Twelve years ago, I penned an essay for a Salon series called “To Breed or Not to Breed,” about the decision to have children or not. It began this way: “When I tell people that I’m 27, happily married and that I don’t think I ever want children, they respond one of two ways. Most of the time they smile patronizingly and say, ‘You’ll change your mind.’ Sometimes they do me the favor of taking me seriously, in which case they warn, ‘You’ll regret it.’” The series inspired an anthology titled Maybe Baby. It was divided into three parts: “No Thanks, Not for Me,” “On the Fence,” and “Taking the Leap.” My essay was the first in the “No” section.
So I felt a little sheepish, when, a year and a half ago, the writer Meghan Daum asked me if I’d be interested in contributing to the book that would become Shallow, Selfish and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. I wrote back to tell her that I couldn’t: My son had just turned 1.
It’s embarrassing to be such a cliché, to give so many people a chance to say, “I told you so.” (And some people, I’ve learned, will say those actual words.) I fear I’ve let down other women who disavow children and who, because of my example, might face an extra smidge of condescending doubt. Worse, if I’m honest, when I hear younger women confidently describe how they’ll feel when they’re older, sometimes I feel a pinch of such condescension myself. Not because I think they’ll all necessarily want kids, or that they should have them, but because one tricky thing about your 20s is the need to make decisions for a future self whose desires are unknowable.
Along with Kate Bolick’s Spinster, Daum’s excellent book has sparked a new round of articles by and about women who feel the way I felt all those years ago. The last thing I want to do is to persuade them that they should, in fact, become parents. I’ve frequently found motherhood exhilarating, but if I’d done it ten years ago, it might have been terrible. If there’s anything I’d say to these writers — or, really, to my younger self — it’s don’t succumb to pressure, and at the same time, don’t be too ashamed if, one day, you find yourself morphing into someone you wouldn’t now recognize.
My own transformation didn’t begin with an unbidden outbreak of baby lust or a sudden longing for domesticity. It began, weirdly enough, when I learned about corpses becoming fathers. In 2011, I reported a piece for Tablet Magazine about the strange Israeli campaign for posthumous reproduction. Israel is the world capital of reproductive technology, and a legal group called New Family wanted to give parents who had lost adult sons the right to extract their sperm and create grandchildren. I have mixed feelings about making dads out of dead men, particularly if they hadn’t donated their sperm while living, but I remember being seized by the realization that if my husband were to die young, I’d want to be able to do it to him.
The idea of having kids to stave off the horror of death never resonated with me; I don’t see how you’re any less dead just because your DNA lives on. But children, I suddenly understood, would hedge against the unthinkable fact of my husband’s mortality. Not long ago, I learned the Arabic word Ya’aburnee from a friend’s cheesy Facebook graphic. Literally, “you bury me,” it means wanting to die before a loved one so as not to have to face the world without him or her in it. It’s a word that captures exactly my feeling for my husband. Part of the reason I didn’t want kids was because I feared they’d come between us, but if he were gone, I’d be frantic to hold on to a piece of him. Grasping this didn’t make me want a baby, exactly, but it started pushing me from “no” to, well, ambivalent.
My husband, Matt, was ambivalent, too. We were pleased with our two-person family, with our consuming careers, constant travel, and many tipsy nights out, all the things people tell you that you lose when you become a parent. We met very young, the summer after my freshman year of college, and we’d never grown bored with each other. Sometimes we puzzled over what people meant when they said that marriage is hard work. We assumed it had something to do with parenthood.
From the start, we’d bonded over a desire to see as much of the world as we could, and we ended up traveling a lot. Once, seven or eight years ago, I was in London for a conference before heading to Uganda for an assignment. My husband flew in, took me to dinner, stayed the night, and flew home in the morning; it was the only way to avoid going several weeks without seeing each other. A little while later, I mentioned this to a cab driver. “That’s something you do for your mistress, not your wife!” he said. Exactly, I thought.
