Picture this: I'm thirty-four years old. I've been married four and a half years. I don't have any children. People ask, "When are you guys going to have kids?" They ask it a lot. It's just conversation, the sort of thing people inquire of one another. They ask at dinner parties and at work and, almost without fail, when any children are around. But no one is asking it here. The answer is pretty obvious now.
I'm thirty-four years old. I've been married four and a half years. I don't have any children. And I'm getting a vasectomy today.
I had a lot of different ideas of what I might be when I grew up. An astronaut was an early vision before I learned how math can ruin anything. I went through life like everyone does, trying on different ideas of myself and seeing how they fit. I could have been a lawyer, I could have been a musician, I could have gotten a tattoo, I could have lived in Nepal. But I couldn't have been a dad. Mainly because, in most cases, the first step to becoming something is to think, "Hey, I'd like to become that." And I just never really had such thoughts about fatherhood.
"Why?" you ask. "I don't know," I answer. It just always struck me as the kind of thing you should really want to do. It's not a casual decision that you can openly regret later like, "Hey, do you want to eat all these nachos then go ride the Tilt-A-Whirl?" Fatherhood has life-long repercussions for at least three lives. Maybe more. (Again, math and I aren't particularly friendly.)
My non-fatherhood was purely theoretical, though. More of a "Not really" than a "Hell no!" The idea hadn't been field tested or put through any real-world research. But then I got married. And it takes two to not tango. My wife, Amy, and I discussed the possibility of kids, we discussed the possibility of no kids. Both options had their pros and cons, but we were in no real hurry either way. The only thing we knew for sure is that we were getting a dog. Someday.
Then a funny thing happened. I fell in love. With my wife, of all people. It had already happened once, so I really wasn't expecting it. But there it was. We went and foolishly fell in love with one another again. And again. And, hey look there, again. We learned how to be married to each other, an ongoing lesson if ever there is one. This increasing fondness for one another led to greater intimacy. Greater honesty. Then one day, one of us — and I truly don't remember who — said it for real: "Maybe we don't have kids."
Well, now. Once a thing like that is out there, it has to be taken seriously.
There was this idea now, of a life together with no company of our own conception. As this notion percolated for a year, maybe two, we only warmed to it more. It felt right. Felt like the life we both wanted to live.
Of course, there are ways to not get pregnant that don't involve surgery. This is true. And they were all terrible for us. You're thinking maybe we didn't try the one you use, the one with the stuff or the thing or the "no muss, no fuss" what-have-you. Well, we did. And it was terrible. Every single form of birth control involves a measure of compromise. We knew what we wanted. We knew what we didn't want. So, one day we made a decision.
A vasectomy isn't some sort of drive-through procedure like a flu shot. You don't just roll into the doctor's office and say, "Cut me, Mick." There has to be a consultation. I was fully prepared for the doctor to try to talk me out of it. If I were in the vasectomy trade in today's litigious society, I would make it my duty to talk people out of it. Make them hold a laughing baby, play catch with an adorable kid missing one front tooth, watch Jon Voight and Ricky Schroeder in "The Champ." Because, frankly, if you can be talked out it, you shouldn't be there. But the doctor didn't do anything like that. He asked me a few questions, I answered them honestly, and he scheduled my procedure — for two months later.
It's possible the guy was just that busy. That it was high season for the vas deferens harvest. But I think those two months are where the doctor was allowing people to get talked out of it. By themselves. It's one thing to come to an intellectual decision about your choice to not have children. It's another to know that on a specific date in the not-too-distant future a man is going to take a small knife, carve up your reproductive organs, and permanently prune a branch of your family tree. It's possible, under such circumstances, that doubt itself could procreate. That it could birth second thoughts by the litter as the day grew closer.
But it turned out my inner thoughts and feelings were well aligned. There were no battles of will, no great debates from within. Not to say there were no emotions whatsoever.
On the eve of the procedure, there was a sense of anxiety around the house. Not just mine, knowing I was about to undergo a bit of trauma in an area I'd heretofore protected so vigilantly. There was something else. This sense between Amy and me of, for lack of a better word, loss. We didn't have children. And we weren't going to. Ever. It was a serious thing, this. And serious things tend to touch our deepest emotions.
We both got a little sad. A little weepy. My wife, through a few tears, said the sweetest thing. "I know some people have kids because they want to see themselves in their children. But I would have wanted to see you."
I lay in bed that night waiting for sleep. Nothing in the house was different. Just the hum of the refrigerator, the occasional car passing by. But the only thing I could hear was the silence. How our home suddenly seemed so quiet.
The next morning was an entirely different story. I felt spectacular. Loose and free and ready to take on the world. My nerves, steady. My emotions, fully in check.
Oh, I should probably mention: My doctor gave me some Valium.
It's pretty good stuff, Valium. I'd like to have some on hand at all times. For watching close Packers games, reading the news, riding the city bus. It really knocks the edge off. I took it in the morning and Amy drove me to the doctor's office. I wasn't supposed to drive due to the fact that I didn't really care about much of anything. I remember it being a pretty fun drive across town. Amy may remember it differently.
There are two parts of the procedure that stand out in my memory. The first is the odd casualness of lying there on a table in the early morning hours, making small talk while a woman shaved my unmentionables. Given that I sometimes struggle to make small talk in far more forgiving settings, I think, once again, I have the Valium to thank.
