How can you bring children into a world like this?
Had any of our five children survived, we might well wrestle with such questions. It’s a strange way to say that my wife and I have had five consecutive miscarriages in two years. Our children didn’t survive. Saying it this way makes me feel like a homesteader in a daguerreotype photograph. A life of weary resignation and bleak, stoic bitterness plagued by the casual tragedy of farm accidents, preventable disease, the infrequent attacks of wild beasts. It’s a hard life on the frontier.
People don’t ask us how we could bring children into a world like this, because we haven’t. In the absence of greater meaning, I suppose this means my wife and I have failed to accomplish the most basic of biological imperatives. That we’re not team players. We always said that if we weren’t going to have kids, we should at least focus on our careers, earn good money, and live the life we want. That’s not going so well either, but people don’t ask us about that.
For millennia, mystics, shaman, and faith healers have sought to harness arcane power in order to protect the unborn. Jewish folklore, in particular, has an abundance of supernatural rituals for this very purpose. The concoction of magical potions using pounded coral, a potent brew known as mirjān, is considered particularly effective. Some Jewish women carried the dew from plants on their person in tiny glass phials as charms in the belief that the healing, restorative power of water would protect the unborn child from harm. Others tied the intestines of sheep or goats around their swollen bellies, gory belts of viscera that were then fed to pregnant polecats in the hope of earning Jehovah’s favor and protection. We opted for iron supplements and folic acid and Omega-3s. Maybe that’s why things didn’t work out. Perhaps our lack of faith angered the ancient gods.
Just because people don’t ask about the moral rationale for our childlessness doesn’t mean we don’t ask ourselves. How could we bring children into a world like this? Other parents talk about summer camp or karate championships or ballet recitals. We talk about climate refugees and soft coups and extinction events. It’s not like we’re radical militant antinatalists or anything. But now we get to smugly ask how people can bring children into a world like this. Our unborn children become ideological ammunition. We have no other weapons.
Nobody tells you that only the children who live really count. There are no participation trophies for almost existing. After all, they didn’t participate. Except they did. We called the first one Mouse. No reason in particular, no whimsical story behind the name we gave our first fetus. Was Mouse a fetus, or an embryo? It’s hard to keep track. It’s not like we can mark a height in pencil on a door frame. Mouse just sounded cute. Sounded right. We knew Mouse would eventually outgrow her nickname—and I’m positive Mouse was a her—and become somebody else. A brand-new person. Our daughter. Fievel goes west.
Except she didn’t.
After Mouse came Pablo Speckles. My wife came up with the names because she was the one with the uterus and the label maker. Bean followed Pablo Speckles. Admittedly, Bean was not our best work (take that how you will), but we were very tired. We stopped naming the fetuses—embryos? zygotes?—after Bean. Sorry, Four and Five. Nothing personal. Except it was personal. We’d stared dumbly at poppy seeds and peppercorns and blueberries in the palms of our hands, trying to visualize the tiny cluster of multiplying cells in my partner’s womb that would eventually become a real person with thoughts and feelings and problems. We’d read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. We’d awaited each new day’s growth facts on the app we were using to track our babies’ gestational development with excitement. By now, the head is more fully developed and the ears are continuing to grow, making baby look more human. Fingers and toes are beginning to form, and all of baby’s essential organs—heart, brain, liver, kidneys, lungs—have also begun to develop. We often wondered if Mouse or Pablo Speckles or Bean would inherit our neuroses the way they might inherit my wife’s chestnut-brown hair or the freckles I’ve hated since I was little. We figured it was a pretty safe bet.
We looked up recessive genes and dominant traits and heterozygotic epistasis, and tried to love the faces of children we would never see.
Something else that nobody tells you is that miscarriage is nothing like most dramatizations in movies and TV shows. If TV is to be believed, miscarriage is a fleeting, momentary event; a brief, singular pain, some blood, a few tears, a little cramping. Let the healing begin.
Except it’s not like that at all. Nobody tells you that miscarriages can last for weeks. That you’ll have to watch helplessly as your wife cries and bleeds from a wound at the very center of herself, her face contorted by the hot, wrenching pain of the death in her womb. That your wife might die because people can and frequently do bleed to death during childbirth due to hemorrhaging. That your wife might die because of an infection caused by “retained products of conception.” That your wife might die because the baby who was not surviving might take the love of your life along with it. If I can’t have her, neither can you.
Sometimes my wife and I try—and fail, because we’re terrible people—to remember the details of our five miscarriages the way some parents confuse details of their children’s lives. Did Miles break his arm at Disneyworld, or was that Audrey? Was it the third miscarriage when you almost bled to death in the car while we were stuck in traffic on the way to the hospital, or was that the fourth? I’ll be honest with you, I almost didn’t use their names. The names we would have given to them. Not because the pain is too raw, but because the practiced secrecy is just too strong a habit, like muscle memory. You never know who might overhear and steal one of your baby names while you’re not looking and not starting a family and not propagating the genetic destiny of our doomed species because we have no idea what else to do.
