I wrote this at the behest (and with the encouragement) of Knight Stivender for Holiday 2014 print issue of the magazine 12th & Broad.
I wanted to talk to someone who, like me, has decided to forego parenthood. What’s wrong with us? Anything?
I sometimes have the suspicion real parents secretly dislike the childless. Here in the South, they will not up and say so outright, of course, unless we get caught stealing one of those Mom parking spaces at the mall. But at dinner parties, I fancy I hear them thinking before they ask, “Do you have any kids?”
“No, I decided I wanted a motorcycle instead. You?”
“Three. Two in high school, oldest in rehab.” Pass the salt, you selfish bastard.
I wouldn’t blame them one bit. There they are, carrying on the family name, worrying about money for college, staying up all night with strep, driving to Gulf Shores, attending dance recitals and night court. My worst scheduling issue is whether I can get a table at Josephine.
I decided to splurge on my research and ask my neighbor Kate, because I knew she would not get all prickly. Asking someone why they don’t have kids is dangerous. Kate is a thoughtful and nuanced person who has (to date) been intentionally non-maternal. I emailed her my questions to see if my projections of disdain are unique. She wrote back, “I’ve gotten reproach from time to time. But what has been far more common is others’ lack of confidence in my confidence. I was told many, many times in my 20’s that I would change my mind at 30, that in my 30’s I would change my mind at 40. And since I’m now 40, the unsolicited advice has morphed into ‘hurry up before it’s too late.'”
Looky there. It’s awfully presumptuous for someone to be such a know-it-all about someone’s reproductive intentions. Then again, I have my own prejudices and assumptions. They’re no better.
For instance, my sister and her husband are childless. That sounds pejorative, doesn’t it? I figured I already knew why, but I asked Mom about it anyway during a recent lunch at Cracker Barrel. (It would require a familial closeness we do not enjoy to have just asked Sis directly.) I always figured there was some other thing, you know, a physical reason — which goes to show you that I’m as full of poo as anyone, and (boo on me) not quite the liberal I think I am. Then again, no liberal is.
Mom replied, matter-of-factly as ordering pie, “No, she never wanted to have kids.”
Bam. I stared at the little triangle puzzle, pulled out a yellow golf tee and jumped a red one. I wondered what Mom thinks, having two kids who didn’t want kids. Ya could’na produced one lousy grandkid between the two of ya? You’re killing me and the family tree. That’s my brain for you, imagining Mom with a Jewish accent. She’s a Baptist.
My brain contemplated the number of equidistant holes in a wooden equilateral triangle. Simultaneously: “I have a paternal cousin. Maybe he carried on the seed? I haven’t talked to him in decades.”
What I said aloud was, “Pass the salt?”
* * *
My decision to avoid parenting was flawed from the get-go because it was based on limited experience with childhood, which is to say, my own. I didn’t love it.
My parents fought about me a lot. I might not know diddly about parenting, but moms and dads, heed me, for this is truth: you should not fight about your kids where they can hear. It’s mind-warping. The disagreements of Mom and Dad went through the drywall like a sieve. It was always something: me not wanting a haircut, me needing pants, me wanting to go to Grant’s Department Store to buy Dad a birthday present. Each of them would transform into a high-storm discussion of character development. Mom was of the opinion that I should wear cheap Sears back-to-school togs, that a good hair clipping and ass-kicking was what the boy needed. At the age of 8, I asked Dad on a sleepless night, “Did you guys want to have me?” That must have sucked for him. I had no idea what I was asking, of course; I was just conniving to avoid the barber shop.
I nonetheless developed an impression that my mother didn’t like me very much. I know better now; it was simply hard for her to like much of anything. Dad was kind to Mom, to everyone really, but being married to a guy who packed up the family for one small town gig after another to play 45 RPM records and read ad copy for furniture stores can’t have been what she imagined after escaping the farm in Crofton, Ky., pop.900 — much less parlaying her business college degree into a gig working the switchboard at the Frosty Morn meatpacking plant. Her resentment would smolder and erupt in capricious fits of corporal broomsticks and swearing. We are (or were) redheads, all of us.
By the age of 17, I was perfect material for the first girl to touch me there. By 18, Jackie became pregnant. We met in the smoking area (think of that!) of Northwest High School. She was the girlfriend of a friend who would later move away with his Dad to start a hydroponic tomato farm in East Tennessee. His name was Joe. Joe asked me if I’d drive Jackie to school, since I had a car, a black ’69 VW with dome silver hubcaps, rubber floor mats and a redolence of stale pot smoke. He said, “Take care of her,” so I did.
