To Sarah, Holly, Daniel, Paige, Grace, Julianna, Kaleena, and Jaydon:
Thanks for being the kids I didn't have.
I met Henriette Mantel in 1994, when we were both cast in a short-lived sketch show for ABC called She TV. She was the first person I met in Los Angeles who was a true nonconformist—a breath of fresh air and a fellow New Englander who didn't edit herself. I fell hard for Henriette when she did this hilarious stand-up bit called, "Pretty, Pretty, Pretty," in which she laments the lack of substance in Hollywood and that talent is no longer a necessity. Way ahead of her time, she unconsciously predicted this whole Kardashian debacle. It's not about anything anymore, it's just about being pretty.
We have always managed to stay loosely connected. At one point she generously cast me in a brilliant play she wrote called The Beaver Play (yes, my character fell in love with a beaver in Vermont), and I can always count on an invitation to join her for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
I'm so touched that Henriette asked me to write the foreword to this book. I'm not sure I deserve the honor, and I don't think she is completely informed as to how I have made some of my major life decisions. Maybe I'll be the perfect contrast to the highly respected writers whose stories appear within the pages of No Kidding.
I knew my limitations at a young age. I was very aware of my inability to multitask by age five. I admitted this to my mother when I came in from playing, spit out my chewing gum, handed it to her, and said, "Mom please hold my gum, I'm going to the bathroom right now, and I can't handle both." The big decisions in my life have always been made in small, significant moments that I can't recover from. These moments are visual, and I play them on a loop in my head.
The profound decision not to have children came out of a thirty-second image I saw on one hot summer day in the early '80s. We were at Jaycee's Dairy in Hanover, Massachusetts. I was home from my sophomore year in college, and my parents couldn't think of anything to do with me except get ice cream. So there I sat, in the backseat of their Volvo eating my usual soft-serve vanilla cone with chocolate jimmies.
Next to us a steaming, overheating, station wagon brimming with young children—four to be exact—pulled up. The oldest one couldn't have been more than five-years-old with his beet-red, sobbing face pressed against the window. They all looked like they had been bathing in Orange Fanta and crying for days. I don't think I would have paid any attention to the driver, except that I recognized her hair. No one had shiny platinum hair like that—except Lila Beck.
Lila Beck was three grades above me in school. I was obsessed with her. She was unlike anybody else in my tiny town. There was nothing about her that was obedient or people-pleasing. She was unflappable. She didn't even seem to mind when somebody called her a slut. She slept with whomever she wanted to sleep with—without any shame. She slept with two best friends. And both guys still liked her. Do you know how hard that is to pull off in a small town?
On the treacherous, bumpy, forty-five minute bus ride to school, while we were supposed to stay seated, Lila would stand at the back of the bus in the aisle wearing her turquoise shorts, defying gravity. She somehow managed to write notes to boys on hot pink paper, apply makeup, and do "walk the dog" with a light-up yoyo, all without holding on. She was a multitasker before the phrase was coined. To someone like me who couldn't crap and chew gum at the same time—she was a white angel.
I was always trying to convince myself that life in New England suburbia wasn't depressing. The houses were pretty, and I had a horse. But Lila Beck had a huge advantage. Lila Beck had Lila Beck. She seemed complete at fourteen, which to me seemed like such an impossible feat. Lila wasn't a cheerleader, or even a good student. In fact, I read a letter she wrote to my brother that sounded as if it was written by Lenny from Of Mice and Men.
I remember the day I knocked on Lila's front door selling Girl Scout cookies. She answered and said she was on the phone. She led me to the kitchen, climbed up onto the counter, sat cross-legged in her bare feet, painted her toe nails white, and blatantly ignored me while she chatted with a friend. I stood there in her kitchen, holding onto my cookie order form, mesmerized. I didn't know what she was, except that she was a different animal, and I couldn't get enough. She could have been President of the United States or the Queen of Monaco. No matter who she was, her life was better than mine. Better than anybody's. I hated the fact that she knew I played the clarinet.
The Girl Scout cookie visit took place when I was eleven or twelve. Eight years later, I'm in the back seat of that Volvo, and I'm seeing Lila Beck for the first time since high school. She didn't look any less pretty. She just looked different. I can't tell you all the thoughts that entered my mind, but I know what the feeling was. The beautiful Lila Beck, the free-spirited rebel that did whatever she wanted whenever she felt like it, was gone. Now she was trapped in a cage of responsibility.
