Well, we finally had The Conversation. It was planned for August 15, but I, of course, forced it six weeks early at an unbelievably inopportune moment. Yes, I know, I know. It’s rather pathetic to have to plan a conversation. And, yes, we, or rather I, had planned this particular conversation over a year ahead of time. I had even written it on the calendar. In fact, it’s in situations like this that I’m pretty sure that I deserve to be an academic. However (and also not that unusual for those with academic tendencies), all of my planning came to naught.
We had just spent the past year in what many (sane) people would consider the ideal situation: my husband, George, had defended his dissertation and, believe it or not, had gotten a job in the same town, at the same university, and even in the same department in which I currently work. After four years of living in different states, including three years of longdistance marriage, the unthinkable had happened. My department, without too much bloodshed, had actually hired my husband. Of course, moving in together after four years of living alone and mostly apart brought with it a certain level of anxiety. What if I get on his nerves with my constant chatter? And what about my cheerful early morning disposition? George is a night owl, and let’s just say that he’s not very cheerful in the morning, and leave it at that. Or what if, after a while, I can’t stand the fact that he can’t seem to close the freaking bread bag? How can someone have a PhD and not be able to get the hang of the little twisty tie thing? And speaking of the kitchen, who cares if the dishes sit in the sink for a “little while” after dinner? They’re soaking. It seems to me that a very thorough soaking is a crucial part of the dishwashing process. (George would like me to add here that by “very thorough” I mean up to and including three days.)
Or, and this was the big concern, what if it is too weird living and working together? Is it possible to see each other too much? His office (my old horrible office—sorry, babe) and my (new, windowed) office are just down the hall from each other. What if he starts rolling his eyes and sighing loudly when we run into each other at the water fountain? “For better or worse” seemed like a nice, rather quaint thing to say three years ago, but what if it really, truly gets worse? What would happen then?
Luckily, however, with one year of constant on-top-of-each-otherness under our belts, it was still much better than worse. In fact, we turned out to be very good roommates, merging money was no problem, and I actually liked him more than I did before, which I thought was a good sign. I guess, technically, we were still in the honeymoon phase, but I’d have to state for the record that we were (and are) pretty happily married.
And if all this happy happy joy joy wasn’t enough to make everyone vomit, we also lucked into renting this amazing, giant, four-bedroom house on fifteen wooded acres about eight miles from campus. The deck was bigger than our previous apartment, and the rent was cheaper. On top of all that, I’d finally gotten a few things accepted for publication after years of rejections. Here, at my regional state university, I would have more than enough to go up for tenure in the fall and I even had plans for—dare I say it?—a book. All in all, looking back I’d have to say that it was quite a year.
Thus, at thirty-eight years of age, I wouldn’t quite say that I had my dream life, but things were starting to fall into place. Living in the same state? Check. Two tenure-track jobs with the accompanying (insultingly low but steady) salaries? Check. Publications plus various and sundry tenure – type items? For me—check. George still had five years before he went up for tenure, so he would be fine. Nice house? Check—although it wasn’t ours, it was plenty big. There was room, if you know what I’m saying. And thus it seemed to me that August 15 would be a perfect time to discuss this most important topic. We’d be well rested and well fed after a summer of light teaching, research, and gardening. We’d have plenty of time to talk. School wouldn’t start up again for at least a week.
“So are we going to have kids or what?” I blurted out as we sat on the river wall of a beautiful island park, ten minutes before we had to be back at his mom’s house. It was June 30. This was not how I had planned to start The Conversation. George looked pained. “Look,” I said, “I’m only bringing this up now because I have to make a doctor’s appointment to get more pills, and I need to know whether I should just get a month or two or if I should get an entire year’s worth.” That wasn’t even a good lie. He saw right through it. “Well, get a year’s worth, and then, if we decide to have kids, just don’t use them,” he said with infuriating logic. I couldn’t think of any retort, let alone a logical one, so I punched him in the thigh. He didn’t respond so I punched him again. I won’t regurgitate the rest of The Conversation but it followed a thirty-minute loop that went something like this:
jamie: Do you think you want to have kids? george: I don’t know. Do you think you want to have kids? jamie: I don’t know either. . . And why don’t you know? What else needs to happen? Is this a question of timing, or is more of an existential question? george: I don’t know. I just don’t know.