I don’t mean to imply that our life was all insouciant jet-setting, or that that was the only reason for my hesitation about becoming a mother. As happy as I am with my marriage, I’m not by nature a cheerful person. Like a lot of writers, I’m given to tedious bouts of anxiety, depression, and self-loathing. I am introverted, and feel shattered if I don’t have time alone every day. Worse, from a parental perspective, I am impatient, easily undone by quotidian frustrations. As much as I love to visit faraway places, I’m often reduced to tears by the indignities of air travel. When I’m stuck in a taxi in traffic, I unconsciously shred my cuticles until my fingers bleed. I imagined parenthood as a clammy never-ending coach flight, the kind that used to leave me feeling like I’d give 20 years of my life for an hour alone in a clean hotel room.
Also, there was my work. As a little girl, I had never imagined myself with babies, or, for that matter, with a husband. My vision of the future had involved an apartment in New York City, a cat, and a typewriter. I was sure children would get in the way of my ambitions — and, worse, that I’d poison them with my resentment. In Caroline Moorehead’s biography of the swashbuckling journalist Martha Gellhorn, she describes how Gellhorn adopted an Italian orphan after World War II. At first she was smitten, but before long she felt trapped, writing that her son was, “through no act of his own, but because of a careless, inconceivably frivolous and selfish act of mine, making life untenable.” She was a distant and sometimes cruel mother, and her child grew up to be a great disappointment to her; she once described him as “a total loss, a poor small unwanted life.”
Chilling as this was, I took a bleak sort of comfort in it, since it confirmed that I was right not to take the leap. I started looking online for other stories about people who’d had children and then wished they hadn’t. I read about a famous Ann Landers reader survey from the 1970s, undertaken in response to a letter from a young couple who feared, as I did, that parenthood would ruin their marriage.“Will you please ask your readers the question: If you had it to do over again, would you have children?” they asked. She did, and received 10,000 responses. To her dismay, 70 percent answered no. A 40-year-old mother of twins wrote, “I was an attractive, fulfilled career woman before I had these kids. Now I’m an exhausted, nervous wreck who misses her job and sees very little of her husband. He’s got a ‘friend,’ I’m sure, and I don’t blame him.” This helped shore up my faith in our decision.
Looking back, the fact that my faith needed shoring up was a sign that something was changing. As I got older, the constant travel that once thrilled me became wearying. My work still meant a lot to me, but while I once thought that publishing a book would make me feel that I’d arrived, publishing two taught me that arrival is elusive. Where I’d once seen family and intellectual life in opposition, over time I started worrying that it was an intellectual loss to go through life without experiencing something so fundamental to so many people’s existence. Meanwhile, 35 was creeping up on me. I’d been led to believe, falsely, that this is when most women’s fertility collapses. I still wasn’t sure that I’d be a good mother, but I had no doubt that my immensely kind husband would be a good father, probably good enough to make up for me.
Matt and I went back and forth, and back and forth some more. We both felt like we were atop a fulcrum and could be pushed either way if only the other knew what to do. At some point, we decided that I’d go off the pill and see what happened.
For a few months, nothing did. I started to wonder if I were infertile, if biology had decided the issue for me. I wasn’t sure if I was disappointed or relieved by this. Then — in a development that shocked me despite being completely predictable — I got pregnant, and was immediately convinced I’d made an awful mistake.
It occurred to me, as it probably should have occurred to me earlier, that being scared of loss is not a good reason to have a baby. Within a couple of weeks, the queasiness came on like a portent, though at the same time I longed for the drinks I couldn’t have. We had a trip coming up — my husband had work to do in London, and I was going to accompany him, then go to Israel and Palestine for work of my own. I wasn’t sure how I’d get through it, but I was determined to go since it might be my last chance to travel for a very long time.
