DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #71: The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us

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Dear Sugar,

For those of us who aren’t lucky enough to “just know,” how is a person to decide if he or she wants to have a child? I’m a 41 year-old man and have been able thus far to postpone that decision while I got all the other pieces of my life in order. Generally speaking, I’ve enjoyed myself as a solo (or partnered) human. I’ve always had a hunch that as I continued on my path my feelings about parenthood would coalesce one way or the other and I would follow that where it took me. Well, my path has taken me here, to the point where all of my peers are having children and expounding on the wonders (and of course, trials) of their new lives, while I keep enjoying the same life.

I love my life. I love having the things that I know will be in shorter supply if I become a parent. Things like quiet, free time, spontaneous travel, pockets of non-obligation. I really value them. I’m sure that everyone does, but on the grand gradient of the human condition, I feel I sit farther to one end than most. To be blunt, I’m afraid to give that up. Afraid that if I become a parent, I will miss my “old” life.

As a male, I know that I have a little more leeway in terms of the biological clock, but my partner, who is now 40, does not. She is also on the fence about a child, and while the finer points of our specific concerns on the subject may differ, we are largely both grappling with the same questions. At this point, we’re trying to tease out the signal from the noise: do we want a child because we really want a child or are we thinking about having one because we’re afraid we will regret not having one later? We both now accept that the time for deferment is coming to a close and we need to step up and figure it out.

When I try to imagine myself as a father, I often think back to my two wonderful cats that I had from the age of 22 until I buried them in the back yard almost 2 years ago. They were born prematurely to a mother that was too sick to care for them. I bottle fed them, woke up in the middle of the night to wipe their bottoms, was there for every stage of their growth from kitten to cat and basically loved the be-jeezus out of them for their entire lives. I raised them to be trusting, loving creatures. And I did it consciously, even thinking at the time that it was great training for the day I had a child if that felt like the right thing. I really was their dad. And I loved it. Yet I also loved it that I could put an extra bowl of food and water on the floor and split town for a three-day weekend. I’m truly torn.

I was speaking yesterday to one of my closest friends who at 40 just had his first child. While talking with him, I made the connection that I believe I am one of those people who could be perfectly happy without having children, and yet that doesn’t necessarily mean that I wouldn’t also be perfectly happy with children. He knows me well and as I said this, something clicked for us both.

So here I am now exploring this. Exploring it for real and deeply. Sugar, help me.

Signed,
Undecided

Dear Undecided,

There’s a poem I love by Tomas Tranströmer called “The Blue House.” I think of it every time I ponder questions such as yours about the irrevocable choices we make. The poem is narrated by a man who is standing in the woods near his house. When he looks at his house from this vantage point, he observes that it’s “as if I had just died and was seeing the house from a new angle.” It’s a wonderful image—that man among the trees—and it’s an instructive one too. There is a transformative power in seeing the familiar from a new, more distant perspective. It’s in this stance that Tranströmer’s narrator is capable of seeing his life for what it is while also acknowledging the lives he might have had. “The sketches,” Tranströmer writes, “all of them, want to become real.” The poem strikes a chord in me because it’s so very sadly and joyfully and devastatingly true. Every life, Tranströmer writes, “has a sister ship,” one that follows “quite another route” than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the people we might have been live a different, phantom life than the people we are.

And so the question, sweet pea, is who do you intend to be. As you’ve stated in your letter, you believe you could be happy in either scenario—becoming a father or remaining childless. You wrote to me because you want clarity about which course to take, but perhaps you should let that go. Instead, take a figurative step into the forest like that man in the poem and simply gaze for a while at your blue house. I think if you did, you’d see what I see: that there will likely be no clarity, at least at the outset; there will only be the choice you make and the sure knowledge that either one will contain some loss.

We’re contemporaries. I’m 42. I have two children, whom I birthed in close succession in my mid-thirties. If a magic baby fairy had come to me when I was childless and 34 and promised to grant me another ten years of fertility and good knees so I could live a while longer in the serene, feline-focused, fabulously unfettered life I had, I’d have taken it in a flash. I, too, had spent my adult years assuming that someday, when it came to becoming a mother, I’d “just know.” I, too, placed myself on the leave-me-the-fuck-alone end on the “grand gradient of the human condition.” I decided to become pregnant when I did because I was nearing the final years of my fertility and because my desire to do this thing that everyone said was so profound was just barely stronger than my doubts about it were.

