I’ll tell you what should have happened yesterday: nothing. It was a half-day for me at work, while the students (the juniors and seniors, at least) had a workshop on college and financial aid. My wife and I had a pretty good lunch (Better for me than her – Whole Foods burritos>Whole Foods sandwiches, it turns out) and an excellent dinner (Oregano’s pan pizza>anything to be found in Whole Foods), and a nice relaxing afternoon. We drank coffee. I read a book. She organized her studio more, and then worked on a drawing. We took our dog Samwise for a pleasant walk, and I got to spend a nice hour with our cockatiel, Duncan, as he climbed around on my shoulders and whistled happily and chewed on pieces of paper, while I played silly video games. We watched a little TV, and then went to bed, and slept well.
What we didn’t do yesterday was: wake our children; bathe our children; dress our children; feed our children; drop off our children; pick up our children; entertain our children; discipline our children; argue with our children; have the traditional “Go to bed!” fight with our children; clean up after our children; or worry about our children. Or any of the thousand and one things that parents do every day with and for their children. (Including love their children, play with their children, and be proud of their children and amazed by their children.) We did none of that yesterday, and we will do none of it today, and none of it tomorrow.
Because, you see, my wife and I have no children. As should be clear, this is by choice: had we wanted children, we would have children, because, as gets pointed out to me every single time I say that my wife and I have no children, it is possible to adopt children. (Have you ever gotten so tired of hearing an obvious point made that you just can’t summon the energy for sarcasm any more? Well: if you have children, then probably, yes.) We have not adopted children because we do not want children. She has never wanted children, and has known this from a young age; she told me very early on in our relationship – around the third date or so – that she would never want children, and if I did, then we should go our separate ways. As you can tell, I did not choose children over the love of my life.
My feelings about children have historically gone like this:
Stage 1. I am a child, and I don’t like it very much. Sure, my mom makes grilled cheese for me whenever I want it, but I also have to eat broccoli, go to school where the other kids pick on me, and deal with my parents when they are mad at me or disappointed in me – but when I’m mad at them or disappointed in them, I have to deal with it myself, because I have to learn patience. I get to have toys but they don’t do what they did in the commercial, and I am forced to participate in activities I really don’t like, like team sports. Because they are good for me.
Stage 2. I am a young adult, sexually active and terrified of the idea of children, because I don’t want to give up my plans and my dreams just because I get a girl pregnant. I am also aware that, while sex is a whole lot of fun, the young women with whom I have all this fun are really not people I would want to spend my life with, or raise children with. I ignore the fear and the awareness of reality in order to continue enjoying sex because I, like every other teenaged boy, am a moron.
Stage 3. I meet the love of my life. Pretty much from the first moment, I am aware that this is the best and most wonderful woman I have ever encountered. This is the woman I want to spend my life with. She is, literally, everything I have ever wanted in a partner. And she presents this fact to me: I can have her, or I can have children, but I cannot have both. I choose her.
Stage 4: I am happy with my choice.
That’s it. Notice there is no point where I hold a child and realize that this is the thing that would give my life meaning, as it has given meaning to others’ lives. (I have held a child. Once. I thought, “Man, this thing is small. I better not drop it.”) Notice there is no point where I spend lots of time with little children and realize how awesome they are. Notice there is no point where I think that my sacred duty to God and the human race is to go forth and multiply. Notice there is no point when I know that I must produce an heir to carry on my name and my legacy. This moment in Stage 3 where my love presents me with this choice? It took me about fifteen seconds. (I have gone back and thought about it since, and it has never taken me more than about fifteen seconds to confirm my choice.) It was not a difficult choice. There was nothing on the other side to balance it. I have never had a desire to have children, and I feel no loss for not having had any. None at all. Not ever.
I have been open and honest about this for years, now. I talk to my students about myself and my life, and they quite naturally ask if I have children, and I say “No.” Over the years I have learned to say it with a shudder and a frightened look. Not because I am actually afraid of having children; I have been told quite frequently that I would be a good father, and I would. I’d be a miserable father, but I’d be good at it. (Like teaching. Except it would never, ever end.) I’ve learned to say it with a shudder and a look of terror because then my students don’t pursue the topic. In the beginning when I’d simply say, “No,” I would be forced into this conversation:
“Are you going to have any?”
“I don’t want them.”
“Does your wife want them?”
“Even less than I do.”
“What if you change your mind?”
“What if she changes her mind?”
Two possibilities now.
“What if it happens by accident?”
“But what if it did?”
“How can you be sure?”
“But you can’t be sure!”
“But what if it did?”
Continue until I get exasperated and explain that I have 100% medically induced assurance that there will be no accidental pregnancy in my marriage; or until I tell students to stop prying this far into my personal life. (I had this conversation several times, and never did the person arguing – almost always a girl, usually one of the ones that desperately wanted to be a mother – realize that they were asking me either, “Do you have sex with your wife, and if so, how?” or “Would you and your wife be willing to abort a fetus in order to maintain your childless state?” Never did they think, “Maybe this is too personal a topic.” No, they just wanted to know what I would do if we had an accidental child. Really, they wanted to hear me say, “Then we’ll have a baby and we’ll love the baby because BABIES!” Though I will say that I have told my more recent students about these past conversations, and several of them have been appalled that a student would try to pry this far into my personal life, particularly my marriage and sex life.)
