Babes in the Woods

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

Babes in the Woods


Courtney Hodell

The myth is pessimistic, while the fairy story is optimistic, no matter how terrifyingly serious some features of the story may be.



ON MY SIXTH BIRTHDAY, I was given a little green mop and bucket, enchantingly kid-scaled. Also a baby doll. The mop held my attention. It was fun to swish the twisted strands around the floor, nominally making it cleaner, and I got the point of the job: it started, it ended, you felt proud. The doll mystified me. The limbs were rigid; the eyes glared. I couldn’t make it go on adventures in my mind like I could my collection of stuffed animals—fearless rabbit, leopard seal, koala. Nor did it squish under my arm in a companionable manner while I went about my business.

I viewed this doll with suspicion, as an inducement to take up some dubious enthusiasm that was going to turn out, Tom Sawyer—like, to be work in the way the mop and bucket were not. This was not an age when people wallowed in parenting. Kids like my parents got married and started having children right away, before they even knew what they were giving up to do it. My mother was everywhere and nowhere, constant but peripheral, the separate acts of care like salt grains dissolved in water. It was hard to see where the fun of it was.

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes that the mother “hates the infant for the child’s ruthless use of her.” My mother’s body was indistinguishable from mine—to me, at least. I owned it. I poked at the constellation of freckles on her arm while sitting bored in a church pew; I dragged on her hand, swinging, when she walked down the grocery aisles, my brother the counterweight on her other hand. “Stop hanging on me,” she would say, fretfully, despairingly. We would gape, shocked that she didn’t consider us all a single being, like a grove of aspens is said to be. Then we would resume our tugging.

The bedtime song she sang to us most nights was “Babes in the Woods,” in which two children are stolen and then lost in the forest. We clamored for its lilting melody: “They sobbed and they sighed, and they bitterly cried, / and the poor little children, they laid down and died.” Here we tucked ourselves side by side under her arm to savor their fate. “And when they were dead, the robins so red, / took strawberry leaves and over them spread.”

Her mother no doubt sang it to her, and had been sung it herself. My grandmother was the ninth child in an immigrant German farm family, the kind whose idea of a fun game was throwing live chickens at each other. In my imagination they hadn’t read but rather lived Grimm, those unsentimental tales with swift, implacable revenges, with rifts between parents and children taken for granted. The song fit us, even if I didn’t consciously grasp that sometimes my mother might have wanted to lose us, too.

My brother, Christian, was a benevolent dictator, though only eleven months older than I; Irish twins, they call it. Early on we got the idea that it would be sensible to look after each other, and our private mythology of brother and sister as the two faces of a coin, around which so much of our lives has taken shape, was forged before we could both speak. I recently found a snapshot of the two of us hand in hand, walking ourselves to kindergarten. It’s taken from behind and we don’t know we’re being watched. Our white knee socks are pulled very high. Who took it—my mother or my father? What were they thinking as we set off on our own?

Those wild strawberries: they were a thrilling signpost of danger for anyone alert to the presence of magic in the world. “Brother, come and dance with me,” coaxes Gretel in the opera by Engelbert Humperdinck (true name!) that we checked out from the local library. She and Hansel break the milk pitcher and spill their poor supper, and their furious mother sends them into the woods to gather strawberries as twilight gathers. You know the rest. The witch is immolated, the mother repents; the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim suggested that they are, to the child, the same person, and that “the child can become himself only as the parent is defeated.”

Soon enough we children were looking after children ourselves. Press-ganged by neighbor parents, I noted their eagerness to leave, how they rattled off emergency numbers while the car keys jingled. We were terrible babysitters, impatient, insincere. The kids knew it. One used to ask accusingly, every single day after school, “What are you doing here, stupid?” I gave up babysitting as soon as I got a work permit and could clear plates for two dollars an hour plus tips.

