I never wanted to be a mother. Even when I was a little girl, playing dolls with my two sisters, I assumed the role of the good Aunt Claudia. I would bathe and diaper and cradle their plastic babies and then be on my way, on to more exciting pursuits in the backyard or basement. Grown-ups called my position on motherhood “cute”---flashing me that same knowing smile they give little boys who insist that all girls have cooties. To them, I was just a spunky tomboy who would someday fall in love and fall in line.
Those grown-ups turned out to be partially right. I did outgrow my tomboy stage and I did fall in love---several times, in fact---beginning with my high school boyfriend Charlie. But when Charlie gazed into my eyes after our senior prom and asked me how many children I wanted, I reported a firm “zero.”
“None?” Charlie looked startled, as if I had just confessed to him a terrible, dark secret. “Why not?”
I had a lot of reasons, which I laid out that night, but none that satisfied him. Charlie wasn’t alone. Of the many boyfriends who followed him, none seemed to understand or accept my feelings. And although my relationships ended for a variety of reasons, I always had the sense that babies were a factor. Still, I truly believed that I would someday find my guy, that one person who would love me as is, without condition, without the promise of children. I was willing to wait for him.
But around the time I turned thirty, I came to terms with the fact that I might wind up alone. That I might never have that gut feeling when you know you’ve found the One. Instead of feeling sorry for myself or settling for something less than extraordinary, I focused my energy on things I could more easily control---my career as an editor at a big publishing company, fascinating trips, great times with good friends and interesting writers, evenings of fine wine and sparkling conversation. Overall, I was content with my life, and I told myself that I didn’t need a husband to feel complete and fulfilled.
Then I met Ben. Beautiful, kind, funny Ben who seemed way too good to be true, especially after I learned that he actually shared my feelings on children. The subject came up the night we met, on a blind date orchestrated by our mutual friends, Ray and Annie. We were at Nobu, making small talk over yellowtail sashimi and rock shrimp tempura when we became distracted by a young boy, no older than six, seated at the table next to us. The boy was ultratrendy, wearing a little black Kangol hat and a Lacoste polo with the collar turned up. His posture was ramrod straight, and he was proudly ordering his sushi, proper pronunciation and all, with no input from his parents. Clearly this was not his first trip to Nobu. In fact, I’d have guessed that he had eaten sushi more often than grilled-cheese sandwiches.
Ben and I watched him, smiling in the way people often smile at children and puppies when I blurt out, “If you have to have kids, that’s certainly the kind to have.”
Ben leaned across the table and whispered, “You mean one with a bowl cut and a hip wardrobe?”
“No. The kind that you can take to Nobu on a school night,” I said matter-of-factly. “I’m not interested in eating chicken fingers at TGIFridays. Ever.”
Ben cleared his throat and smirked. “So you don’t want to live in the suburbs and eat at Fridays or you don’t want kids?” he asked, as I noticed his slight, sexy underbite.
“Neither. Both. All of the above,” I said. Then, just in case I hadn’t been clear enough, I added for good measure, “I don’t want to eat at Fridays, I don’t want to live in the suburbs, and I don’t want kids.”
It was a lot to put out there so soon, particularly at our age. Ben and I were both thirty-one---old enough to place the issue of kids firmly on most men’s list of taboo topics for first dates. Taboo assuming you want kids, that is. If you don’t want them, then raising the topic is akin to announcing that you are close friends with Anna Kournikova and that you and she enjoy three-ways, particularly first-date three-ways. In other words, your date probably won’t view you as marriage material, but he’ll certainly be enthusiastic about dating you. Because a thirty-one-year-old woman who does not want children equals a nonpressure situation, and most bachelors relish nonpressure situations---which is why they target women in their twenties. It gives them a cushion, some breathing room.
On the flip side, I knew I could be automatically disqualified for long-term consideration as I had with so many guys in my recent past. After all, most people---women and men---view not wanting kids as a deal-breaker. At the very least, I risked coming across as cold and selfish, two traits that don’t top the list of “what every man wants.”
But in the messy world of dating, I had grown to favor candor at the expense of positioning and posturing. It was a nice advantage of not wanting kids. I wasn’t up against that infamous clock. Nor was I about checking the boxes on a blueprint of life. As a result, I could afford total honesty. Full disclosure even on first dates.