As the above snippet illustrates, I’m not sure if I want to have kids either, but his indecision pissed me off. How dare he not want to have kids with me! The nerve. The deafening noise of my biological clock was soon drowning out everything else. Like the crocodile who swallowed the clock in Peter Pan, that ticking sound in my belly was impossible to ignore as it measured out the sound of impending doom. An “I don’t know” at what I now decided was an ancient thirty-eight years of age was, by fiat, a “No,” and a “No” meant that he was rejecting me. He didn’t want to procreate with me. He didn’t want to mix his DNA with mine. Wasn’t he even curious about what a child of ours would look like, act like, be like? Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock.
After a couple of hours, the ticking receded, I realized that it was a tad unfair to punish him for having the same mixed feelings that I had, and we decided to call a truce. Looking back on that conversation, I think my indecision on the subject comes from different sources than his. I had actually spent a fair amount of time inside my head casually going through various procreative decisions, the same way you might think about which five CDs you’d want to have if you were stuck on a desert island: Let’s see. . . Johnny Cash’s Unearthed (yes, I know it’s a boxed set, but it’s my game), Let It Bleed by the Rolling Stones, And All That Could Have Been by Nine Inch Nails, Dirt by Alice in Chains, and Samantha, Alexandra, and Cecilia if we had triplets—because they all shorten to cool nicknames, yet they would have a formal version for when they become a famous artist, Arctic explorer, and/or President of the United States. I guess I always kind of figured that I would have kids, although technically, I really hadn’t seriously considered it a possibility until George and I lived in the same state—which I think many would agree is usually a prerequisite for this kind of thing. More importantly, I had also been very well trained in the crucible known as graduate school to feel “shame” any time I wasn’t prostrate in front of the altar of research, so, in all honesty, even if George and I had lived in the same state before, we probably wouldn’t have discussed the possibility of having a family until at least one of us was well on our way to a successful tenure case. Like many women, I was too busy working to think much about the particle accelerator known as the fourth decade in one’s life—when finishing grad school, getting a job, the tenure track, and one’s aging ovaries collide at high speeds. At my graduate institution, just about every woman waited either until tenure or until almost tenure to have babies. The ones that didn’t wait had a lot of trouble—officially getting an extra year on the tenure clock for a baby, but then having an extra year’s worth of research expectations anyway, fewer publications, guilt for using day care and babysitters—and I learned these lessons well: Be patient and wait until you have tenure.
Being a parent, however, was always my default position, even if it was out there shrouded in the fog of a murky future. I’m a woman, after all, and women have children. It’s just something we do. It was a “shame” when a woman didn’t have any children. This was a different kind of shame than the shame of not publishing; it was less accusatory and condescending and much more akin to pity. Pity is hard to take. I’ll probably hear it in the voices of my former classmates more than once when I attend my twentieth high school reunion this fall. Maybe I shouldn’t go. And it was particularly “pitiful” for me. When I was fifteen, I signed a sworn statement in front of witnesses that I would have eight children. Yes, eight, as in Eight Is Enough. Even before my academic aspirations manifested themselves, my parents thought eight was a bit much and wanted proof of my position. Thus, they made me write it down so they could taunt me with it later—which they do. I guess I always thought I’d have kids. After all, why wouldn’t I?