Around this time, in the back room of a record store I found a 1920s movie poster of two plump children asleep under a blanket of curled brown leaves. Babes in the Woods, said the poster: A Gorgeous Tale of Charm and Adventure for Young and Old. That was an optimistic way to characterize the plotline. Did the kids die in the Hollywood version, eulogized by robins? I tacked it to my bedroom wall. At sixteen I was already nostalgic for our childhood, for the time when the two of us were alone together by choice and not by social fiat, even though my brother was just there on the other side of the wall, besieged. I was doing nothing to help.

From birth, Christian had an innate sense of flair and ceremony: in elementary school, indifferent to mockery, he would cut our peanut butter and jelly into crustless tea sandwiches and include a fluted paper plate in our lunch bags. By adolescence, this aesthetic sensitivity had toughened into a defiant flamboyance, which took breathtaking moral—and sometimes physical—courage to carry off in 1983 New England. The high school cafeteria was a site of martyrdom. Injustices done to him—Brad Crawley throwing Suzy Qs at my beautiful and rare brother!—made my skin burn with caustic fury. But I didn’t have any great plan for saving him. I was dealing with issues of misfitness, too, though instead of blazing, as he did, I moped and skulked. He left for college and the house was horribly quiet. No one to dance around waving a dish towel and singing Sweeney Todd while I did the dishes.

But as the story happens, we went off to school together again, the first of many thousand-mile drives in a 1974 Chevy Impala with a Styrofoam cooler of fried chicken in the backseat. I’d only bothered to apply to one college. Had he decided ahead of time, in his imperious way, that I’d follow him to his? It was an excellent school for the sprawl of things I was interested in, but that seemed almost a lucky coincidence. It was unimaginable that we would be separated, though I regretted that he’d picked a punishing climate. Lake Michigan froze in chaotic slabs all the way out to the horizon.

At college, I was delighted and relieved to find that he was loved. Potheads, sorority girls, supercilious professors, and ROTC cadets adored him for his absurdist wit and his air of having trailed a little bit of splendor behind him, like the bright winter smell that follows you in from outside. Christian presented me to all his various social groups with an almost belligerent confidence that I would be taken in, too. He taught me how to pull a respectable bong hit, how to find the nerve to fling myself into a pool of conversation, and how to sign up for the right classes—that is to say, those with the least practical application: Introduction to the Art Song, the Seven Hills of Augustan Rome, a seminar on semiotic inside jokes in The Name of the Rose. “Come on, sister, have yourself a ball!” the Kinks song went; I heard it for the first time on a body-swallowing sofa while getting high with his new friends. “Don’t be afraid to come dancing, / it’s only natural.”

That first year I was away, one of my small band of outsider friends back home got pregnant. We’d all been strenuously taught that being a teen mother meant the death of hope, but she was doing cooler things than any of us had or would, and she made college look like a desperately bourgeois choice. She had a record contract, she toured, and now she played her electric guitar slung sidesaddle to her enormous belly. I thought that she, if anyone, might be able to invent a new kind of motherhood. But when I visited, the baby cried and cried and cried and cried, creating a sort of huge ear-popping pressure that shoved all thought out of the room. I quietly got up to leave—it somehow seemed almost an indecent thing to witness. My indomitable friend stood with her back to me, gripping the porcelain of the kitchen sink, and said dully, “Please don’t go.” Even her bright mind seemed ground down. Her bravery terrified me, and so did the foreverness of what she’d done.

I still feel the ecstatic release of driving away from that house along the coast road, the long way around just because I could, twiddling the radio dial for a good midnight song to rinse away the static. And for a long while, that is all I thought about the subject of babies, other than trying not to have one accidentally. Every now and then I’d squint my eyes to visualize a time when I’d start feeling the craving myself: when I was thirty, it would be at thirty-two; at thirty-two, I’d be ready by thirty-six; and on it went. I was hitching a ride on Zeno’s arrow, speeding toward a target I’d never reach. Boyfriends were only too grateful, I imagined, not to have the “Where is this relationship going?” conversation.

