Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids - Meghan Daum 2016
The New Rhoda
(1) I KNEW THE SONG, knew the dreamy leaps of the singer’s voice, but I couldn’t place its name. I couldn’t remember where or when I knew it, but the song felt like a sign now, a little wonder I needed to be responsible to. It wasn’t so much the words—I rarely care about the words; a good song alchemizes sense into pure sound—but the atmosphere, its three key changes, which felt distilled rather than willed into being. How had I lost the song? If I continued to sit still, if I didn’t attend to this need to place it, I wouldn’t have the song to return to again. In a little bit I wouldn’t even remember that the song was something to miss, and if I could be that kind of casual about beautiful things, then why bother trying to write anymore? I know I was probably making too big a deal about this. It was the Fourth of July, Philadelphia. I was sitting in the empty coffee place around the corner from my new apartment.
I could have asked the barista. I could have said, Hey, what’s this band? But I didn’t want to let on that I actually listened to music like this. To let on would be to expose myself. To admit that I don’t always act my age and know things a twenty-three-year-old might know. An old guy poking around where his nose isn’t supposed to be, or worse, a show-off. I did not want to chance being condescended to. It seemed preferable—safer, really—to keep my not-knowing private even at the expense of losing the song. This was music made by and for the young, not for someone who had grown up listening to the Smiths and buying LPs and cassette tapes at record stores. I was likely the same age as the barista’s father—probably I was even older than his father—and the fact that my life was so far outside the usual paradigms made me feel unexpectedly—what? Raw. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a father. It wasn’t that I was bemoaning a life I could have had—nothing so typical as that. My not being a father had kept me young, had kept my curiosity awake. It was indeed possible to opt out of growing up, if by growing up we mean shutting down our interest in the next or the new. I didn’t have to restrict myself to the behaviors of some role. But not everyone wants to know that. It could be dangerous news, even to a young bearded barista who might just be feeling territorial about the music he plays.
* * *
(2) In a not-so-distant past, men like me often died in their twenties and thirties. We continued to do what men like us had always done, and though the sex we had was called “safe,” the sex itself felt like a pact with a grenade. The grenade might not go off right away, but in five years it might blow up in your face, scorching your retinas, while you were out having a peaceful dinner. We were either worried all the time or entirely numb to our worry. A friend of a friend told the story of a man who gargled with grapefruit juice before deciding to go out on Saturday nights. If he felt the slightest sting inside his mouth (maybe a nick from the toothbrush the night before, a bit lip), he’d rinse with water immediately, reach for a book, and spend the night at home, thus preempting the idea of sex in a less than tip-top state, which for him lay too close to the possibility of seroconversion.
This was not exactly a crazy man. Or, I should say, he was no crazier than the rest of us.
Meanwhile, another world went on around us. People in that world bought life insurance, health insurance, houses, summer property to be passed on to children, grandchildren. They weren’t exactly in the here and now. They were busy turning to some future, but what is the future when you are always feeding it money? Doesn’t it get tiring to give so much away to a world that you’ll never get to touch and see?
All my men had was the here and now, which often meant staying out half the night, dancing or standing in front of speakers that buzzed so loudly they hurt our ears. Inside the nightclub hung an oversized replica of an AZT capsule suspended with black wires from the ceiling. It glittered in the hot air, blue band down the center, like some icon we’d conjured up together. The title of the theme night was appropriately irreverent (the name escapes me now), for how could anyone be anything but irreverent about a drug that gave half the people in the room rashes, chills, dizziness, nausea, swelling of the tongue? What do you have when you don’t have a future? You have gallows humor, which, as it turns out, does a pretty good job of turning tinfoil into platinum. The last thing we were thinking about was children, or being parents. We were still children ourselves, though we might have been doctors, professors, caregivers, counselors. A reclaimed childhood was not something to waste—we knew that much—having spent so much of our actual own childhoods repressed, depressed, waiting to get out. Nor was it escape.
