“When are you
going to have children?”
Here we go again. At 37 and 40, my husband and I are
one of the few childless couples in our circle. Since childless couples are not considered families, a traditional event like
a one-year-old’s birthday party is fertile ground for an inquisition. Under the guise of nice, light party conversation.
about when it starts looking like fun?” I smile sweetly and nod toward a girl puking purple liquid into a corner. A
bevy of women run to her, like white blood cells to a wound.
Jeanelle has regularly cross-examined
me about my willingness to reproduce since she began having babies six years ago. Our husbands are old college buddies with
busy lives and a state between them, so we only see John and Jeanelle on special occasions. This is the third first birthday
I’ve attended on their behalf. Our only other connection is the group e-mail list for her photos. Two percent include
John and Jeanelle; the surplus is of their progeny and a whippet.
Skinny Jeanelle is in blue-and-white capris, white
leather loafers, a white blouse, and a dark blue knit vest, very Banana Republic. She pushes a flat-ironed chunk of silky
dark hair behind her ear, a gold bangle glinting on her tanned, toned arm. Her appearance is flawless, except for her face,
which looks like a sardine: long, with glossy skin, sucked-in cheeks and dead eyes. Her nose and lips twitch, like she’s
trying not to smell an odor that envelops her. Jeanelle scratches her pointy chin with a buff-colored nail. A large diamond
ring dares me not to notice it. She notices me noticing. A smirk crosses her thin lips. I
“You’re so funny... but seriously, when are you going to have them?”
five years younger than me, she’s got the confidence of someone whose life is unfolding just as planned. Attempting
to camouflage her pushiness, she strikes an amiable pose, opening her eyes wide and beaming. Jeanelle has been in theatre
since childhood and is part of an amateur troupe. Now she’s acting like I missed a dance step in the world’s greatest
play, a reproduction, of course.
I pictured similar scenes in the shower this morning,
casting several of the mothers as antagonists and scrubbing too hard as I muttered to myself. Afterward, I called my single
friends, the ones without children anyway, to complain about going to “this thing.” I’d already spent the
least amount of effort possible on presents but scads of money on guilt and shipping. Instead of trekking to a toy store,
wherever one might be, I ordered items listed under “bath and potty” from Jeanelle’s online registry at
the last minute. When the diaper pail arrived, the giant box’s corners were smashed in, making it
look like a pentagon, and a huge tear ran down the life-size face of
the toddler on the front. My final act of preparation was to whip up a batch of homemade retorts instead of cookies. I rifle
through my arsenal now, pulling out just the right one.
“Why? Is there a shortage?”
I imitate my mother-in-law’s habit of dipping her head to the side daintily when she says something snarky.
the same ewwww face that my dramatic 13-year-old niece does when forced to pose for family photos, with the curled
lip and disgusted glare. I want to make it too when her husband passes behind her, sticking his nose into their son’s
diaper to smell if it’s soiled. I’d expected Jeanelle to laugh uncomfortably at my reply, and then get off the
subject. But her fishlike face has resumed its primness, and it doesn’t look like it’ll break into a grin any time soon.
my husband’s eye over her left shoulder, just one eye. The one that checks on me to make sure I’m behaving. It’s
time to diffuse the situation. Anyway, no matter what I say, Jeanelle won’t see me as a complete woman unless I produce
offspring. In her eyes, I’ll go straight from dormant fruit tree to old prune, having missed a stage of development
What makes her so sure I should have children anyway? Maybe I’m on the brink of divorce, or I’ve got a tumor
the size of a melon in my uterus. I could be struggling with an addiction or a disorder. Maybe the fact that I don’t
like children would be a good indicator, I don’t know. But if she has the ovaries to ask why I don’t have children
yet, then I don’t think Miss Manners would admonish my rejoinders.
The nursery school
gym is dominated by noise and pony tailed heads
bending over waddling toddlers. Howls, admonishments, and the sound of skidding sneakers echo off shiny wood floors and tiled
walls. It’s assumed that all adults will either be chasing after children or playing with them, so there is no seating,
not even grey metal folding chairs. Multicolored balloons are taped to two long tables, one for gifts, and the other for plain
pizza and Dixie cups of ice cream. A variety of drinks is available — cola, root beer, orange and grape soda. No adult beverages.
red ball, followed by a fuzzy-haired boy, bumps into my legs and passes between them. Janelle looks on with tenderness, but
it passes quickly. Below severely arched eyebrows, her dark brown eyes narrow to lasers as she turns them on me, head cocked,
clearly piqued by my answer.
She’s not getting an explanation for my lack of children, and I won’t lie about it to
make her feel rosy. The facts Jeanelle knows about me could fit on one hand. I’d like to keep it that way. I try to
be conciliatory, attempting to convince myself that Jeanelle is not evil, just nosy. I clear my mind of clever retorts meant
to provoke and defend, and compose my expression into something benign.
“We’re not having children
now, but I’ll let you know if anything changes.” I think my answer shows solidarity, like, hey, we’re happy,
too; we just don’t want Elmo in our lives right now.