Student gives me a knowing look that is so annoying that, even as a pacifist and a professional educator who would never inflict harm on a student, still makes me want to punch them right in the eye, repeatedly. Student says, “You’ll change your mind.” Student nods and smirks smugly. I roll my eyes or heave a sigh and move on, slowly unclenching my hands.
(In both of these possibilities, at some point, someone will point out, “You know, you can adopt children.”)
So now, rather than go through these conversations any more, I bug my eyes out, curl my lips in horror, and say, “Oh God, no!” when they ask idly if I have children. Or if I’m feeling less dramatic, I simply say, “Nope, and I don’t want any. I don’t like children.” My students are generally puzzled as to why I would become a teacher, then, but there are several reasons, which I have explained in the past in various ways: one, I really like English; two, I teach high school and generally don’t think of them as children; three, I don’t have to take my students home with me at the end of the school day. It has gotten easier over the years as I have moved out of the most common child-bearing years, though I expect I will still have to say these things for as long as I keep teaching and talking about myself; and I expect I will still get some students – usually girls – who act as though this is a sad state of affairs, who think that I am missing out. But then, teenagers are self-centered, and judge other people only from an egocentric point of view: because I want children, they think, everyone must want children. That’s why Teenaged Me couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t like Metallica and Alice in Chains.
No, wait – I still don’t understand that.
But I do understand why not everyone would want to be a high school teacher, and not everyone would want to live in Tucson, and not everyone would want to have pets, or play video games, or keep a blog. Those are my choices, not everyone’s. I get it. No problem.
So here’s the thing that did happen yesterday. A friend of mine posted a status on Facebook that read, “I’m getting a pet monkey!” No way! I thought. Several other people had commented to the same or similar effect, and so I wrote, “It’s not real unless there are pictures. Or poop in your hair. Or, preferably, both.” Because I’m a smartass, and my friend is a smartass, and I wasn’t really sure this was true – but as another friend of ours posted, “If this was anyone else, I’d call bullshit.” The monkey-getting friend is fearless enough, and unusual enough, to get an actual pet monkey. And she doesn’t usually lie or pull tricks.
But she was tricking us this time. Shortly after I commented, I got a personal message from her that read (and I apologize for spoiling the gag), “Hi! Since you commented or liked my last status you have to pick from one of the following and post it as your status. This is the 2016 Breast Cancer Awareness game. Don’t be a spoil sport. Pick your poison from one of these and post it as your status. 1. Just found a squirrel in my car! 2. Just used my kids to get out of a speeding ticket. 3. How do you get rid of foot fungus? 4. All of my bras are missing! 5. I think I just accepted a marriage proposal online?! 6. I’ve decided to stop wearing underwear. 7. It’s confirmed I’m going to be a mommy/daddy. 8. Just won a chance audition on America’s got talent! 9. I’ve been accepted on master chef.10. I’m getting a pet monkey! Post with no explanations. Sorry, I fell for it too. Looking forward to your post. Don’t ruin it. (Don’t let the secret out). And remember it’s all for 2016’s Breast Cancer Awareness.
Dammit! I thought. Suckered me! But I liked the joke. I decided to play along, though I don’t normally do these chain things. I looked through the options, smirked especially at #7, and then went with “I’ve decided to stop wearing underwear.”
But then I thought about it. The point was to get a response, right? The biggest response possible, the largest number of people commenting or liking the post? Everyone who knows me knows that I don’t have children; everyone who has known the adult me knows that I don’t want them. Every single one of my former students, who make up the majority of my Facebook friends, knows my feelings about children. There is not a single class that has not heard me say, several times, that I don’t ever want to have children of my own. (I didn’t think about the fact that my own childhood friends only knew me in Stage 1 or Stage 2, and so may not be aware of my current feelings on the matter; ditto with people I’ve known more casually, like former neighbors. But there aren’t that many of them on my friends list, anyway.) So if I posted the thing about being a daddy, they’d all be confused, right? They’d be curious? They’d comment on the post. I should do that one.
I thought about it. I also thought about doing the America’s Got Talent one, because lots of people know I sing and rap and do goofy voices and such. But finally, I decided that #7 would be the funniest. So I deleted the status that said I had given up underwear, and posted, “It’s confirmed. I’m going to be a daddy.”
I won’t say all Hell broke loose, because it didn’t happen quickly; but over the course of the day, Hell overflowed its banks and flooded around me. And, what’s much worse, it flowed around my wife. I made another mistake in thinking she would think it was funny and I didn’t tell her what I had done, nor ask her if she was okay with it; I let her find the status on Facebook without warning. And so her reasonable and correct response was to comment, “What the fuck?” She actually thought that I had discovered, when I went out that morning to check on our sulcata tortoise Neo, a clutch of tortoise eggs; exactly this thing happened with our iguana Carmine, on the day she became Carmelita (Those were iguana eggs, though, not tortoise eggs. Just to be clear.). I admit that I was annoyed by that response, because I thought she had ruined the gag, and now, with my wife commenting “WTF?” (And then adding a second comment after we spoke that read, “Okay, now I get it. Had me worried, there.”), I thought everyone would know that the status wasn’t real, and no one would comment, and I wouldn’t get to pass on the gag to anyone.
