by Jeffery Hess
followed by Q&A
My wife called me on the way out of her neurologist’s appointment. I’d offered to go with her, but she tends to handle medical issues like a wounded cat and, as usual, had insisted on going alone. Over the phone, she told me the doctor wrote a prescription for a new medication that would alleviate the hereditary effects of what the doctor called “tremors” in her hands and neck. I’d always found her symptoms barely noticeable, but she was increasingly self-conscious and now there was no mistaking the excitement in her voice as she discussed the prospect of applying mascara single-handedly and attempting soup with a spoon.
“However,” Lauren continued, “the active ingredient lessens the effectiveness of my birth control pills.”
Talk about a side effect.
Our phone conversation was brief and one-sided, as if she were reading a car wash menu. “There’s hysterectomy for me, vasectomy for you, the IUD, Nova Ring or whatever it’s called, some new coil things they shove into the ovaries, and, of course, there’s condoms. Obviously the quickest method available.”
Condoms. The word struck me as funny. I’d called them “rubbers” twenty-some monogamous years ago. Now the concept of penile haberdashery seemed as antiquated and restrictive as head gear and curfews.
She’d been on the pill since we’d met (which had been a fateful day in 1990) and I’d grown to take it for granted that she handled the matter by swallowing a pill, almost imperceptibly, in the kitchen every morning while the coffee brewed. Now, birth control was something that required input on my part, which meant actually facing the issue. This was the end, not of ignorance, but of avoidance. The bottom line was: we had to come up with another option. But condoms?
I have no way of knowing if birth control is such an issue for other couples in their forties, but it’s huge to us because we’ve never had kids.
Being childless isn’t something we ever agreed to. Any discussions about it were closed after mutually agreeing to sweep the issue under the rug until another time when we’d do the same thing.
In the late 1990s, a few years into our marriage, we did actually consider having a baby. Lauren was a professional figure skater who had been forced by injuries to retire at the age of thirty-one. She suddenly had her days free and I was making good money as a communications specialist. Perfect timing. We went so far as to interview her OB/GYN to get all the details. I hadn’t slept the night before. While in her office I had to pretend I wasn’t sweating, secretively wipe my forehead as I took three pages of notes that detailed everything from her need to gain at least twenty-five pounds during pregnancy to the graduating scale of complications for each year Lauren aged. Nothing we learned made the process sound any more appealing, to either of us, what with the medical procedures and the risks for mother and baby and all.
My parents don’t understand our reluctance. My mother has never openly discussed the issue with me, but she’ll drop a hint the way an Italian mother can. Nothing mean or accusatory. No specific examples come to mind now—they’re subtle that way—but I know them when they come.
My father on the other hand is much more direct. One day, he confronted me while Lauren and I were visiting them for the weekend. We were saying good-bye when my father signaled me to follow him out of the kitchen where my mother and Lauren were discussing new countertops and the parameters of the perfect kitchen sink depth. After making our way into the spare bedroom that my parents use primarily for television watching, my father's jovial features faded and were replaced with the solemnity of something serious. It was the look I’d gotten when I needed a stern talking to about staying out too late or having broken a trinket or a bone while he was at work.
We stood there, looking eye-to-eye and instantly, the old dynamic of father and son was revived. These were roles that had been covered in dust because we had been more like friends for most of my adult life, largely out of mutual respect. My parents and Lauren and I have traveled together and played cards into the small hours every chance we got. Now, however, my father and I had slipped into old character roles.
“I stopped myself from bringing it up last night,” he said, “but the more I slept on it, I just have to say something. By not having kids,” he said, awkwardly gesturing to signify the two of us, “you’re going to miss out on this.”
That sentence was a punch in the chest.
My father took a seat. Patted the couch cushion next to him.
Instead of sitting, I had remained standing, winding the cord on my cell phone charger. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but this was a feeble and unintentional form of rebellion on my part. I was seventeen again and he was showing me how I was wrong.
There is a certain perception of failure involved in not having children. And maybe it’s just me, but when the reasons are chosen instead of biological, there seems to be an overhanging sense of treason.
Lauren and I each have had the tug of war in our heads. In our mid and late thirties we felt abnormal for not having kids. And more than just the absence of children, was the absence of any urge to have children.
