Last week, I became someone who never had children.
Before then, I was someone who simply didn’t have them. In March, though, I joined the waiting list for sperm from a bank that gives its donors names like “Woody” (or “Kim,” if they’re Asian). I read 17 pages of my guy’s family history and listened to his 10-minute interview.
“What advice would you like to pass on to your future child?” the interviewer asked.
“Life is hard,” he replied. “But if you can stay interested in things, it’s also a great adventure.”
“Staying interested in things,” simple as it sounds, is a full-spectrum anti-depression light box for the soul. Put me down for four vials! (It was a twofer deal). I loved this guy!
I even loved that he was only five foot eight. His family was full of short men married to tall women, so I figured they must really have it going on in terms of personality. Short men have to build character if they want to pass on their genes, my dad says. My dad is five foot six. He told me to “stop messing around and just pick the tallest donor in the catalog.”
But before I made the decision; before I shelled out $1200 for the first insemination cycle, I got my hormones and egg reserve checked. I’d been peeing on ovulation test sticks for three months but never saw the digital “O” in the window; the little open mouth of anticipation.
After the doctor took my blood, she wrote me a prescription for Clomid “to get going on all fronts.” But that blister pack of pills might as well have contained Skittles, because when my lab work came back we saw that Nature had made her position clear in hard, unassailable numbers. Looking at them I felt neither pain nor surprise, which, I am told, is the case when a bullet strikes the heart.
I was too late.
The world’s most facile metaphor rose out of a rogue memory circa 1994: my friend Eddie’s alarm clock when we were sophomores in college. Eddie was not a morning person, and he had hit the snooze button so many times – and so hard – that there was a fingerprint-sized dent in it.
There was never a right time. That’s a thing people say: “There’s never a right time to have kids! So just be brave and have them!”
Would the right time have been when I was 18 and sleeping with a dumb guy who eagerly awaited his issue of Guns & Ammo every month? When I was 22 with no work experience and struggling in a shaky marriage? When I was 27 and obsessed with a drummer who ghosted after a couple of months because I wasn’t an orthodox Jew? When I was 28 and coming out as a lesbian? When I was 32, living illegally in Canada with a transsexual who hated kids? When I was alone again, a broke graduate student at 35? Or when I was 37 and fell in in love with a woman who already had two teenagers and lived 400 miles away?
I mean, really. When?
Women do have children in these circumstances (and much worse) with no regrets, but it felt wrong to me. Irresponsible. I bought books about single motherhood (“Knock Yourself Up”) but they were geared toward women with money or a support system, neither of which I had. There was no big, warm, multigenerational family who’d say, “Congratulations, P! What’s one more kid! Come into the kitchen and help cook a big hot dish!”
Of course, I did make choices: I pursued several different partners who weren’t interested in children, and passed up several who were. I chose not to select a partner who was just OK, in the interests of having a family. When I was working as a nanny, I saw this breed of partnership close up – the woman was 30something and running out of eggs and time and fucks to give in terms of whether or not the man (or woman) she married was anything but…OK. Solid. Workable.
No shade: that’s a satisfying choice for many women. Just not for me.
So the years went by. And every time I came back to the question, I imagined all the awesome – the way babies laugh incredulously at random stuff; how they rub the hair off the backs of their heads and get bald spots like little old men; the sudden shift in consciousness when they turn three years old and become more of a real person and less of a dog or a cat who can talk. I imagined watching my seven-year-old develop near-Jesuitical argumentative skills and star in the school play as a radish. I imagined a wry, funny middle schooler; a houseful of my bright teenager’s wacky friends.
I forced myself to imagine these things, too:
- Sitting alone with a feverish baby in a crowded clinic, afraid it’s a staph infection from day care and knowing I’ve run out of paid time off work.
- Watching a child take her first steps, without anyone for me to turn to and say, “LOOK LOOK SHE’S WALKING!”
- Hearing screaming in the night and being so bone-deep exhausted that I’m physically unable to get out of bed for a full 10 minutes.
- A partner whose heart just isn’t in it. A child who sees that.
- Getting up for work at 6 a.m. over and over and over again, after being awake all night – that unreal, hovering-above-my-own-head feeling of sleep deprivation; those grains of sand underneath the eyelids.