I was wrong. Again. Because by yesterday afternoon, I had received 64 likes/reactions, and a dozen or so comments. Some of the reactions were surprise, but most were likes or loves. Some of the comments were, “Say what, now?” or “You got a new pet?” but many of them were, “Congratulations! You’ll be a great dad.” And to my great regret, my wife got four personal messages from various people offering her more personal congratulations. (At least one of those, who knows my wife well enough to have discussed the issue with her, offered them tentatively, and was relieved to hear that it wasn’t true.)
Why do I regret that? Because I know what my wife has been through over the years as a result of her conscious decision never to be a mother. Whatever grief I have gotten from students, or from other adults (far less frequent), or from my parents, she has gotten a thousandfold. Because she is a woman, and therefore, she is the one who is supposed to want children. That’s what she’s for, our society seems to think. I think my parents, who never-not-once spoke to me about children when I was a child or a young adult, just expected my future wife-person to be the one to convince me that I should have children; they were a bit shocked when they learned that my choice of wife-person would not come with grandbabies. My wife, like every other intentionally childless woman, has dealt with a lifetime of questioning, and interrogation, and nagging and pestering and prodding and invading. She has suffered disapproval, and disappointment, and pity, and even contempt. And even though I knew about all of that, and am indirectly the source of some of it because my parents want to be grandparents and blame her because they are not (Even though I have a brother – and isn’t the eldest son the one responsible for production of heirs? I’m supposed to be the dissolute black sheep, dammit!), I still chose to post that I was a daddy, rather than saying I was commando for life. That’s why it was an idiotic thing to do, and why I call the slow flood of reactions to this little joke a mistake. I shouldn’t have done it. I’m sorry for it.
But I have to say this: it wasn’t all my fault. I shouldn’t have used that joke, but all of you people need to stop doing this. Just stop.
Stop thinking that children are the greatest blessing that ever came, or ever will come, into every person’s life. If they were in your life, that’s fine, congratulations; but there is no reason to assume that is true for everyone.
Stop thinking that a woman’s primary role in life is to become a mother: a woman’s primary role in life is to be herself.
Stop thinking that a woman without children is less of a woman, or is somehow fundamentally unhappy or unfulfilled because she has no children. People are different, including women. We are capable of being happy even without making use of every single one of our organs. Do you think someone is fundamentally less human because they had their appendix removed? No? Then stop thinking it just because she may have a uterus that has never carried a child to term. And by the way, do you pity me because my testicles have never produced a child, and therefore the organs that apparently make me a man have never been used for their single intended purpose? No? Then why pity my wife?
Stop pitying people who do not have children. We are not sadder because of that. You may pity people who wanted to have children but couldn’t, but anyone who has never had a child chose not to – because it is possible, it turns out, (Who knew?) to adopt a child, which means childlessness is a choice. Choice makes us human and independent; not pitiable.
Stop thinking that everyone’s life is made better by children just because yours was. Stop thinking that everyone needs to have children in order to have a purpose, or a sense of accomplishment or fulfillment, or that everyone needs to know the love of a child to understand love, just because those things were true for you. That’s the way that children think.
Stop thinking that people need to have children in order to leave a legacy after we die. My legacy will be my writing. It will be my only legacy, because any people I made would be their own people, not extensions of me; what an egocentric thought, to believe that you live on in your children.
Stop thinking that people need to have children in order to have someone to take care of us when we are old. My wife and I will take care of each other, and should I have to go on alone, I will take care of myself. When I can no longer take care of myself, I will die. Which is where I am heading, anyway.
Stop asking people when they will have children, why they don’t have children, why they don’t want children. You don’t hear that people are having children and then ask, “Why?” now do you? When you hear that people have children, do you ask, “When will you be getting rid of them, after college or when they turn 18?”
Stop thinking that a person’s fecundity is public business. It never ceases to amaze me that people will ask complete strangers about their pregnancies. Especially that thing where people actually put their hands on a strange woman’s abdomen if said abdomen happens to be distended by a pregnancy; think about what would happen if you did that to a woman who wasn’t pregnant. Like if you asked if someone was going to lunch, and then put a hand on their stomach and said, “Going to fill this up?” HOW FREAKING WEIRD IS THAT? Why does anyone ever think it’s okay in the case of pregnancy? And again, ever grabbed the woman’s husband’s penis and asked, “And is this the organ that made that baby?”
Stop believing that I need congratulations, or that you should be happy for me, should I ever produce offspring.
And I will stop joking about doing so.
(A final note: I hope it has been clear throughout this blog that I have avoided, or at least tried to avoid, telling people with children that they have made the wrong choice. When I myself do not know their lives and do not have direct experience with their life experiences, particularly the choice to have children, presuming that I could tell people that they should have made a different choice would be absurd. I sincerely hope that no one, with or without children, has been offended by what I have written here.
But if you have been: good.)