My grandfather wants me to have a baby. Now. Yesterday. It would be nice to feel—as he put it the other day—that he had “a breeder” among his grandchildren. “Grandpa,” I finally said to him recently, “you are 87 years old. You live 1,500 miles away. If I got pregnant tomorrow, you would see this baby, what? Once? Twice? Then I would be stuck with an unwanted infant, and you would be dead.”
He acceded the point.
In a few short weeks, the holiday season will be upon us, and my husband and I, like millions of Americans, will be obliged to make conversation with hundreds of relatives, colleagues, and acquaintances who have nothing to say to us. When we got engaged three years ago, talk of caterers and florists and letterpress invitations occupied us at these gatherings. Then, after the wedding, when we debuted as married people, we talked about the things we had received, the things we still needed to buy, and the best places to buy them.
In our society, a childless marriage is like the January of the retail season.
But this year, lacking any such consumer idyll to discuss, people will sheepishly ask us “what we’ve been up to.” I will half-heartedly mutter something about the book I am supposed to be writing, to confirm I am not a total waste of space. They might offer a few words about a case or an account they are handling, of which I will have little interest and even less comprehension. And then, inevitably, I will be asked the million-dollar question.
“So, any babies on the horizon? Is this the year?”
I have formed an immutable theory: In our society, a childless marriage is like the January of the retail season—Christmas is over, Valentine’s Day not yet arrived, and no one knows what the hell to sell you. A transitional period, best rushed through as quickly as possible.
I’ll see the pleading in their eyes, the tension of each upended nostril: “Please say you’re having a baby, and I’ll be able to relate to you. We’ll talk obstetricians, and if you’re having trouble, fertility specialists. I can recommend strollers, changing tables, potties, burp cloths. I can explain in detail the advantages of an all-natural water birth vs. a scheduled C-section/tummy tuck. We’ll have hours of things to talk about. Just say it. Say yes.”
Alas, I cannot, and we’ll have no choice but to go our separate ways.
Or think of it this way: your wedding is the prestige Oscar bait: a big-name, Britishly acted adaptation from a tony literary source, perhaps—eagerly anticipated and much buzzed about. The announcement of your pregnancy (or simply, the announcement that you are currently…you know…trying, which seems to inspire in others an equally irrational joy) is your big summer blockbuster: huge, giddy, something people are viscerally excited about. To wit: your wedding is Atonement, your baby is The Dark Knight, and your actual marriage, the fragile construct propping up the vast social/industrial complex we call “Adulthood,” is something the studio foists on an unsuspecting public in the dead and deadening month after Christmas, when we start to despair that we will ever again see the sun. Something starring Ashton Kutcher. Your marriage is What Happens in Vegas.
Think about it.
One finds an instructive example of this attitude the publishing industry. Women’s magazines teem with advice of what to say, what to wear, and which sexual acts to perform in order to con a man into making some sort of tangible commitment. Likewise, there are now an extraordinary number of publications and networking sites devoted to modern parenting, designed to guide even the most skeptical urbanite through the brave new world of diaper genies and environmental toxins with wit and panache. In contrast, I have found of late just one article geared toward married people without children: a little piece online advising me to hide the porn when my in-laws come over.
My in-laws live in South Africa, and my husband keeps the porn on the computer, where it belongs.
It wasn’t always like this. In America, everything we are we see in the movies, and classic Hollywood films are filled with glamorous childless couples. Hepburn and Tracy, Nick and Nora Charles, forever lobbing sophisticated quips back and forth, swilling martinis in elegant penthouse apartments, their art-deco lines not besmirched by crayon or small, smudged handprints. (DISCLAIMER: My life is absolutely nothing like this; however, I can’t shake the feeling that if I can just hold off my biological clock, one day it could be.) In the golden age of Hollywood, the children of stars were routinely hidden from public view, lest they make their parents seem old and unfuckable.
I’m not suggesting we go back to the heady days of Mommie Dearest. I’m just not sure I need to know how far Jessica Alba’s cervix was dilated before she checked into the hospital. Nor am I particularly moved by the array of toddlers trotted out before the cameras to justify a star’s existence, or the launch of her clothing line, or to illustrate the fact that she has attained the transcendent maturity that cares only for the troubles of the Children of the World, which a person like Married-and-Childless You, who selfishly worries about things like calories and making your highlights last, couldn’t possibly understand.
But most of all, I find hardest to take the pervasive sense that a marriage isn’t really consummated until the arrival of a blessed event—that everything from “I do” until the snipping of the umbilical cord is a prelude to real life. I got married because I thought it would enhance my life. And in a country where some judges hold up the inability to reproduce as a valid legal reason why some people should not be able to marry, I believe the singular nature of marriage—of two adults in good faith making such a promise to each other, whether that promise includes children or not—should be made especially clear.
Real life is not Life the board game, an orderly ticking of boxes till we fill up our plastic station wagons and become millionaires. As far as I am concerned, I am already living my real life. I was living it before I was married, and I’ll still be living it should my marriage ever end.
So is it too much to ask for a damn magazine?
Rachel Shukert is the author of Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories, and is currently at work on her second book, The Grand Tour . She lives in New York City.