A job as a book editor took me to London, where Christian had gone to work as a theatrical agent, and after a gap of a decade we once more lived close by. If I felt lonely, I could put a coat on over my nightgown and walk unnoticed through the sleazy all-night carnival of Old Compton Street to hang out at the flat he shared with Mikey, his boyfriend and then, once England discreetly began to allow civil unions, his legal partner. Christian and I spent our professional lives looking after people in sometimes fragile emotional circumstances. It is not easy being a creative person, and oftentimes the tantrums that were thrown, the vulnerabilities that cracked open and needed to be patched up again, could be wearying and unnerving to cope with. Like looking after children, but without the adorability to seduce you into not minding so much. “The world,” he said to me darkly one of those evenings, “has enough people. You and I do not need to add to them.” And I was happy to sign this latest treaty of mutual support and defense.

Scientists say that our pupils flare when they register something of interest; for women, babies top the list. (Porn follows.) But my pupils and my hypothalamus, the seat of desire, did not seem to be communicating. There was no corresponding baby hunger, at least not in that ready place where all my other hungers were shouting for attention. Meanwhile, there had been a societal swing back to the orthodoxy of motherhood. Serious journalists wrote with anguish of their biological clocks, a term I came to hate. Twins in strollers wide as combines mowed the sidewalks, the result of untold numbers of women over thirty-seven enduring a hypodermic in the behind. All of a sudden it was de rigueur for rising stars to be photographed lusciously, peachily pregnant. But a dwindling number of my babyless friends admitted, very quietly indeed, that they weren’t so sure they wanted one, not just now but ever—like a group of medieval heretics muttering agnosticism at a time when that could get you a date with a stake and some matches.

All the available cultural artifacts seemed to be telling us holdouts that if you were a woman, your business was having a baby, and if you didn’t, there was something wrong—with your body, meaning you couldn’t conceive, or your mind, meaning you couldn’t conceive of it. So perhaps this absence of desire in me really was pathological. Dutifully, I added it to the list of things to talk over with my therapist. I could chitchat with her for costly hours about my complicated feelings on this and that—but not, I found, on this subject. I studied the inoffensive museum prints on the wall of her little room, watching her hands lying folded and waiting in her lap. We both, I think, wished I had something more to say.

I wondered often what she hoped I would do. I sensed she wanted me to be courageous, to be bigger than just myself. But she, impeccable Freudian, kept her counsel. Not so others. Is there any other situation in life where people feel so free to tell you what to do, short of checking you in to rehab? “I’d get on with it, if you’re going to do it,” said the gynecologist, blunt as a speculum. “And sooner rather than later.” I didn’t recall having asked her opinion. A literary agent who’d had enough kids to populate a string quartet told me over lunch that I would regret my decision, but by then it would be too late, and she smacked her hand down on the table so our water glasses sloshed. (What decision? What and when had I decided?) Another woman held both my hands, her eyes drilling into mine, and said that for her, having children was like flicking on the light in a dark room. But the older I get, I thought mutinously to myself, the more I like a bit of dim lighting. At forty, it’s easier on the complexion.

In the meantime, Christian and I had taken to pointing to each other.

You do it.

No, you do it.

And we laughed.

* * *

So much of being a grown-up is about managing or quelling desires. For food, for drink, for sex, for good times; if you’re a woman, I maintain, for ambition. You should not want too much. It is strange, then, to be in a position where society demands you should have an appetite for something. And yet here was a rare instance where I was appetite-free, and the world seemed to be saying, “You have to want this thing, if only so that we can help you work through your feelings about not having it!”

And so I set about trying to try, with the same enthusiasm that I would have brought to cooking a Thanksgiving dinner and sitting down joylessly to chew the whole thing myself.

Here’s where I tell you that I love children, and where you look at me skeptically. But I do. I love them for their wild experiments with language; for their inability to feign interest in things that do not truly grip them; for their seriousness and total immersion in play.

