Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids - Meghan Daum 2016
A Thousand Other Things
I DON’T HAVE KIDS, and I’m very glad I don’t, although there was a time when I wanted them more than anything.
These days, I live in a nineteenth-century brick house in the gritty, beautiful, easygoing seaside town of Portland, Maine, with my boyfriend of almost six years, Brendan, and our sweet old dog, Dingo. Brendan is thirty-two; I’m almost fifty-two. Despite or maybe because of our age difference, we’re deeply happy and contented in the way of best friends who can’t bear to be apart and yet maintain an inextinguishable spark of mutual attraction.
This isn’t a life I thought I would ever have, especially ten or fifteen years ago—not even close. Back then, I thought I’d never leave New York; I was embedded in a long-term marriage, and believed that I was past any major upheaval.
But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that nothing is permanent. Everything can change unexpectedly, and it’s a good idea never to get too complacent. My childhood was marked by change and loss, as was my adolescence; my father abandoned my sisters and me when we were young, and our lives were peripatetic, marked by saying good-bye to people every year or two and starting over in new schools, houses, neighborhoods. My adulthood has followed suit; this seems to be a major theme in my life. Brendan and I are both writers, so our income varies wildly from year to year. Sometimes we’re broke, sometimes flush, usually somewhere in between. We’re glad not to have to worry about supporting anyone but ourselves. We lavish our caretaking energies on each other and Dingo, and that’s all we seem to require.
Brendan has never wanted kids, and I believe he never will; he knows himself very well. He has no desire to be a father, no interest in having a family. Seeing other people with their kids, no matter how cute they are, only reinforces his knowledge that he doesn’t want them. That I don’t want them either is probably moot by now, since I’m likely too old to conceive. But it’s not over till it’s over. And so we’re careful.
* * *
Years ago, when my then husband and I were in our mid-thirties, we’d been married for two years and I felt forty approaching fast. We had weathered our rocky first years together. Our marriage finally felt stable and solid. We’d had a wild, carefree, decadent four years of courtship and early marriage, and now that we were getting older, it felt like time to settle down, or at least it did for me. And on top of it, my best friend and sister were both pregnant.
Suddenly, I had baby lust: deep, primal, a shockingly animal yearning I’d never experienced before. It was like being on some weird and powerful new drug. I could feel my baby in my arms; a girl, I imagined. I could see myself becoming a mother. I longed for the tectonic shifts motherhood would bring. I fantasized about nursing her, rocking her to sleep, leaping out of bed in the night when she cried. I craved that sense of importance and completion, the passionate focus on something outside myself. All my life, I had assumed I’d have kids, and now it was time: I was ready.
The fact that my husband didn’t have these feelings at all, didn’t remotely share my excitement about settling down and growing up and changing our lives, came as a further shock. But I wasn’t deterred. Frankly, it felt like my decision to make, unilaterally, as the wife. Didn’t wives always tell their husbands when it was time? Wasn’t that how this was supposed to go? And didn’t husbands give in, reluctantly, then fall madly in love with their children and rise to the role of fathering and never regret a thing?
My father, for one, hadn’t. After abandoning twin baby girls in Minnesota, moving to California, and marrying my much-younger mother, he’d fathered three more daughters he apparently didn’t want. My mother has conjectured that if one of us had been a boy, this story, and his relationship with us, might have gone differently, but that is moot. He was a negligent, distant, sometimes violent, often heartbreakingly charming father who disappeared forever when we were all still little, along with the child support he’d provided. He’d once told my teenage sister, “When you were little and you’d yell, ’Daddy, Daddy!’ I’d look around to see who that person was. Then I realized it was me. I’ve just never felt like that guy.”
But I’d married my husband, in part, because I knew he could and would be a good father, even a great one. I’d watched him hold a friend’s baby on our third date, cradling its head, rocking it gently, not missing a beat in his conversation. He was a natural. I thought then, I could marry this man. By which I meant I could have children with this man.
But the script I’d written in my head went off course. No matter how much I begged and pleaded and raged and wept for more than a year, my husband adamantly refused to have children. He wasn’t ready to give up his youth, all the fun we were having, the freedom to spend all day in his studio and come home late for dinner and be alone with me at night and travel wherever we wanted, to Mexico, New Orleans, Amsterdam.
He was a musician, photographer, and painter. I was a novelist. I’d finally sold my first novel and was working on my second. But he was struggling to get a show, to market the album his band had produced. Our careers were in different places. I suspect that if they’d been more equal, he might have been willing to have children when I was ready, but again, as with my father, this is all moot.
