Daddy dilemma

My fiancee is 70 percent against kids. The clock is ticking, and it's up to me to convince her to do something I'm not sure about either.

Published April 6, 2006 11:03AM (EDT)

Was life so perfect before the Margarita Incident? Sometimes I think it was. It was a life less examined at least. And that can be a good thing. The Margarita Incident involved -- as those moments in life that somehow mean a lot often do -- tequila. And a small child. And my fiancie for the past eight years, Piper.

Piper and I were having a particularly good time trading funny faces with a super cute two-year-old in a Mexican restaurant in the East Village. We were riding what was up to that point the perfect buzz available to two people with dual incomes, decent rent, and no need to be home by 10 p.m. to pay a babysitter, when she looked at me and asked: "You're not going to turn 42, freak out, and leave me for some 27-year-old eager to be a mom, are you?"

Good question. If I did turn 42 and despaired about not being a dad, a logical solution would be to find a younger woman who wants kids -- there always seem to be a lot of them around. But I'd prefer to avoid that situation. This woman is the love of my life. She took long enough to find. I'd prefer to live out my life with her. Here's the deal. We don't know if we want to have children. I'm about 65 percent for procreation; she's about 70 percent against. As we both slip into our mid-thirties, my own personal daddy dilemma has quietly taken on an urgency that I frankly didn't expect. I know that if I'm cutting out of work early to go to a soccer game, I really don't want to be the oldest guy passing out the orange slices, or worse yet, have my ass kicked by some young dad during a bout of sideline rage. We don't need to breed tomorrow, but we can't wait another eight years either. I think in decades, she thinks in days -- and now, more so than her, I think it's time to figure this stuff out.

You know that illustration with a stylish woman talking on the phone, saying, "Oh my God, I forgot to have children"? I don't want to look up in 2015 and realize I'm a version of that woman (albeit one wearing a worn Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirt). That noise I'm beginning to hear is the sound of my sociological clock ticking.

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From as early as I can remember, I've been told I would make a good father. My mother repeated this mantra often. For her it was a statement of fact, backed up by the care and interest I took in my little sister. (As a four year old I would declare, "Don't you drop that baby on the floor" whenever someone held her; this delighted my mom and made my dad quite nervous.) If she and my father have raised me right, the idea of starting a family should be an attractive option. They've done their part to continue the great cycle of life. The pattern continues with me. So it was decreed. Or at least presumed. That was the plan. The Smith family name would continue.

We may have the most common surname in the U.S., but our stock is special. The first Smith was my grandfather Morris, who died three years ago after an excellent run that began in the tiny Russian town of Minsk and ended 91 years later in a tony suburb of Philadelphia. Upon arrival, his family was anointed "Smith," a loose translation of the family name of Blacksmith, an irony not lost on the generations of Smith family men more comfortable at the racetrack than the metal shop. Morris became known to one and all as Smitty, a nickname you don't hear nearly enough anymore. Smitty had two boys, my dad, Louis and his brother, Uncle Ralph. Lou had two girls and me. Ralph got married to Kathy, with whom he shares a blissful, travel-full, kid-free existence. This makes me the only living male in my family still realistically likely to father children. "It's up to you," the first Smith said wistfully ten years ago at my sister's wedding, as my then-girlfriend looked on in horror. But a funny thing happened on the way to the birthing class: I started dating a woman who could imagine a life for herself that did not involve children. We were still young and the pregnancy craze among our friends was still years away, but the germ of an idea was planted. Maybe I didn't need to spread my seed. Taking a pass on parenthood was an option. Who knew?

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She knew.

I met Piper in a dive breakfast joint in San Francisco nearly a decade ago. She was a girl who was used to being chased and good at rarely being caught. I eventually tricked her into dating me and have held on tight ever since. We've moved from the West Coast to Boston and finally New York, surviving deaths in the family, layoffs, landlords, legal troubles, terrorism, and all the other things that they if don't kill ya make ya stronger. Now eight years into this thing, we've found ourselves with good jobs, great friends, and 10,000 songs on our iPod. The only things to keep alive are a couple of plants and a couple of cats. It's the perfect bohemian yuppie existence. Why mess with a good thing?

For an I-don't-want-to-grow-up guy in his twenties -- which is to say, myself and most everyone I knew when I met her -- Piper was a dream girl. The Vows column of the New York Times might say: "A child actress who grew up in Brookline, Mass., friends say Miss Kerman exhibits the same comfortable ease munching on chicken wings and watching the game with the guys as she does preparing complicated Indian meals and discussing the latest article in the Atlantic Monthly with her Seven Sisters college alums. She loves wide-open spaces and horseback riding, yet has performed decorating miracles in her tiny New York City apartment. She's as at home in an organic garden in Berkeley as she is at a sample sale at Barney's. She has never considered diamonds to be a girl's best friend and was shocked when he presented her with seven gold rings and asked her to be his life partner. Although her many years of babysitting have afforded her a winning way with children (not to mention the ability to change a diaper with one hand in eight seconds), what Miss Kerman really hopes for, she says, is a puppy."