But when you talk of not wanting children, it is impossible to avoid sounding defensive, like you’re trying to prove the questionable beauty of a selfish and too-tidy existence. It is hard to come across as anything other than brittle, rigid, controlling, against life itself. Anyway, I resented having to explain myself at all, to open a hatch over my heart because a near stranger asked an impertinent question.

A writer friend, defending her choice not to, said, “Boredom in children is useful. Boredom in adults is not.” I, too, was sometimes aghast at the short-fibered thoughts of my friends whose small children beseeched or bellowed as their stories were begun again and again and never finished, whereas I got to spoil myself with long hours of unspooling daydreams. (A nagging thought: What did I have to show for all that free time the mothers didn’t have?) But it’s also true that I was staggered by the transformation of these women. Their devotion, their patience (not something I’d always noted in them before the kids came). They were not showing off; this was not display. There was no statute saying they had to give themselves over so completely. They were going to wipe the face, wipe the bottom, feed, bathe, lull, teach by word, teach by example, read the books, put away the toys, buy the tiny clothes, six months later buy a slightly larger set of clothes, fret about the schools, and on and on; the caring and the worry was never, ever, ever going to stop, not until death. I wasn’t sure I had it in me. Perhaps I was a kind of human geode: sparkly and hollow.

Still, I did give it a go. Never let it be said that I wasn’t willing to get on a scary amusement park ride at least once, even if I bent the safety bar with my grip. But the big joke after all that brinksmanship in my twenties—tense days of waiting for a period to show up after some delicious act of heedlessness—was that it isn’t so easy to get pregnant. And I didn’t. I wasn’t relieved, but I wasn’t sorry either. I felt with some satisfaction that my body had honorably answered for my whole family this lingering question of whether there would be a next generation of Hodells. I’d done my duty, and now we could all move on.

* * *

The two kids with their high white socks were now undeniably middle-aged. One afternoon, Christian e-mailed to say that he and Mikey had something important they wanted to talk to me about. His Important Conversations could be unpredictable and sometimes terrifying: Why He Is the Wrong Boyfriend for You; Your Job Is a Poisoned Chalice; That Lipstick Shade Does Not Flatter. (We all feared the familiar words “I’m going to say this with love…”) We skyped; I trained my face to look serenely receptive.

But this time, it was not about me. The comedy of it! While my family had glanced covertly my way, wondering when I’d get around to marrying, my gay brother had gone and done it. And now, while they’d politely held their tongues on the subject of grandkids, he’d visited a clinic in Connecticut to flip through binders full of baby mamas. He and Mikey squeezed close so they’d both fit onto my monitor to tell me that they’d picked an egg donor with a profile that suited, and with luck and a hundred thousand dollars, in a year’s time they’d be parents. I hadn’t even known they were considering it. Yet it made total sense to me that Mikey wanted children. An atmosphere of calm hangs about him like a cloud cap on a green mountain. Everyone in need of balm seeks him out: the anxious and the shy, little kids, old people. He’s one of the secret, mighty soothers and nurturers of this world.

It’s not that Christian has nothing of this in him. Once I’d passed a shop window and stopped dead at a little bronze meerkat up on its hind legs, scouting trouble in wait for its troupe. I bought it at once: it looked exactly like him. But our pact! What he’d said about the too many other people! I forgot that I’d been at least a little ready to break the pact, too.

They found a surrogate, the magnificent and sainted Sharla, who lived all the way out in Wichita, Kansas. The Connecticut clinic frothed with activity. Both Mikey and Christian contributed—I didn’t ask, but I imagined it involved specialized magazines in a toilet stall—and this was eyedroppered onto the eggs vacuumed up that same day from the donor they’d met for a few nervous minutes before she was wheeled in for the procedure, and whom they had forgotten to get a photo with for posterity. “We’ve got fifteen embryos in the freezer,” Christian reported expansively. “You could have one of Mikey’s, if you want.”