* * *
(3) Imagine it. Look at a drop of your blood, your semen, your saliva, and think of it containing a thousand little grenades. Not just for you, but for the lover you came into intimate contact with. How would your life change? Could you ever disappear into yourself, your skin again? When you finally got the nerve to be tested, and found out that you did not carry those grenades, could you still think of that fluid as a substance you’d choose to make a baby with? Imagine it.
One does not feel exactly undead after being dead for so long.
* * *
(4) Not so long ago, my friend Dawn asked what it was like to grow up in that time. We were talking about the idea of children, after watching two younger daddies pushing a stroller by our sidewalk café. The evening was arid, windy. A sudden gust lifted the cocktail napkin from the table. I dashed after it and almost caught it before it sailed off over the hood of the car. My ability to explain that era felt a little like that escaped napkin—or was it the gust? My language felt too small for me to contain it. I tried my best to say it my way, through my metaphors, not the ones that have already been branded into us by way of the usual narratives. But the more I talked, the more I focused on Dawn’s face, which was loving, pitying, uncomprehending. She was trying so hard to understand; I could feel her working, and I hated the distance my fumbling opened up between us.
* * *
(5) Not every man of that time was caught in the same fog. There were R and J, for example, who had been together since they were undergraduate roommates at Harvard. They professed to having slept with no one but each other. I’m not sure that meant that their sex lives were any wilder than anyone else’s, but to make love to each other without the threat of caution, precaution—it was just unimaginable to me. Futurity for them had to be different from futurity for me. The same could also have been said about N and O, monogamous for twenty-two years. When they talked about having a child with a surrogate mother, I was as disoriented as if they were talking about fusing a goat with a hen. Gay men in the 1990s were just not doing that yet. It was still unheard of, and when M, my ex, and I talked about their plan, we couldn’t help wondering whether it was corrupt, a doomed attempt to please some needy parents. And so much money—couldn’t they be giving money like that to the poor, to animals? Men like us were supposed to be utopians; men like us were supposed to be reinventing the future, even if there wasn’t exactly a future to inhabit. M and I talked about them with bewildered faces, both superior and a little sorry for them, as if they’d somehow missed the obvious answer to the quiz. We thought of them as if they weren’t members of the tribe. We talked about them as if they were little old ladies. Obviously sex did not matter enough to them. Somehow they got stunted along the way and were too afraid of what lay ahead for them. They should have been wearing lumberjack shirts. They should have been taking their protein powders, working out, making their bodies massive with shoulder shrugs. Were they not looking around? It was time to get busy, investing in the business of looking healthy, healthy, healthy.
* * *
(6) Did A sense how rare and valuable she was to N and O? Did she manage to turn the intensity of their love—she’d become the sole project of her parents’ relationship—into pressure? Did she feel she had to be better, smarter, brighter than the other kids in her preschool? Did she have to be cute just one more time for her parents’ friends? Maybe that explained why A was unbearable, almost comically unbearable, whenever her parents took her out on the town. She threw tantrums; she scratched and grabbed and spit out the sauce on her pasta. Once, from the other side of the restaurant, we watched her parents pick up the pieces of the teacup she’d slammed against the chair. M and I took to referring to her as the New Rhoda, for the evil child played by Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed. The stories we made up about her turned out to be parables about the folly of parents taking on a role they weren’t meant to take on. In these stories, everyone played the expected parts—the exasperated, embarrassed parents and the self-righteous, fussy acquaintances—while the New Rhoda bombed cemeteries, tore up trees, knocked toothless old men off their crutches.
* * *
(7) Treatments change, lives change, and though the world still looks pretty much the same, it isn’t the same at all. People who think they have six months to live end up thriving twenty years later. These days there’s even a drug you can take to prevent seroconversion. I like to think I’m not a person who’s welded to my generation. I like to think that the full range of my character is available to me, simultaneously, at any moment: the me I was, the me I’ll be. But in crucial ways, I’ll always be someone wired by growing up during that siege.