Every weekday, I’d pick up Jackie in the morning and take her home after class, four blocks from our respective homes in a 60’s style subdivision near Ft. Campbell, Ky. It was named, with neither irony nor aspiration, Bel-Air.
Jackie was a runaway. She’d fled a terrible home life involving a beleaguered father and an evil stepmother, a woman partial to vodka and ranting with a butcher knife. She lived with Joe and his parents, which was vaguely weird and scandalous, even for an Army town. People (including me) imagined Joe and Jackie to be the most oversexed teen couple in the whole universe, privy to the great mysteries to which most of us could only pretend acquaintance. They were very quiet. They would arrive at school holding hands, strolling in from the gravel parking lot like they’d been together forever.
The real truth was that Jackie was a virgin until hydroponics, me and my black VW.
I got to know Joe’s mom, since Jackie would invite me in when I took her home. Pro tip: always get in good with the Mom. You know what happened later. We did what Harlequin teens everywhere do when they steal entry to that allegedly earned province of adults, privacy. In an after-school instant we became sex-crazed teenagers. We shoplifted rubbers and Ortho-Creme from the drugstore. They worked until they failed. “I’m late” became “Oh, shit.”
I promised Jackie if she would get an abortion, I would marry her. This is my lifelong shame.
That’s how terrified I was, how hopelessly forlorn, and ignorant. I never sought anyone for advice. Talking to Mom and Dad was (I thought) as out of the question as actually becoming Mom and Dad. To this day I don’t know if Jackie spoke with anyone about it. For myself, I consulted with a long list of rationalizations. I am talented at that. You want to hear some?
I practiced telling them to myself for decades, until I believed them: I was too young to be a dad. My parents always seemed unhappy about being parents. I had no career yet, or money, or means. And on and on and on and on.
But the real reasons were selfishness and fear, two sides of the same contraceptive. I didn’t want any part of trying to do doing something I didn’t know how to do, and I was afraid of what it would take from my future, as if I knew what it was. Ignorance! All I could think was, “anything but THIS, God, please.” You may have heard of foxhole prayers. I said parent trap prayers. And I sold Jackie on the promise of marriage.
I pause now to be sure you do not think I am about to ascend a moral pulpit and make pronouncements about pro-this-or-that. NFW. I would be scorched by lightning in instant. This isn’t a tale of “Oh, what a blunder I made, and my soul is stained for life.” I do not believe life can be neatly prefixed into categories pro and otherwise, however strong my propensity for assumption. I try very hard to not judge decisions others must make. As Everlast sang back in ’98, “God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in her shoes.” I remain as wary of moral certainty as I am of innocence, both of which, I think, cause as much evil as anything in the world.
We played out our own version of that shitty Ben Folds song, a song that still causes me to hit skip or change the channel whenever I hear it. Such a terrible, wimpy dirge. It wasn’t Christmas, I did not drown slowly or go to a pawn shop. And I did follow through and marry (see innocence, above).
But first, Jackie moved away with her guardian mother to rejoin Joe’s father (and to my teenaged dismay, Joe) way the hell up in the East Tennessee mountains at the hydroponic tomato farm. It was a growing concern by then, assembled and electrified from mail-order kits — long, translucent half-pipes with rows upon rows of plants fed by pipes of goo. They sat next to a small tobacco plot, a vegetable garden, and a doublewide beside a creek. If Mr. S turned on their lights at night, a glow would fill the valley, and hill folks would say in church on Sunday they’d seen heavenly light, or a UFO.
The nearby burg of Butler had a tiny roadside motel across from a general store with an Eat Shop. You’d park beside a room, walk across and get the key, maybe some Vienna sausage, crackers, and cheese, and retire to a clean but musty room of braided rugs, knotty pinewood and rusty porcelain. Jackie and I made love there often during my fevered teenage visits to “the farm.” I’d push my old black beetle up past Johnson City and Lake Wautauga like I was on a mission to save the world. We’d go in, close the door, put on the chain, and fall on each other only as teens separated by the cruel world will. We’d have screwed in the Volkswagen if that’s what it took. Come to think of it, we did.
For nearly two years, I drove back and forth when I could. I wrote gooey love letters nearly every day, bused tables at the Pancake House, and did weekend graveyard shifts on the AM station where I was learning to be a DJ. I composed gushers of exquisite emotional agony. If I missed a single day, the next missive would begin with lengthy apology and explanation of the details of my dereliction. Meanwhile, every song I played was about us. “The Temptations! And ‘I Can’t Get Next to You!'”
