It's not in our nature to nurture

Most people have a powerful wish, a yearning, for children. My wife and I don't.

Published May 8, 2003 6:35PM (EDT)

To begin thinking about having kids I first asked myself, "Do you want kids?"

"No, not especially," I answered. "Do you?"

"No," I answered myself. "Me neither."

Being in agreement, we wrapped our arms around our knees in a Thorazine squat and rocked into a state of relative calm.

But what does that mean exactly, not to want kids?? What does it feel like when I run my mind over the contour of an absence? Where is that place in the body where most people have a desire for children? I can't describe the absence; I only know what it feels like to really want something. I only know the things that on my deathbed I might regret not doing.

The novel. The book of poetry. The songs. The playing of music. The marrying of my wife. If I had not tried to do those things, I would wonder if I had missed out. They are small things, perhaps, when weighed against having children, but they are as dear to me as my own heartbeat, my own eyesight. There was no defining moment when my wife and I decided not to have kids. In fact, we have not ruled it out completely. What is notable, though, is the absence of that storied urgency. Each time we circled around the question, poked at it, tried to see honestly what we felt, each time, and there have been many, we came up strangely empty. That might sound uncomfortably literal, but what I mean is that there does seem to be a powerful wish, a yearning, for children, that most people who have them will tell you they have felt, and we don't have it. I know what it feels like to have a lifelong yearning for something. I have plenty of lifelong yearnings. But not for children.

We don't know what it means about us, but we accept it as true, and we trust it to mean that we should not avidly pursue parenthood. Perhaps it's a little like being gay: You're just this certain way and it doesn't feel strange to you but it's different from the way most people are. And you might be curious to have what they have, but you're not driven to strive for it. I can say only that it feels completely normal, except when we become small-minded and start comparing, when we weigh what we've got in our hearts against what they've got in their strollers.

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When I met her, my wife was on the pill, but her doctor told her she should discontinue it because she suffers from migraines. I came of age sexually before the advent of AIDS and had never become accustomed to using condoms. So my wife used the diaphragm, but after several years of the habitual pause in the proceedings that their use requires, we noticed that there was more going on in that moment than simply the mechanical preparation; something troubled us about our refusal to accept the possibilities nature offered; our practice of prophylaxis seemed, in a word, sterile. Although we didn't crave kids, we weren't terrified of the possibility either, and we began to feel that we were rather rigidly standing in the way of one of life's natural outcomes. We had never categorically and utterly ruled out becoming parents. And there was something else, some whiff of the mystical, in our decision to stop using birth control; it wasn't entirely rational or absolute. In a sense, it was mischievous, the way two kids will explore a vacant house, not because there's something in it that they want, but because it's just there and they're curious about what it would be like to walk around inside it.

We wanted not necessarily to try to have a child but to be open to the idea, to stop foreclosing on this potential within us. We became willing, at that point, to have a baby if that should occur. We knew, if it should happen, that we would respond to it as humans have for ages. But we were not attracted to the notion of trying to have a child. It was not something that, as though running a small manufacturing concern, we wanted to produce.

Nevertheless, with a certain giddy sense of revolution we opened ourselves to possibility. It felt virtuous. It felt like facing reality. It felt like we were in tune with some larger force.

But that excitement and sense of rightness soon faded for me. In its place came a subtle kind of dread. And into the previously carefree ritual of lovemaking crept a grave discipline of acceptance of the possible consequences. I have begun to wonder how I could summon a lifetime of daily parenting to sustain a moment's philosophical inspiration. Since deciding, in a sense, to perform without a net, we live with its lifelong consequences, even though they are as yet only hypothetical.

And this has begun to weigh on me; at least it was weighing on me until I found myself sobbing with grief and joy at the end of the film "25th Hour."

In "25th Hour" a young man has pushed his luck too far and is about to go to prison. But the movie shows us what it might be like if he got a chance to start over. His father, who has come to drive him to prison, could instead drive him out of the city and just keep driving. It would mean exile and a secretive life; he would have to resist contacting anyone from his past for years to come. But it at least would be a chance at freedom and a chance at a life. And someday in the future, his beautiful lover would join him, and they would raise a gaggle of children, and life would be beautiful.

