Nine years ago, fresh out of college and six months into the worst job I ever had, I fell in love with children. It was lunch time, and the publicists at my company had gathered in the director’s office, on the nineteenth floor of a building that resembled a rocket ship. For some reason, Clarissa had brought her son to work that day. Christopher was three, cute and nose-runny. A little man in a woman’s world – or so I felt back then, working for an editor who threw things at me and turned blotchy when she screamed. I refused to go and cry in the bathroom.
Instead I went outside and smoked, and I had just returned from a good tarry sulk when I spied Christopher that first time. He was surrounded by a crowd of women, cantered down to his level, crying his name. Christopher! Christopher! Christopher! I entered the room in the middle of this toddler pile-on, uncertain of what to do. But then, for some reason, he looked up and met my eye. The circle parted and he stomped over into my arms. I never felt comfortable holding children: they seemed both breakable and squishy. But Christopher and I, we fit. His head fell onto my shoulder and I stood up, patting his tiny bottom. I was in love – and for a brief moment, so was every woman in that room.
I always assumed I wanted children, but they were an idea – not a living, breathing presence. After Christopher, however, I felt some sympathy with the so-called bodily clock that ticked inside women. Mine rested just below my clavicle, and I could hear it hammering away each time I saw a child. I’d rubberneck on the street whenever a baby cruised by in a stroller or looked up at me from a shopping cart. I made faces and the love just poured out of me like water from a busted dam. These kids, they seemed to know it, too. Hey, their eyes said, how are you doing? You need one of us. Inside, I knew I was Superdad waiting for my moment in the telephone booth.
Leslie, my girlfriend, found this fixation a bit strange, even worrisome. Whenever we went out with other couples, I’d hear her saying, “I don’t think I ever want to have kids” – and I’d think to myself, Yeah, yeah. Just give it time. Back at home, crawling into our bed, she would put on her Serious Face to tell me the same thing: “You should know I’m not kidding about this.” I’d don my Listening Face and say, “Well, that’s okay. We don’t need to worry about it right now, anyway.” We were both too busy with our jobs to think about anyone but ourselves.
Children became something I put off but assumed that time would faithfully deliver, like the morning newspaper. Just as I knew that Leslie and I would get married, leave New York, move some place quiet and leafy, develop winter sports habits, purchase an old four-wheel drive, stumble upon a rough-and-tumble Labrador I’d name Jack. I’d write something profound and overwhelming but utterly true; she would start her own business. I’d become closer to my parents, make hers proud, do something good for the world, and give up smoking.
Piece-by-piece, however, we lose our innocence, so gradually that at the moment of its departure it is not some last fringe of purity, but nostalgia. We tried living in New England, a stone’s throw from Walden Pond, but neither of us could stand the winters or traffic. In 1998, my mother was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease, and month by month I watched her personality being erased. I couldn’t give up my secret smoking, and 9/11 carved a hole in my life that only learning about why it happened could fill. I got married to Leslie and then separated before we’d even sent thank-you cards. Near the age of thirty, I had given up on everything but writing and dogs.
Besides, it’s hard to think about bringing kids in the world when death seems to be all around you – which was how I was beginning to feel. One of the last full private conversations I had with my mother before she lost her ability to speak was just after Leslie and I split up. We were in the guest bedroom in my parents’ house in upstate New York around Christmastime. It was cold, and the snow drifted halfway up the first floor walls. I had promised to tape record conversations before her voice was gone – but without a wife, I had a hard time imagining kids to hand the tapes to. I told her this and she started to cry.