At that moment, my fascination with Lila Beck ended. I didn't want the car or the kids. I didn't want the responsibility or the vulnerability of it all. My only wish in that moment was to be barren.
I'm aware that I could just as easily have been sitting in my parents' car on a different summer day. On a day that was less hot, Lila could have driven up in her shiny car with her handsome husband and her four non-sticky, angelic kids. Then maybe I would have made the decision to have as many kids as my ovaries would allow, but that's not the way it happened. In retrospect, this probably was my most honest moment of knowing my limitations—knowing that I didn't want the selflessness of motherhood.
I don't know whatever happened to Lila Beck. I have no idea how her life turned out, but Lila, if you are reading this now, "Remember me? You've inspired me in ways you can't imagine. You truly did. You made me who I am. Thanks for taking one for the team. I hope it was easier than it looked."
In No Kidding, Henriette has cherry-picked some of the best women writers around who have consciously or unconsciously made the decision to not have children. This collection of stories couldn't be more interesting or diverse, and you certainly don't have to be childless, or "child-free" to be moved by them. Some made me laugh out loud, while others made me sob uncontrollably. Whether lighthearted or heartbreaking, they are all unique perspectives on a sometimes delicate topic.
It's clear to me that kids are not in my future. My childbearing years are gone, and to some this fact would be disconcerting. Instead, I take comfort in the camaraderie I share with these cool women who face the same reality.
HENRIETTE MANTEL: "I went to a psychic today, and she told me I'm never going to have children but that I'll have a lifelong companion."
LAURA KIGHTLINGER: "Did she tell you that your companion is going to eat out of a bowl on the floor?"
Years ago, I remember watching The Tonight Show with Joan Rivers, who was the guest host. Gloria Steinem, who was about forty years old at the time, was her guest. In her usual obnoxious way, Joan said to Gloria, "You know, my daughter has been the biggest joy in my life and I can't imagine not having her. Don't you regret not having children?" Gloria Steinem didn't miss a beat. She answered, "Well, Joan, if every woman had a child there wouldn't be anybody here to tell you what it's like not to have one." Joan looked at her like that thought had honestly never crossed her mind.
It was a true gift for me to be able to pull together writers who are here to tell you "what it's like not to have one." They share their personal experiences about their lives without giving birth. Whether it is monetary or health issues, courage, apathy, or just plain unadulterated choice that brings these women together, their stories of not having kids made me realize not only am I not alone, but my company is pretty darn great.
Something I learned from pulling this book together (besides the fact that writers are probably the most stubborn people in the world) is that women without children absolutely don't hate the little buggers (okay, maybe Suzy Soro does). Most of them are extremely proud of their relationships with their nieces, nephews, godchildren, neighbors' kids, students, etc., etc., etc. Margaret Mead suggested that the generative impulse could be expressed in other ways, such as passing ideas on to the younger generation through teaching, writing, or by inspiring example. And God knows Hillary Clinton taught us "It Takes a Village" to raise the kids of the world. I feel like these writers are letting all the daughters of the world know it's okay to not have kids. In this day and age, it's so easy to have a kid. Surrogate moms, fertilization treatments, baby-mamas, and wonderful adoption opportunities . . . why not time-share? The traditional rules for having children are long gone. The field is wide open. Some days I feel like the harder choice is to not have a kid. But that's probably just me.
To this day, my ninety-one-year-old mom always says about my cousin Shirley, "You know, she never had children." She might as well be saying, "You know, your cousin Shirley lives in a cave in Uruguay and eats bugs, but at least she is happily married." When I decided to ask her what she thought of my not wanting or having kids, she replied, "Well, you certainly have freedom to do whatever you want." And with that conversation, I started contacting my friends about this book.
EVERY TIME MY HUSBAND AND I SEE OUR OLDER RELATIVES THEY ALWAYS ASK, "WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO HAVE KIDS?" IT'S SUCH AN ASSUMPTION THAT YOU SHOULD HAVE KIDS. THAT'S LIKE ME LOOKING AT THEM AND SAYING, "WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO BREAK YOUR HIP?"
I hope you like our book. Thanks for getting this far.
