It was early 2013, and Gigi, our local bartender, was asking how we came by the latest dog, a five-pound, nine-year-old chihuahua named Zsa Zsa. In addition to our maniac corgi-pug cross, Murray, we’d welcomed four foster dogs into our home over the previous year. (Not all at once; we’re not that crazy.) But the day before we were scheduled to meet new foster candidates, we got an e-mail from a local grooming and day-care place about this tiny, elderly chihuahua who needed a new home.
“Their second baby is on the way,” I said to Gigi. “And the first one’s sixteen months old. Sixteen-month-olds don’t mix well with five-pound dogs.”
Zsa Zsa’s bones feel impossibly fragile to me; it took two weeks before I could even properly understand her as a dog. In my hands, she feels roughly like a kitten, and her pleading bug eyes call to mind a baby bat, or that slow loris on YouTube. My husband, Al, called her “Fetus” for the first month we had her. When she wants to come up to the couch, she’ll climb onto your wrist and cling to it like a baby monkey, so you can give her a lift one-handed.
Outside, she snuffles along the sidewalk like a tiny, truffle-hunting boar, making noises exactly like the pigs in Angry Birds.
Zsa Zsa evokes all kinds of animals, but several of my friends and family members maintain to this day: That is not a dog.
“I don't understand her old owners,” Al said to Gigi. “I mean, they got a chihuahua, and then had a baby.” Gigi, not a dog person, looked confused.
After years of owning dogs, fostering, volunteering, and generally being borderline bonkers about the subject, I have developed some opinions on what you do, and what you don’t do, when it comes to dogs. Above all, if you’re going to get a dog, you think about what your life is like now, and what it will be like for the next 15 years or so, and you pick the animal that will fit into that picture. If you have kids or plan to, you get a sturdy, doofy retriever who will lie there stoically while chubby little fists grab his ears and tail. If you’re going to travel a lot, you get a purse dog who fits in an underseat carrier. If you need to herd sheep, you pick a Border Collie over an Irish Setter or a Cocker Spaniel. You use some common sense, is what you do. You think it through.
So I don’t even need half a second before I jump in and explain, in perfect unison with my husband: “You don’t get a chihuahua if you’re going to have a baby!”
Technically, officially, I was still ambivalent about having kids in early 2013. I mean, I just told you how hard I thought about getting dogs, so you can imagine how that decision played out. Once I checked financial stability, a good partner, and sufficiently sown wild oats off the list of Reasons Why I Am Not Ready, I was left with my own brain, which rarely goes well for me.
At that point, I was 38 years old and recently diagnosed with a large uterine fibroid, which had been wreaking havoc on pretty much everything between my ribcage and my thighs for some time. Chances were good that we'd need expensive medical assistance to create a viable embryo, if we suddenly wanted one. And even so, we remained vigilant about birth control.
But technically, officially, I remained ambivalent! For years, even as I privately, obsessively weighed all of our options, Al and I kept agreeing to dismiss the topic with “Well, never say never!” And I still hadn't said, “Never.”
If Al and I were to have a biological child, it would be smart and fat; that’s as close to a genetic guarantee as you’re going to get. The list of other things our child would stand some chance of inheriting, from one or both sides, includes:
- Major Depression
- Bipolar Disorder
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Binge Eating Disorder
- Addiction (multiple, most likely: alcohol, drugs, gambling, cigarettes)
- Diabetes (Type 1)
- Diabetes (Type 2)
- Heart disease
- Assorted cancers
- Alzheimer’s Disease
Said heart disease killed my grandfather in his thirties, and my mother in her early sixties. The cancer took a few great aunts and uncles on both sides before their time. But as you can plainly see, the greatest potential source of suffering for my hypothetical child would be its own brain.
Here is the paradox I kept struggling with: I loved this child who didn't exist too much to let it exist. How could I inflict all of that potential suffering on the most important person in my life?
Most of all, though, I couldn't imagine inflicting childhood on my own child.
I hated being a kid. And I was never any good at it, either. When I was 3 years old and my ballet teacher asked me what color butterfly I wanted to be, I said “beige.” Like most people, I spent my entire childhood wishing I were a grown-up; unlike most people, I didn’t get to be a grown-up and start waxing nostalgic about childhood.
