New Year’s reminded me I’m married to a fence-sitter

On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I were finally able to open two sealed envelopes that had been sitting in a file since 2010. “January 1, 2020,” each read on the front.

The first time we’d wanted to open them had been on New Year’s Eve of 2017/2018, believing, Surely ten years have passed since we made our lists…. But, no. We’d had to wait two more years to find out what ten things each of us in 2009/2010 had hoped we would do, experience, or accomplish by 2019/2020.

We cheated by opening them on Dec. 31 instead of Jan. 1.

He opened his first. The folded piece of paper inside warned him again: Don’t open until New Year’s 2019/2020!  I opened mine. Same message.

With warnings like that, my expectations were high. What mind-blowing things could we have written?!

(Mine were less mind-blowing than embarrassing. “What the hell,” one read, “why not: I hope you got a movie deal from one of your books.” A girl can—or, did—dream.)

We read our lists aloud over the beers we were drinking at the kitchen island. His number 1, my number 1. His number 2, my number 2. And so on.

Most of what we’d hoped for was to be expected: we both wanted our relationship to still be strong, we both wanted to have seen forward movement in the things we were interested in, wanted to have maintained or improved our respective friendships with other people, wanted to

resolve having a family – not having one – adopting – whatever. Figure it out.

“What?” I said. I watched him, his face. “Resolve what? What family? What adoption?”

He said, “I think we sort of talked about it.”

I tried to remember.

We were 35 when we wrote those lists. I knew that. Married five years. I remembered the house we lived in, the cats we had, the job he had, the stories I was reading at the time as a lit journal editor. I remembered the design of the sheer curtains in the bedroom window, FFS.

I remembered no conversations about “family,” adopted or otherwise, and as someone who has always very much never wanted to be a parent, I was almost sure that exchange isn’t one I’d forget.

Then again, if – for me – adoption was never a serious consideration, maybe I could forget.

Either way, that anything on his end had ever had to be “resolved,” or figured out, about children was more than a surprise to me.

It shouldn’t have been. We’ve known each other since we were 17, writing letters and then emails to keep in touch after moving to different parts of the country following high school graduation.

In his previous marriage, I knew, he and his wife had wanted children (before they divorced for unrelated reasons). So, I’d known he would at the very least be open to having kids.

He, similarly, had always known I didn’t want kids and that my first two marriages had ended in part because my ex-husbands did want them (more on that in Childfree Girls’ Love & Romance episode).  

By the time we decided to be together, I’d more than learned how important it was to be concrete-solid in any explanation of how I saw my future. I told him that being with me meant not ever having children.

It was fine, he said. He used the word “ambivalent,” comparing having children to being given a Ferrari: sure, it’d be nice to be given a Ferrari, but he could just as easily live without one.

I’m sure it occurred to me at the time that he was using a Ferrari as the example and not a Honda automatic or a gold minivan, but what mattered more was the word “ambivalence,” and what mattered even more was that he wanted to be with me, period, he said. With or without children.

He was (and is) someone who knows what he wants and doesn’t cave to the desires of others, so there was no reason to doubt or question him. Even so, now and then I’d feel a tickle of fear that he was giving up something to be with me.

What if he was less ambivalent than he thought he was? Or, what if the ambivalence eventually tilted off balance into something more one-sided? What if he someday regretted not having kids and resented me for it?

 It feels hypocritical as a childfree person to play the “regret” bingo square. Nothing frustrates me more than having someone express “concern” over the future emotional well-being of childfree people with, “What if you regret it!!@!???”

The difference here is that he was never childfree. He was always a fence-sitter. Not in the indecisive way, but in the could-take-it-or-leave-it kind of way. It’s the “could take it” part that was always concerning. Saying “could take it” to a complete overhaul of your existence and to a lifetime commitment to a child is no small thing.

And that he’d so easily included “adoption” on his New Year’s list was disconcerting, because it indicated that he wasn’t driven by a pronatalist (or narcissistic, for that matter) imperative to reproduce or procreate; he was interested in actual parenting. He would enjoy, or would have enjoyed, being responsible for and taking care of a child.

Time warped in the space between us over the kitchen island as I processed that item on his list.

I reminded myself it was written ten years ago and that adoption hadn’t come up since.  

My expression must have been transparent. I probably looked like I was waiting to be punched in the face.

“It’s number nine of ten,” he said. “It’s not like it’s number one on the list.”

That was true. It was number nine.

But it was on the list.

Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novel The Age of the Child, “a conjecture of what could happen if the government gets too controlling of reproduction. The reasons people do want to and do not want to have children and what it means to be a child of both types of parents are explored keenly.” ( Amazon review)

3 Comments

  1. Dear Kristen,

    I wouldn’t worry about the letter. Even if he really was insistent on adoption, it’s not nearly as bad as having your body used as an incubation chamber if you know what I mean. That’s why I’m ultra-focused on antinatalism, with childfree being just one part of it. I wouldn’t even mind if my partner wanted to adopt children, personally, but I better have known them for a long time otherwise I’d be divorced and paying some child support for almost no reason at all. All I care about is the breeding aspect of society, it’s not just that I don’t want to breed kids but I also think it’s immoral because the harm of another person’s life independent of one’s own can never be fully accounted for. And that’s like, the main thing I’m focused on in terms of outreach. And yeah, definitely I will be childfree almost indefinitely unless I get married to someone for like 5+ years and they want to ADOPT (instant divorce settlement though if she wants to get preg, especially since I have a vasectomy).

    The great thing about the childfree community though is reassuring people that they don’t need to be parents to good people, that is why I enjoy being in the company of the childfree, and like I said will probably be childfree for the rest of my life unless my partner really wants to adopt. But I really felt the need to say–Just don’t overthink the letter, Kris! You’ve got a great thing going with your husband, don’t let it detract from your great relationship.

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  2. Hi, Elias! No worries here about anyone “using” my body as an incubator. 😉 And while I’m not an antinatalist but do agree adoption is a nobler option, there’s no desire on my part for children of any kind, from any place, in my day to day life.

    Thank you for your words of reassurance. I’m not afraid he’ll leave me – he’s pretty hooked (as am I) – but it’s natural to worry just a little bit that he might have twinges of longing for something he’ll never have while with me. (His life, his path, his choice. I’ll deal with my little guilts as they come.) – Kristen

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