Good deal, right? When all your fiancie demands is a baby Bulldog, your buddies declare her Woman of the Year. What more could a dude want than a partner who isn't pressuring him to get married and make babies? A lot, actually.

Part of it is guy posturing. Many of my pals talk a good game about how their wives finally put the clamp down and demanded they do the deed, but deep down they're all glad the women forced the issue. They knew the day was coming; most of us want it to come, even if few of us ever feel the time is exactly right. No man really believes that he will ever be prepared to take another's life in his hands, a time described by one friend as "when all hell breaks loose."

Do I want all hell to break loose? Do I want, as another expecting father I know predicts, "life as we know it to end"? Like I said, about 65 percent of me thinks so. Besides all the good press, it's a big life experience, arguably the biggest. You don't go to DisneyWorld without riding Space Mountain, right? But here's the rub: I don't know if I want to have kids -- and yet it's up to me to convince my free-wheeling, sassy better half that it's what she wants as well. Ask around -- I have -- despite all the progress we've made in rejiggering gender roles, Piper and I are a rare breed. Which leaves the ball bouncing perilously, nervously in my court. Can I know for sure? And if I can, how? When? I'm much more happy than not with the life I've created for myself, but I'm far from content. Everything about my 36 years on earth has pointed to career being the source of salvation, so I keep thinking I'll be satisfied when that's at the place I want it to be. But will it ever be? Won't the bar keep being raised? Isn't that what careerists do? Would a child make me see what's really important? You're a Cuervo Gold-slugging ass, lost and lonely, or worse ... until a child enters your life. Maybe. In all honesty, I can't say for sure that a child would do more for my contentment quotient than any number of professional goals. Hell, anyone can make a baby -- but only I can bring a really original new magazine into the world.

There's simply no way to know for sure. I see now that it would be easier if, like my other friends, I didn't have any choice. Guys don't have the same biological experience as women. Their partners get pregnant. They get scared. They get a grip. They turn to baby-loving mush. Digital photos ensue.

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To Smith or not to Smith? Seemingly the oldest question in the book, and yet completely new territory for a Smith like me. My grandfather and father didn't even think to ask these questions. Their lives had expected plans and paths. Not so long ago, if you didn't have children you were possibly gay, probably odd, perhaps infertile. My grandfather and father's American dream was the same: a better life for the next generation. That there would even be a next generation wasn't a question.

I picked Piper not because she's a fertile vessel and a future supermom, but because there is no one else I've ever met who I want to be around so much of the time. She's a strong woman who looks hot with a tool belt and is by far the best candidate in our home to figure out the re-fi (not to mention the Wi-Fi). Finding a partner in this modern world is no small matter. OK, so it took a little while -- we got engaged after seven years -- but I can say without further hesitation or equivocation that this is the woman for me.

Much to the astonishment and admiration of my pals who have felt the heat to get a family started, until recently, Piper and I actually hadn't spent much time talking about what I -- and my mother and my sisters and my cousin's wife and all my dead grandparents -- always thought was my inevitable segue from late-night Seinfelds to mornings with SpongeBob until very recently. Kind of amazing that a couple with 70 years of combined living hasn't taken a stand on the most natural thing available to us, procreating the species.

Not really. First of all, I'm a guy, which means I'm quite comfortable avoiding all gray matters until I absolutely have to deal with them -- an MO that has worked just fine to date. More importantly, Piper has always made it clear that her dream was never for a man to whoosh her off her feet, shove a rock on her finger, and start making babies. She's the child of divorce, which doesn't make her any different than half the people born in the late sixties, but it does make her think a little harder before starting a family. I'm not the child of divorce -- in fact there have been few divorces in my family -- but it seems obvious to me that the high divorce rate counters the prevailing notion of family unit as Holy Grail. Despite the social pressure to procreate, studies show that people with children are exactly as happy as people without children. Happiness comes in many varieties.

That's Piper's point. I can see it. Maybe kids don't complete us -- or at least aren't the only road to a full life. This isn't a political statement. This isn't a "we're too hip to be conventional" sentiment. But it is an opinion that bugs people. We know plenty of couples that have gotten married, had children, and are now strangely defensive about their own choices (though I think that has more to do with the 'burbs than the babies). We have other friends who desperately want children, but haven't found the right partner and somehow resent the idea that we've found each other and yet still might actually pass on parenthood.

