When I was young, I was deeply wounded by W.C. Fields' dislike of children.
For one thing, he'd never met me, an awesome child, having died before I was born exemplary. For another, how could anybody who had ever been a child be mean to one? Some of your youth is wonderful and carefree, but it's also the twin nadir of your ability to understand your life and your ability to control it. It's difficult to justify maligning a demographic that's so extravagantly helpless, even for the sake of a schtick so good that it's still inspiring misattributed quotations in the email signatures of poorly adjusted people.
Then, around the time I stopped being sure whether or not I was a kid, still, I stopped being sure how I felt about them. Or, us. Or, them. (Still a little unsure about this. I wear a digital watch.)
I bring this up because I've had Edith Zimmerman's fascinating piece on "Cosmo" in the "New York Times" on the brain for a few days now. Specifically, this part, from editor-in-chief Kate White:
“We ran an article that pained me to run,” White told me, “but I felt it was important. It basically said the key time to try to get pregnant is between 25 and 35. There has been so much said about still waiting until you’re older, and I didn’t have my first kid until I was 37, but we’re taking a chance — you need to know it.”
OK, so Cosmo just took me to school. Sorry for making fun of your dumb vagina tips, Cosmo.
I feel bad for bringing this up. One, because no 20something guy is reasonably expected to sit down and consider his fertility or how having kids will affect his career path. Two, because (and I'm probably not alone here) I just genuinely have no clue whether I want kids.
From almost the time a person is of childbearing age, she's expected to have an opinion on whether or not she want to get down and do some bearing of child. To be one of those people who holds babies or doesn't, who joylessly attends elaborate first birthdays or wishes aloud that a pair of overalls with a koala-head bib came in an adult size.
The weird thing is that it's OK to hate babies now -- I mean, if you do it in that "gimlet-eyed aging bridesmaid" kind of way. We're living in a strange time where saying something racist, ageist or misogynistic on TV is supposed to be funny by very nature of the fact that it's being said. (It isn't. It's lazy. Hi, writers for many of my favorite television shows -- please retire the "Oh no she didn't" bigot from your stock characters. I beg of you. Digression. I apologize.) So you can be that woman who's like, "Ugh, kids," and most people will just happily "OH you" you.
You're supposed to have at least AN opinion on children, one way or the other. To be excited by baby feet, or be so repulsed by them that you have to put on Patsy Stone sunglasses and chain smoke just to keep your huge burrito down. (Single ladies who hate babies: often fond of talking about the "huge burrito" they just ate.)
I'm 29. I love burritos and being a dick, but I have no clue whether I want to have babies.
So when people ask, which they inevitably do, I kind of fudge a little. Because it feels really irresponsible for me not to know.
Early in my career I kind of played into the stereotype that unmarried women in their 20s would rather drink hot paint than hold a cousin's toddler. I took the prickly spinster side of the argument because I have elements of the prickly spinster about me, but also because it's an easy laugh. I don't hate children more than I hate anybody, which is to say, not at all. Although, yes: taken as individuals, some kids are real pricks.
The point is (and I do have one, hat tip, Ellen DeGeneres) that I'm embarrassed to admit to you and to anybody that I'm not sure how I feel about babies at a time when it's maybe most important for me to know.
But I pretend like I do, when pressed.
Like, recently, when I was out with a guy, and I just straight-up panic lied. I almost made this whole post an "It Happened to Me" (I Lied About Wanting Kids), but while that headline would have been true, the relationship with the guy in question never really went far enough to create the appropriate dramatic tension (for reasons that will become rapidly evident). This rendered the lie white at best, moot at worst.
Besides, the material point here is WHY I lied, and not necessarily that I did.
Let me set the scene for you. We're splitting something in a pool of red sauce. A smart, funny guy has just shown me a picture of his dog, and I react to it in the Wrong Way.
Some of us are missing the gene where you give a fuck about expensive shoes, or football. I am missing the gene where I give an eighth of a fuck about "pictures of dogs I do not know." I know I'm supposed to make an appreciative noise or say something about what a "sweet boy" he is (?), but you might as well be showing me a cell phone picture of some hand-blown glass.
I was trying to regain the ground I'd lost from my utterly unconvincing "Oh, he seems nice" when he decided to up the ante with a picture of his cute niece.
