My father wasn’t looking at me when he said, “I never wanted children.” I was already an adult, and we were in the garage looking for some tools, and it was merely a casual conversation into which this was dropped. No offense was meant. There was no emotion in his voice about it. It was said with the same emphasis one might use while mentioning what they ate for breakfast.
It wasn't surprising. I had always somehow known, so the most surprising part was that I found it notable enough a statement to make at the time. I paused for a moment, and did that thing where you stare really hard at a wall so you don't cry, and went back to what we were doing.
This isn’t to say my father was a bad father. I think, rationally, about how amazing his effort was, given his upbringing. Given the truly blood-curdling tales I hear about my paternal grandfather, and my experiences with my unstable grandmother, I think my father did a great job struggling against what he’d been taught, and fulfilling his obligation to my brother and I.
He was -- well, I’m sure he still is -- an amazingly well-regarded man, being insanely intelligent, educated and gifted as a physician. I think that regard carried me throughout my childhood, glossing over the other stuff.
It actually makes me wonder sometimes if each generation might get better, and if there’s some hope for my brother, who I desperately hoped would never have kids, but I’m sure one day will.
From a very young age -- as far back as 12 or 13 -- I knew I wouldn’t have children. Even though I still believed in the myth of “the one” and ridiculous wedding ceremonies and happily ever after, children were never a part of it. Throughout my life, people said, “Oh, you’ll change your mind when you get older,” and for 25 years, my response has been the same: “If I do, please, please remind me of these excellent reasons why I shouldn’t.”
I was genuinely scared of there being anyone in the world who felt as much anger at me as I felt at my parents on a daily basis.
I have weird relationships with men. The more time I spend in therapy with a good therapist (and a good one makes all the difference) the more I understand how much my behaviors, even the smallest, most repressed ones, are deeply tied to my childhood. How I feel when I perceive a threat; how essential it is for me to be able to express my anger and sadness over those threats.
I am surrounded by men in my worklife -- and I adore them. I look at the men I’ve chosen to work with and be friends with, and I am constantly impressed by how amazing they are. As fathers, as friends, as men. These men are thoughtful and intelligent and sensitive and who generally treat me like a valued part of their lives.
The offenses that make me the saddest are always when I feel as if they haven't stood up for me, defended me, or when I fear they don't value me. It speaks to the deepest, darkest parts of my insecurity. Thanks, Dad.
But in the weird way that I had women step into substitute mother roles throughout my life, I never had that with men. And I won’t be so stupid to say that it hasn’t affected me. I’ve struggled my whole life to demand respect from boyfriends, to not constantly lower the acceptable level of treatment because I was happy for the crumbs. It's hard, when you stay with someone long enough, to notice you’re the frog in the boiling water. I wish I could say I’ve gotten better over the years, but the only real experience I’ve acquired is that I know I’m bad at it, and am better -- happier, more productive, safer -- when I avoid it.
I’m 38 now. Occasionally it occurs to me that even if I suddenly changed my mind about wanting children, that door is closing. And it makes me sad, too. Not because I have changed my mind, but because it marks a passage of time. I’ve never regretted my choices regarding children.
Because I try hard, like my father, to be a good person, every day. I work hard, because it's important to me to create good work in the world. I make sure to give it away whenever presented the opportunity, because I want to be a good force in the world. And I do things my father doesn’t -- I force myself to deal with my issues. To be around people constantly. To create a family of friends and trusted peers and elders.
But I know, underneath it all, that I don’t know how to be a good parent. That I am probably incapable of doing so. That I have THINGS that would prevent me from doing so. I’ve always worried that there would come a day when a man would force me to choose between him and my truth about children and I would not be strong enough to enforce that truth.
People have a hard time accepting that truth still. They tell you that you can learn new behavior, that you can change your destiny and not become your parents. That the way I nurture friends and clients could easily translate to me being a good parent.
I suspect that these are the arguments that my father heard almost 40 years ago. He was faced with the same choice I’m so terrified of, and made the wrong one.
So many of my male friends are on the precipice of fatherhood. And they’ll be amazing fathers. Many of my male friends already are. I interact with their children in the most guarded of ways, never too much that I could possibly offload any of the parental habits I was taught. My biggest, keep-me-up-at-night fear about my best friend's impending motherhood is that I will screw up her kid by proximity.
Yesterday, like on all Father’s Days, I celebrated those friends and felt so grateful for the good people they are helping raise for our world.
But deep down, I’m even happier, more grateful, more appreciative, more proud, for the men I know who’ve been brave enough to tell themselves, “I don’t want children,” and stick to it. We do not celebrate them enough.