There are no formalized rituals for grieving the premature loss of a child in most Western cultures. Remember, only the children who live really count. The Japanese have a name for such rites, because of course they do: Mizuko kuyō. Japanese Buddhists would bury the remains of stillborn and miscarried babies—the mizuko, or “water children”—underneath their homes, believing that the water below ground would gently carry the remains of the child to the natural springs that ran deep beneath the surface of the earth. This ceremony, the kuyō, is said to honor Jizo, the Japanese interpretation of the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, protector of women and children, and the deity who transports the souls of dead babies from the earthly plane to the afterlife.
We never buried our water children. We only lost them.
Even the question itself is wrong. How can you bring children into a world like this? A curious choice of words. Like this. Not “ours,” but “this.” Another little privilege, this. It implies distance, a gulf between ourselves and the earth, a preemptive absolution of our sin. It was like this when I got here. But it’s an artificial distance. Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear. It lets us deny our primal connection to the planet, to nature, to whatever Gaia you like—just as long as we don’t have to look at what we’ve done to it. Except that feels wrong, too. It. Our only home, reduced to an “it” like a useless piece of plastic lying in a bathroom trash can with its little pink cross that, for a few agonizing minutes, was the most important thing in our world. Calling the planet “her” feels strange to me, like an odd flavor in my mouth—a little too druidic for my tastes—but reducing our home to a disposable “it” feels cheap. Everything feels cheap and disposable now.
We tried going to a support group for a little while. I think we stopped going when my wife got pregnant for the fifth time. It sounds crazy when I say it like that. It makes us sound like the kind of people who just couldn’t wait to start a family, who just had to have kids right away. The kind of people who couldn’t resist pinching the cheek of every little bundle of joy they encountered, who used expressions like little bundles of joy without shame or irony, who would never ask blasphemous questions like how can you bring children into a world like this because every child is a precious blessing from God, praise Jesus. The kind of people we secretly hated for the purity of their joy. We cursed new parents as we passed them on the street. Not because they had a baby and we didn’t—although such base envy was a part of it—but because their bodies weren’t defective. Because they didn’t have to figure out how to mourn the loss of children they weren’t even sure they really wanted. Because they didn’t have to endure the quiet, pitiful stares of people who didn’t know what to say. People never know what to say. They speak only in casseroles.
My wife chose to undergo dilation and curettage to remove the fetal tissue of our fifth and final child, the first time she had opted for the procedure. She just wanted it to be over. Afterwards, the surgeon told us that my wife had a septate uterus; her womb was bisected by a wall of tissue that divided it neatly in two. The doctor said it was easily fixed, a minor procedure called a hysteroscopic metroplasty. It didn’t sound minor. Apparently it only took an hour or so. “You can go back to work the next day,” the doctor added helpfully. Thanks, doc.
The truth is, we felt a sick, selfish relief. It wasn’t bad genes or low motility or hormonal deficiencies. It was a barrier of flesh that separated my wife’s womb like the Berlin Wall. Except, for her, there would be no Peaceful Revolution. The wall would remain, an edifice to our failure. My wife called it “the ultimate get-out-of-jail free card,” and she was right. It was. Knowing was enough for her. Knowledge is power, and that power was hers alone. We didn’t have to have hysteroscopic surgery. We didn’t have to bring children into a world like this. We didn’t have to figure out whether we really wanted children or not. We didn’t have to secretly wonder whether our marriage would survive the burdens of parenthood, or quietly resent one another for not caring enough or helping enough or being enough.
So we didn’t.
We’ll never have to listen to our son or daughter—to Miles or Audrey—tell us about their first active shooter drill. We’ll never have to sit them down to tell them that police officers aren’t always their friend. We’ll never have to try to explain that some people hate mommy because she’s queer, or hate me because I come from another country. This does not stop me from imagining such conversations. I suppose it’s a penance of sorts, a need to be held accountable for my cowardice. A reckoning. I often imagine trying to justify our apathy to my imaginary child the way some people engage in elaborate hypothetical arguments in the shower. L’esprit de l’escalier, the French call it. The spirit of the stairwell. A witty comeback––or, in our case, a legitimate answer to a question like how can you bring children into a world like this?––that comes too late. Another missed opportunity.
One more ghost to haunt us.
They say sperm counts have halved over the past thirty years or so. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. Or perhaps Mother Earth—there’s that strange taste again—has finally tired of the impudence of men. Maybe she’s phasing us out. Planned obsolescence. Sometimes it’s hard to see the downside of this. Mother knows best.
I like to think that I’d be a good father. I know my wife would have been a wonderful mother, though I’ll never get to stand just out of sight behind the kitchen door frame, watching the woman I love cradle our child in her arms, oblivious to my trespass upon their intimacy. I’d watch them for as long as I could, my wife hiding her smiling face behind her hands, only to reappear moments later as if by magic—peekaboo! I’d watch my daughter’s face—and I’m positive it would be our daughter—as she smiled and giggled, and my heart would swell with deep, profound gratitude for the chance to witness a furtive moment of joy, one that would make all the hatred and cruelty and death somehow tolerable, even for an instant.
But I don’t have to bring children into a world like this. I just have to learn to live in it.