The Morning Dance
"Whatever happens, happens." That's the way I've always felt about having kids. I guess some people would call it ambivalence—I prefer saying I am in Zen with the universe. Whatever cards are dealt, I deal with the feelings when the time comes. I have pushed a lot of things in my life, but I never pushed having children. Partly because I could never imagine raising a child alone and partly because my choices in men have always been just this side of serial killers. But most of all, I never had that gotta-have-a-baby visceral craving that ruled so many of my friends. I like kids. I LOVE kids. I love my nieces and my lone nephew more than life itself. My godchildren make me smile every time I speak their names. My reason for not having kids wasn't that I hate the little buggers, it was that I've always felt fate will let me know if I'm supposed to be a mom or not. Fate never brought me a man I would love to get pregnant with, fate never called me to raise a child alone, and fate never knocked me up, so here I am, childless. And that's exactly where I was when I met Jimmy. He had an eleven-year-old daughter, and my first thought was, "This could be fun. I wouldn't mind joining a show like this in the second act."
The first time I met Lil was on Father's Day. Not too much holiday pressure to meet the offspring of the man you had only been dating for four months, right? I got to their apartment on that beautiful spring day, and it was all I could do to ring the bell. I felt like I was meeting the Last Emperor when really I was meeting an eleven-year-old daughter of a guy I was nuts about. Jimmy opened the door and there she was, standing with him and smiling, wearing a blue T-shirt and lavender leggings, her face half hidden by a mess of hair, which looked like she'd made an attempt at brushing but somewhere along the line gave up. I could tell she wanted to hug me, but what I got was a very polite, held-in handshake. She was as cute as a button. She was so checking me out as we walked to the restaurant. I was checking her out too. You never know if these monsters are going to be friend or foe. I was hoping for the best and was pretty sure it would be fine since I could feel we were both trying to hold in our glee. Now that I look back, we should have just started dancing right there on the spot. But we didn't. After all, I was meeting my boyfriend's daughter. I was supposed to be an adult.
We went to a restaurant that Jimmy chose. He is vegan right down to his sneakers, though the place had meat on the menu, so I guess he was thinking of us too. Totally vegan is just a bit over the top for my dietary beliefs. In fact, those people might be nuts. Come on, no eggs? But it was certainly good for a conversation starter since I told Lil I grew up raising chickens. She was intrigued and asked me if I had a problem eating them. "I hate them alive and enjoy them dead," was all I could come up with. She laughed with a certain mischievous disbelief but then asked me if I could tell the difference between fresh eggs and eggs that had been in the store awhile. Loving her intrigue I said, "The only true way to know if they are fresh is to squeeze them out of the chicken yourself." "Oh my gosh," her curiosity rising, "did you really do that?" "No, but once my mom needed eggs for a cake and my Dad did." She laughed and said she would like to follow an egg from the time it leaves the chicken all the way to her dish.
Throughout the meal, Lil bubbled over with conversation. "Dad said you had a horse when you were growing up. That is my dream!" We went on to talk about everything from horses to clothes to haircuts and acting. I'm pretty sure we both fell in love that day. Or at least I did. It was the most connected I had felt in a conversation in a long time.
The house I grew up in in Vermont has always been somewhat of a holy ground to me. My best friend calls it Tara. It's a big deal if I take someone there. One weekend, Jimmy, Lil, and I headed to Vermont to hang out. Lil was a bit stressed since she had to memorize her scenes to play Helena in a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at her Shakespeare camp. We practiced together, and she was great. I wasn't a bad Demetrius either. She said, "I have found Demetrius like a jewel, mine own, and not mine own," and it rolled off her tongue like she was talking about her favorite dessert.
We laughed about all the thous and thees and thines. She asked why they talked like that, and I answered, "You'll have to study that in college; I have no idea." She then said what I later learned was a pretty regular response to many questions: "My mother might know." Through those "My mother might know" responses, I came to love her mom too. But every time Lil mentioned her, I could feel the pain of divorce oozing out of her pores. In fact, she made me feel I wanted her parents to get back together and live happily ever after just so I could relieve her eleven-year-old hurt. Is this what it's like to have a kid? You don't want them to feel any pain? When it comes to the kids in my life, I always think of Bruce Springsteen's song where he says, "If I had one wish, in this godforsaken world, kids, that your mistakes would be your own, that your sins would be your own." But with Lil, it felt like she suffered the mistakes of her parents, not herself. I had such empathy for this kid I was starting to adore.