Sharla was flown to the clinic, and two embryos—one of each flavor—were implanted. I was visiting Christian in London when he got the news of a strong single heartbeat, sitting in his fishbowl office with all his employees clapping and cheering around him. He rejoiced with them, and we all cracked each others’ spines with hugs like a convention of chiropractors, but when he shut the door, tears glazed his eyes. “I mind that there aren’t two.”

Soon, Sharla e-mailed ultrasounds in which a little bean could be seen and then not seen, inky and blurred like an old mezzotint. Christian and Mikey talked baby names for hours. “Now let’s do jewels! Ruby. Pearl? Jade.” Soon it was Lusitania, Waterloo, Wichita.

In the end, she was Elsa. I flew to Kansas on her birth to be housekeeper while they figured out how to be parents. Christian was Papa; Mikey was Daddy. But the dot of blood harvested when she was minutes old would show that she was Christian’s biological child. That’s mine, he whispered disbelievingly. It would take a month to get Elsa’s documents in order, and they rented a paper-walled suite in a sort of shantytown for transient executives. Sharla pumped as much breast milk as she could muster. Bottles of it sat, unsettlingly yellow, in the fridge among our groceries. This generous stranger, no blood of ours, had the most sustained physical relation to Elsa of any of us. She had made her—or rather, she’d allowed Elsa to make herself inside her, spinning her little body from the genetic material of my brother and a pretty, brown-eyed law student of Hungarian extraction from Rhode Island whom none of us would ever see again.

Not everyone falls in love with a newborn. That is this auntie’s secret. Elsa was a red and wrinkly visitor from outer space, skinny, with a slightly lopsided face and opaque, mineral-blue eyes that minutely raked the face of whoever was bent over her with the bottle, searching as her little mouth worked. Things were most definitely going on in there, but who could say what? Her squalls were spasmodic, weak, shuddering, as if her small bones weren’t sturdy enough to withstand the gusts of wanting. Christian found her crying somehow hilarious. When I welled up at the noises of grief, he snapped, “Are you drunk?” He snatched up Elsa, who was swaddled like a canapé, and speed skated around the living room in his socks, singing Christmas carols. Elsa stared up at him transfixed, plastered into the crook of his arm. He whisked past me. “There’s Tatie Courtney!”

This was the shocker. He was a natural father: easy, confident, fearless. How was he allowed to be different from me?

Wichita seemed to be all mall, and we toured them in the enormous rented SUV, shopping for the numerous bulky items necessary for the comfort of a week-old baby. Christian was explaining how her life was going to go. “She’ll ski, she’ll speak French, and she’ll play tennis and the piano. Everything else she gets to pick for herself.”

The atmosphere in the car shifted a little; I could tell he was working up to something. I glanced over at his profile with the ribbon of Kansas beyond it. His Byronic swoop of hair was clipped like Caesar’s now, but he’d grown into his handsome nose, and I thought he looked very distinguished and not at all improbable at the wheel of the big car.

“Tell me about the … about the coochie.” He couldn’t quite get the word out.

“You mean the vagina?” I bit down a laugh. Really I was thrilled to be asked about a subject I could at last feel learned about. “First of all, think of it as a kind of self-cleaning oven. You don’t need to get up in there with any soap or whatnot. It takes care of itself as long as you keep the outside area clean, and…” So I went on.

His knuckles tightened on the steering wheel after a time. “Okay, that’s great. I don’t think I can hear any more right now.” He appeared to be breathing through his mouth. “But thanks. Really helpful.”

Poor boy. I realized I didn’t know if he’d ever seen a vagina up close, and now he was in charge of making someone feel okay about hers. We steered into a consoling Krispy Kreme drive-through with the “Hot Now” sign lit up. I had the feeling that the next time he’d ask me for advice would be in a decade, when the dreaded menses loomed.