So after I floated the kid issue out there with Ben, I held my breath, fearing that familiar, critical look. But Ben was all smiles as he exclaimed, “Neither do I!” in that jubilant and marveling tone people adopt when they’ve just stumbled upon a staggering coincidence. Like the time I ran into my third-grade teacher at a pub in London. Maybe the chances of being on a first date and discovering that neither party wants children aren’t quite as slim as sitting on a barstool on the other side of the ocean, sipping a pint, and glancing up to see a teacher you haven’t run across in two decades. But it’s certainly not every day that you can find someone who wants to have a monogamous, meaningful relationship but also opt out of the seemingly automatic choice to experience the magical world of parenthood. Ben’s expression seemed to register an understanding of all of this.
“Have you ever noticed how couples discuss the merits of having children early versus late?” he asked me earnestly.
I nodded as I tried to pinpoint his eye color---a pleasant combination of pale green and gray outlined with a dark ring. He was handsome, but beyond his fine nose, thick hair, and broad, muscular build was that incandescent intangible my best friend, Jess, calls the “sparkle factor.” His face was alive and bright. He was the kind of man you see on the subway and wish you knew, your eyes uncontrollably darting to his left ring finger.
Ben continued, “And how the main feature of each scenario is freedom? The freedom that either comes early in life or late in life?”
I nodded again.
“Well,” he said, pausing to sip his wine. “If the best part of having kids early is getting it over with, and the best part about having kids late is putting off the drudgery, doesn’t it follow that not having kids at all is the best of both worlds?”
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said, raising my glass to toast his philosophy. I envisioned us defying the forces of nature together (the stuff about man wanting to sow his seed and woman wanting to grow life inside of her) and bucking the rules of society that so many of my friends were blindly following. I knew I was getting way ahead of myself, imagining all of this with a man I had just met, but by the time you reach thirty-one, you know immediately if a guy has potential or not. And Ben had potential.
Sure enough, the rest of our dinner went exceptionally well. No awkward lulls in the conversation, no red flags or annoying mannerisms. He asked thoughtful questions, gave good answers, and sent interested but not eager signals. So I invited him back to my apartment for a drink---something I never do on a first date. Ben and I did not kiss that night, but our arms touched as he flipped through a photo album on my coffee table. His skin felt electric against mine, and I had to catch my breath every time he turned a page.
The next day Ben called me just as he said he would. I was giddy when his name lit up my caller ID, and even more so when he announced, “I just wanted to tell you that that was far and away the best first date I’ve ever been on.”
I laughed and said, “I agree. In fact, it was better than most of my second, third, and fourth dates.”
We ended up talking for nearly two hours, and when we finally said good-bye, Ben said what I had just been thinking---that the call felt more like five minutes. That he could talk to me forever. One can hope, I remember thinking.
Then came the sex. We only waited two weeks, which went against all the standard advice from friends, family, and magazine articles. It wasn’t so much that I had to be with him in any urgent, lustful sense (although that was certainly part of it). It was more that I saw no reason to squander a single night together. When I know something is right, I believe in going for it, head-on. Sure enough, our first time was neither quick nor awkward nor tentative, the usual hallmarks of first times. Instead, our bodies fit together just right, and Ben knew what I liked without having to ask. It was the kind of sex that makes you wish you were a songwriter or poet. Or at least a woman who keeps a journal, something I hadn’t done since I was a kid, but a practice I promptly began the day after we made love.
Ben and I quickly discovered that we had a lot more in common than our view on children, and a lot more binding us together than our crazy chemistry. We had a similar background. We both grew up in New York with two older sisters and parents who divorced late in the game. We were both hardworking, high achievers who were passionate about our careers. Ben was an architect and loved buildings as much as I loved books. We enjoyed traveling to obscure places, eating exotic food, and drinking a little too much. We loved movies and bands that were slightly offbeat without straining to be intellectual. We relished sleeping in on the weekends, reading the paper in bed, and drinking coffee into the evening hours. We were the same combination of clean freak and messy, of sentimental and pragmatic. We both had come to believe that short of something magical, relationships weren’t worth the trouble.
In short, we fell in love, everything clicking in place. And it wasn’t the one-sided delusional happiness that comes when a woman wants desperately to believe that she’s found her guy. Our relationship was so satisfying and honest and real that at some point I started to believe that Ben was my soul mate, the one person I was supposed to be with. It was a concept I had never believed in before Ben.
