Invisible Baby: The Story Behind The Song

This essay is the backstory for our song “Invisible Baby,” which you can listen to below or over here.

Our last trip to Los Angeles included a jaunt to the suburbs to stay the night with old friends at their new home. They had just moved out of the city for the same carefully considered reason many urban parents do — they wanted their two children to enjoy the spoils of a kid-friendly neighborhood. We headed out after a stop in Hollywood and drove east to La Cañada Flintridge, at the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains. The house was on a pretty street and we parked in front, next to a garden filled with native cacti and succulents. Before we’d even rung the bell, their 6-year-old son threw open the door and yelled, “Why don’t you have kids?”

His mother rolled her eyes and said, “He was really hoping to have someone to play with tonight.” But Daniel and I were paralyzed at the threshold for a moment, gripping the handles of our carry-on bags.

We’ve fielded this question, or variants thereof, countless times over our seven-year marriage. It’s easy to laugh off when it comes from a cute, tow-headed kid, but feels significantly more pointed when asked by casual friends, family and people we met at a party five minutes before. Sometimes the ask is as blatant as the boy’s, and sometimes it’s merely implied, with phrases like, “You don’t have kids so this won’t make any sense to you, but…” An exception: childless adults never ask.

I should say that Daniel and I both like children. When you don’t have kids people often assume otherwise, but we love hanging out with our nieces and nephews and catching up with the neighborhood kids. But neither of us felt driven to have spawn of our own. If one of us had been gung-ho on the idea, we probably would’ve talked the other one into it. We both had happy childhoods and I know we would have made great parents. But every time we’d raise the subject, our lengthy discussions always ended in, “If it happens, it happens.”

When you start dating at age 39, however, it rarely just happens. I thought maybe getting married at age 41 would mean we’d hear the question less often. But no, thanks to the miracle of modern science our reproductive status was queried more intensely, as people felt the need to inform us we’d better hurry. (Alternately, don’t worry because they know someone who had a baby at age 48 and it was fine.) We’ve internalized the same societal norms that prompt the questioners to ask, so we’d ask ourselves: Shouldn’t we want to have kids? If not, shouldn’t we more actively not want them?

The positioning for older marrieds seems restricted to loaded binaries. Either we should be those people who will go to any expense to have a kid, or those people who knew from an early age that they were never interested in reproducing. It’s reflected in the parlance — in that hideous euphemism, “Are you trying?” Trying has two outcomes: success or failure, both of which are highly visible in this case, a physical presence or absence. And if you don’t have kids you’re either “childless,” which sounds mournful and lacking, or “childless by choice,” which sounds like a political movement (or, more recently, “childfree” which sounds like a restaurant trying too hard). What about the childneutral? We could hold a protest march but I guess we’re too ambivalent to organize it.

During the hurry years my ambivalence was vexing to me. Why couldn’t I just decide whether I was up for it or not? In Meghan Daum’s excellent essay collection Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, Jeanne Safer writes that she didn’t so much want to have a baby as she wanted to want to have a baby. “I longed to feel like everyone else,” she says, because otherwise she had to “work through the implications of being radically different from other women in a fundamental way.” She calls this reckoning excruciating. I experienced it as a deep burn of embarrassment — something I wanted to hide from people so as not to have to talk about it. But my flat belly stuck out like a sore thumb.

In Spanish, the word for pregnant is embarazada, which shares an etymological root with embarrassed that means “to hamper movement.” Despite how many times it happened, Daniel and I often froze up upon hearing the question. At some point we decided we needed to work on a better answer. We strategized a response that would satisfy people, something friendly and not defensive, forthright while maintaining our privacy, respectful of kids and parenting, witty and wise. We never came up with a winner. We just kept freezing and floundering until we reached an age when the rush of questions reduced to a trickle. Turns out steadfast ambiguity is a form of decision-making.

One sunny Saturday a year or so ago, Daniel and I walked up to our local coffee spot, ordered, and waited in the crowded cafe among several other couples, all of who had babies and toddlers in tow. Our favorite barista emerged from the back and said, “Hey guys! Did you bring your invisible baby?” Her question was out of nowhere, appealingly weird and definitely funny. It felt like a relief. That’s the answer, we thought: We have a baby, it’s just invisible. Ta da! We left, amused, and drove west across the city to Discovery Park. Once there we walked down to the shore of the Puget Sound, where a small crowd had gathered in a wide circle around a sleeping baby seal. We marveled and cooed and imagined what it might be dreaming about, just like everyone else.

— Brangien

song 9 of 11
on a saturday morning we rise
to the sun and another surprise
we walk up the street to get a coffee
our barista comes out from the bar 
gives us hugs and asks how we are
did you bring your invisible baby?
here we are with our invisible baby
who never makes a fuss
but the thing about invisible babies
they’re so obvious 
on the way to Discovery Park
is a bridge over railroad cars
all just waiting for a locomotive
on our hike we walk down to the beach
the sewer stench always in reach
and a baby seal sleeps as the crowd goes wild
here we are with our invisible baby
who never makes a fuss
but the thing about invisible babies
they’re so obvious
peekaboo with our invisible baby
is always hard to play
but the thing about invisible babies
they’re just born that way
oh baby, oh baby
here we are with our invisible baby
who never makes a fuss
but the thing about invisible babies
they’re so obvious

The Argument is Brangien Davis and Daniel Spils. Learn more about the band here: How The Argument Started and 1 of My 43 Things.

The Argument is releasing 11 songs in 11 weeks on Medium. Sign up for new song updates.

Thank you for listening.