Elsa was no longer than my forearm, and there was just so much turbulence ahead. Girls are born with all the eggs they will ever have, enough to populate a small city. But these start dying off at birth, and only a few hundred of them will kick off into the fallopian tubes and mature into the big chance. Women have, I would guess, about two decades of genuine, galloping fertility. With twelve periods a year, that’s 240 shots at making a baby without enlisting a team of professionals and some lottery winnings. Why was I thinking about this already? She was a few weeks old. This was the telescoping nature of human endeavor. All the flailing around, the mad activity—going to parties, falling in love, buying houses, striving at work—could be smashed like a soda can into this flat fact: we have children so they can have children so they can have children. I had a blast of vertigo, as when you look into a puddle and see the stars falling away behind your head.

Elsa got her passport, Sharla’s milk dried up, and we all dispersed, exhausted: Mikey and Christian to a wholly altered life, with unrecognizable hours and fears and blisses, and me back to mine, where there was still a sock lying in the middle of the rug and an empty glass in the sink.

* * *

I’m no Facebooker, but I started checking in daily to see photos of them settling in, 3,500 miles away. One morning, Christian posted: Last day of my paternity leave. Devastated. My little angel is five weeks old today. From this moment on, everything I do is for her and her wonderful daddy.

Here it was: I’d been kicked out of our tiny Narnia. The wardrobe held only coats. The cold stone in my chest was the rightness of what he’d written. In his novel On the Black Hill, Bruce Chatwin describes grown twins: “Because they knew each other’s thoughts, they even quarreled without speaking.” Now my brother was thinking and feeling things I never would. In college he’d taught me how to speak, but this was something I could never say aloud: Don’t leave me behind.

The only recourse was to love this little scrap of a human, and in the first really adult way I would love anyone. Without expectations of returned affection. Without wounded vanity. With foreknowledge of impending boredom, of exasperation, of anger that I could not allow myself to nurse. In the understanding that I would sometimes be ridiculous in her eyes. Knowing I did not have the rights of parenthood, I could make no demands of her beyond those any grown-up would make of a child: Hold my hand; we’re crossing the street.

* * *

The ruthlessness I feared, the ruthlessness I knew in myself as a child, turns out not to be the point of the tale. There are times when the parent enjoys being feasted upon.

When Nathan, my boyfriend of five years, held Elsa for the first time, he wept—big sparklers caught in his lower eyelashes, too light to drop. “Not sadness,” he said, “just big feeling.” Now the decision is made. But the decision is not past. No matter how it came about—was it my procrastination; disinclination; anxiety; self-absorption?—we live with its consequences every day. Nathan is younger than I am, and it’s a little odd to be dealing at his age with the question of whether he will have his own children or not. For as long as he chooses to be here with me, it will be the latter. I want him to stay, but it is, as they say, a big ask.

I’ve learned from the work of the primatologist Sarah Hrdy that aunts exist in nature. Of course they are everywhere, biologically speaking, but some (marmosets and langurs, I’m looking at you) truly behave as the aunt I want to be, the aunt I have already become, and this is called allomothering. They will feed, groom, hold, and carry a child when they have had none of their own. So there is a word for what this is that I’m doing, I and all my sisters of the genetic dead end. Whatever I’ve learned in this life will not stop with me; I’ll teach it to Elsa.

From feeling we move to thinking, and then to doing. “If there is a kindness instinct,” writes Adam Phillips, “it is going to have to take onboard ambivalence in human relations. It is kind to be able to bear conflict, in oneself and others; it is kind, to oneself and others, to forgo magic and sentimentality for reality.” As night falls in the forest, Hansel crowns Gretel Queen of the Woods and sings to her, “I give you the strawberries, but don’t eat them all.” It is hard, so hard, to let go of a story you’ve lived by. Brother, good-bye; father, hello. As in the fairy tales, there must be a gift at a christening, and this one is my offering: for her, the wild strawberries will only be strawberries, and sweet. “Fraises des bois, Elsa darling,” my brother will say. “Try one.”