I remember the day when all of this hit me. It was relatively early on, but well after we had exchanged our first I love yous. Ben and I were having a picnic in Central Park. People were all around us, sunning, reading, throwing Frisbees, laughing, yet it felt like we were completely alone. Whenever I was with Ben, it felt like the rest of the world fell away. We had just finished our lunch of cold fried chicken and potato salad and were lying on our backs, looking up at a very blue summer sky and holding hands, when we began that earnest but careful conversation about past loves. About the people and experiences that had brought us to the moment we were in.
Fleeting references to our history had been made up to that point, and I was well aware that we were both silently making those inevitable comparisons, putting our relationship in context. She is more this and less of that. He is better or worse in these ways. It is human nature to do this---unless it’s your first relationship, which might be the very reason that your first relationship feels special and remains forever sacred. But the older you get, the more cynical you become, and the more complicated and convoluted the exercise is. You begin to realize that nothing is perfect, that there are trade-offs and sacrifices. The worst is when someone in your past trumps the person in your present, and you think to yourself: if I’d known this, then maybe I wouldn’t have let him go. I had been feeling that way for a long time with respect to my college boyfriend, Paul. My relationship with Paul was far from flawless, and yet I hadn’t found anyone in a decade who could squelch the more than occasional longing for what we had shared.
But with Ben, something was different. I was happier than I had ever been. I told him this, and I remember him asking me why it was different, why I was happier. I thought for a long time, wanting my answer to be accurate and complete. I began to awkwardly detail what made my relationship with Paul fail and spent much time ticking off Paul’s specific attributes and qualities. I then listed for Ben the ways in which he was better---and more important, better for me.
I said, “You are a better kisser. You are more even-tempered. You are more generous. You are smarter. You are more fair-minded.”
Ben nodded and looked so serious that I remember saying, “And you recycle” just to be funny. (Although it was true that Paul never recycled, which I thought said a lot about him.) As I talked, I had the distinct sense that I wasn’t really capturing the essence of anything and certainly not the way I was feeling. It was frustrating because I wanted Ben to know how special he was to me.
So I sort of gave up and asked Ben the same question about his ex-girlfriend, Nicole. I had begun to piece together a pretty decent picture of her based on snippets of conversation. I knew she was half Vietnamese and looked like a porcelain doll. (I might have snooped through his drawers once and come up with a photo or two). She was an interior designer and had met Ben on a big museum project in Brooklyn. Her favorite book was One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was also Ben’s favorite book (a fact that irrationally annoyed me). She smoked---they smoked together for a long time until he quit. They lived together for three years and dated for nearly six. Their relationship was intense---high highs and miserable lows. They had only broken up the winter before. I still hadn’t heard exactly why. So of course the word rebound haunted me. The name Nicole filled me with crazy jealousy.
“Why is this relationship different?” I asked Ben, and then worried that I was presuming a bit much. “Or is it...different?”
I will never forget the way Ben looked at me, his pale eyes wide and almost glassy. He bit his bottom lip, one of his sexier habits, before he said, “That’s actually not a difficult question at all. I just love you more. That’s it. And I’m not saying that because she’s in the past and you’re in the present. I just do. In absolute terms. I mean, I loved her. I did. But I love you more. And it’s really not even close.”
It was the best thing anyone had ever said to me, and it was the best for one reason: I felt exactly the same way. The person who loved me like this was the person I loved back---which can feel like an absolute miracle. It is an absolute miracle.
So it came as no surprise when Ben proposed a few weeks later. And then, seven months later, on the anniversary of our first date, we eloped, tying the knot on an idyllic white crescent beach in St. John. It was not a popular move with our families, but we wanted the day to only be about us. Right after we exchanged our vows, I remember looking out across the sea and thinking that it was just the two of us, our lifetime together stretching before us. Nothing would ever change, except the addition of wrinkles and gray hair and sweet, satisfying memories.
Of course the subject of children surfaced often during our newlywed days, but only when responding to rude inquiries regarding our plans to procreate from everyone and anyone: Ben’s family, my family, friends, random mothers in the park, even our dry cleaner.
“We’re not going to have children,” one of us would matter-of-factly reply, and then we would tolerate the inevitable chatter that followed about how much children enrich your lives.
Once, at a book party, an editor came right out and told me that if I didn’t have kids at some point, then my life “would be devoid of meaning.” Now that’s a pretty extreme statement. I think I said something like, “Well, gee, I might as well off myself now then, huh?” She pretended not to hear me and kept going on about her children.