I wanted Lil to have good memories of her childhood. But that's what most parents want, right? So off we went into the woods in my family's all-terrain vehicle. Lil was a total nature kid, at least in the book sense. She loved wildlife and, thanks to her Dad, had quite a bit of knowledge about endangered species. So darn if she didn't spot a turtle right by our path. We stopped and stared for what felt like forever before we decided to take it up to the house to show everybody. Me picking him up with my bare hands made Lil scream, but she was smiling from ear to ear when we arrived back at the house and showed him off. My sister immediately found some nail polish so Lil could put her initials on our new turtle friend's shell. I had been painting turtles since I was a kid, so I was glad Lil was into it too. She looked at Jimmy to get approval for such a savage act of joy. He looked perplexed, evidently conflicted because he was trying to figure out where nail polish on turtles fit into his environmental concerns. "Okay, just do it," he finally surrendered with a big smile. Lil painted her bright red initials carefully, right across that turtle's back. We took some pictures, bid farewell, and set Turtle-Guy free to find his friends and family. We hoped the humiliation of a makeover wouldn't be too much for him to bear. Lil reminded us that manicures do wear off, which seemed to calm Jimmy's nerves considerably.
Back in the city a few weeks later, Lil and I were doing one of our favorite things: walking Pip, their reality-escaping beagle. She said, "I picked you." "Who? What? Where?" I said. She giggled and repeated, "I picked you." Maybe she could see I wasn't sure what she was talking about. "Dad was dating three women, and I picked you." I answered, "Gee, that is such a nice compliment. Thanks." "Yeah, he was dating a general from the Army [wow, what competition] and another lady with a stupid name [relieved the name "Henriette" isn't stupid] so I picked you." How was I supposed to say anything to answer this sweet, naive, kind, and interested eleven-year-old? We kept yakety-yakking while I went a little nuts because Jimmy had told me I was the only one he was dating, and who was I not to believe him? Right? Oh no, was this another bad-choice boyfriend? And if so, whose feelings do I consider first? Lil's? Mine? Jimmy's? Why the hell was Jimmy sharing the details of his love life with his eleven-year-old daughter anyway? God, was this his fatherly way? To talk to his daughter about his love life? Yuck. I thought of my friend Jill's divorce agreement where she and her ex couldn't even introduce their kids to their respective love interests until they were in the picture for a year. Or my friend Sheila, who told me that the thing that screwed her up the most in life was the revolving door of girlfriends her Dad had while she was growing up. Wait a sec, I'm not her mom, I have no say in what her Dad tells her and how. But what's my role as an adult in this relationship? Was I a step-girlfriend? Is this the kind of crap married parents argue about? Who decides how and what information to give a kid? Good God, this wasn't even my kid; why was I getting so freaked out? I felt like I was falling in love with Lil and starting to look at her father in a very different way, especially if this eleven-year-old's perceptions were on the mark.
Now are you starting to see why I've never wanted kids? My choice in beaus has always blown chunks, to put it nicely. Could this be another one of those choices?
Toward the end of the summer, I went to Los Angeles to work for a week. I got home on the red-eye and was absolutely exhausted. I woke up at 11:00 AM to a text from Jimmy. Only it was Lil. "Are you home? It's Lil!! Dad and I want to know if you can come over!!!" I texted back that I was really tired but yeah, I'd love to come over in the afternoon. "Yippeeeeeeeeeeeeee," she sent. Her favorite thing to say was "Yippee," and I have to say I just don't hear that word enough. I hadn't seen either Lil or the man I truly missed for ten days. When I got off the subway, Lil came running toward me, in a sweet skirt and top that matched. She had her long light brown hair in braids and a huge smile on her face. She hugged me and said, "I missed you and I LOVE your pants." I answered, "I missed you and I love your skirt." Jimmy came a little more slowly with Pip and hugged me too. I could feel something was off. Maybe he was just tired. Or maybe I was tired, or we were both tired. He said he was glad our pack was back intact.
When I was growing up, my friend Susan always had a boyfriend. By the time we were thirty, she had already been divorced twice with one kid from each marriage. Along the way, I was always a loyal friend and defended her choices in men to my mom, who would say, "She's in love with love, not him." I started to wonder if I was in love with being part of a family unit and that it didn't really matter who was in it. Wait, I knew I loved Lil. But as for her father . . .
We got back to their apartment, and I realized how exhausted I was from my trip. After dinner Lil wanted to watch a movie, but I could barely keep my eyes open. They both agreed it was okay if I retired early.
