No, I Don’t Want to Hold Your Baby
by Jean Ryan
One drunken night in college, in a dorm bed with my boyfriend, I was seized with an outrageous idea. We’d been chatting in a noncommittal way about the future, imagining lives in the suburbs, the sort of home and pets we’d like, and while we could not fathom the age of fifty, we could conjure a child, just one, who would receive the best of us: my eyes, his hair; my creative side, his sublime wit. For the first time in my life, I saw myself having a baby, not anytime soon of course, but there at last was the thrilling possibility, which stayed till I fell asleep and was gone for good in the morning.
From the time I could think, the thought of having a baby alarmed and repelled me. As a child, I did not know what to do with dolls; later, I felt the same way about babies. The only infants I want to cradle have fur coats and four legs. I’ll take a pass on your baby photos, but show me a blue-eyed kitten or a newborn gecko and I will buckle at the knees.
I did not opt for a childfree life: the decision was made for me, even before me, in a tiny swirl of the cosmos. Maybe this primal aversion comes from a gene—who knows? In any case, I’m grateful for it and endlessly amazed by the multitudes of women who readily submit to motherhood, who relinquish their bodies, their time, their hearts, again and yet again, as if this were a reasonable price. Can’t they foresee the pitfalls, the breadth of difficulty? Children are little sponges, absorbing all they encounter. They live every moment at the mercy of others.
It is hard for me to believe that my mother didn’t know what my father was up to, at night in our rooms. He was that reckless, that lawless. I shed him when I was 15, molted everything but the damage and moved on, even changed my last name for good measure. He died a few years ago, news that made no difference to me, aside from silent relief that the world had lost another monster. I cannot see any point in fathers, and what’s a mother love if it doesn’t have teeth? Maybe children should be raised in tribal fashion, protected by group oversight, saved from the prison of a single toxic household.
I realize that this bleak perspective arises from my own experience, that many others emerge from childhoods they would call happy. And I know too that early trouble does not preclude future contentment or diminish the capacity to give. Look at me now, fertilizing plants, filling birdfeeders, soothing my elderly cat. These are the acts that shape my life and make each day matter.
Some have asked me what will happen in my golden years, who will care for me if it comes to that. Well, from what I’ve seen, viewing your progeny as old age insurance is risky business. And who wants that dynamic anyway? My partner’s mother lived with us for 13 years, and believe me, it was as tiresome for her as it was for us.
I do wonder who will wind up with the art I’ve collected, the furniture my partner has built. Nieces and nephews, I suppose, as a favor to my sisters; knowing what they went through, I would do anything for them.
Investments, though, and the sale of the house, that money will go to animals, to whom we owe so much. Cash is a means of apology, a way to love them even after I’m gone.
Biologically speaking, it does not make sense that the reason I am childfree is genetic (to be entirely honest, the thought of a person growing inside my body gives me the willies). Conversely, I might be non-productive by design, part of an important group who keep the population in check—in which case there are not nearly enough of us.
But there is not much point in asking why of life: a force that creates both polio and penicillin will not be offering any existential answers. All we can do is come up with our own reasons for being here. I like to think that every creature I have given my attention to, even in passing, has benefitted; that subtly, immeasurably, my esteem has strengthened them, the way love profits everything.
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Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in coastal Alabama. Her writing has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies. Her debut collection of short stories, Survival Skills, was published by Ashland Creek Press and short-listed for a Lambda Literary Award. Lovers and Loners is her second story collection. She has also published a novel, Lost Sister, and a book of nature essays, Strange Company.