If a single guy gets all ostentatious about how much he looooooooooves his nieces and nephews, he might as well just hand you a microscope with a slide of his motile sperm.
"___________," I thought, buying time with some super chewy bruschetta. I liked him. So I lied.
"Oh my God," I said, scrolling through picture after picture of an admittedly cute if generic new baby. "I could just put her on a hoagie and eat it whole."
"Yeah?" he said, and I could hear my recovery in his voice. "Sometimes I look at her and I just grow ovaries."
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman of 29 or so must have a pretty good idea of whether or not she wants to have a bunch of bebes. The problem is that this is my opinion on babies: I like children and I don't want them now but maybe I will want them someday, but I think I'd be OK with not ever having them, but then maybe I maybe would be sad I didn't have any. I realize that that is not an opinion, and that it is, instead, a run-on sentence written by Jeff Spicoli, getting all method for his big "Junior" audition.
It's OK for guys to be undecided on kids at this age, because, why not? Man chowder keeps, and they don't have to figure out being pregnant at work like we do.
On the plus side, the old stigma that women who don't want to have kids are frigid or selfish has deteriorated nicely over the past forty years. We're much more accepting of the conscious decision not to add to the population because we're too busy or indifferent or hey, just don't really want babies. But it's a plan you're supposed to have in place, like securing your retirement or a German bunker in the case of a Mayan apocalypse.
A woman I consider a mentor surprised me once when she asked me, mid- very-late, hardworking-city-lady dinner, if I wanted to have kids during a discussion about work.
"I don't know," I admitted.
"You have to figure that out," she shrugged.
Knowing you do want to get pregnant may be as much your responsibility to handle, in your fertile years, as knowing that you don't. True, an entirely different set of circumstances go into having a baby versus not having one, but the fact is: The work-life balance is a problem of modern feminism that needs addressing, and much of that is being as educated about options as possible.
It's unfair, isn't it? But there you have it. But right now, it's still different for working men and women. At work, and in our basic people plumbing. Both of those things may change with progress, but for now, here we are.
It was six years ago that I sat in my OBGYN's office and she told me that I needed to start thinking about whether or not I wanted to have kids. I laughed. I was 23. If anything, someone telling me that it would be more difficult for me to get pregnant than other women was awesome. I was living with a guy I "lowercase L" loved. We were so broke that we took turns stealing toilet paper from our respective jobs.
I thought I would know by now. But the truth is, I don't. It's wrong to lie to someone about that, out of fear or shame or dumb, glut-of-options millennial indecision.
There's no real age at which you're expected to know yourself completely, but there's a real biological window when it comes to fertility. We're supposed to have decided whether or not we want to partition our lives between work and children, and to plan that partitioning accordingly. Uncertainty is not a luxury that women of a certain age are allowed to have.
I'm one of five kids from a family with lots of cousins. I don't Not Want Kids because I'm tough or independent or a dog-and-baby-indifferent sociopath -- I love children. I just honestly don't know if I want my own, or if I ever will.
I once interviewed Gail Collins about her book, "When Everything Changed" and she told me that the biggest challenge facing my generation of American women was the work-family balance. Really? I thought at the time, that's the biggest challenge?
But she may have been right -- in a time when we argue about whether a 37-year-old woman was ethically obligated to inform shareholders of her pregnancy, not planning your home life is as irresponsible as letting your credit score go to shit. You need to have something in the bank.
It's not even a matter of declining fertility, although, yes, as we're often reminded by conservative Surgeon Generals and invasive grandparents, our fallopian tubes are withering daily like the feet of the wicked witch of the east. It's more about planning -- more and more, when a woman has a baby is a sign that she's comfortable in life, with her career and with her partner, or lack thereof.
Options like adoption exist, but those take massive amounts of planning (not to mention money). It's expensive and usually involves having a partner who will be able to weather the arduous process of adoption, emotionally and fiscally and chronologically -- or being so sure that you decide to go it alone.
There's so much that I'm unsure about. And I hope I'm not invoking feminism in order to deal with my own emotional immaturity, but I do feel like it's different, and I'd like the three or five or 11 more de facto years to decide I'd get to make my mind up if I had the more enduring zygote equipment.
I hope that guy finds a lady who's all about his dog who he can shoot full of his needy splooge. In the meantime, I'll be here, not watering my plants, dumb and uncertain as ever.