Another common response was the sympathetic nods from people who believed that we were actually concealing a painful truth: our inability to conceive. Like the time a friend of Ben’s from college slipped me a business card with her fertility clinic information scrawled on the back. I handed it to Ben who promptly announced to his friend that he had had a vasectomy several months into our marriage. This wasn’t true---I was on the pill---but there was something about his statement that both shamed and shut her up.
And the final recurrent motif was the whole, “Who is going to take care of you when you’re old?” query. Ben and I would say, “Each other.” They’d (unbelievably) respond, “But what about when one of you dies?” At which point, things are really becoming cheery. Occasionally I’d point out that nursing homes are filled with people whose children never visit. That children are no guarantee of anything. You could have a kid who becomes a poor, struggling artist. Or a kid who grows into a selfish, ne’er-do-well adult. Or a kid who has special needs that render him unable to care for himself, let alone his elderly parents. Bottom line, Ben and I agreed that worrying about your care is a stupid, selfish reason to procreate anyway. We preferred to work hard and save our money, rather than burdening a future generation.
But we learned to keep quiet on the subject. It was so much easier that way. We would simply exchange a knowing glance and then discuss it all later. We were annoyed by the narrow-minded assumption that children were a given, but at the same time, we enjoyed the underlying smugness that came from being part of a child-free union. Our relationship was about freedom and possibility and exploration. We were together because we wanted to be together. Not because we needed a partner in parenthood or because children were keeping us together, caging us with eighteen years of obligation.
Then, about two years into our marriage, something changed.
It was subtle at first, as changes in relationships typically are, so it is hard to pinpoint the genesis. But, looking back, I think it all began when Ben and I went on a ski trip with Annie and Ray, the couple who had set us up on our first date. I had known Annie since our bingeing college days, so I noticed right away that she was sticking with Perrier. At first she claimed to be on antibiotics for a sinus infection, but the whole antibiotic excuse had never slowed her in the past so I dragged the truth out of her. She was eight weeks pregnant.
“Was it planned?” I blurted out, thinking surely it had been an accident. Annie adored her career as a documentary filmmaker and had a million different causes on the side. She had never expressed an interest in having children, and I couldn’t fathom her making time for motherhood.
Annie and Ray clasped hands and nodded in unison.
“But I thought you didn’t want kids,” I said.
“We didn’t want kids right away,” Annie said. “But we feel ready now. Although I guess you’re never completely ready!” She laughed in a high-pitched, schoolgirlish way, her cheeks flushing pink.
“Huh,” I said.
Ben kicked me under the table and said, “Well, congratulations, guys! This is awesome news.” Then he shot me a stern look and said, “Isn’t that wonderful news, Claudia?”
“Yes. Wonderful,” I said, but I couldn’t help feeling betrayed. Ben and I were going to lose our favorite traveling companions, our only close friends who were as unfettered as we were by babies and all their endless accoutrements.
We finished dinner, our conversation dominated by talk of children and Westchester real estate.
Later, when Ben and I were alone in our room, he chastised me for being so transparently unsupportive. “You could have at least pretended to be happy for them,” he said. “Instead of grilling them about birth control.”
“I was just so shocked,” I said. “Did you have any idea?”
Ben shook his head and with a fleeting expression of envy said, “No. But I think it’s great.”
“Don’t tell me you want them now, too?” I asked him, mostly joking.
Ben answered quickly, but his words registered flat and false. “Of course not,” he said. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Over the next few months, things only got more troubling. Ben became all too interested in the progress of Annie’s pregnancy. He admired the ultrasound photos, even taping one to our refrigerator. I told him that we were not a “tape things to the refrigerator” kind of family.
“Jeez, Claudia. Lighten up,” Ben said, appearing agitated as he pulled down the murky black-and-white image and slapped it into a drawer. “You really should be happier for them. They’re our best friends, for chrissake.”
A short time after that, right before Annie and Ray had their baby, Ben and I planned a last-minute weekend getaway to the resort where we had married. It was early January when the abrupt disappearance of Christmas decorations and tourists always makes Manhattan seem so naked and bleak, and Ben said he couldn’t wait until early March for our tentatively planned trip to Belize. I remember tossing some shorts and a new red bikini into my leather duffel and remarking how nice it was to have spontaneity in our relationship, the freedom to fly off at a moment’s notice.
Ben said, “Yes. There are some wonderful things about our life together.”
