A child-size change of heart

For years, I insisted I didn't want children. But life is full of surprises.

(Image credit: iStock)

TWELVE YEARS AGO, I penned an essay for a Salon.com series called "To Breed or Not to Breed," about the decision to have children or not. It began this way: "When I tell people that I'm 27, happily married, and that I don't think I ever want children, they respond one of two ways. Most of the time they smile patronizingly and say, 'You'll change your mind.' Sometimes they do me the favor of taking me seriously, in which case they warn, 'You'll regret it.'" The series inspired an anthology titled Maybe Baby. It was divided into three parts: "No Thanks, Not for Me," "On the Fence," and "Taking the Leap." My essay was the first in the "No" section.

So I felt a little sheepish when, a year and a half ago, the writer Meghan Daum asked me if I'd be interested in contributing to the book that would become Shallow, Selfish and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. I wrote back to tell her that I couldn't: My son had just turned 1.

My transformation didn't begin with an unbidden outbreak of baby lust or a sudden longing for domesticity. It began, weirdly enough, when I learned about corpses becoming fathers. In 2011, I reported a piece for Tablet Magazine about the strange Israeli campaign for posthumous reproduction. Israel is the world capital of reproductive technology, and a legal group called New Family wanted to give parents who had lost adult sons the right to extract their sperm and create grandchildren. I have mixed feelings about making dads out of dead men, but I remember being seized by the realization that if my husband were to die young, I'd want to be able to do it to him.

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Children, I suddenly understood, would hedge against the unthinkable fact of my husband's mortality. Not long ago, I learned the Arabic word Ya'aburnee from a friend's cheesy Facebook graphic. Literally "You bury me," it means wanting to die before a loved one so as not to have to face the world without him or her in it. It's a word that captures exactly my feeling for my husband. Part of the reason I didn't want kids was because I feared they'd come between us, but if he were gone, I'd be frantic to hold on to a piece of him. Grasping this didn't make me want a baby, exactly, but it started pushing me from "No" to, well, ambivalent.

My husband, Matt, was ambivalent, too. We were pleased with our two-person family, with our consuming careers, constant travel, and many tipsy nights out, all the things people say you lose when you become a parent. We met very young, the summer after my freshman year of college, and we'd never grown bored with each other. Sometimes we puzzled over what people meant when they said that marriage is hard work. We assumed it had something to do with parenthood.

As happy as I am with my marriage, I'm not by nature a cheerful person. Like a lot of writers, I'm given to tedious bouts of anxiety, depression, and self-loathing. I am introverted, and feel shattered if I don't have time alone every day. Worse, from a parental perspective, I am impatient, easily undone by quotidian frustrations. As much as I love to visit faraway places, I'm often reduced to tears by the indignities of air travel. When I'm stuck in a taxi in traffic, I unconsciously shred my cuticles until my fingers bleed. I pictured parenthood as a clammy never-ending coach flight.

Also, there was my work. As a little girl, I had never imagined myself with babies, or, for that matter, with a husband. My vision of the future had involved an apartment in New York City, a cat, and a typewriter. I was sure children would get in the way of my ambitions — and, worse, that I'd poison them with my resentment.

I started looking online for stories about people who'd had children and then wished they hadn't. I read about a famous Ann Landers reader survey from the 1970s, undertaken in response to a letter from a young couple who feared, as I did, that parenthood would ruin their marriage. "Will you please ask your readers the question: If you had it to do over again, would you have children?" they asked. She did, and received 10,000 responses. To her dismay, 70 percent answered no. A 40-year-old mother of twins wrote, "I was an attractive, fulfilled career woman before I had these kids. Now I'm an exhausted, nervous wreck who misses her job and sees very little of her husband. He's got a 'friend,' I'm sure, and I don't blame him." This helped shore up my faith in our decision.

LOOKING BACK, THE fact that my faith needed shoring up was a sign that something was changing. As I got older, the constant travel that once thrilled me became wearying. My work still meant a lot to me, but while I once thought that publishing a book would make me feel that I'd arrived, publishing two taught me that arrival is elusive. Where I'd once seen family and intellectual life in opposition, over time I started worrying that it was an intellectual loss to go through life without experiencing something so fundamental to so many people's existence. Meanwhile, 35 was creeping up on me.

Matt and I went back and forth, and back and forth some more. We both felt like we were atop a fulcrum and could be pushed either way if only the other knew what to do. At some point, we decided that I'd go off the pill and see what happened.

For a few months, nothing did. I started to wonder if I were infertile, if biology had decided the issue for me. I wasn't sure if I was disappointed or relieved by this. Then — in a development that shocked me despite being completely predictable — I got pregnant, and was immediately convinced I'd made an awful mistake.

Within a couple of weeks, the queasiness came on like a portent, though at the same time I longed for the drinks I couldn't have. We had a trip coming up — my husband had work to do in London, and I was going to accompany him, then go to Israel and Palestine for work of my own. I wasn't sure how I'd get through it, but I was determined to go, since it might be my last chance to travel for a very long time.

