I’ll Never Be a Father. Finally, I’m Okay with It.

a person holding their hands up
I’ll Never Be a Father. Finally, I’m Okay with It.getty images

My girlfriend and I sat on the couch of our new apartment in the happy daze that comes after a big move. Most of the boxes unpacked but no art hanging yet, the fresh smell of newly painted walls tempered by the cool autumn air drifting in from an open window where we could hear the sounds of the elevated subway in the distance. After a year and a half together, we’d made the first leap. The apartment already felt cozy. I reached for Emily’s hand, told her how much I loved the place and our life together and how incredible it would be one day when we could start a family.

Her eyes got big as she pulled her hand away. When she broke the silence, she said, “I don’t want kids,” incredulous, as if I already knew. We retreated to opposite sides of the couch in disbelief. We’d been so cautious, so thoughtful about everything in our relationship up to that point.

How in the hell had we not discussed this?

I always assumed I’d be a father. I like kids, and they tend to like me, too. Not having them had never occurred to me. Talk about a potential deal-breaker. After all, as Emily said, “You can’t have half a kid.”

We turned to therapy. Once a week, we trudged downtown to a couples therapist in Greenwich Village, who taught us to listen to each other and argue with decorum. I knew Emily couldn’t give birth because she’d suffered from Crohn’s disease and ensuing complications since her early twenties, but I thought she might still be able to parent. Now in her early thirties, she explained that even before her illness she’d never wanted to be a mother.

a person's legs in black pants and boots
getty images

Life is hard enough, she said. She could only eat certain foods and generally felt exhausted. How could she care for a child, and do it well, when she barely had the energy to manage herself? And what if something happened to me? Where would that leave her?

I offered alternatives: We could adopt—I wasn’t hung up on a child looking like us; we could foster an older kid; we could have a live-in nanny (great, with what money?). Then came this suggestion: I could volunteer to be a Big Brother or coach youth sports. I burned with resentment at these substitutes to the real thing.

The truth is, I’d known about Emily’s health restrictions but refused to accept reality—just as I’d deceived myself that by working in show business, I’d been living out my dreams, not my father’s. He worked in TV production; I worked in editing rooms on feature films. Not the same at all, I reasoned. He imagined being a famous producer while toiling as a unit production manager for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and later during a stint on Saturday Night Live, as well as with a young cable station, ESPN. More often, unemployed, he whistled away the days at the Ginger Man, where he had his own phone behind the bar and boasted that, pound for pound, he was the best drinker in the place. My grandfather once told him, “You know, beer isn’t exactly in your cultural heritage.” But Dad never responded well to being told what he couldn’t do or be.

“You don’t want me driving a cab, do you?” he once said to my mother, who thought it sounded like a fine idea with bills to pay and young children to feed.

“I think that one of my real problems is this hope for the big kill,” he wrote to a friend shortly after turning forty. “I’m so deeply in debt right now that only selling a winner will ever get me out. I am truly tired of being poor, and that’s exactly what I am. I intend to change that as soon as possible.” It never happened, and my father carried debt to his grave when he died a few months before his seventieth birthday.

At eleven years old, I sat in the back of a taxicab with him one afternoon, the year my parents divorced. We sped up Central Park West, his eyes glassy as he smoked a Pall Mall. The cab stopped at a red light, and the smell of weed seeped in through the open window. I asked if it was pot we smelled. “How would you know what pot is?” he said. He didn’t partake. I stuttered, “Um-um-um,” and he raised his voice. “Um-um-um.” He said I didn’t know what I was talking about. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, drawing me close. He smelled of cigarettes and sweat, vodka and pear soap. “If I ever catch you smoking pot, I’ll break your fucking arm.”

I knew he was a liar, and also that he loved me. He wouldn’t really hurt me physically. “We’re so alike, you and me,” he’d say. “If you just listen, you can avoid some of the mistakes I made.”

After my sophomore year in high school, he wrote to a friend: “Alex discovered the written word somewhere toward the end of last spring and is now full of himself and it, whilst he gobbles Hemingway (sucky) and Faulkner (awesome) and Kael (genius), an eclectic diet—a word I promise you he doesn’t know.”

That summer, he assigned me a research project comparing Star Wars and Gone with the Wind. I hated doing it, and after I handed him the finished copy, he wrote to the same friend: “I’ve sent Alex a critique which was gentle but firm in keeping him aware of the fact that though he’s reasonably facile with the language and had a pretty firm grip on the ideas with which he was dealing, he still had a way to go before he could call his writing ‘finished.’ ” He graded the paper C+.

In my twenties, I worked in editing rooms for Ken Burns, Woody Allen, and the Coen brothers with dreams of one day being a famous director. Dad took pride in how I navigated the vagaries of the freelance life. But I wasn’t very good as an assistant editor; it took several years to admit it, and a few more before I walked away, a failure. Like him.