So maybe that’s why choosing a child (or not, for that matter) feels like an incredible luxury. As soon as I entertain the question, a door opens, and I’m too flooded to think. How many other choices have I not considered because it seemed that they weren’t mine to make? What have I accommodated and settled for simply because I came into adulthood in a dark, alarming time? It is easier than you think to be indifferent to what you’ve been told you can’t have. People do it all over the world, all the time, for reasons that are usually imposed on them. As soon as I stare through that open door, I want to close it right away. There isn’t any point in feeling defeated by the empty room inside. I’d rather keep building the house I’ve already been building, even if it’s crooked, faded at the roof, with a cracked foundation.
* * *
(8) Why, Child-Who-Never-Was, am I feeling a little down as I assemble these thoughts? I never thought that you were someone to miss until I began looking at the empty chair where you might have sat. Who would you have been? Would you have had big ears like me, big nose, big head? Would you have had my long feet? Would you have been a loner one day and a social person the next, the guy who loved the party so much that he’d be the last to say good night? Would you have loved animals? What about music? The sea—would you have wanted to be near it, in it, and evaluated every place in terms of how many miles it was from the water? Would you have carried my essence forward in ways I couldn’t have known? Would you have taught me how to ski or to care about football or to make a devil’s food cake from scratch?
* * *
(9) When my relationship of sixteen years ended, I left New York for the Nearby State, where it soon became clear that you were considered odd if you went to a restaurant or a movie by yourself. I’m talking about the subtlest signals: facial reactions from a waitress instead of anything spoken. Solitary men were a special cause for concern, their aloneness the outward sign of a hex. I couldn’t help but wonder whether people chose to have families to avoid some stranger’s inscrutable projection. If the desire to have children is just a way to build some noisy tribe of distraction around oneself, then I’d rather be alone.
* * *
(10) On a foggy spring night in Provincetown, I’m sitting in a bar with three straight friends: two men, one woman. We are celebrating I’s fortieth birthday, and he is here—though he didn’t come out and say this—because he didn’t want to spend it alone. He is not so many months out of a breakup, so he drove fourteen hours and nine hundred miles to spend it in a place that he loves. Though we are laughing and on our second round, the evening is saturated with the possibility of melancholy. Aloneness is the unspoken story of the evening. Time, too. I’m looking up at the portraits of lost local fishermen over the window; the dash and flair of each sketch gives each fellow the aura of a 1980s art star.
I don’t know how the conversation gets around to the differences between how men and women age, but U talks with determined frustration about the fact that men have more years than women do. By that she doesn’t mean longer lives—statistics tell us that that isn’t true, of course—but a longer time to be fertile, desirable.
L and I mention that they’re attracted to women younger than they are because, yes, they still want to be fathers, and they could never expect such fertility of anyone their own age.
Their response makes U’s eyes smolder, but quietly. The left corner of her mouth turns down. This is not what she wants to hear. Maybe she was hoping that one of us would say this idea is full of shit; men and women are not so radically different after all and it’s never so useful to make generalizations like that.
The potential conversation that this topic provokes is so combustible it is collectively cut off. We are here to have fun. We are smart enough to see that this subject might have the power to burn up the night. And we couldn’t do that on I’s birthday. We order a third round.
As for me? I make a joke about not knowing what they are talking about. My manner of delivery makes everyone laugh, but I’m masking a deeper confusion. I thought I could imagine what it could be like to be in my straight male friends’ skin, to be swept and stopped by some beautiful woman as she walks down the street. But the sexual allure of reproductivity? Really? Could they be serious, or are they just reproducing what their fathers might have said, back when they were kids?
I’ve never felt more alien from the men I thought I’d known.
We say our good nights. We walk out into the mists of Commercial Street. On my walk back to my studio, I pass some intense-faced guy with thick brows and a full beard right out of the nineteenth century. I turn around and check out his hard butt as he walks past a tumble of roses. Imagine, wanting to get to know him for the width of his hips, the dream of the little wet monkey growing inside him!