The first few days in London, I cried constantly. Then, one afternoon, I called my doctor in New York for the results of some routine tests. The news wasn’t good. My progesterone was low, which the doctor said could be either a cause or a symptom of a failing pregnancy. He wanted me to use hormone suppositories, though there was no way to know if they’d work. When we got off the phone, I was hysterical with worry over this pregnancy that I didn’t want at all.
Over the following days, I scoured internet message boards for anything I could find about low progesterone. Again and again, I returned to posts by women who’d carried to term despite having levels below mine. But after a brief burst of frantic optimism, I’d come across messages from heartbroken women with progesterone problems who worried about having a second miscarriage, or a third, or a fifth.
I brought the suppositories with me to Israel and the West Bank, inserting them every day even though the hormone made me more depressed than I was already. As much as I wanted to save the pregnancy, I hated being pregnant. One day, the journalists I was traveling with were going to cover a protest at the Qalandia checkpoint, and the left-wing Israelis who were escorting us insisted that I and another pregnant reporter stay behind. There might be tear gas, they said, and tear gas is an abortifacient. I was more upset than I had any right to be about missing out on an entirely routine demonstration. I felt like I’d been demoted, from journalist to woman.
Back in New York, I went immediately to the doctor, shaking as I waited to see the result of my ten-week ultrasound. When I saw the beating heart of the ghostly, paisley-shaped creature, I was, for all my qualms, hugely thankful. Over the next two weeks, I started to get a little bit excited about the baby. It helped that the sickness and sleepiness had lifted. When I returned to the doctor at 12 weeks — the end of my first trimester, and the danger zone for pregnancy loss — I was almost relaxed. But this time, the ultrasound showed no heartbeat.
I had never felt as sad about anything as I did about that miscarriage. Actually, sad isn’t the right word, since it suggests a watercolor melancholy, and this was jagged, putrid desolation. The only way to make the anguish disappear, I thought, was to get pregnant again. Before, I’d been baffled by some women’s animal desperation for a baby. Now that desperation took hold of me. In retrospect, when I was in London I’d only dipped my toe into the rabbit hole of online fertility message boards. Now I was fully submerged. I learned about cervical mucus, luteal phases, and all the grim infertility acronyms — ttc, bfp, 2ww. I obsessively Googled every vague, fleeting physical sensation — dry mouth, headache, stomach flutters — to see if it might be a pregnancy symptom.
It took five months for me to get pregnant again — not a very long time, though it felt endless, and makes me so sorry for those condemned to spend years in that hideous limbo. I white-knuckled it through much of the pregnancy, terrified of seeing a still heart at each ultrasound. That was the summer that “Super Bass” was on the radio constantly, and every time I went to the doctor and saw the little creature still alive, it would play in my head as I walked out, giddy: boom, badoom, boom, boom, badoom, boom.
Of course, it’s not like all my conflicts had magically resolved. I felt like I needed to have a baby, but still didn’t know if I was going to like having one. In fact, I fully expected to be slammed by postpartum depression, and even went into therapy ahead of time in the hopes of ameliorating it.
Most shrinks will tell you that picturing potential catastrophes in excruciating detail is not a good coping strategy. In general I agree. Still, I suspect that part of the reason I was so blissed out after my son was born was because life with him was so different from the domestic hell I’d imagined. I know women who are severely shaken when the all-encompassing love they’d expected doesn’t hit them the second after birth. But I’d expected no such thing, and in the hospital I was pleasantly surprised by how much I wanted my squiggling alien baby near me, by how impatient I was for him to return each time he went to the nursery so I could sleep for a few hours.
Perhaps it says something about my pre-baby life that a lot of my metaphors for new motherhood were drug-related. Those endless hours we spent in bed, alternately nursing, dozing, and staring, amazed, at each other, reminded me of the time I’d smoked opium in Thailand. (And the other time I’d smoked opium in Laos.) Lugging my son around on errands brought to mind the first few times I got stoned as a teenager, when doing normal things like going to school or the drugstore became complicated, strange, and full of misadventure. The oxytocin felt like MDMA.