I wound and unwound my cell phone charger while I stood there, thinking of something to say. Instead of taking my time, I admitted that taking no action was, in fact, an action itself—that, at our ages, not deciding was in itself a decision.
“I just don’t want you to miss out,” he said.
Maybe if I hadn’t focused so intently on my phone charger or if my head wasn’t so addled with sentimentality at that moment, I would have told him, “You know, there’s no guarantee I’d get as lucky as you did.” He would have gotten a kick out of that.
The subject matter wasn’t, strictly speaking, a parental or authority issue. Other such confrontations, even those from strangers, have evoked similar responses in me. For instance, on a vacation cruise to the Bahamas a number of years ago, Lauren and I met a woman over breakfast in the grand dining room. The woman sat on the other side of the table with her elderly mother, and talked endlessly about her kids. She spoke loudly and with an Appalachian accent. She looked at us and gestured as if we were part of the conversation so we felt obligated to listen. We nodded and smiled as required; after the eggs were eaten and the coffee drunk, the woman wiped her mouth with her linen napkin, looked at Lauren and then said, “Ya’ll have kids?”
I don’t know which of us said “No” first, but the skin on the woman’s face seemed to twist. She tilted her head, smiled a little with a clenched expression, and said, “Well. Ya’ll are young.” Lauren thought nothing of it, but it got to me. I’m sure the woman meant to be sweet and encouraging, but the comment was conciliatory and condescending.
Sometimes the opposing opinion isn’t so naïve in its encouragement. One night about a year ago, Lauren and I attended a friend’s engagement party.
At a franchised pub, with 1980s rock blaring and a basketball game playing on a corner-mounted television, the bride-to-be introduced Lauren and me to a woman firefighter sitting by herself—turned out she didn’t know anyone there except her husband who was close with the groom-to-be.
The woman firefighter was magazine-cover fit, had long brown hair, and the notion of someone so attractive in that line of work surprised me. We talked about the stupidity of motorists who ignored the sirens and the big red trucks barreling down the road as well as about the couple celebrating their engagement and then, with all the small talk exhausted, she brought up the subject of kids. The woman firefighter had two, the oldest four and the youngest, twenty months. I never understood why parents lose the ability to round up or down when they discuss the age of their kids. Tell me the kid is two. I’m a stranger. I won’t hold you to specifics.
I was barely into my second beer when she showed us pictures on her phone—the four-year-old girl looked just like her mother and the boy was grinning inches from the lens.
She flipped her phone shut and said, “You have kids.”
It wasn’t a question. The way she ordered her words was like an assumption, or maybe just a prompt in an attempt to keep the conversation moving, but her facial expression was expectant and guilt-inducing. And why wouldn’t she assume we have children? We’d be ideal parents, or at least we seemed to have the means and ability to be ideal parents, and the room we use as a home gym would make an ideal nursery and later, a child’s room. But still.
Lauren and I answered in unison, “No. We don’t.”
Instead of dropping the issue, the woman firefighter sat up straighter and asked without hesitation, “Why not?”
No one has actually asked us this quite so bluntly before—not friends, our parents, or even my ninety-year-old grandmother who would’ve liked nothing more than another great grandchild—a new bambino—but now this woman firefighter had put us on the spot.
Maybe I took a step back in response to this, maybe it was two. The moment felt like a slow and casual motion, though I doubt it was either slow or smooth. I’d managed to hold in the words, but I’m sure my facial expression said, “That’s none of your damn business.” I understood the woman firefighter enjoyed being a mother and was grateful for her kids, but like religion and politics, you don’t get that personal with people you’ve just met.
I should have replied, “Lauren has a barren uterus,” but I didn’t because it wasn’t true, and more importantly because I’m superstitious enough to fear a jinx or karma or whatever it is that might cause such a condition. Still, it would be easier to say something like this when people ask.
Lauren didn’t dodge the woman firefighter’s question as I planned to, but answered honestly and shamelessly that we just never chose to.
Here the woman firefighter worked a job where she might have to rescue babies from burning buildings and yet she still took the time to bring two of her own into the world. We stood before her, derelict in some inferred expectation to procreate.
To deflect, I rattled off a stale joke about my begging and Lauren refusing. I laid it on thick with obvious sarcasm hoping laughter would change the subject.