Finally, we went to a mall and bought a pastel-colored gown and two plain rings and got married in that doublewide by a mountain preacher who returned the twenty-dollar bill I offered for his service. We drove to Blowing Rock for a honeymoon. My mother was furious about the whole affair, and Dad only shook his head. I told them both to fuck off and proceeded to show I knew
way more about love and life than they did. It was just Jackie’s parents and a couple of folks in attendance, and Joe. He was decent about it.
Within two years we divorced. When people would ask why, I would say, “We grew apart,” as if I had become jaded and wise by the ripe old age of 21. I probably got the phrase from a movie or a book. I knew nothing. We had made all the mistakes you can make, as if a hormone-fueled, guilt-marriage after a teenage abortion wasn’t enough. We did a couples swap. We did drugs. We bought shit on credit. We had an aquarium and pet finches and house plants in macrame hangers. We ended up in my parents’ attic when I decided to return to school while she waitressed.
I called it quits.
It took a few more husbands, but Jackie has kids and grandkids now. She lives in Colorado. If she reads this, she will probably tell me I have the chronology of this story wrong, or that we never ate vienna sausage and crackers. That’s memory for you. We only see each other on Facebook, now. I have little idea what her life is like. Leaving anything is like taking your hand out of a bucket of water; life just closes back in. A few years back, I sought her out and offered amends for my part in our story, and she was very kind and gracious about it all. She thanked me. That was the last time I saw her.
When I met my second wife she had already had a complete hysterectomy. This is a major score if you’re a guy who’s avoiding parenting, except for this: she already had two children. We fell in love like teenagers, only with better hotels. The story of our marriage is not for now, but I will say I had no idea what step-parenting meant, even less than I knew about abortion or wife-swapping at age 19. I made a galactic mess of it. I cannot in good conscience recommend step-parenting to anyone without the moral fiber of Ghandi or Mother Theresa, and certainly not to anyone with the emotional maturity of a teenager and a nickname implying perpetual adolescence. We lived together a couple of years, married, and I did everything I could to be “the cool step-dad” for eight more years.
Any real Mom or Dad knows you cannot be cool and a parent at the same time. You can switch back and forth quickly, if your switch is good. Mine wasn’t. I was prone to flipping one way or the other at all the wrong times, until the lives of those around me became a tangled, short-circuited mess of resentment, guilt, and irresponsibility without authority. After 10 years the breakers blew for good.
Somewhere in here, maybe now, I am supposed to offer an observation on my life today without children, what I’ve learned. That way this’ll be the only story with hydroponic tomato farming, abortion and a pithy moral platitude you read all day. I can whomp up wistful imagery of a winter evening, me standing in the kitchen, eating ice cream from a carton as snow falls through the branches outside the kitchen window, thinking of a future without kids of my own, all grown with their own kids, stopping in for a guilty-for-not-really-wanting-to-visit visit. Or give you a nice paragraph about decisions made, letting the days go by, borrowing David Byrne: water flowing underground. But there’s one more thing.
It is an autumn day, pleasant enough to sit on the screened-in porch. The infant is on her baby blanket on the painted green floor, and her mom (my stepdaughter) and my future ex have gone into the house. I am yet to hold her or do many granddad-type things, beyond the occasional coo or touch of her tiny fingers. I am afraid of her, and I ashamed of myself for it. She is attempting to roll over, which she hasn’t yet accomplished in her little life. After a tiny but mighty heave she rolls over with a thump of her head on the slatted floor. She is startled and begins to cry. By some sort of grace I overcome my fear, reach down and pick her up. Mom and Mama-G burst out the door, and gently take her from my arms and calm her down.
Since this day, I have loved her. She is six. I do not see her often as I would like. She has spent the night with me only twice in the last couple of years. It’s how things work out. I am still terrified and wound up tighter than a seven-day clock leading up to the days I know I will see her, the way you feel waiting for Christmas or a Ryman concert with the best band in the world.
Always I think: what if I make a mess of it? Or I wonder how to describe our relationship. What’s the word for your ex’s daughter’s child? I have one: it is simply, “Doodle.”
She has a word for me, too. It is “Pops.” She laughs at me a lot. I am a crazy occasional person in her life, a silly rabbit. I giggle and babble and sing silly songs. She skips, I skip. I say yes to anything she asks. I drive her to Philips Toy Mart and climb up with her into the train tower.
Last time, I introduced her to music of James Brown while we were in the car. I am the one that taught her to blow bubbles in her milk, to say, “I got ants in my pants and I need to dance.” And this:
So good (bomp-bomp)
so good (bomp bomp)
cuz I got you.