Who would you have been?

Jessica Olin

  • Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum
    Picador, 282 pp, £17.99, May 2015, ISBN 978 1 250 05293 3

Many of the contributors to Meghan Daum’s new anthology once thought they’d have children. For some, it seemed ‘an interesting future possibility’, like ‘joining the Peace Corps’. Rosemary Mahoney ‘used to imagine what my children would look like, and those pleasant imaginings made me love them so much that when I finally snapped to I would actually miss their faces’. For others, the desire comes as a gut-punch, visceral and overwhelming. Kate Christensen describes the ‘baby lust’ in her mid-thirties:

deep, primal, a shockingly animal yearning I’d never experienced before … like being on some weird and powerful new drug. I could feel my baby in my arms: a girl, I imagined. I could see myself becoming a mother. I longed for the tectonic shifts motherhood would bring. I fantasised about nursing her, rocking her to sleep, leaping out of bed in the night when she cried. I craved that sense of importance and completion, the passionate focus on something outside myself. All my life, I had assumed I’d have kids, and now it was time: I was ready.

On her third date with her future husband she watches him hold a friend’s baby: ‘I thought then, I could marry this man. By which I meant I could have children with this man.’ Writing in the New Yorker about her own childlessness, Daum acknowledges the power of the biological imperative: ‘I’ve always believed that it is not possible to fall in love with someone without picturing what it might be like to combine your genetic goods. It’s almost an aspect of courtship, this vision of what your nose might look like smashed up against your loved one’s eyes.’

Mahoney endures the ‘tedious logistics’ of the artificial insemination process to conceive as a single 41-year-old: ‘Boy, did you beat all the odds,’ says her doctor. She is initially ‘delighted, beside myself with happiness’; the next day she’s ‘horrified’, thinks: ‘This is a big mistake.’ She miscarries at 13 weeks – ‘It seemed to me no less tragic and colossal than a universe coming to an end’ – but when her doctor asks if she wants to try again, ‘I said no with complete conviction.’ Given the statistics, her response seems not so much a change of heart as a prophylactic against further heartbreak. Christensen’s husband ‘didn’t remotely share my excitement … But I wasn’t deterred. Frankly, it felt like my decision to make, unilaterally, as the wife. Didn’t wives always tell their husbands when it was time? … And didn’t husbands give in, reluctantly, then fall madly in love with their children and rise to the role of fathering and never regret a thing?’ Of course she knows the answer is no. By the time he’s ready, she’s forty, and no longer happy in the marriage, ‘in part because of his earlier refusal to have children with me, which had broken my heart irreparably’. A miscarriage leaves her flooded with relief … exultant and grateful’.

M.G. Lord believes she can ‘white-knuckle’ her partner’s ‘unilateral’ decision to adopt a baby, somewhat unrealistically picturing herself ‘not so much as a co-parent but as a benign auntie’ who will take care of her lover (not the infant). When the adoption falls through, she adopts a dachshund-beagle mix: ‘To my shame, I hoped that dog would satisfy Helen’s desire to nurture.’ After her own miscarriage, Daum spends ‘three months of dizzying cognitive dissonance’ trying to get pregnant again before conceding that she does not, in fact, want to have a baby: ‘To this day, there is nothing I’ve ever been sorrier about than my inability to make my husband a father.’ She harbours ‘a secret fantasy that one day my husband will get a call from a person claiming to be his son or his daughter … the product of some brief fling or one-night stand during the Clinton Administration’. This deus ex machina would be of a manageable age – ‘Ideally … in his or her late teens or early twenties’ – and would ‘breeze in and out of our lives like a sort of extreme niece or nephew’. (If realised, this fantasy may have caused her husband some ‘cognitive dissonance’ of his own – regret at having missed out on years of conventional fatherhood and on the joy of having a child with the woman he’s married to and actually loves.) Daum agonises; her husband proves a model of self-sacrifice; the marriage survives, even thrives.

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