“Even the most perfect reproduction … is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”
—Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
“The melody of mothers’ speech carries through the bodies and is audible in the womb.”
—Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct
“‘No!’ I said instantly and at once.”
—Imre Kertész, Kaddish for an Unborn Child
Writing prose is like giving birth. The sentence exits the womb reluctantly; it screams as it leaves the body. I’ve never given birth but I can imagine. I’m writing these sentences because I don’t want children. Dear Sophie, this is for you.
Everything about children is repugnant to me. Their shrieking in the park on what would be an otherwise peaceful afternoon. Their wailing on planes where I’m stuck with them thousands of miles in the air and somewhere west of Chicago. Their whining as they trail behind their parents on a beautiful path to the beach. The schmutz of a cookie still lingering on their faces. The pitch of their voices asking their incessant questions. A puddling infant who looks for all intents and purposes like my obese grandfather. I don’t feel what I’m supposed to feel—a sensation in my ovaries, I presume. No joy, no desire, no longing. I feel nothing but a wave of repulsion, and gratitude I’ve made it childless this far.
I thought I’d say this at the outset, so you know where I’m coming from.
However, regardless of this all, I must say that I feel you waiting, as it were, in the wings. Even as I ignore you, rage against you, push you away, you are still there. A deep, still presence, patient, expectant. Sometimes I wonder if I have any say in the matter at all. When you want to enter the world, you will, and I will just be the door you came in by.
Why do you want to live in this world, here in this time and place? By the time you are 30 you may live a daily catastrophe beyond my ability to imagine. You may live on a hot, drought-stricken earth as countries battle over what is left of its water. You may mourn the loss of the last animal species. You may be steeped in a culture so anxious and digitized that the human capacity for empathy, for connection and community, will be as obsolete as the rotary telephone. During your lifespan, even if I train you to live mindfully and simply, you will produce over one hundred tons of trash. It will cost me $200,000 to send you to college, or you will be saddled with a debt you will spend many decades paying. Over the course of your life, you will leave behind a mountain of coffee cups, thousands of plastic bags, hundreds of discarded shoes and jeans and cellphones. You will contribute to the Pacific gyre with your water bottles and toothpaste caps. Your existence will add to child labor, fracking, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, factory farming, and climate change. As a native speaker of American English, you will write, sing, recite poetry, and make love in the language that is overtaking the world like a virus, endangering cultural and linguistic diversity. Even if I raised you, as I would, to be conscious of your ecologic footprint, to live simply and work for the earth, to eat grassfed beef and grow your own vegetables—even if, in the best case scenario, you grew up to be an artist, a peace activist, a human rights lawyer, a teacher, a homesteader—your very existence would add stress to a much overburdened earth. And that’s the best case scenario. You might vote Republican. You might be a software engineer. You might not care for the earth at all.