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It was a Friday night in mid-December. I’d joined my parents at their house in the East Bay for tri-tip and champagne from Costco. A centerpiece twined by cranberries, pinecones, old art projects, and miniature photos of my brother and I bisected the table. It was cold out, but the house was cozy and warm. The Warriors were on. I’ll admit my guard was down.
“So, honey,” my mom said, leaning forward on her elbows. “Did you hear Jennifer is having another baby?”
Jennifer is my slightly older cousin.
“No way!” I said, eyes still on the game. “That’s awesome. I’ll have to text her.”
I took a sip of champagne and went to grab my phone, and that’s when I saw it: the look on my mom’s face. Her head was cocked. Her blue eyes glistened like ponds in winter. And her lips were split into a smile only moms curious about something they really want to be true are capable of smiling.
“So,” she said, sort of nuzzling the words across the table. “When do you think you and Alex will be ready?”
I coughed and choked on champagne. Alarm bells that felt at once familiar and instinctual began clanging in my head. My mom waited, still smiling, the clock in the living room ticking audibly. I cleared my throat to say something back, but anxiety had wrapped itself around me, a spider entrapping its prey. No words came.
I downed the rest of my champagne and held the flute out toward my dad for assistance.
“Got anything stronger?” I asked, in earnest.
I stayed up that night wondering why, exactly, the question of whether Alex and I want kids gives me—a 29-year-old, married, mostly healthy man who doesn’t have to worry about the physical pain of childbirth—such anxiety. There are several reasons.
Fear is one. Three days earlier, I’d been sitting in Roam Burger on Union Street, waiting for a to-go order that Alex and I were planning to eat on the couch, where we eat all our meals, when a man and what appeared to be his two sons walked inside. They sat at a table to my right. I looked over when the larger of the two asked the father whether he could play with an iPad. The father—who looked not much older than me, aside from the bruise-colored bags below his eyes—said something to the boy I couldn’t hear, but seemed to be explaining why he couldn’t play with the iPad at the moment. The boy did not like this response and articulated his displeasure by turning into a raging demon child.
He screeched. He hit the table. He fell out of his chair like he lacked bones and draped himself along the floor. The father went to pick him up, but as he turned, the other son, still seated, took a plastic cup of ketchup and plopped it atop his head like a yarmulke cap. The ketchup crawled down his face. He started rubbing it into his cheeks, his hair. The father rose to clean him up, but then the larger boy, not to be outdone, started slamming his head into the floor, over and over—aware, no doubt, that giving himself brain damage might prove an effective means of convincing his dad that next time, he should just give him the fucking iPad. I watched, all the while, in horror.
The personal question of whether or not you want kids is inextricably tied, I believe, to the moral question of how, exactly, one is to live a good and meaningful life.
There are also financial concerns and more selfish worries too—like what being a parent might mean for my ability to write—yet I believe ultimately it comes down to this: I am genuinely unsure if I want kids. In fact, I might not, and the implications of that seem dire. Namely, they seem to suggest I’m a bad person.
The personal question of whether you want kids is inextricably tied, I believe, to the moral question of how, exactly, one is to live a good and meaningful life. And, to this day, when I think about the kind of man I want to be and the kind of life I want to live, I think of the typical conception of both “good men” and “good lives.” It’s very 1950s of me, I suppose, which is not very fashionable, but when I think of our culture’s expectations—especially, weirdly, the outmoded parental ones, which still emphatically suggest that part of being a good man is being a father—I feel an infuriating, inexplicable obligation to them.
Of course, opinions on how to live a good and meaningful life vary. If you side with Friedrich Nietzsche, you believe life is best lived in pursuit of individual excellence, and kids don’t factor much into the equation at all. Plato possessed a virtue-based conception, wherein happiness is the highest aim. But the pre-Socratic philosophers—Heraclitus and Xenophanes—argued that the customs and conventions of the day, rather than intangibles like ambition, set the standards for what is “good” or “bad.” And that night at my parents’ house, especially after I drank another half-bottle of champagne and retired to my old bedroom, I couldn’t help siding with them.
A theory formed in my head: Seeing as how the customs and conventions of our day remain child-centric—even in 2018, when married couples opt out of parenting, it elicits moral outrage—doesn’t that mean that living a good and meaningful life must include being a parent?
And, if that’s true, doesn’t it follow that not wanting kids, personal opinions aside, is indeed immoral?
I will say, even in the anxious half-dark of my old bedroom, the theory felt a little flimsy. Easily refutable. Many make convincing arguments that it’s immoral to have kids because doing so means imposing suffering and death onto those who cannot plausibly consent to as much. And, of course, there are tons of people who simply choose not to have kids at all: The fertility rate among young adults in the United States fell to a record low this year for the second year in a row.