The woman firefighter ignored my attempt at humor. She sat square on her stool, her posture rigid, and said, “You’re not complete until you have kids.”
Lauren and I looked at each other, subtly as long-married couples do, but neither of us replied. The awkward silence that ensued was mercifully shattered by an explosion of cheers at one of the pool tables behind us. Someone must have made a tricky shot. Lauren used the commotion as an opportunity to walk over to the bride-to-be. Meanwhile, facing the pool tables, I was left to think about what the woman firefighter had said.
The tone wasn’t accusatory. Her voice wasn’t harsh or sarcastic; it was plain and natural, like a prophet proposing redemption; she had no apparent regard for how such a statement would affect Lauren or me.
In everyday life, I reserve little time for high-horse, soapbox types. I imagined the woman firefighter with a “Choose Life” bumper sticker on her SUV or minivan or whatever she drove with two car seats in the back and I then pictured her padded beneath a helmet and Nomex coveralls, hauling a fire hose two and half-inches in diameter toward a gentrified home set ablaze. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, the madder I got, the more proficient I imagined her being on the job, and the less attractive she seemed.
Is this what it has come to? I wondered. We’re derided because we’re in a position to have children yet we chose not to?
Yes, I suppose if one were to consider the complete responsibility, because parenting is nothing if not a mandate, making one completely responsible for another human being. Beyond my insecurities, there are also issues of time, money, and energy required of child-rearing. I would be, we would be, locked down, not focusing on each other with our usual ardor but on a third entity who may or may not be a wedge, cleaving a fused whole. And we’ve heard dozens of times that it’s selfish to have just one child.
I’d just met this woman. I didn’t know what her definition of complete entailed or if she were one of those people who couldn’t acknowledge the slightest chance there might be equally great rewards on the other end of the spectrum. What some call childless, others call child-free.
As such, we have wine with dinner, often accompanied by jazz music in the background, and afterward I smoke a cigar on the lanai while reading a good book. If we’re up late, we sleep in a little extra because we can. On Sundays, guys I know have early morning baby-duty with dirty diapers, messy bottles, the Wiggles or cartoons constantly on TV, and toys littering the living room floor. We have mimosas with brunch over the New York Times and watch bad reality shows on VH1 or R-rated DVDs with their various amounts of profanity and nudity on the fifty-inch flat screen. If a Motley Crue concert comes on the HDTV channel, we're free to crank it full volume, TiVo it, and replay at full blast anytime we want.
We’re often mistaken for newlyweds while traveling. And when we’re home, we exercise, read, spend weekends together as a couple and sometimes apart. We most likely wouldn’t do anything like that or have the relationship we do if we had children—based on the examples of dozens of family members and friends who are married with children—not to mention those who are divorced and share custody or only occasionally have contact with their children over the phone or once a month by proxy of their child support payments.
Some may say ours is a shallow existence, and they may be right. We often wonder if we’ll grow old alone, without kids to take care of us. Storybook as the opposite appears, the reality is so many offspring have little to do with their parents these days that we can’t justify it on those grounds either. In fact, we’ve heard a number of people say that if they could do it over again, they’d never have kids.
Rationally, I know that just because we can doesn’t mean we should, but physically, I don’t actually know if we could. Never trying means never knowing. And while I’ve spent each month since my teenage years counting on and sometimes praying for the scheduled female cycle, I can’t help feeling morose when hearing about an infertile couple spending thousands of dollars on doctors, surrogates, donors, and in vitro fertilization. I’ve heard stories about the relentless and scheduled screwing, the painful shots in their desperation to have a baby.
Sometimes I envy this determination, but mostly, I just don’t think I could handle the responsibility of such challenges. There was always the fear of natural and age-related complications that I wouldn’t want to face. And even on a lesser scale, maybe I’ve spent a lifetime unhappy with my own normality as it was. Sometimes I believe it best not to perpetuate my average height, my weak eyesight, the commonness of brown eyes and hair on anyone else, or to add to the over-population of this planet. Also in the back of my mind is something my mother used to say about my being such a handful as the reason she stopped having kids. I never really liked it when she said it, and sometimes I wonder if my difficultness as a kid is something I don’t want to perpetuate on Lauren or myself.