George, however, came at this from the opposite direction. He thought he’d never even get married, let alone have children. He spent no time thinking about names, or what any genetic offspring of his would look like or talk like. While I had an almost idyllic childhood, he didn’t, and thus he more clearly sees all the possible ways for parents to mess up their children. He wasn’t sure that he wanted that kind of power, and he had a point. I somehow got on the babysitting circuit in grad school, babysitting for many of my professors’ kids, and some of those kids, to put it bluntly, were in trouble. Three-year-olds who bragged about the prestige of their respective preschools and their parents’ degrees, who routinely called other kids
“dumb” as if that’s the worst thing a child could possibly be, and who insisted to the point of having a fit on being called an expert in dinosaurs, seemed to me to be heading for nervous breakdowns by the age of twelve. And anyway, how do children of academics rebel? Join the marines? Become televangelists? Refuse to read?
But what does it mean not to have children? Family-wise I’m getting no pressure to do my biological duty; my sister and brother have nicely provided very adorable grandkids and I am off the hook in that respect. My brother actively lobbies for me not to have kids, because then I could no longer be cool Aunt Jamie, the one who gets up after dinner to play with the kids so the adults can talk. My mom thinks my career is too important to me to sacrifice the time it takes to bear and raise children; I can’t decide if I should be offended by that or not. George’s parents know better than to pressure him with anything and they keep their opinions to themselves, for which I am grateful. I only get a little, circuitous pressure from one source, my grandmother, G. Gram. (Gram began to sign birthday cards as “G. Gram” when she became a great-grandmother. We like to think of it as her hip-hop name.) She often tells me about how sad and lonely her neighbors are, now that they are in their seventies and don’t have children or grandchildren to come visit them. I always agree with her that this is very sad, and leave it at that. After all, this was the woman who bought me an electric mixer when I got my PhD.
Despite G. Gram’s not-so-subtle warnings, there are quite a few items in my hypothetical “anti” column. A barren womb means that I can sleep in on weekends for the rest of my life if I want. As an academic, it means that I can work whenever I want (that shame/research thing again), wherever I want, spend whole days at the coffee shop if I want. It means that I routinely have large blocks of time. It means that I can get more research done during breaks than during the semester. It means that I won’t feel tremendous guilt that my children are spending more hours with the day-care ladies than with me, guilt that I’ve seen in pandemic proportions among my colleagues in academia.
In more mundane matters, it means that George can curse whenever he wants. It means that we can take vacations to places where not one single person is dressed as a rodent and we can eat at restaurants that don’t serve chicken fingers or macaroni and cheese. And we will be able to have nicer stuff all around. We could have white carpet and cream-colored furniture if we wanted. We don’t, but we could, if we wanted to. We won’t have to buy a minivan. We won’t have to worry about what school district we live in. We won’t have to save for college. And most importantly, we won’t have to be paranoid freaks when our children are teenagers. Do you read the news? Rapes, murders, online predators—constant danger abounds. And we won’t even have the routine worries. We won’t have to stay up until two in the morning waiting for the triplets—Sam, Alex, and Celie—to get home from their first concert. My first concert was Judas Priest, 1984 Defenders of the Faith tour. It was a very important experience in my life. Would I want the triplets to do this kind of thing when they are sixteen? With the exception of me, everyone in the car going to the concert was drunk, including the driver, who allayed our fears by saying that he actually drove better drunk than sober. It made sense to me at the time. I wasn’t a bad kid growing up, but I hung out with the bad kids as much as possible. They were much more interesting. And George was a bad kid. What if the triplets had a genetic predisposition toward the dark side? Sneaking a beer into the movie theater was rather daring in 1985, but what do kids do now for fun? Shoot up heroin/meth cocktails between class periods while they plan their next blow job party? (Have you read about those things??) Not having children would save us from all of this kind of worry.
And our house is very, very quiet.
And then of course there is the long list of less selfish reasons for not bringing any more people into this overpopulated, environmentally precarious planet. What if we took even a fraction of the money we would spend on our own biological children and spent that on existing children who are abused, neglected, malnourished? From this perspective, doesn’t wanting your own genetic progeny begin to sound like the supremely selfish position?
It kind of sounds like I’m trying to talk myself out of having children, doesn’t it?
