(This is part of a series of essays on the subject of manhood commissioned by Jason Brown at Men’s Health.)
I was an unusual boy because even when I was 11 years old I knew I wanted to have children. I’d have a son and teach him to kick a torpedo and bowl outswingers; I’d give him advice on how to talk to girls and make sure he didn’t have to figure everything out for himself. Even at the age of 11, I had a sense of how much longer it takes a kid to get anywhere when he has to figure everything out for himself. Maybe it’s just as well I’m not going to have a son, because I still don’t know how to kick a torpedo or bowl outswingers, and my main advice for talking to girls is, “Don’t do all the talking”.
When I was a young man, kids were a dealbreaker. In my twenties I broke up with a serious girlfriend because she didn’t want children, and yet I’m married now, and my wife and I recently decided we’re not having any kids.
When we mention this there’s often an awkward Anglo-Saxon silence while our friends look away, trying not to ask why. They think it would be rude to ask and they’re afraid of being embarrassed by the answer but, in fact, there’s nothing embarrassing about the “Why”. As far as I know, we both can have children, and neither of us has a hereditary disease we’re afraid of passing down. There’s no family history of abuse or bad parenting: we both come from happy homes, raised by parents who loved us and did their best. We can even afford children, probably, in the sense that people with less money manage it so I suppose we could too, although I have to say that one of the great mysteries of modern life, other than how many people think Ray Donovan is a well-written show, is how anyone can afford kids without pillaging state coffers to pay for them. Children are expensive. They’re like a cocaine habit that lasts for 25 years and gives you even less sleep.
We also don’t have any loopy notions about not wanting to add to an over-burdened planet (Earth can stand a whole bunch more humans before it starts looking for alternative tenants). Nor is it some neurotic mumbo-jumbo about not bringing a child into a world with so many problems. The world has always had problems, and worse than the ones we have now. The Black Plague and Spanish Flu and World War One weren’t for sissies, and I was born into a world that was a fingertip on a red button away from a bright nuclear flash and a hot rushing wind followed by a thousand years of hiding from men driving armoured beach buggies and dressed like Mad Max. It’s true that we have climate change to worry about, but anyone who doesn’t want to bring a baby into a world without polar bears needs to rethink the strength of their attachment to polar bears.
It’s not even that we don’t like kids. I like children very much. Well, not all of them, obviously. Children are similar to other kinds of human beings: some are nicer than others. For several years I helped raise two small girls and a teenager, and they were some of the best human beings I’ve ever known, even the teenager. I loved them as much as I’m capable of loving, and I think I’m capable of loving a great deal. Being involved in their lives was beautiful and rewarding and taught me a lot about myself, including the fact that I’m capable of loving a great deal.
But in time I realised that the reason I wanted to have a child when I was 11 was because my father died when I was 10. I’m not one of those boys who lose their fathers early and spend their lives looking for replacements. I knew there was only one dad for me and the closest I’d come to having a father again would be being one myself. Missing your dad isn’t the worst reason for wanting to be a dad, but it’s not a good enough reason to actually be one.
The truth is, I think you do need a reason. “The hubris it must take to yank a soul out of non-existence, into this meat,” says Rust Cohle in True Detective. “To force a life into this thresher.” I’m not recommending we live by the wit and wisdom of Matthew McConaughey, but surely he has a point: life isn’t easy, and having children is not only hard, but fraught with the likelihood of fucking up – and everything that happens to the child you created, good and bad, is in some way your responsibility – so it seems to me that it’s more important to have a reason for doing it than one for not.
“But you’d be such a good parents,” people say, and I agree, but I also think I’d be an excellent hitman or prostitute. Eben Etzebeth throws a pretty good punch: being good at something isn’t always a good reason for doing it.
I think having a child is like being a writer: you should only do it if not doing it would make you even less happy. I can often just about persuade myself that I could handle the sleepless years of infancy, but what comes after that makes my heart sink – the school lifts and sports practises and socials, the numb, screaming hours of socialising with other parents from school. To do these things – to commit to so much expense and time – you have to really want it, and I suppose neither my wife nor I wants it enough.
We’ve been married for a little over a year and we love each other with an awkward, vulnerable intensity. We don’t get bored with each other; there’s no lack between us, no baby-sized gap that would complete the circle.
We’re building our life and still trying to find the best shape of it, but we know it involves travel and companionship and personal freedom and intimacy. Most of all, it involves each other. It has taken me a lifetime to become man enough to even try to be man enough to make one woman happy, and I don’t know that I can get that right with someone else in the house. I know that if I have a child I’ll love it too, possibly even more, but the relationship I have right now is more important than the hypothetical one I don’t.
“But that’s so selfish,” said a woman once.
I don’t care if you call me selfish – I am quite selfish, as a matter of fact, although I don’t think this is one of the things I’m selfish about – but that’s my wife you’re insulting, lady. Selfish? Who am I cheating by not having children? Society? I suppose there’s an off-chance my offspring might be the one to cure cancer or save the last polar bear or go back in time to assassinate Hitler, but realistically speaking, the odds are better he’ll be a gloomy, pizza-eating nebbish like his old man. You know what’s a selfish reason? “I’m having a child just because I want one.” That’s selfish.
Look, I’m not always unshakeable in our decision. I sometimes wake in the night, staring at the ceiling, thinking, “What will happen to us when we’re old? Who’ll look after us?” But kids are similar to other kinds of human beings: they aren’t a guarantee of anything. I guess I’ll just have to take care of my own future, instead of creating another human being to one day bear the financial and emotional burden of carrying me to the grave. Maybe that’s just me being selfish again.
But still, thinking about it all made me fearful, and as I was writing this I stopped and walked through to where my wife was on the sofa, frowning at a book called Everyday Asian Recipes. She’s trying to teach herself to cook Vietnamese food because she thinks I like Vietnamese food and I don’t have the heart to correct her. The sunlight came through the window and fell across her shoulder like a cat. She chewed her thumbnail, trying to work out if she likes fish sauce.
“Are we sure we don’t want to have children?” I asked.
She looked up and closed the book gently.
“Aren’t you afraid we made the wrong choice?” I asked. “Aren’t you afraid of the future?”
“Not if you’re going to be there,” she said.
“I’ll be there,” I said.
“But I can try to be afraid, if you want me to be.”
“No,” I said. “Let’s not be afraid.”
And she smiled at me, which always makes me brave.
“If we’re not going to have kids,” I said, “we’ll have a lot of extra time on our hands.
What do you want to do tonight?”
“Let’s do whatever the hell we want,” she said.
Men’s Health | 12 February 2015