So I got knocked up. With a total lack of clarity. On this, Mr. Sugar and I were in complete accord. Though we were generally pleased to be having a baby, we were also deeply alarmed. We liked to have sex and ramble around foreign countries in decidedly un-baby-safe ways and spend hours reading in silence on two couches that faced each other across the living room. We liked to work for days without interruption on our respective art forms and take unscheduled naps with our cats and spend weeks backpacking in the wilderness. We did not, throughout my pregnancy, have many conversations about how awesome it was going to be once our baby was born and doing these things would become either indisputably or close to impossible. Mostly, we had ambivalent, mildly sickening talks about how we sure as shit hoped we hadn’t made a dreadful mistake. What if we love the baby but not as much as everyone says we will? I’d ask him every couple of weeks. What if the baby bores us or annoys us or grosses us out? What if we want to ride our bicycles across Iceland or hike around Mongolia? Fuck. We do want to ride our bicycles across Iceland or hike around Mongolia!

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My point is not that you should have a baby, Undecided. It’s that possibly you expect to have a feeling about wanting to have a baby that will never come and so the clear desire for a baby isn’t an accurate gauge for you when you’re trying to decide whether or not you should have one. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.

So what then, is an accurate gauge?

You say that you and your partner don’t want to make the choice to become parents simply because you’re afraid you “will regret not having one later,” but I encourage you to reexamine that. Thinking deeply about your choices and actions from the stance of your future self can serve as both a motivational and a corrective force. It can help you stay true to who you really are as well as inspire you to leverage your desires against your fears.

Not regretting it later is the reason I’ve done at least three quarters of the best things in my life. It’s the reason I got pregnant with my first child, even though I’d have appreciated another decade from the magic baby fairy, and it’s also the reason I got pregnant with my second child, even though I was already overwhelmed by the first. Because you are content in your current childless life, attempting to determine what you might regret later strikes me as the best way for you to meaningfully explore if having a child is important to you. So much so, that I suspect that whether you’ll regret it later is the only question you must answer. It is the very one that will tell you what to do.

You already know the answers to everything else. You know you’re open to becoming a father and that you’re also open to remaining childless. You know you’ve gotten pleasure and satisfaction from nurturing the lives of others (in the form of your dear cats) and also that you get deep satisfaction from the freedom and independence a child-free life allows.

What don’t you know? Make a list. Write down everything you don’t know about your future life—which is everything, of course—but use your imagination. What are the thoughts and images that come to mind when you picture yourself at twice the age you are now? What springs forth if you imagine the 82 year-old self who opted to “keep enjoying the same life” and what when you picture the 82 year-old self with a thirty-nine year old son or daughter? Write down “same life” and “son or daughter” and underneath each make another list of the things you think those experiences would give to and take from you and then ponder which entries on your list might cancel each other out. Would the temporary loss of a considerable portion your personal freedom in middle age be significantly neutralized by the experience of loving someone more powerfully than you ever have? Would the achy uncertainty of never having been anyone’s father be defused by the glorious reality that you got to live your life relatively unconstrained by the needs of another? What is a good life? Write “good life” and list everything that you associate with a good life then rank them in order of importance. Have the most meaningful things in your life come to you as a result of ease or struggle? What scares you about sacrifice? What scares you about not sacrificing?

So there you are on the floor, your gigantic white piece of paper with things written all over it like a ship’s sail, and maybe you don’t have clarity still, maybe you don’t know what to do, but you feel something, don’t you? The sketches of your real life and your sister life are right there before you and you get to decide what to do. One is the life you’ll have, the other is the one you won’t. Switch them around in your head and see how it feels. Which affects you on a visceral level? Which won’t let you go? Which is ruled by fear? Which is ruled by desire? Which makes you want to close your eyes and jump and which makes you want to turn and run?

In spite of my fears, I didn’t regret having a baby. My son’s body against mine was the clarity I never had. The first few weeks of his life, I felt honestly rattled by the knowledge of how close I’d come to opting to live my life without him. It was a penetrating, relentless, unalterable thing, to be his mother, my life ending and beginning at once.

If I could go back in time I’d make the same choice in a snap. And yet, there remains my sister life. All the other things I could have done instead. I wouldn’t know what I couldn’t know until I became a mom, and so I’m certain there are things I don’t know because I can’t know because I did. Who would I have nurtured had I not been nurturing my two children over these past seven years? In what creative and practical forces would my love have been gathered up? What didn’t I write because I was catching my children at the bottoms of slides and spotting them as they balanced along the tops of low brick walls and pushing them endlessly in swings? What did I write because I did? Would I be happier and more intelligent and prettier if I had been free all this time to read in silence on a couch that sat opposite of Mr. Sugar’s? Would I complain less? Has sleep deprivation and the consumption of an exorbitant number of Annie’s Homegrown Organic Cheddar Bunnies taken years off of my life or added years onto it? Who would I have met if I had bicycled across Iceland and hiked around Mongolia and what would I have experienced and where would that have taken me?

I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.

Yours,
Sugar

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