But Jeanelle is beyond maternal; she’s in righteous-mother mode.
I am livid when she asks her next question: “How does your husband feel about that?”
I knew it! She really is a bitch.
don’t you ask him yourself?” I know she’s not going to leave me standing there, march up to my husband,
and demand to know what’s going on.
“Excuse me! Poopie pants!”
A mom is hunched over like Quasimodo,
helping her son walk. Encouraging his autonomy, she points in the direction of the bathroom and lets his oversized head lead
them there. Their circuitous route takes them between Jeanelle and I. The woman’s squatting linebacker’s legs
clop alongside her top-heavy child before he picks up speed and run as wild as the snot heading toward his upper lip. Salvation
comes in many forms. I claim to need the restroom, too, citing my small bladder.
my makeup and change my hairstyle in the time it takes for Poopie Pants and his mother to use the facilities. There’s
a lot of struggling going on. Before they can exit, I head into my own stall. “Let Mommy use the toilet now, Tyler.”
Tyler takes advantage of her incapacity to scurry underneath the partitions to peer up at me. Luckily, I’m just standing
there waiting for them to leave. I lean down and shoo him away. He remains on his haunches, staring. Hoping to embarrass his
mother into action, I speak loudly. “Excuse me, little boy, I need privacy in my stall.”
Flush. “Tyler, get out of there right now!” I scowl and pretend to step on his hand. He laughs
at me. His mother apologizes profusely as she enters the stall that contains his legs and drags him out, delivering ineffective
spanks. I know they’re ineffective because Tyler’s giggling. She scolds him, making sure I hear. “Don’t
touch the floor or anything else in public restrooms. Germs are everywhere.” I peer through the crack in my door while
she washes their hands, wipes off his blue elastic-waist corduroys and red T-shirt, cleans out his nose, and rubs his cheek
with spit to remove a stubborn spot. She ushers her Nerf ball-and-chain back to the gym with a heavy sigh.
Not even counting wiping his butt, that lady’s cleaned more in one bathroom trip than I have all week. Why would
I want to create a brand-new job for myself and then complain about never getting a break? Of course, that’s not what
the job description says. The ad for parenthood reads that we can’t be fulfilled without babies of our own. It tells
us we can raise him or her just so, with our own ideals. It’s replete with stock images of family dinnertime, crafts-making,
tiny denim jackets, lacy socks, and colored tights. Some unsuccessful projects indicate that the application process should
be more stringent. Breeding show dogs employs more selectiveness.
I skulk along the perimeter of the gym
to my husband, who’s talking to a group of guys.
“We were just saying you two need to have children.” I
have no idea who this man is. Everyone looks at me expectantly.
I manage a weak smile for my husband’s sake,
and also because fending off Jeanelle sucked the fight out of me.
“You better freeze your eggs if you want them.
Google ‘cry preservation.” He shares a story about some friends in their early 40s who went this route.
My husband quickly ushers me to the buffet table and gives me a cup of ice cream. The feel of the wooden spoon on my
teeth bothers me, so he accommodates me with a plastic fork. My father used to distract me with ice cream too. Jeanelle walks
by us without a word, and cozies up to another mother, looking at me lasciviously as though I were a jilted lover. My husband
and I stroll the play area until he gets pulled into another male conversation. Sports, thank God. I try to find something
or someone interesting with which to engage, but there are more children than adults present. I stare through them and wonder
why I lack maternal instincts. Just then, a small girl child skids to a stop in front
of me. She shoves a small plastic frog from her favor bag in my face and screams, “This is poison!” and
then runs away. If 1 were maternal, I’d think that was adorable.
I shrug, pour more water into my plastic cup, and
help myself to a slice of cold pizza. I stand at the outskirts of the party, thinking that of all my options, motherhood is
not beckoning me. I like my grown-up house. I don’t want it filled with noise, baby talk, repetitive musical toys, odor,
and sticky unknowns on every surface. Nor do I want constant cajoling with tubs of miniature hot dogs and tiny damned raviolis
and spoons, and forks banging on the table while I eat. I don’t want my updated kitchen to look like a street fair with
6,000 plastic primary-colored toys, a DVD player in every room and car. The breast pump my sister’s been saving for
years on the bathroom counter.
A new mother whom I’ve met several times sidles up to me with
a goofy smile, puts an arm around me, and looks at me like a dork. “Are we pregnant yet?” I lift up my shirt to
show my fetus-free, flat belly. To explain, she says, “Well, I just had a feeling.” Yes, I have some of those,
too. Church is her favorite place now and the churchgoers are her people, but she used to be a stripper. Apparently, even
if before you had children you spent most of your time in black leather with a whip, you instantly become a Lamb of God upon
giving birth. “Shhh,” I tell the bitter shrew inside of me. “It’s okay.
Nobody’s going to force you to have children.” By the time the party ends, I’m fine. I grab a leftover goodie
bag on my way out the door. The next time someone asks me when I’m going to have children, I’m going to shove
my plastic frog in her face and say, “This is poison!” Mothers think that’s cute.