But that’s not necessarily the case. When I talk to academics my age with children, some of whom try to talk me into having children (and I must say that sometimes this gets so aggressive that I wonder if parenthood isn’t actually a cult), they talk mostly about the intangibles and I completely understand that. It’s impossible to put into words. The love that they feel for their child—a kind of love different from anything else they thought was possible, the joy they get from helping to mold a future person, the intense pride they feel when their child succeeds, whether in something big like graduating from college or something small like making their bed without being asked. I can dig that, just based on the fact that I am in complete and total love with my niece and nephews. I call my mom and we spend, literally, hours trading stories about them. The subject line in her e-mails to me reads, more often than not, “Funny Josie (or Nick or Ben or Daniel) story.” When we all visit together, I spend more time with the kids than I do with my brother and sister.
I was talking to my sister on the phone the other day and she stopped mid-sentence and said something that I have never once uttered (and might never utter) in my life: “All right,” she said wearily. “That’s it. Who pulled all the leaves off the plant?” Now, I’ve admitted that some of George’s habits aggravate me, but he has never, ever pulled all the leaves off the plant. There was a pregnant pause on the other end of the line. “And don’t you dare say it was Mr. Meanie,” my sister continued. Mr. Meanie is apparently a very bad man. According to my niece (three) and nephew (six), not only does he pull all the leaves off of plants, he breaks things, plays with toys and doesn’t put them away, and generally makes a mess. My sister was rather annoyed, but I thought it was adorable. I even love to hear stories about other people’s kids. Bill Cosby’s Himself is one of my all time faves. So what does it mean for me to miss out on all this?
As a full-fledged feminist, I logically understand the pressure society puts on me to be married with children, but whether the pressure is constructed by a bunch of self-centered men or not, I still feel an emotional tug. What will I miss out on if I never experience pregnancy? Will I always feel, as I often do now, that not having experienced the rites of passage that come with parenthood I will not truly be accepted into many communities of women? Have I consigned myself to the status of the outsider within? The academy is obviously more hospitable to childlessness than many professions, but not having kids is still the minority position for women, even at the Research I institution where I earned my PhD. It’s true that the academy structurally and financially rewards those who work eighty hours a week on their research, but there is still the assumption that something must be wrong with you if you don’t have kids: you are seriously, perhaps pathologically, career driven; you are inherently selfish or obsessed with material things that you don’t want to sacrifice; you are too unattractive to get laid (i. e., the sad old English prof with thirty cats); or you have biological “problems” that prevent you from fulfilling your biological destiny. Which is a “shame.” Last semester, more than one colleague announced to me, happily, that they had heard I was pregnant. Okay, so I have gained a little weight recently, but I think the assumption was based on the fact that, now that my husband and I are geographically together, we would automatically start a family. After all, why wouldn’t we?
And it gets even more complicated. What does it mean to be childless and then not be thin (no pregnancy weight to lose), not have a twenty-five – page CV (what am I doing with all of my time?), or not be a gourmet cook (with no little people who won’t eat anything that isn’t beige, covered in cheese, or deep fried)? What if my career doesn’t take off? I can’t blame it on soccer practice. Do I have an obligation to work every evening, serve on more committees, be a better teacher, and become a publishing machine because I don’t have familial obligations? Is being “average” considered a failure in academia if one doesn’t have a family?
Many women in the academy talk about the difficulties, struggles, and losses surrounding the choice to have children (with which I completely sympathize) or not have children (ditto). What about choosing not to decide? What if the choice is too difficult, too fraught with peril and danger? What if we choose incorrectly and I end up as either the frustrated Mama, PhD, whose career aspirations are thwarted by a system that doesn’t support working mothers, or the sad old lady who has no children or grandchildren to come visit her in her old age? My husband and I are both paralyzed by the same skills that got us our degrees and jobs in the first place: fertile imaginations, a compulsive need to make lists, the ability to see problems from a variety of perspectives, and worst of all, the need to question societal norms. We’ve had The Conversation and we’re still stuck in the same thirty-minute loop. We don’t know. And we (or, more correctly, I) have not scheduled Another Conversation.
At least not yet. . .