The first few days in London, I cried constantly. Then, one afternoon, I called my doctor in New York for the results of some routine tests. The news wasn't good. My progesterone was low, which the doctor said could be either a cause or a symptom of a failing pregnancy. When we got off the phone, I was hysterical with worry over this pregnancy that I didn't want at all.

Back in New York, I went immediately to the doctor, shaking as I waited to see the result of my 10-week ultrasound. When I saw the beating heart of the ghostly, paisley-shaped creature, I was, for all my qualms, hugely thankful. Over the next two weeks, I started to get a little bit excited about the baby. It helped that the sickness and sleepiness had lifted. When I returned to the doctor at 12 weeks — the end of my first trimester, and the danger zone for pregnancy loss — I was almost relaxed. But this time, the ultrasound showed no heartbeat.

I had never felt as sad about anything as I did about that miscarriage. Actually, sad isn't the right word, since it suggests a watercolor melancholy, and this was jagged, putrid desolation. The only way to make the anguish disappear, I thought, was to get pregnant again. Before, I'd been baffled by some women's animal desperation for a baby. Now that desperation took hold of me.

It took five months for me to get pregnant again — not a very long time, though it felt endless, and makes me so sorry for those condemned to spend years in that hideous limbo. I white-knuckled it through much of the pregnancy, terrified of seeing a still heart at each ultrasound.

PERHAPS IT SAYS something about my pre-baby life that a lot of my metaphors for new motherhood were drug-related. Those endless hours my son and I spent in bed, alternately nursing, dozing, and staring, amazed, at each other, reminded me of the time I'd smoked opium in Thailand. Lugging him around on errands brought to mind the first few times I got stoned as a teenager, when doing normal things like going to school or the drugstore became complicated, strange, and full of misadventure. The oxytocin felt like ecstasy.

Why, I kept thinking, hadn't anyone told me how great this was? It was a stupid thing to think, because in fact people tell you that all the time. In general, though, the way people describe having a baby is much like the way they describe marriage — as a sacrifice that's worth it, as a rewarding challenge, as a step toward growing up. Nobody had told me it would be fun.

The fact that it was, of course, was largely a matter of my good fortune and privilege. Getting what a friend of mine calls "the good hormones," instead of those that cause postpartum debilitation, is largely a matter of dumb luck. I also had a husband who was a full, enthusiastic partner; an established, flexible career; and, crucially, money to afford good child care. My son was (and is) sweet-natured and easy.

Certainly, it sucked sometimes. A purple-clad lactation consultant prescribed a regimen of round-the-clock feeding, pumping, and tea guzzling that, had I followed it, would have broken me in a day; her visit left me feeling crushed, inadequate, and then humiliated for not having stood up to her. I'd worried, throughout my pregnancy, that I would resent my son for taking me away from my work. Instead, I resented my work for taking me away from my son, which created its own sort of identity crisis.

For all that, though, my son's first year was the best of my life. I learned that while travel with a baby isn't easy, it's doable. We took him to Malaysia, where I was speaking at a conference, when he was 6 months old, and then on a reporting trip to Panama a few months later. Both of these were countries we'd been to before; seeing them again with our son made travel feel new. He made staying home feel new too. When I was with him, the habitual churning of my mind eased. Instead of arguing with strangers on Twitter, I spent hours in neighborhood parks I'd barely noticed before. Ultimately, even my work life improved: The crisis motherhood brought on led me to refocus on more satisfying long-form writing. Something Louis C.K. said recently was true for me: "I realized that a lot of the things that my kid was taking away from me, she was freeing me of."

Matt and I were so delighted by our baby that we started half-seriously mulling a second. I was now in my late 30s and assumed that if and when we resolved to go for it, it would take even longer than before. One night, thinking we needn't work so hard to prevent a pregnancy that we might soon wish for, we didn't use birth control. In the morning, we came to our senses, decided we weren't ready, and vowed not to be so sloppy again. It was too late. Our daughter was born nine months later, almost two years to the day after her brother.

She is a wonder, but having two children in diapers actually is pretty hard, particularly when you live in a fourth-floor walk-up. There are evenings when my husband and I are too harried to say more than a few words to each other as we tag-team two bedtimes and then collapse in front of the television. I'm occasionally incredulous that I've ended up with exactly the sort of life I once publicly pledged to avoid.

Unlike Ann Landers' survey respondents, I swear I don't regret it, though sometimes I'm mortified when I think about how my 27-year-old self would regard the frazzled, stroller-pushing woman I am now. I try to figure out how to explain myself in a way that would be intelligible to her, but I don't think I can. The best I can come up with is that before, there was one person in the world for whom I would use the word Ya'aburnee. Now there are three.

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared at NYMag.com. Reprinted with permission.

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