The second thing that stands out is the actual surgical part of things. The doctor was working away down there when he suddenly turned to me and said, "You're doing great." I pointed out that I was just lying prone. If anyone needed to be doing great it was him. But he offered no assessment on his own behalf. I chose to assume that no news was good news.
Then it was finished. Pretty quickly, all in all. Amy took me home. The Valium wore off. And I was left to ice. And to ache. And to really sit with this thing. To truly come to terms with what I'd done.
There was a bewildering thought that made itself known. As I lay there in bed, wounded by my own volition, a deeply primal notion fought its way to the front of the line: "I can have sex with anyone I want." No, seriously, I thought that. It didn't matter that it was utterly untrue on so many levels. My subconscious seemed to be under the impression that all consequences had been vanquished with two little snips. My kit was packed in gauze and turning an increasingly darker shade of blue, my sex drive was as bottomed out as it had been before or since, and yet this apparently long-suppressed fear of accidental fatherhood was demanding its moment of recognition. "I kept you out of trouble," it was saying. "Surely there must be spoils." So I took a moment, thanked it for its vigilance, and let it know its duty was now fulfilled.
For the next few days, Amy and I shared in a feeling that — despite it being the polar opposite situation — must be similar to how you feel when you suddenly bring a baby home. Happy realization entwined with a bit of nervous uncertainty: This is us now.
It took a while, maybe it was that night, maybe it was a few days later, but I came to understand something about the weight of this decision. We rarely deal in absolutes. Doors close, but they can always be opened. People go, but they can always come back. The only time we deal with true finality is when someone dies. When you say goodbye for good. And that's exactly what I'd done.
There isn't much of a social template for being deliberately, permanently childless in your thirties. People often talk about "when you have kids," and it's sort of awkward to correct them, so most of the time we just let it go. If it does come up, there can be a lot of questions. I don't mind that. I'm not the guy with the face tattoo shouting, "What are you looking at?!" Uncommon things evoke inquiry. I get it. But there are several different types of reactions.
There are the parents who suddenly get defensive. As though our decision is somehow a judgmental view of parenthood as an institution. It is not. Amy and I are both products of parents. We're big fans of their work. It's just that parenthood isn't for everybody. And we're part of that "not everybody." That's all.
There are the people who feel sad for us. They insist that we just don't know what we're missing. That's true. I, as a matter of empirical fact, don't know what I'm missing. But that shouldn't make you sad. You love your children wholeheartedly and want us to know that same affection. That's exactly the kind of all-encompassing lovefest that parenthood should be. I love your love. I just don't need your sadness. I'm as happy in my decision as you are in yours. It's just that neither of us will ever know what the other's happiness feels like. But we can still be happy for each other.
There are the people who feel they should pretend that they don't like their kids. This is entirely unnecessary and based on a misunderstanding. Just because we're not having kids doesn't mean we don't like kids. We have nieces that we adore. If your kid is cute, we'll go home later and say, "Man, that kid was cute!" Hell, we might say it right to your face. So, it's okay to act like you like your kids. Unless you just don't. And that's a whole bigger thing.
There are the people who think we're going to have kids anyway. They say things like, "Oh, well. We'll see." These people are smug.
And then there are the people who just seem cool with the whole thing. Not to play favorites, but these are our favorite people. We have a little chat about it, we answer some questions, and then we move on.
I'm able to talk about this with some casual detachment because I'm a man. I don't mean I can better handle people's questions and doubts due to my gender. I mean people don't have many expectations of me in regards to fatherhood. A man who doesn't want kids? Not that difficult an image to conjure. When I tell other guys I had the work done, the responses range from an interested arch of the eyebrow to attempted high-fives (which I do not reciprocate because high-fives are stupid.) No man has ever judged my decision. At least not to my face.
Amy, on the other hand, has a very different experience. Motherhood holds a sacred station in our hearts and minds, especially among women. It's seen as a quest, a duty, a privilege. So it's taken for granted that those with wombs would very much like to put them to use. This is not a foolish assumption. Entire industries are devoted to helping make this dream come true in a myriad of ways. So when Amy answers that we're not going to have children, she's often met with compassionate pity. The assumption that she can't. When she clears this up, moves the needle from "can't" to "won't," the compassion often disappears. But the pity remains. Sometimes even morphing into disappointment or anger.
I don't know why this is, I just know it exists. I've seen it. We both walked across the same street together at the same time, hand in hand. One of us is seen as a mischievous jaywalker, puckishly thumbing his nose at regulations. The other is seen as a lawless reprobate tearing at the very fabric of our society. Both judgments are terribly sexist. And like most terribly sexist things, I come out ahead simply because I'm a man.
Luckily, this thing isn't about other people. It's about Amy and me. In the years since that nervous, Valium-fueled morning, we've grown to truly love our lives. It's not all tickle fights and finishing each other's sentences. We have days where we're over the moon for each other, and days where we seem to not be talking for some reason that neither of us can really remember, but we're fairly certain has something to do with how the dishwasher got loaded, and we're definitely sure is the other person's fault.
You know. Marriage.
We have a lot more time and a lot fewer financial constraints than our friends with kids. We try to put both to good use. Amy is cultivating a new, more creative career for herself. I'm writing and making films, just trying to tell some good stories. We talk to each other a lot. We travel now and again. Sometimes we sleep really, really late. Just because we're tired. Sometimes we make love in the middle of the afternoon. Just because there's no reason not to.
It's a good life. A happy life. We're fulfilled. And we've had no second thoughts.
Now we're not even sure we want a dog.