Piper believes that we -- or at least she -- can be plenty happy if it's just us. Time was, you had to have children -- more hands on the farm and all that. Those days, and that necessity, are long gone. Our fortress can stand on four legs. It's a logical, yet relatively unspoken idea, especially coming from a woman. In fact, more and more women feel this way -- but the reality remains that we're talking about very recent history versus the way things have been for the last 40,000 years or so. Piper has no problem saying: I love kids, but maybe I don't need to have one of my own.

When the rest of the world demands to know why you don't want kids, Piper's response is that people should know why they want them, not why they don't. And if you want them, can you handle it? Are you ready? More specifically, she wants to know, am I ready? Am I, in her words, "emotionally prepared"?

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Although my fiancee's official party platform states that she desires no kids, this "emotionally ready" bit is interesting. She'll consider kids, she's said for a few years now, once she's convinced I have a more nuanced grasp of what I'll be getting myself into. But as the years go by, the "emotionally ready" gap closes (if slowly). I'm older and calmer and -- yeah -- wiser than I used to be. I'm smart enough to know just how much I have to learn. I'm experienced enough to realize that people rise with the celebration or calamity they're confronted with. Nobody is ready for landing the winning lottery ticket or surviving a tsunami, but when it happens, you just deal. Into this sociological stew comes the math: Piper's being 30 percent in favor of something is a long way north of zero. The womb, it appears, is ajar.

In the end, I know I'm just a chicken. I'm as afraid not to have children as I am to have them. I've got a nagging feeling that life could be passing on by, a worry that my experiences are not, when this Smith's smoke clears, going to equal total fulfillment. I don't want to be the guy who is so focused on his career and pursuit of what I have traditionally found to be pleasure that the rest of my life happens passively in the background. But when is it ever a good time to mess with a good thing if you've got it? And given that if we do have kids, it will kind of have been my idea, there's no way I'm going to not be majorly involved in raising the thing. I'm all for taking over traditionally female responsibilities like play dates and poopy diapers, but shifting my career into neutral, or worse, reverse? I want to be Zen about the future and invoke the poetry of Joseph Campbell who writes, "We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us." Problem is, I'm not sure if I need to abandon my original plan (a family) or the alluring new plan Piper puts forth (an infinite table for two).

There are reams of data available on women's choices, and next to none on men's. In one of the few official looks at male decision-making on having babies, a University of Montana study called "Men's Experience of Making the Decision to Have Their First Child" found that men talked mainly about their fears of what they would lose if they had a child: freedom, independence, and intimacy, for starters. "I was really struck at how little difference there was in how they talked about these potential losses, whether the man was 18 or 40," says study co-author Dr. Andrew Peterson. So there you have it: when we think about fatherhood, we don't think about what we'll gain, but what we'll lose. That's one sad statement. One that sounds awfully familiar.

It gets worse. Keep drilling down and a cost-benefit analysis of children doesn't yield a net gain. Kids are expensive, a constant cause of worry, and -- if all goes well -- will be completely crushed when you croak. "It's hard to understand why you would ever do this," says a new mom who went through a similar soul search before the rabbit died last year. "Then you see your child stand up for the first time, and..." Yes, yes, and it's the Greatest Thing Ever. I'm sure I'm at once too cynical and thinking too hard. But how will I find closure to such a huge choice when, after weighing outside factors -- family, history, biology, economics, my pals and peers, Piper's commitment -- I still find myself in a very real internal struggle? I keep waiting for the magic moment to happen. Trouble is, this moment ain't arriving via Ofoto, one of many Web sites I'm alerted to by my rapidly spawning friends eager to share the latest drippingly adorable candids of their kids. It won't come from the many preachings of my older sister (two young boys, one newborn girl, and one hopes a vasectomy to be named later), who enjoys cornering Piper at family gatherings and declaring, "I just want you to know if you have a child out of wedlock, that's OK." It's not arriving on the plane in which I write this, trying to drown out the truly awesome shrieks of the two-year-old a few rows behind me. Maybe the eureka moment will arrive if Piper decides it's something she wants to do (or at least moves her percentage north of 50 percent). She may joke about that mythical 27-year-old waiting to procreate with me, but when I toss it back at her wanting to know what she'll do if I decide I must pursue a daddy destiny, she sighs and admits, "Oh, you'll probably convince me to do it."

But I don't want to if she's not totally on board.

I'd probably love having kids. The question is: can I live without them? I've done a pretty good job of living without them so far. Trouble is, no matter how much the world changes, despite all the technological progress we've made, when it comes to kids, there's still exactly one way to find out.

Coming tomorrow: Salon checks in with Larry and Piper. One year later, are they closer to solving their "Daddy dilemma"?

By Larry Smith

Larry Smith has written about his and other people's lives for ESPN magazine, the New York Times, Teen People, and other publications.

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