the same thing, because just two days after they checked me in to the hospital, they checked me out. That was my first and last stay in a psych ward.

My mother warned me never to tell anyone I’d been in the asylum. She was afraid of the stigma. My mother valued reason above all. She sometimes said of her own mother, “She’s too emotional” or “She’s not rational.” I worshipped my mother, and knew that my intense emotional responses to the world were a disappointment to her. I don’t blame her for sending me to the hospital. She was scared; if my child were that depressed, I might react the same way. But when she committed me to the psych ward, I felt exiled. And when she warned me to keep the episode secret, I felt deeply ashamed. I’ve felt, ever since, like something is wrong with me. My view of myself as fucked up comes less from the actual hospitalization than from my mother’s reaction to it.

* * *

I had other depressive episodes. In tenth grade, I couldn’t write my English term paper. I had stacks of index cards filled with my notes and quotes from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but I couldn’t focus enough to write the essay. It was my first long paper and I wanted it to be perfect. As the deadline approached, I panicked. I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up all night watching black-and-white reruns on Nick at Nite. I watched Leave It to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show and other innocent programs from my parents’ childhood. At dawn, when my younger sisters got up for school, I was still on the couch downstairs in our sunroom. As they sat down to breakfast, I turned off the TV and went up to bed. The term paper’s due date came and went. My parents told the school I was sick, and I was. But it was not a physical ailment; it was my mind that was in torment. For weeks, I stayed up all night and then slept all day. I never wrote that paper, so I got a D in English that semester. I was certain that I had destroyed my future. And during one rocky semester in college, on an art history exam for which I was not prepared, I filled the blue book with the lyrics from “Rocky Raccoon” by the Beatles, which strikes me now as lunatic behavior. I thought it was funny at the time.

But then I spent all of my twenties and most of my thirties in remission. I worked, successfully, at ad agencies in Moscow, London, and New York. I got my MFA in fiction writing at night, at Brooklyn College, while working full-time at a Manhattan agency during the day. I met all my deadlines, got promotions, and won awards. I had melancholic periods, but I never collapsed under the self-doubt that paralyzed me as an adolescent. Even when my mother died of cancer, when I was thirty-one, I did not succumb to depression. I was grieving, but I was functioning. (This is largely due to the antidepressants I starting taking right after she died. Going on antidepressants was, for me, a revelation. If only I’d been medicated sooner, I’m sure my GPA would have been higher. I function so much better on Zoloft that I will never go off medication again.) The reality is that depressed people often function well in their twenties and thirties. As they age, however, depression becomes harder to treat. As Peter D. Kramer put it in Against Depression, “bouts of depression recur with greater frequency. Later episodes can appear spontaneously, without apparent reason. They last longer, respond poorly to any intervention, remit (when they do) more briefly.” Now that I’m forty, my depression has the potential to be increasingly dangerous to my health. And as a woman with a history of anxiety and depression, I’d be at risk for postpartum depression. Suicide is the leading cause of death in new mothers. I’d rather not take that chance.

* * *

Recently, when I was giving my four-year-old niece a bath, she said, “I’m not sure I want to have kids. I just want to be an aunt.” What sparked this remark, I don’t know. Does she sense how much sacrifice is involved in raising children? Like me at her age, my niece spends most of her time making up stories and songs. She has an unusual dexterity with language. She is a natural storyteller, with an innate sense of pacing. She is already constructing artful sentences. I wonder if she, too, will devote herself to writing. “You don’t have to decide that now,” I said. “Someday you can have kids if you want.”

What kind of mother would I have been? A worried one, no doubt. My sisters and I often joke about how high-strung I am. When I was in my early twenties, my youngest sister said to me, “You can only have kids if you go running every day.” For me, exercise has always been essential to managing my moods. (I stopped running regularly during that last ill-fated relationship and I’m quite sure that if I had started again after our breakup, I would have been far less depressed.) I thrive on routine, so I would have insisted on a structured existence for my children: precise bedtimes and lots of scheduled activities. I’m sure I would have fretted about developmental milestones (“Shouldn’t she be reading already?”) and, like my own overachieving parents, taken too much pride in my children’s accomplishments. I’m a perfectionist, so I fear that I would have expected too much of my kids. But I would have read to them every day, even when they were infants. And I would have sung the lullabies my mother always sang to me: “Dona Dona Dona” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”

My sisters are good mothers. The one with three girls is a stay-at-home mom. Her days are, like so many parents’, parceled into drop-offs and pickups, from school, from birthday parties, from swim practices and soccer games. She is the reluctant pilot of a minivan. My sister’s devotion to her kids is partly a reaction to our childhood; she is trying to give her own children the emotional stability we lacked. I offer my three nieces an entirely different female model: a career-focused artist, with no financial security, who will probably never own a house. My nieces have seen my novel in bookstores. The oldest proudly told her first-grade class that her “aunt is an author.” I want the girls to understand that it is possible to be both a professional woman and a parent, but I can’t be the one to set that example. As the four-year-old already understands, not all girls grow up to be mothers.

If I hadn’t felt abandoned by my own mother, if I’d been more lucky in love, if I’d published my first book when I was younger, if I were, by nature, less sensitive and more confident, perhaps I would have tried to have children. But I can’t complain: I’m alive and thriving. And even without kids, I have plenty of perspective.

At St. Elizabeths, one of the women in the writing group took my hand. “What are you afraid of, the dark?” she asked. It was her first question. She didn’t ask me where I went to school or what I do for a living. She didn’t care if I was married or had children. In the psych hospital, we immediately got down to the raw, unfiltered business of being human. On some level, aren’t we all afraid of the dark?