Regardless, I just don’t think I’m suited for fatherhood. I’ve never pushed a kid in a stroller. I’ve never changed a diaper. I’ve never even had a dog. I’m a decent uncle, I suppose, but I wasn’t able to relate to my niece or nephews until they were old enough to catch and throw a ball.
Speaking of which, on one of our periodic trips two hours south to visit my family, I went with my father and brother-in-law to my nephew’s T-ball practice. They were assistant coach and coach respectively, and at the little league field, we barely made it to the dugout by the time a dozen minivans materialized and kids were everywhere. My brother-in-law had them run laps around the bases and then paired them off to warm up their arms with a catch. My father and I paired up and we had a catch, like he and I have been doing since I was the same age as the kids around us.
It was for these such events that even as I approached middle age, I kept a baseball glove handy. Throwing with my father reminded me of the old days when he worked with me in our backyard or at the field after practice.
As we threw back and forth, a couple more kids arrived and took their place on the field. During infield drills, I served as catcher to feed my groundball hitting brother-in-law. I was Yogi Berra to his Casey Stengel.
After a hydration-break in the dugout, a kid walked up to me from my left. He completely sidled me and when I looked down, his face was one you’d see in advertisements for cereal or neon-colored beverages. The little ball cap was pushed back on his head, and a clump of brown curls and freckles looked up at me. “Whose father are you?” he said.
Out of shock, I said, “What?”
“Whose father are you?” he repeated, in the same curious tone.
Instinctually, I looked around to see if my own father was in earshot. He was standing by home plate and out of range.
“I’m nobody’s father.”
The kid still looked up at me, but his face had twisted a little.
“I’m Steven’s uncle,” I said, as if claiming a right to be there.
The kid looked down for a moment and then back up to me, his face back to normal proportions. “Oh,” he said. “Okay.” And he ran to the bench to pick up his glove and join the others on the field.
Being on a ball field always makes me think of my friend, Jeff. We shared the same name and as kids spent many hours on such a field. Jeff’s father remarried recently and I’d attended the wedding. I watched Jeff stand up as his father’s best man. It was touching and, of course, I couldn’t help wonder if either of them ever imagined such a scene.
At the reception, Lauren and I sat next to a retired couple who ate three heavily-buttered rolls each before dinner was served. He was a tall man with eagle-like features, a geologist trained at Penn State who I would have believed was once a starting linebacker for the Nitany Lions. His wife was soft spoken and well mannered, a southern girl perhaps who now passed her time in front of game shows with her knitting in her lap. They were older but still vibrant and participated in the conversation. They were still as into travel as we were and were planning a cross country RV trip the very next day. They’d been married for 48 years, and never had children.
I took some sort of redemption, or maybe it was vindication, in their lack of regret, even at their advanced ages.
They got up to leave after the cake was cut.
“You’re not having cake?” Lauren asked.
“We’ve got to ship out early in the morning,” the geologist said.
I said, “You’re starting the cross-country trip tomorrow?”
“Before first light.”
We said our goodbyes with hugs and handshakes on their way out, not just because we enjoyed talking with them, but because we felt a connection to them, perhaps a hopeful one, brief as it may have been.
Above and beyond all my doubt on the issue is the unity of thought on the subject between Lauren and me. Is it fate or pure randomness that put two equally apprehensive people together? Aren’t we wise to heed this apprehension? As individuals? As a couple? Doesn’t doing what’s best for ourselves make us complete?
It’s not like we ever sat across from each other and decided the issue with a word like, Never. At no point was it a case of one or the other saying anything remotely final on the matter. It’s just that neither of us has been the one to say, “Okay, I’m ready.” Neither of us has ever lobbied the other toward a decisive yes or no on the issue, knowing full well that with each passing year, the option grows more distant in the rearview mirror.
We’re now the age when the natural way, if we even wanted to, is no longer a viable option. The risks are too severe, according to the notes I still have in a steno pad I saved all these years from when we interviewed Lauren’s OB/GYN. And now I know the risks for autism rise six-fold in men over forty. Today, medical advances may concoct injections, inseminations, and pills, but that would create a child of science, not one of nature.
Technically, I was overdue to carry the burden of birth control.
It was impossible to think of IUDs, some sort of coils, or the option of a hysterectomy, all of which sounded unappealing and uncomfortable.