I acknowledge this. And I admire those who are able to so emphatically reject society’s more arbitrary expectations, dismiss the outrage, and live their damn lives simply as they see fit. I wish I could do the same. It would make answering this particular question much simpler.
But that’s my problem: I can’t.
I know I’m not alone either. Of the people I talked to in writing this essay, many reported feeling the same way. And so the question, at least for us, becomes why?
I feel — logic be damned — like not wanting kids is wrong. I don’t want to, but I do.
Is it because, generally speaking, we’re hardwired to want to contribute to the continuation of our species? Is it because we empathize with how painful it can be to want kids yet be unable to have them? Is it because our culture has so thoroughly conditioned us to strive for this definition of goodness that it has carved the compulsion into the underside of our scalps, Westworld style?
Whatever the reason, my apprehension fills me with guilt. I feel—logic be damned—like not wanting kids is wrong. I don’t want to, but I do. And a feeling so born in the gut is difficult to rebuke.
At my parents’ house that night, I wrestled over this for some time. At one point, I rolled over and fetched my phone to text Alex. I thought she might help calm me down. After a moment’s deliberation, I opened Google and typed “is it bad to not want kids” instead.
The first hit was for a Facebook group titled “I Regret Having Kids.”
I clicked on it and started reading. One mother detailed her struggle with tokophobia, which is the pathological fear of pregnancy. One father shared a harrowing play-by-play of what it’s like parenting, working, and attempting to love without sleep. One person just wrote, “I royally fucked up.”
It felt like watching torture porn; I couldn’t look away.
Eventually, though, I did. I got up and walked out into the front yard. The driveway was cold beneath my bare feet, and the fog hung low. I rubbed my arms, stared for a while at the gray-black sky. Eventually, I pulled out my phone again.
Looking back, I’m not sure if I was really thinking about it or just running on anxiety. But apparently, I was aware I needed some reassurance, someone to talk me off the ledge, because I scrolled until I found my cousin’s name.
To my great surprise, she was up.
“Dan. It’s like midnight.”
“Yeah, you know, I’m just checking in.”
“You’ve literally never done that.”
“That can’t be true.”
“It’s true. What’s up?”
“Hey, congrats on getting pregnant again. That’s awesome.”
“Thanks! Yeah, we’re super excited over here.”
“Really I’m very happy for you.”
“Well, thank you. Is that why you called?”
“I have a question for you.”
“Am I a bad person if I don’t want kids?”
She exhaled audibly.
“Are you serious?”
“Why would you have kids if you didn’t want them?”
“To contribute to the continuation of our species.”
“There are philosophical reasons too.”
“Well, it makes zero sense from a utilitarian point of view.”
I considered this.
“I guess that’s true.”
“Has this actually been bothering you?”
“No, no. Of course not.”
“Good. Fun to know you’re still a weirdo. Anything else?”
I looked to the cement below my feet.
“Uh, no, I guess not.”
“Cool, love you, cuzzo.”
“Love you, too, Jen.”
Nobody knows whether what they’re doing moment to moment is the right thing
Here’s what I make, now, of my cousin’s wisdom: Nobody knows whether what they’re doing moment to moment is the right thing. And even though some people pretend to know otherwise—including, at times, me—there is no definitive answer to what constitutes a good and meaningful life, nor whether having kids is a requisite for it. Fuck Heraclitus. Fuck Plato too.
These, I believe, are the true answers, or at least the most reasonable ones, and so I’ve tried in the days that have passed to accept them and to find solace in them too. It’s worked for the most part. I’ve found more comfort, however, in the fact that none of the worrying really matters.
The night after the events at my parents’ house, I went back to my apartment in the city. Alex had just gotten back from Michigan, where she’d been visiting her own parents. After eating dinner on the couch, we went out to the laundromat down the street. On our walk back, a meteor tore across the sky. (Seriously.) Or rather, it just appeared, and Alex and I were both somehow looking up at the same time to see it, this hot-red bead emerging like a head from behind drawn curtains, wavering a moment before falling offstage, scarring the sky. In its descent, it looked like a live wire or a lit wick. It left a streak of stark white plumage in its wake.
Both of us stopped on the spot. For a moment, I thought the bead had been a missile or a massive space object that had broken orbit and would soon hit the Pacific Ocean and send a wall of water up over the land to swallow us. Which is to say, I stopped thinking about anything else because I thought Alex and I were going to die. My anxiety nullified.
Then I noticed Alex had her hand wrapped around my arm and that she was standing with her body very close to mine and that we were, in fact, standing sort of as one, our sides pressed up, looking at the sky together, and I really quite liked that. How we relied on each other. And I was happy, foremost, to not yet be dead, to instead be alive with her, to still have a future—whatever it may look like—with her.
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