If I didn’t best my father professionally, then at least I could be a better parent. I wanted to produce and direct a whole life. But this time, I would get the casting, the scenes, and the lines right.

Are you less of a person if you don’t have a child? Emily and I were childless—this, years before the term “child-free” entered the lexicon. When I saw a kid napping on their parent’s chest on the 1 train or walking hand-in-hand in Van Cortlandt Park, I knew I’d never experience that poignant bond deeper than the one that exists between partners.

Weeks, then years went by in therapy before we got married. Sometimes I resented Emily. Sometimes she resented my resentment. Was it worth leaving? Maybe, but I didn’t. I finally had to accept that children were not part of our future and feared a lifetime of regret lay ahead.

Before long, siblings and friends started having kids and baby pictures dominated our inbox, mailbox, social-media accounts. Our parents didn’t pressure us, and for that we felt grateful.

Strangers, however, didn’t hesitate to offer unsolicited opinions when I said we didn’t have children. “What’s the matter with you?” asked the guy behind the counter at the pork-sausage store, a look of pity and disdain etched on his face. “You’re being selfish,” said a co-juror in the Bronx during a break from grand jury service. I told him he was out of line, that my wife couldn’t have kids, which shut him up. More often, when someone asked, “Why don’t you have children?” like the woman at the local café cash register, I said, “I had my tubes tied.”

At least that’s what I told people I said. I never had the nerve to actually say it.

One day, a few years into marriage, I attended a baby shower for a coworker in an airless conference room that smelled of apple juice, plastic cups, and cheap cake frosting. I excused myself just after the toasts, my rudeness noted by my manager’s glare, and dipped into the office of a colleague and shut the door. A devout Catholic and father of two girls, he and I usually talked about sports and office business. I sat down and began to cry as I told him how tough it was not being a parent. He looked at me with compassion and said, “It’s not God’s will.” I’d never been religious but envied his faith and found solace in the tender way he looked at me.

I knew I’d been spared the omnipresent anxiety that accompanies parenthood. I watched parents deal with things they had probably never anticipated, kids suffering from physical or emotional problems. Emily and I filled the space—not a void but a space—with each other, with work, and with the things that interested us. I’m an uncle to a few nieces and a nephew and became part of their lives. And I still enjoyed being with kids—only other people’s kids.

I’m not sure when it happened, exactly, but a decade into our marriage, I found that I liked my life. I loved my wife even more than before. I made a career and enjoyed dear friendships with an array of fascinating people. The regret I’d predicted never arrived.

When I used to dream about fatherhood, I imagined having a son. I thought I’d succeed where my father had failed; I’d show him, I thought, never considering that his flaws could be instructive, or that as a parent I might become a more forgiving son.

A therapist once told me, “You should sit down and write yourself a Father’s Day card and send it to yourself in the mail. It’s a good exercise, even if it sounds silly.” She’s right. It did sound silly.

Recently, while out of town on business, I decided, “Why not?” Being away from home made it seem less awkward. I sat in a hotel room late one night, the buzz of traffic and an ambulance’s siren in the background, and wrote in longhand on two sides of a page of hotel stationery. When I got home, the letter sat in our black mailbox covered in a yellow film of spring pollen, along with two other personal letters: one from my cousin’s husband, whose father died this past spring; the second from a writer I’ve known for fifteen years but have never met in person. He played high school football for his old man and adores his teenage daughter, who will soon leave for college.

My father believed in letter writing as a way to articulate his feelings. “Something about the efficacy of the written word,” as he put it to a friend. He wrote to tenants’ unions, bill collectors and banks, colleagues, paramours, ex-wives, cousins, his sister, and especially to his children. He wrote to us even though we lived nearby and despite the fact that he could’ve easily called us on the phone—the letters were always typed, which gave them an air of legitimacy and professionalism, if not intimacy.

“It is important for you to build your sense of self,” he wrote to my twin sister and me on August 4, 1985, after we returned to our mom’s home following a month of living with him. “To realize that there are things that are yours and for which you do not have to answer, to me, to Mom, to anyone. I think in many areas you need to come to understand that it’s nice if others think well of you but it doesn’t matter really if you think well of yourself.…I’m very full of pleasure and pride and I think, since I’ve been known to take you both down a couple of pegs when I think you’re out of line, by the same token, I should tell you when I think you’re Aces. And right now I do.”

He ended, as he always did, with “Your ever lovin’ ” and then signed his name at the bottom in beautiful calligraphy. His life might have been a mess, but his hand was not.

He gave me this gift of letters. I still believe in letter writing, too, but not as a way to better express myself, merely to let people know I’m thinking of them. After all, who gets a letter in the mail anymore?

I want to be a good son and forgive my father. Sometimes, in my mind, I can. But rereading his letters, I struggle to find the grace. My heart hasn’t forgotten. I didn’t think of him at all, though, after reading my friends’ letters. I picked up the one I had sent to myself and examined the scrawled handwriting on the envelope, excited by the promise of what waited inside.

You Might Also Like