- Living in a crappy school district because $$$. Knowing exactly what that means for my child.
- A pediatrician saying, “Yes, there’s definitely cause for concern. I’m going to refer you to a specialist, but your insurance won’t cover it.”
And in the end, what I wanted was a family. That seemed like the fun part; the co-creative adventure. A family, not just me-and-a-kid. And that didn’t happen. It just didn’t.
I think of who my daughter might have been. Compact; husky-voiced. Good at math like my mother; a seismologist of the mood and motivations in any given room, like my father. An obsessive athlete; a poet; a too-fast driver with a laugh like a handful of coins tossed in the air.
I had a name for her.
Nature, though, is smart and may be offering an ineluctable mercy. Much as I’d like to be the kind of person who could handle a child with Down syndrome or the kind of severe autism that makes kids wail inconsolably and bite their own hands, I’m not. When I see middle-aged developmentally-disabled adults walking the aisles of Safeway with their tired, elderly mothers – who, when they die, will leave these grown children to the mercies of institutions or the streets – I know I couldn’t handle it. Or, fine, I could “handle” it, but I’d have a hell of a time prising the joys out of the pain, disappointment and worry. I always thought that “Dear Abby” fable about Italy vs. Holland was oversimplified; more disingenuous and twee than inspiring.
And even if adoption was easy – even if I could get a healthy baby tomorrow morning – I find much to dissuade me in this blog. I’m troubled by a system that tells women, Sorry, but you’re too poor/too young/too single to be a mother and tells the child, The woman who gave birth to you loved you so much, she gave you away. But then we chose you, so be grateful!
I wanted a part of life I won’t get, but the other parts aren’t exactly consolation prizes: Travel, friendship, books, sleep, a rock-hard set of abs, and the company of good and gentle animals. I won’t see my eyes in someone else’s face, but I’ll see a Tuscan sunset at the end of a two-week cycling trip through Europe. I’ll see Galapagos. I’ll see…whatever the version of me with a child wouldn’t get to see.
My life will have a different meaning, that’s all.
I’m not bothered by people who say I’ve missed out on the Most Important and Profound Thing a Woman Can Ever Do, because deep down I don’t think that’s true. The idea is unimaginative and misogynist across the board. Important and profound, for sure. The be-all and end-all of female existence? No.
It’s true, the only people who’d visit me in old-person assisted-living will be there by choice and can stop coming by anytime, but (a) I’ll be able to afford assisted living with the money I’m not spending on children; (b) It’s an excellent motivation to seek out, retain, and invest in friends-as-family; (c) I could die of a surprise heart defect or in the Global Water Wars long before then; and (d) People with kids die alone all the time.
Perk #1 of middle age: Realizing just how much I’m not in control of.
Perk #2: Knowing I’m not special, and neither are my genes, and not passing them on isn’t a tragedy.
Perk #3: Understanding I can’t transfuse the meaning of, or the answers to, my own life into someone else’s, whether I’d had kids or not. I can’t recuse myself from the task of meaning- and answer-making. No one else can be the black box in the middle of my wreckage.
The older we get, the further our possibilities narrow. We begin with an infinite number of possible lives, and every day, that number decreases. One day in third grade, you have the potential to be an Olympic gymnast; the next day, you break your arm or lose interest in the vault…and then you don’t. In high school, you get a ‘C’ in physics and Yale is no longer a possibility. Day after day, you don’t leave your sad marriage, and one day you hit a tipping point and know that no one else will ever touch you again.
You choose a city, a home, a partner, a career, an addiction, and soon the only way to experience anything else is through fiction and/or lies. Avenue after avenue closes down, and all of a sudden, you’re in one specific neighborhood with a cul-de-sac. You sit there reading the last page of a Choose Your Own Adventure book you loved as a kid, and then someone comes along and takes the book away.
That’s one reason we have babies: behind their blinking, muttering faces are impossibly intricate networks of possible lives, and we’re comforted by this. We’re inspired. As we should be. As is right.
I don’t have an ending for this post that wraps around neatly to reference the beginning.
I don’t know how it ends.