A few years later, he finally decided that he was ready to have kids. I was forty by then. I was also no longer happy in the marriage, no longer filled with much optimism about it, in part because of his earlier refusal to have children with me, which had broken my heart irreparably. Along the way, my baby lust had abated along with my lust for my husband, and I now felt somewhat ambivalent about the whole question. Still, I was willing, and he was ready. I had said I wanted a baby—two, actually—and I still trusted the authenticity of my earlier yearning. I also trusted that once I had a baby in my arms, once I was a mother, I would embrace the role and never look back.
So we started trying. I stopped drinking alcohol, started taking prenatal vitamins. Then my period, which had never been late in my life, was a few days late, then a week, then ten days. My breasts were incredibly, horribly sore. I felt different—puffy, muted, muffled. I scheduled a visit to my gynecologist, and then I bought a pregnancy test from the drugstore. The result was negative, but maybe it was too early.
My husband, once he realized I might be pregnant, seemed calm, even joyful and excited. He seemed ready to be a father, and I had no doubt about his abilities or commitment. I knew that he would never abandon our child or children. I knew that he would do everything in his power to make sure they were loved, safe, fed, educated, taken care of. He would be the devoted father I hadn’t had. I had done that, at least, for my baby.
But what kind of mother was this kid getting?
As I later realized, I was at the beginning of what turned out to be a sort of protracted nervous breakdown that lasted into my mid-forties, until just after I left my husband and moved out of our house. Before this pregnancy, or whatever it was, I had been suffering from out-of-control, despairing crying jags during which I could hardly get out of bed, alternating with manic episodes that involved inappropriate flirting, heavy drinking, and staying up all night, playing online Scrabble and obsessing about aging, mortality, and death.
The irony of having a new life inside me during this episode was not lost on me.
My mother, too, had experienced a long breakdown in her forties. I knew that being a mother had in no way made this easier for her. In fact, because of it, she’d been unable to provide her adolescent daughters the strong-minded guidance and nurturing attention she’d wanted to give us. She couldn’t escape the storms raging in her own skull any more than I was now able to escape mine. I worried that if I had a baby, I’d inflict this on her. I would be a good mother in every way I could, but I’d also be a very troubled one.
I’d heard other women exult about the magic of being pregnant, the glow of it, the joy and anticipation. I’d expected a sense of completion, fulfillment, the romantic thrill of doing what my body was designed and meant to do. I felt some of that in bursts, but my ambivalence continued unabated. I also felt terrified, displaced. I went around all day with gingerly trepidation, nervous and baffled and neurotic, trying not to inhale truck exhaust, jonesing for a glass of wine, feeling my normally robust sexuality withering into bodily caution, anxiousness about my ability to properly house this interloper for whom I would have done anything, killed anyone, to shield from harm. I was, it seemed, biologically programmed to feel this way. I had no choice.
At night, I lay awake, trying not to feel trapped, invaded, hijacked by this thing inside me, this rapidly growing person who was simultaneously independent of me, entitled to me, wholly dependent on me, and part of me. My body, which all my life had been my own, inhabited solely by me, free to do whatever it wanted, now felt entirely given over to the task of growing this stranger. All of my choices about what I put into it and what I did with it were made wholly with this other person in mind, no longer myself. Sometimes I was excited. Other times, I was freaked-out. But even as I vacillated, I accepted all of this as a permanent change. I’d never be wholly autonomous again. That’s what motherhood was, in a nutshell.
Then, the very morning of my OB-GYN appointment, I started to bleed, more heavily than usual. Just like that, my pregnancy, if it really had been a pregnancy, was over. I was flooded with relief, mad with it. I felt some sadness, a twinge of loss, but primarily, I was exultant and grateful. I celebrated by going out with my husband and some of our friends and drinking tequila, smoking cigarettes, and staying out till dawn.
Now, it turned out, I was the one who didn’t want to give up this life of carefree independence. My husband’s reaction seemed more complex: part relief, part sadness. I sensed that he had been scared, too, but he’d been more ready than I was.
Despite a lot of carelessness with birth control in my youth, this was the first time I’d thought I was pregnant. Once it was over, I understood that I’d been saved from losing myself. My earlier desire for babies, now gone, felt like a phantom echo of a lost passion, a heartbreak long ago recovered from. I threw myself back into my own life, greeting all my old depression, mania, bad behavior, and obsessiveness as if they were friends I’d neglected and almost lost. I hadn’t known how much I treasured them.