Why, I kept thinking, hadn’t anyone told me how great this was? It was a stupid thing to think, because in fact people tell you that all the time. In general, though, the way people describe having a baby is much like the way they describe marriage — as a sacrifice that’s worth it, as a rewarding challenge, as a step toward growing up. Nobody had told me it would be fun.
The fact that it was, of course, is largely a matter of my good fortune and privilege. Getting what a friend of mine calls “the good hormones,” instead of those that cause postpartum debilitation, is largely a matter of dumb luck. I also had a husband who was a full, enthusiastic partner, an established, flexible career, and, crucially, money to afford good child care. My son was (and is) sweet-natured and easy. When my longtime agent, who knows my neuroses well, first met my baby, he said, wryly, “Maybe God really doesn’t give people anything they can’t handle.”
Certainly, it sucked sometimes. A purple-clad lactation consultant who’d been lauded by the New York Times prescribed a regimen of round-the-clock feeding, pumping, and tea-guzzling that, had I followed it, would have broken me in a day; her visit left me feeling crushed, inadequate, and then humiliated for not standing up to her. I’d worried, throughout my pregnancy, that I would resent my son for taking me away from my work. Instead, I resented my work for taking me away from my son, which created its own sort of identity crisis. Ideologically, I was committed to the idea that motherhood needn’t interfere with a woman’s career. At the same time, I was working for a website that required me to produce endless hot takes about politics and then talk about them on cable TV, and I was losing both the interest and the ability to keep up with an ever-more-miniaturized news cycle. This, in turn, made me hate myself for turning into one of those women who has a kid and loses her drive.
For all that, though, my son’s first year was the best of my life. I learned that while travel with a baby isn’t easy, it’s doable. We took him to Malaysia, where I was speaking at a conference, when he was 6 months old, and then on a reporting trip to Panama a few months later. Both of these were countries we’d been to before; seeing them again with our son made travel feel new. He made staying home feel new, too. When I was with him, the habitual churning of my mind eased. Instead of arguing with strangers on Twitter, I spent hours in neighborhood parks I’d barely noticed before, my attention resting on my burbling, improbably exuberant little boy. Ultimately, even my work life improved: The crisis motherhood brought on led me to refocus on more satisfying long-form writing. Something Louis C.K. said recently was true for me: “I realized that a lot of the things that my kid was taking away from me, she was freeing me of.”
Matt and I were so delighted by our baby that we started half-seriously mulling a second. I was now in my late 30s, and assumed that if and when we resolved to go for it, it would take even longer than before. One night, thinking we needn’t work so hard to prevent a pregnancy that we might soon wish for, we didn’t use birth control. In the morning, we came to our senses, decided we weren’t ready, and vowed not to be so sloppy again. It was too late. Our daughter was born nine months later, almost two years to the day after her brother.
She is a wonder, but having two children in diapers actually is pretty hard, particularly when you live in a fourth-floor walk-up. (I still find it less taxing than air travel.) There are evenings when my husband and I are too harried to say more than a few words to each other as we tag-team two bedtimes and then collapse in front of the television. Once, raw from sleep deprivation when our girl was a few weeks old, I looked at Matt and moaned, “What have we done?” As I try to write this, my toddler son is holding on to my leg and whining, “Mama, move!” because he wants to play at my desk. I’m occasionally incredulous that I’ve ended up with exactly the sort of life I once publicly pledged to avoid.
Unlike Ann Landers’s survey respondents, I swear I don’t regret it, though sometimes I’m mortified to think about how my 27-year-old self would regard the frazzled, stroller-pushing woman I am now. I try to figure out how to explain myself in a way that would be intelligible to her, but I don’t think I can. The best I can come up with is that before there was one person in the world for whom I would use the word Ya’aburnee, and now there are three. It doesn’t matter that she wouldn’t find this persuasive. If I’d known what having babies would be like I might have attempted it sooner, and I’m so glad I didn’t, because then it wouldn’t be like this.