Call me old-fashioned, but I had not yet gotten over the nervousness of sleeping over with Jimmy when Lil was there, so I had packed my cutest summer pajamas to let her know it was all about fun. I was brushing my teeth, and sure enough Lil came in and said, "I love those pajamas. They are so happy. I'd like to get my mom some just like that." Scared to tell her they were half price at Victoria's Secret (probably the least sexy thing in the catalog) I said, "Oh, next time I go by the place where I got them I'll see if they have some for your mom." She was absolutely delighted especially, I think, that I mentioned her mom with love. She didn't seem used to her mom being a positive character around her Dad's house. But I had nothing against her mom. In fact, I kinda liked her mom. Sometimes Jimmy would say something about her mom in disgust and resentment, and when I would just hit the mute button instead of confirming his opinion, I realized how much resentment there was, at least from his side. Lil had to have felt it too.
I woke up in the morning to find Jimmy and Lil already out in the kitchen. Lil was talking a blue streak, and Jimmy was trying to make her some breakfast. Lil came over and gave me a hug, "Good morning." Jimmy handed me a cup of coffee. Then he went to the living room with his laptop and started reading whatever it was he read every morning for hours. It didn't occur to me then, but now I realize he was probably finding out what the "other woman" was up to. Something was sure going on with this guy, and if he wasn't going to tell me, I was just going to go along in my happy way till the dam broke—and I could feel it starting to give. Other times in my life I had pushed too hard, too soon with men about issues they didn't want to talk about. So he was reaping the benefits of the other bongo-brains I had dated and would not get pushed by me. At least not yet.
So for our Sunday morning time, Jimmy was in the chair and Lil and I were on the sofa joking around while we tried in the usual futile way to get Pip to roll over. "Roll over," we would both say through our giggling, and we'd put a treat on the other side of him. Poor Pip seemed confused, but the excitement we both had at even the thought of Pip actually doing some tricks overrode all order. Lil literally pushed Pip to roll over and then gave him the snack with a loud, "Yippee Pippy!" Neither one of us could stop laughing.
Pip just wasn't cooperating with his two crazy trainers, so I jokingly suggested maybe we should turn him in for a new model. All of the sudden Jimmy raised his voice and said, "Don't talk to my daughter like that!" I looked at him in shock. Lil snapped to my defense, "Dad lighten up . . ." We both laughed kind of nervously, so to break the tension, I grabbed Lil to tickle her and teased, "I was only kidding, I was only kidding, I love Pip, I love you . . ." With that Jimmy got up and announced he was taking Pip out for a walk. Lil looked at me like, "Oooh-KAY!"
After he was gone, Lil said, "I'm sorry my Dad is so grouchy. He's always that way in the morning." "Oh my gosh Lil, you don't ever have to apologize for him; it's okay if he is in a grouchy mood; we all are sometimes." She was obviously relieved that I didn't hold it against her. The look on her face made me wonder what the hell Jimmy had put his eleven-year-old through. I started to think about when I was that age, about how I would try to cover up for my mom's depressed/angry behavior. Even though it hurt me, as long as I apologized to the outside world, life would be fine. So Lil had turned into me. I had turned into my dad, who was always overcompensating for Mom's behavior and trying to just let my eleven-year-old butt have fun, and, gee, guess who Jimmy was? He was my depressed and angry mom. At least that was the way it was when I was eleven. Now my mom will be the first one to tell you that bringing up kids was the joy of her life. I wish she had told me then. But instead back then, my brother and I would make each other laugh, and suddenly it was all forgotten. Lil didn't have a brother, but she did have me, and I wasn't about to let this kid feel like I was anything but positive. One time I asked a friend of mine who is an only child why she and her wonderful only-child husband didn't want kids. She answered, "We decided to stop the madness and put an end to the tragedy that would be called 'family.'" All I could reply to her was, "Boy, I feel ya on that one."
Breaking my reverie (and I was deep into it) Lil said, "Hey, let's do the morning dance before Dad gets back." I had taught Lil this silly "morning dance" that I had made up about forty years before to irritate my brother. What you do is sing, "Good morning, good morning, it's a beautiful morning!" while dancing wildly in any way you feel with total delight just waffling through you. Of course I took her up on the offer, and we both did the morning dance with reckless abandon. We flopped on the couch in exhaustion, laughing, when Jimmy walked back in. He went straight to the kitchen.
Lil grabbed a book just like I had at that age when I felt tension in the house. I went to the kitchen to refill my coffee and give Jimmy a kiss on the neck. "Wow, you smell like cigarettes," I said. "Yeah, I started smoking while you were gone. I've had some drinks too," he replied. I had no idea what to say. I retreated to the living room with a chill through my heart. Early on in the relationship, I had broken up with him because I saw the addiction issues. But like a good addict, he had calmed my nerves and told me he was quitting everything. And I honestly believe he did. Until he didn't.