This sentence struck me as melancholy---even ominous---but I didn’t press him on it. I didn’t even pressure him to talk when he was uncharacteristically taciturn on our flight down to the Caribbean.
I didn’t really worry until later that night when we were settling into our room, unpacking our clothes and toiletries. I momentarily stopped to inspect the view of the sea outside our room, and as I turned back toward my suitcase, I caught a glimpse of Ben in the mirror. His mouth was curled into a remorseful frown. I panicked, remembering what my sister, Maura, once said about men who cheat. She was an expert on the topic as her husband, Scott, had been unfaithful with at least two women she knew of. “Look out if they’re really mean or really nice. Like if they start sending you flowers and jewelry for no reason,” she had said. “Or taking you away on a romantic getaway. It’s the guilt. They’re trying to make up for something.” I tried to calm down, telling myself that I was being paranoid. Ben and I always took spontaneous trips together; we never needed a reason.
Still, I wanted to dispel the lingering images of Ben pressed against a sweaty bohemian lover, so I sat on the bed, kicked off my flip-flops, and said, “Ben. Talk to me. What’s on your mind?”
He swallowed hard and sat next to me. The bed bounced slightly under his weight and the motion made me feel even more nervous.
“I don’t know how to say this,” Ben said, his voice cracking. “So I’ll just come out with it.”
I nodded, feeling queasy. “Go ahead.”
“I think I might want kids after all.”
I felt a rush of relief and even laughed out loud. “You scared me.” I laughed again, louder, and then opened a Red Stripe from the minibar.
“I’m serious, Claudia.”
“Where is all of this coming from? Annie and Ray?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. It’s just...it’s just this feeling I have,” Ben said, making a fist over his heart.
At least he hasn’t cheated on me. I thought. A betrayal of that magnitude could never be erased or forgotten. His fleeting wish for a child would surely go away. But as Ben continued to spout off his list of reasons why a baby might be a good thing---stuff about showing children the world, doing things better than our parents had done---my relief gave way to something else. It was a sense of losing control. A sense that something was slipping away.
I tried to stay calm as I delivered a rather eloquent speech. I told him that all of that parenthood stuff wasn’t who we were. I said that our relationship was built upon our unique twoness, the concept that three or more is a crowd. I pointed out that we couldn’t have taken this last-minute trip. We’d be anchored to home all the time.
“But we’d have other things,” Ben said. “And what if we really are missing out on something great? I’ve never heard a single person say they regret having a child.”
“Would they admit it if they did?” I said.
“Maybe not,” Ben said. “But the point is, I don’t think they ever would.”
“I totally disagree...I mean, why are there boarding schools? The mere existence of boarding schools proves something, right?” I asked. I was partly kidding about the boarding schools, but Ben didn’t laugh.
I sighed and then decided to change the subject altogether, focus on having fun. Show Ben what we’d be missing with children.
“Let’s get changed and go to dinner,” I said, turning up “One Love” on our portable CD player and thinking that there’s nothing like a little Bob Marley to put you in a childfree, unencumbered state of mind.
But despite my best efforts to have a good time, the rest of our weekend passed with an increasing tension. Things felt forced between us, and Ben’s mood went from quiet to lugubrious. On our third and final night on the island, we took a cab to Asolare, a restaurant with incredible views of Cruz Bay. We ate in virtual silence, commenting only on the sunset over St. Thomas and our perfectly prepared lobster tail. Just as our waitress brought us our coffee and sorbet, I looked at Ben and said, “You know what? We had a deal.”
As soon as the words came out, I knew how utterly ridiculous I sounded. Marriage is never a done deal. Not even when you have children together, although that certainly helps your case. And the irony of that seemed overwhelmingly sad.
Ben tugged on his earlobe and said, “I want to be a father.”
“Fine. Fine,” I said. “But do you want a baby more than you want to be my husband?”
He reached out and put one hand over mine. “I want both,” he said as he squeezed my fingers.
“Well. You can’t have both,” I said, trying to keep the angry edge out of my voice.
I waited for him to say that of course he’d always pick me. That it was the only thing in the world he was really sure of. “So? Which is it?” I said.
It wasn’t supposed to be a test, but it suddenly felt like one. Ben stared down at his cappuccino for a long time. Then he moved his hand from mine and slowly stirred three cubes of sugar into his mug.
When he finally looked up at me, there was guilt and grief in his gray-green eyes, and I knew I had my answer.
* * *