No Kids Wanted
I’ve never wanted to be a father, but sometimes I wonder, ‘What if?’
By John M. Glionna
I might seem an outsider among all you Santa Cruz parents, an unlikely voice for these pages, because I hail from a foreign tribe: those who have chosen not to have children.
While I’m not a father, I am an uncle to nine nieces and nephews, aged 4 to 40. I cherish each of them on their own terms and, along with their parents, am celebrating the adults they have, or soon will, become.
But I still grapple with my decision not to have my own children. For many years, it was an easy call, this childless life. Now, as I enter my 60s, what for many is the decade of counting one’s blessings and, at times, regret, I’m not so sure.
I come from a family of seven children and my free-spirited mother always joked that all she remembered about her 20s was being pregnant.
Maybe I filed away her “What-if?” moments. Or perhaps the taste of my father’s struggles to feed and clothe us all on his humble salary was seared into my memory.
But there would be no kids for me.
I got a girl pregnant when I was just 17; but the first I knew of it was when her sister told me that she’d terminated. We were both just kids ourselves, after all, I rationalized. A year later, we went our separate ways.
As I pursued a journalism career, I harbored certain attitudes about having a family which, now that I look back, make me cringe:
Having a child, I always said, was having one foot in the grave — your life ends as theirs begins. I was that typical Peter Pan who refused to grow up. In my early 30s, I even scotch-taped over my desk space at work the front cover of the Texas Monthly magazine showing a hipster in a white T-shirt, its sleeves rolled up.
“Too Cool to be Married,” the headline read.
That was my mantra. At parties, I mocked couples who used the royal “we” when describing their weekend plans. Never surrender the “I.” That was my sermon.
My friends’ wives all hated me and, as I look back, for good reason.
One whispered at a backyard gathering that I would make a terrible parent. A woman colleague, a single mother, defended me that night, as I recall, saying that I was a unique spirit who would encourage his children how to follow their own paths, as I had.
All I had to do was grow up, she seemed to say, and I’d be fine.
Still, my friends cackled at the image of me as a parent. I’d raise wild-hearted kids who spewed out four-letter words and knew no boundaries, just like their old man. I’d entertain the fellas with stories of an outing of myself as parent: iId roll up to some Walmart in a gas-guzzling road-boat with fins and wait inside, the engine running, as my brood went inside to shoplift items on my list.
For me, parenthood was a joke –until I faced it head-on as a married man at age 35.
We were vacationing in Ireland and my wife felt sick two mornings in row. The proprietress at our bed-and-breakfast said cheerily, “This one’s pregnant. You should go down to the chemist and get a test kit.”
So we did. And it came back positive. Looking back, if I was with the woman I’m with now, I would have picked her up and swung her in circles (gently) knocking over the post card stand — all in happiness.
As it was, I was sweat-panicked. We later had an ultrasound done in London that confirmed what we already knew: We were going to be parents.
I told my wife we were a corporation and that she had 51% of the vote to my 49% — it was her body after all. But my vote was not to have the baby: she was going to school to become a teacher. the timing wasn’t right.
She agonized and finally decided not to have the baby.
I remember the day we went for the procedure. We were in the room, waiting for the nurse and I opened a closet door where, to my horror, sat the machine. I quickly closed the door.
“That’s where our baby is going to go,” she said. And I felt like dirt.
The nurse came in and asked me to leave. I refused, but she said the doctor would not perform the procedure with me present.
“Go,” my wife said.
I sat in the waiting room and leafed through a magazine. This was wrong, I told myself. I should go back in there. Then the nurse appeared and said it was over.
Just like that.
That day essentially ended our marriage. My wife got her teaching degree and spent a summer in Mexico learning Spanish. We rarely talked and I knew our relationship was in jeopardy. In August, I flew down to Oaxaca to meet her.
I’d done a lot of thinking over the summer. At the time, I always thought David Letterman was the best parent and I’d told her that I wanted to be like him.
That night in the hotel room, I told her, “I’m ready to put my David Letterman cap on.”
“It’s too late,” she told me. “I’m already pregnant.”
She was carrying the baby of one of her Spanish instructors. He didn’t know and she wasn’t sure she was going to tell him.
I told her that I’d help raise the baby, to make up for the one we didn’t have.
She refused: there’d been too much water under the bridge.
She eventually told her instructor and they later had a second child. Now my ex-wife has two grown daughters that are the light of her life.
Around the time of our divorce, I began to suffer my first flickering of doubt about the life I’d led. I took a writing class at UCLA Extension and considered an exercise in which the instructor offered prompts that we were to use to start an essay.
Mine was: “What I don’t know standing here is … “
Of course, I knew precisely what I didn’t know, and began, “What I don’t know standing here is what my babies would have looked like had I allowed them to enter this world. Would they have been sons or daughters? Blonde or Brunette?”
It was a confession of a man in mourning. The instructor hated it. But several female students approached me after class and asked for a copy. I guess they wanted a permanent record of a suddenly-sensitive brute in crisis.
I’m married now to a woman who always felt the same way about children as I did. One day, at one of her checkups, her physician advised that if we wanted kids we better get started. We told her it just hadn’t happened, but she said there were ways to explore pregnancy, and that we should go home and think about it.
We did. And here’s the thing. For most couples, getting pregnant is the easy part, like pulling the goalie. For us, we really had to consciously want to get pregnant.
We decided we didn’t.
These days, when people ask if we have children, my wife jokes: “He’s my child.”
Not that far from the truth, I guess.
Sometimes, I’ll ask my wife what our children would have looked like and quiz her on how she would have handled thorny parenting issues.
And so we have moved on, childless, more financially secure but somehow still lacking something. I have told friends that, without children, I will die alone, without anyone to look in on me.
One, a father, joked that the only sure thing about having kids is that you’ll have someone to drive your to the old folks home.
I’ll call my brother, a father of three, and ask him when he has time for himself. “Oh,” he says, “maybe for a half hour after I put Luke to bed.”
I still wonder how he does it. I have come to so value my down time.
Brad Kava, the owner of this magazine, is a longtime friend who endured his own Peter Pan years. On our visits in Santa Cruz, we both agreed that fatherhood was for the other guy.
Now, in his early 60s, he’s the father of an amazing young son named Parker. I’ve seen how this boy has changed him, made him grow up, mature into a man who never claims he’s too cool for anything.
I have my own moments of weakness. I see how a friend’s twin sons have grown into fine young men, and how proud he is of them, and I rue my own relationship lost.
And then, caught totally off guard, I’ll be at an airport or some other public space and see a little girl run into her father’s arms, calling out “Daddy!” with all of that unconditional love.
And then I become like my mother with that lasting question.