I love being an adult. I love smoking—I quit four years ago, but it’s still on the list, I loved it that much—drinking, having sex, having not one but two dogs, swearing, eating cookies for breakfast, staying in hotels with pools even if they’re more expensive, and sitting at the big table. All of those things are every bit as good as I imagined; not a disappointment in the bunch. I love adulthood more than just about anything on earth besides my husband and dogs.
Raising a child, under the best of circumstances, involves listening to children’s music, playing children’s games, reading children’s books, and going entire days conversing with no one over the age of 5—which is mostly stuff I hated when I was 5. I can enjoy all that stuff in small doses, and I find the children of my siblings and friends extremely charming, but every time I thought about committing to years of it, and putting people I love through years of it, I came right back to the same conclusion: I love the kid I don’t yet have too much to actually have the kid.
I mean, as I understand it, having a baby is pretty much instant, powerful, overwhelming love. So there I’d be, with this tiny, fragile creature I would lay down my life for, like, “Hello, new human! I have brought you to this world to spend several years doing things neither one of us will particularly enjoy, which will probably lead to at least one long depressive episode for me—and maybe for you, too! Did I mention there are all sorts of diseases I might have passed on to you already? And that I have some of them, which will limit my ability to be the mother you deserve? Yeah, so that’s where we’re starting out, and I haven’t even told you about bullies or algebra yet.”
You know when Buffy dies to save the world, and her friends do a spell to bring her back from Hell, and she mopes around ungratefully for ages, until she finally admits she was actually in Heaven? She's pissed because her stupid friends ripped her out of there and brought her back to the far less peaceful and pleasant Earth.
I don’t actually believe in an afterlife, let alone a pre-life, but I still couldn't shake the worry that that’s what it would be like if I had a kid.
And yet. I was still technically ambivalent.
In the summer of 2013, after several months of dicking around with stuff that didn’t help, I finally saw a new gynecologist about the fibroid. She said I had three options, all surgical, and if I didn't care about preserving my fertility, she recommended hysterectomy. If I let her take my whole uterus, there would be no chance of recurrence.
I had to admit the evidence pointed to me not caring about preserving my fertility; I was 38 and a half, the same age my mother was when she had me—her fourth—and had never made any effort to use it. Plus, even if I chose a less invasive surgery, I'd be left with an aging uterus full of scar tissue. Was there even a point in trying to save it?
But I still couldn't quite allow myself to make a decisive declaration that I was never having kids, because there was still one big thing weighing against my hatred of childhood and DNA littered with misery: Nearly everyone who has one says that children are the greatest joy, the greatest love you can possibly know as a human being.
Giving up on that is not nothing.
At home that night, cradling Zsa Zsa while I rubbed her tiny belly, I finally asked Al how he really felt about the matter, beyond “Never say never.”
“Do you think …” I stammered. “Do we want to have a baby?”
“No!” he said, not a trace of doubt—or unkindness—in his voice. He pointed at the dog in my arms. “You already have a baby.”
Now, for as much as I’m a crazy dog person, I am not the type who calls my dogs “fur children” or thinks of what I do with them as parenting. Zsa Zsa is categorically not my “baby” in that sense. But she is the smaller of two dependent creatures I’ve chosen to care for at the moment, who are both allowed to poop and vomit all over my stuff and irritate me and disobey me and cry at me for no obvious reason and still get my unconditional love. And when Al pointed that out, it finally hit me that even if I did miss out on the greatest love you can possibly know as a human being, I was actually just fine with the amount I already had.
I had Al, who would have told the doctors to surgically remove any body part I didn't strictly need, if it would make me feel a tiny bit better. And the dogs, who cracked me up and melted my heart every day. And my Dad and siblings and nieces and nephews, and my friends and their charming children. Basically, I was a happy person (provided I took my meds every day). Was it really worth taking any number of huge risks in pursuit of the greatest possible reward?
Instead of trying to “have it all,” why couldn't I choose having enough?
It's been almost a year since I had the hysterectomy. Everything between my rib cage and thighs is doing much better, thanks, and I'm approaching my 40th birthday with no regrets. People have asked if it feels strange or sad to be missing such a symbolically loaded organ, but in the end, it triggered no more angst than surrendering my appendix or gallbladder would. I took a gamble and the result was ideal: I made significant gains, and lost nothing I couldn’t afford to lose. At some point, wanting anything more is just plain greedy.