* * *
(11) My questions lead back to the mother, my mother. Did she even want to be a parent? Well, she had to, on some level, though I imagine she would have preferred to be our friend. The only thing I can truly remember her wanting in her life—aside from the house in Seven Hills, and maybe an Ethan Allen living room set—was a girl. This was years after my brother Bobby and I had come along. She’d talked about this girl so much that Bobby rebelled by saying he wanted a duck. The more he wanted a duck, the more my mother wanted Diane Michelle, the name she’d given to the baby growing inside her. Diane Michelle accumulated pink: a pink baby blanket, a pink mobile above the crib, a mound of pink toys. But when Diane Michelle turned out to have a penis in the delivery room, my mother broke down and cried for a couple of days. She adored Michael after those couple of days passed, but we always had the sense that boys weren’t her first love and we could never give her what she’d wanted. “I used to have long eyelashes before I had you kids,” she said more than once. Troubling words, part fairy tale, part fever dream, spoken in the voice of sweet disappointment. For years I couldn’t get that picture out of my head: our once beautiful mother, ruined by us, her eyelashes eaten away by the acids of her body.
* * *
(12) When she was alive, I distinctly remember pressures from my mother: the pressure to go to college, the pressure to do well in college, to make money, to be a doctor or a lawyer. Strangely, there was never any pressure to have children. I’m not just talking about my mother here, but my father, too. Perhaps they wanted us all to themselves. Perhaps if we were parents, we’d no longer be just their children, and they’d be one step further from being children themselves, an honor they probably weren’t willing to give up just yet. Honestly, I think they would have been happy for us to live on in our childhood bedrooms until we were well into our forties and beyond. My mother seemed to know that children were only meant to be lost, and once she felt us pulling away from her, she pulled away, too. Yet she burst into tears whenever I stood by my packed car on the driveway, ready to leave for another semester. She behaved as if there had always been the One Great Leaving and each iteration of it brought the same welling up. A love that big could only create havoc, and I hurried out of her arms, ashamed to be the one who could stir her up like that.
When Michael brought his baby daughter to meet her for the first time, it was assumed she’d finally get her Diane Michelle—or at least the New Diane Michelle. I’m sure she was delighted to hold Jordan close to her, as Michael stood watching, smiling, waiting to bask in her approval, but she handed the baby back to him a little sooner than he expected. By then she was losing herself: parts of her language, parts of her memory. The old idea of manners was gone. She’d already had enough of children. And, more often than not, she understood herself as a child: “Where’s my mother?” she’d say. “Where did she go? Have you seen her?” On the dining room table sat Jordan’s presents. My mother’s eyes drifted over to the pink-wrapped boxes, as if she’d just decided it was her birthday and wasn’t it time to tear one open?
* * *
(13) In spite of my doubts, I’d probably say yes if I ever became involved with someone who wanted to be a parent. I’m not saying that lightly, though I might be saying it with the same level of commitment with which I’d say, “Of course I’d move to Tokyo.” How do we even talk about the future when there’s less and less of it every minute? Who are we kidding when we speak of planning the time ahead? So I’ll just talk to the Child-Who-Might-Never-Be instead: It is too late for me to be the kind of parent you might want. I will not be like the parents of your friends. I will probably hang out with your friends, and when they come to the house to visit, they’ll probably want to see me as much as they want to see you. My mother was just like that, remember? We will squeeze chocolate syrup onto our yogurt. We will take the stereo out into the backyard and turn up the volume too loud, disturbing the next-door neighbors. We will name the birds in the branches and on the lawn: song sparrow, house finch, marsh wren, cardinal. I will probably embarrass you by the way I dress. (Skinny jeans again? Dad!) No, I will not put on another pair of pants. You will get used to my awkwardness, my kisses, my dropped keys, my trying to be present with you, now and now and now and now.