It was time for me to seriously consider having a vasectomy.
I was forty, but I didn’t know if I could voluntarily forfeit my ability to reproduce. I mean, it was one thing to squander the ability, but I certainly couldn’t volunteer to have the power surgically removed.
My other brother-in-law doesn’t seem to have a problem with it. Last Thanksgiving, he told me, “I have an appointment in two weeks to get clipped and snipped.”
“Hell yeah,” he said.
He has a five-year-old son named Dylan.
Lauren came home with her filled prescription of anti-tremor, birth-control-killing pills…and a box of condoms. We were in our bedroom looking at the package, trying to read the label.
Increasingly, for me, proper lighting and font size are paramount to reading, and though we had two small lamps on either side of our king-size bed, the ambient light wasn’t bright enough. The curtains over the sliding glass doors leading out to our pool were drawn so I stepped closer to the window and opened the wooden blinds. Outside, the sound of the pool filter filled an otherwise silent moment as I read the red lettering on the package.
The notion of condoms carried a subtle charge of excitement and we both relished it a little, privately, but knowingly in the ways of couples. The fireworks in the bedroom have always been stellar, thank God, but the element of something new making its way into our marital bed sort of aroused us both. But now, here it was. Suddenly I was a teenager again angry about the need for something so invasive between us, but deeper inside, no pun intended, I felt like nothing more than the middle aged punk who was forced to wrap his weasel so we wouldn’t have a kid. I knew birth control would never be the same. It would now always be visible, as if fashioned out of a balloon.
“I can’t read the package in this light,” I said.
“Why do you need to read it?” Lauren was topless, in the process of changing into sweats and a t-shirt.
“I don’t think much could have changed in the decades since I last used one, but I want to be sure.”
I looked at the box, but it was covered mostly with logos so I opened it and took one out. The red ink printed on the gold foil was smaller than on the backs of sugar substitute packages and I didn’t have my glasses. Though I couldn’t read the package, the writing there proved a point: if you can’t read the label on condom wrappers, you shouldn’t have to use them.
Lauren stood by my side and closed the wooden blinds with a shaking hand and then hugged into my side. Our situation was forever changed and as I looked at the box in my hands, I heard the echoes of my father, the woman on the cruise ship, and the woman firefighter.
Jeffery Hess served six years in the U.S. Navy, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and edited the anthology Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform (Press 53). He’s held writing positions at a daily newspaper, a Fortune 500 company, and a university-based research center. In addition to corporate publications and websites, his writing has appeared in r.kv.r.y., Plots with Guns, The MacGuffin, The Houston Literary Review, American Skating World, the Tampa Tribune, and Writer’s Journal. He lives in Florida where he’s completing a novel and leads a creative writing workshop for military veterans.
Q: What surprised you most while writing this piece?
A: That I was still angry at that woman firefighter. It wasn’t the voicing of her opinion that bothered me, but rather the judgment in her words—in her eyes.
Q: You provide creative writing workshops for military veterans. Can you tell us a little about those? Why workshops only for military veterans, for example?
A: The workshop is in its fourth year now. I started the workshop because I enjoy teaching. The reason I limit the workshop to military veterans is because I believe sharing my interest, passion, and whatever knowledge I have with them will somehow encourage them to write more and better, and secretly, I hope my efforts might convey, in some small way, my gratitude for the sacrifices all veterans make.
Q: Tell us a little about your writing process.
A: I write mostly from a laptop, on my back porch, at night. I begin each writing session by typing in a journal-type file. It’s not a journal in the strict sense of the word. Often I type up ideas, bits of dialogue, or I’ll pose myself questions there about a scene I’m working on and see if it develops. This warm-up works for me, probably because whether I’m writing an essay, a short story, or a novel (as I am currently) I never have to face a blank page.
Q: What’s on your summer reading list?
A: Right now, I’m finishing Muscle for the Wing, the second book in Daniel Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy. Next will be the third in the trilogy, The Ones You Do. Then, I’m really looking forward to receiving my copy of Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time and Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana. Come August, I hope to be finished with the novel I’m currently writing and plan to immerse myself in baseball season. I’ve got Ian O’Connor’s The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter and Jane Leavy’s The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.