* * *
A year or two later, my gynecologist announced that my fibroids had to come out. One was the size of a cantaloupe, another a grapefruit, a third an orange. Luckily, all these benign flesh fruits were growing outside my uterus. They didn’t cause me pain and could be easily removed, but the biggest one was pressing on my bladder, and when I lay on my back, I could see the rounded top of it poking up through my skin. So we scheduled a traditional C-section-like operation.
Of course I spent the night before the surgery on the Internet, googling laparoscopic procedures, which have a far faster recovery time and leave a tiny scar instead of a six-inch one. The next morning, I called my doctor, furious we weren’t doing it that way. He countered that the fibroids were too big and told me not to spend the night on Google before an operation; he also postponed the surgery until my state of mind improved.
About a month later, I had the operation. Afterward, I was sent to recuperate for a couple of days on the maternity ward of St. Vincent’s. I shared a room with a woman a little older than I was who’d just had a radical hysterectomy. We were the only two on the ward who’d come in for an operation, without a baby, with pieces of ourselves missing. We bonded deeply over this; she had kids already, but she understood my own feelings about the matter.
I had become hugely bloated after my operation and had gained more than twenty extra pounds of water weight, which made me feel like an enormous, lumbering freak. It seemed monstrously unfair that I’d just had a few pounds of flesh taken out of me and had instantly become too fat to fit into my clothes. And it felt ironic: my body seemed to be revolting against the invasion that had just taken place, insulating itself with a thick layer of protective water. With my distended stomach, I felt nine months pregnant. My newly stitched incision was tender and painful from the pressure.
When it was time to go home, I put on the shapeless, baggy dress I’d asked my husband to bring me, the only article of clothing I owned that would fit. He helped me dress and pack. Weak as I felt, I skirted the nurses’ station so I wouldn’t have to ride out in a wheelchair; I needed to get out of there under my own steam. I leaned against my husband, and he carried my bag and opened the hallway door for me.
Then something happened, something that has stayed with me ever since. As we went through the swinging hall door to the elevator bay, my husband looked back and saw a beatific young woman approaching, carrying a newborn baby and surrounded by an entourage. She was too far away for him to be expected to keep the door open for her and her husband, mother, and friend, so he let it close and pressed the button for the elevator.
A minute later the woman sailed through the door, which her own husband held open for her. They all joined us in the hallway.
“You could have held the door open for me,” she said to my husband.
Shocked, I stared at her. She was beautiful and tiny, with long, curly dark hair. She wore a gauzy skirt and sandals and looked as if she’d already lost all her pregnancy weight, or maybe she’d magically transferred it to me somehow.
My husband, as shocked as I was, didn’t answer. We rode the elevator down in silence. The doors opened on the ground floor. I waited in the lobby for my husband to bring the car around, leaning heavily against a planter and watching this new mother allow everyone to pamper her in any way they could.
Her husband looked over at me. He could have been one of my husband’s cousins, kindly, Jewish, concerned. “Are you okay?” he asked me.
I almost burst into tears. I was flooded with sadness. Two days on the maternity ward with a C-section incision but no baby, followed by an elevator ride with a gorgeous, doted-upon Madonna holding her beautiful bundle, had hit me hard out of nowhere. I went home in tears. My husband couldn’t console me.
* * *
A few years later, in the fall of 2006, I moved out of our Greenpoint, Brooklyn, house into a basement in Hunter’s Point, Queens. I had just ended a devastating, short-lived affair with a married man who lived in our neighborhood, a college friend of my husband’s, probably the worst person I could have chosen. The affair was over; I couldn’t speak to him or contact him, and I didn’t, ever again. I knew I’d done a terrible thing, as had he, and my guilt and regret exacerbated the wrenching and painful and devastating aftermath of the affair. I lay awake in my dungeon apartment night after night. I could not sleep. I was in a state of manic existential despair so profound, so all-encompassing, it drove me to what I now recognize as actual insanity. I had left my husband, the person I loved and trusted most, because our marriage had become intolerable to me. Although he was willing to take me back and work it out and although I wanted more than anything to stay married to him, I had to go. I was propelled out of our house by an instinctive, self-protective urge to flee. And I had lost my lover, whom I was madly in love with and who I believed at the time was my soul mate, because he had kids and I couldn’t take him away from them, and he couldn’t leave them.
Wracked with guilt and horror at myself and filled with painful, insoluble feelings, I lay awake too desolate to cry. I stared into the darkness for all the hours of the night. My skull echoed with one question: Where are my children?
