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.
I’ll never know what was the determining factor in giving up on kids, because shortly after my wife moved out I met N., an Anglo-Arab woman who was raised during a war, lived in England and adamantly did not want children. At the time, I was happy to go along with this contract point. Yeah, kids are BAD! Kids ruin your life. Children will take you over and make you only talk about them! After just a few weeks of dating, we went to England to visit her family, and I watched as her brother’s two children monopolized every waking minute of his day. “It’s worth it,” said Andrew, as he bounced his son on his lap, but the ten-pound bags under his eyes said something else.
As an improbable fling became a serious relationship, the reality of what I had breezily agreed to set in – and I became very, very scared. I reread The Corrections, and the idea that we often begin our own families to correct or amend the losses of our own struck me like an iron fist. But it couldn’t tamp down the urge bubbling up inside me. “I want you to know I can’t give that to you,” N. would say, and I’d say, “I know.” Should I decide differently, she would understand if I walked away from our relationship to go find a woman who wanted my genetically inferior, probably depressive, certainly neurotic but perhaps – just this once – perfect child.
But each week, the idea that I would leave N. became more unrealistic. I don’t believe people are meant for each other, but I do believe you can get lucky. Before long, I realized I was very, very lucky and, as I always do with something beautiful, I wanted to make it last forever. I wanted to make it perfect, inviolate and immortal. We wouldn’t get “I want you to know I can’t give that to you,” N. would say. married – she didn’t believe in that either. But we could adopt. I bullied her into conceding the name Karim had always seemed sweet. That if she had a kid she’d make sure he learned Arabic. I began to imagine being like one of those characters in a Zadie Smith novel – so white compared to the mixed-race people around him that his very appearance in the world was humorously anachronistic.
Around this time, I ran into Christopher’s mother at a party and surprised her by asking, “How’s Christopher?” “Wow, good memory,” she said. “He’s eleven and in the sixth grade now. He’s all grown up.” It caught me by surprise, for I had pictured him at a portable age all that time. Still in his swishy little cordoroys and diaper. I pictured him going to school in an SUV, coming home to a house as big and white and darkly shingled as the homes that turn up in Hollywood movies. You know the sort: a hundred-year-old colonial on a corner lot, leaf-strewn – a pecan pie always baking in the oven.
These are just American images of what a home is, or what Hollywood tells us is the ideal, but the longer I live in New York, the more confused I become over the way such visuals have me furtively wiping my eyes at the cinema – and then hating myself for being such a sop. I had a picture of what my life would look like, and that proved to be wrong. With each year, though, as I swear off muscle cars and watching sports, find myself eating dinner alone at restaurants and frowning at religiosity, it seems to have been more off-base than I could have ever imagined. I don’t have time to be a dad now, let alone enough hours in the day to be a good one. I have begun hoping my older brother has a kid.
Still, going outside each day in the morning, it’s as if I’ve left the house without my coat. I feel as though I’m naked, improvising on the fly. Instead of making me feel unbearably light, though, this untethered sense of existence feels like betrayal. I know if my mother could speak now, she would be wanting grandchildren. My father, who takes care of her, is too busy to express this urge. Besides, week-by-week, my mother is becoming a child again. And so even though I have the most wonderful lover in the world and a family who loves me, I feel burdened by a loss I can never forget. I worry that I have given up on something important, something not programmed into me by society but in my blood. The sensible part of me knows that it would be unfair to turn a child into a vessel for this uncertainty. But there is a sad part of me that understands, when it comes down to it, I may never really know.