And there I was, sobbing in the dark, because those children represented salvation, and the father's action represented mercy. It would be the ultimate act of fatherly devotion, of rescue and protection, for this father to rescue his son from complexity and fate and consequence, from all his sins, to put him in his car and drive him down highway after highway, past city and town, past corruption and temptation, past fate and irony and money and identity, past justice, beyond the system and the harsh hand of law, to say goodbye and good luck in a tiny anonymous town where maybe his son could get a job as a bartender and nobody would know his name. I found it deeply moving that the father, traditionally the upholder of laws, would defy his caste and side with his son against the state, that he would take him out of that world rather than see him suffer at the hands of a vengeful system. I came home shaken, thinking maybe we ought to make some kids, but my wife was asleep and the poodle was on my side of the bed.

What was it that had me sobbing in the dark? The crushing sense of so much sin, so many mistakes, so much guilt and regret, and the desire to start over, to be reborn. And who has not feared that he could not control or protect or rescue his progeny from their own foolish appetites and conceits but would have to stand mute in the convict-loud hallway of a penitentiary as the electric gate slammed shut between them?

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As I write, it is Easter morning before sunrise on the western edge of San Francisco and it is still dark outside. I awoke anxious about finishing this essay -- or was it my dream that woke me, or the dog at the foot of the stairs, barking because she was out of water? I filled her water bowl and looked out the window to the east and there was that big cross on Mount Davidson all lit up, another reminder of colored eggs and pastel dresses and Christian rebirth. Much as I disavow it, on this Easter morning 14 years and three days since my last drunken binge, that old demon of Christian longing is again at war with the mind's conceits and the body's doggy appetites; it's hard at work as always, tearing me apart. And as I write, the two dogs are scratching and licking, making that pornographic slurping sound. I am not filled with love for them at this moment, but annoyance. I think: If this is what it's like with dogs, just think...

Word has reached me that my father is unhappy that none of his four genetic children has produced an heir. He has never told me this. My wife says it's not something a parent says, that it's just something a child knows. To hear that he might have been silently hoping all this time while saying nothing is a little unnerving and a little sad. My dad always said, Be independent, do your own thing. I took him at his word and put 3,000 miles between us. And now that he is 80 the terms of our pact of protection have been reversed. It is my turn to look after him. But from this distance I cannot look after him. That makes it all the more troubling that I may have let him down by doing what he suggested.

But absent any strong prodding from my family, I simply have not been driven to have kids. And again I find myself asking, Why is that? Why am I not drawn to become a nuclear chieftain, king of some clapboard castle, happy monarch over a freckled brood? Why can't I picture myself as a father? Is it because the picture I have of a father is an unhappy one? Is it because of lingering resentment, a desire to refuse my own father's most secret but deepest of wishes? Is it my own wish not to repeat the strange, unaccountable bleakness of my childhood? A self-protectiveness toward unhealed wounds? Or am I concerned that a child of mine just might treat me as badly as I have treated my own father, wavering in my fund of genuine affection, accepting his generosity with thin gratitude, abandoning him in his old age?

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In a recent e-mail exchange, a letter writer pointed out that the reason genetic paternity matters to many men is that fathering a child represents a bid for immortality. While I don't thirst for immortality through reproduction, I do thirst for it through creative acts. Still, it's all rather silly. Once you're dead, you won't care whether a curious reader fingers a volume of your poetry or a great-great-grandchild stares at your portrait and wonders who you were.

When you think about where you come from it's really quite amazing: Some knobby fish-eating proto-Welshman sharpening a crab spear on the pebbly shore of Cardigan Bay spies a budding weaver girl cracking open clams for her father in a stone hut's shady lee and takes her in the nearby heath. That happens a thousand times and then it's your turn.

At any rate, it looks like the buck stops here, with me and my siblings. I have an older half-brother, who has reproduced prodigiously, but we other four, by my father, remain childless and getting on in years. So my father's ancient line, thousands upon thousands of years of apelike Homo erectus finally getting it right as Homo sapiens, begotten in all manner of coupling both foul and sweet, in tender love and brutal rape, in the most casual of dalliances and the most devoted of lives lived together, it looks as if that whole genetic "Rashomon" movie is coming to a halt.

But do I hear a cosmic voice saying, "Accept the compliment and pay it forward"? No, all I hear is a little voice that says, Finish the novel. And for all I know, that's my agent's voice.

I have so much to do, so much to learn, and so little time. I am far from knowing how to live. I take comfort only in knowing that if a child should ask me, "How shall I live?" I can always reply, "I don't know. Go ask your parents."

By Cary Tennis

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