The whole summer before, I’d experienced a strange reprisal of my old mourning for the babies I’d never had. I’d thought I had recovered for good from that sadness, but as I felt my marriage disintegrate, the memory of my raw yearning for babies and my husband’s refusal to have them with me came back to me as part of the reason I was now leaving him. It felt like the heart of why I was so lonely with him. As I lay awake in the Hunter’s Point basement every night, that old unfulfilled craving became an obsession I couldn’t escape, a black hole of raw grief I kept falling deeper into. Where are my children? I felt their absence and loss as if they existed somewhere I couldn’t reach, as if they were stuck forever on the other side of a membrane and I could never have access to them. I felt as if they were real. I knew it was part of my current psychosis, a hallucination in 3-D, but knowing this didn’t help at all. I missed my children desperately.
The part of me that had wanted to be a mother all those years ago had woken up again, and she was howling and keening like a tragic heroine at the end of an opera. Gradually, I pulled myself out of the abyss. In the next months, I finished a novel. In December, unable to bear my loneliness, I went back to my husband and stayed for another two years. We saw a marital therapist once a week. We tried so hard to work it out, but in the end, it wasn’t meant to be, at least not for me. The therapy helped clarify for me that I truly couldn’t stay in this marriage, and I truly didn’t want kids.
When I left for good in the fall of 2008, it was with sadness and grief, but also resolve and finality, and not one twinge of longing for children.
* * *
Since then, my life has swept on without them, and other passions and experiences and sources of love have gradually taken up my energy and attention. There was, and still is, no void where they would have been. In fact, I have no room in my life for kids, no place for them, no time.
I remember my long-ago feverish urge to have a baby fondly and with relief. It seems to me, in hindsight, that it was a biological, hormonal impulse, an imperative that arose when the right moment came and then, unfulfilled, simply went away over time. If I had had children with my ex-husband, I would have had to choose between staying in a marriage that was unsatisfying and lonely and leaving and breaking up my family and sharing custody with my ex-husband, negotiating everyone’s schedule for many years. Instead of being autonomous and traveling light, I would have had a hard time leaving New York and separating my kids from their father. I might have been stuck there, too. I might never have met Brendan, never moved north to the White Mountains and Maine. I would have missed out on so much.
I picture my life without children as a hole dug in sand and then filled with water. Into every void rushes something. Nature abhors a vacuum. Into the available space and time and energy of my kid-free life rushed a thousand other things. I published seven books in fourteen years and am writing two more now; I’ve written countless essays, interviews, reviews, blog posts, e-mails. My days are so busy and full and yet so calm and uninterrupted and self-directed, I can’t imagine how kids would fit in. Kids talk so much. They require their parents’ undivided attention on demand. They are expensive. They require oceans of energy and attention. And so forth. No matter how much you love your kids, they’re always there, and you are entirely responsible for them, and this goes on for many, many years. Meanwhile, I’m an introvert and so is Brendan. Children exhaust us, even the ones we love most. Our solitude is the most valuable thing we have, and we cherish it above most other things and work hard to maintain it.
Sometimes we posit a scenario in which we were both young when we met, and we imagine that we would have had kids, if only because I would have wanted them. And we would have raised them with all our best efforts and unflagging commitment. But we also would have become different people, made different choices, and had a different relationship with each other; more distant and harried, more responsible, more grown-up.
Instead, we have this life, and we are these people. We get to go to bed every night together, alone, and wake up together, alone. Our shared passions thrill and satisfy us, and our abundant freedoms—to daydream; to cook exactly the food we want when we want it; to drink wine and watch a movie without worrying about who’s not yet asleep upstairs; to pick up and go anywhere we want, anytime; to do our work uninterrupted; to shape our own days to our own liking; and to stay connected to each other without feeling fractured—are not things we’d choose to give up for anyone, ever.
Meanwhile, there are a lot of kids in my life. I have six nieces and nephews and I am the godmother of my best friend’s son and daughter. But most of my friends do not have kids; I am part of a community of childless people, many of them single, most of them artists of some stripe. Not having kids is the norm for my friends and for me. We get together and find we have plenty to talk about and no one to interrupt us.
I attribute my present-day happiness to sheer luck. I didn’t choose not to have kids, it just happened to me—my husband didn’t want them when I did, and then when he did, we weren’t able to have them.
Since that terrible fall of 2006, I’ve never wanted them again. During those long nights I spent lying awake dying of loneliness and pining for them, I think I said good-bye to them forever. I let them go back to the void, those unknown people I would have loved with all my heart and soul but will never know. I can’t miss what I’ve never had.