One day I was riding the train home with my niece and we were cuddling. Technically, she’s the 5-year-old daughter of one of my cousins but it’s easier to call her my niece. I love her. She asks me a million questions about everything, which is to be expected from a child, but she never asks me questions about why I am who I am (a trans man), which I wish could be expected from adults.
A middle-aged man next to us on the train smiled at our affection and then asked if she was my only kid. “Oh she’s not mine really, she is my niece,” I told him.
“She loves you so much! You got any of your own?” he replied.
“No, thank the lord,” I said, laughing.
“How old are you?” he asked, seeming surprised by my childlessness.
“How did a guy like you make it to 30 and not have any kids, even by accident?” he said, both impressed and amused.
“Um, I don’t know, I guess I am just really careful,” I offered, shaking my head, knowing that this justification was ridiculous. “You’re a smart one then,” he replied, and launched into a story about his own son who had a few unplanned children.
I don’t necessarily believe that I am a smart one, though. Just a lucky one. Maybe it’s because I have always been a bit reckless with everything from my sexual relationships to my bills, but I have a suspicion that if I were capable of impregnating someone, I most likely would already have enough children to play a solid game of 3-on-3.
There have been times that I have felt sad to not be able to just conceive by making sweet love to my partner. Still, I think there have been more times, usually after being on an airplane with new parents and a screaming child, or hearing cis men whine about condoms, that I have felt more lucky than limited.
But my father just turned 70, my mother is not far behind him, and I think they feel a window closing. I am the youngest of my siblings — my two sisters are 35 and 37. Both of them are queer, and they have made it very clear that they are not going to have children. My oldest sister is partnered with a trans man. My middle sister mainly dates herself, and when she makes a rare exception to this rule, it is to date masculine women. My parents are probably as good as it gets when it comes to supporting and loving their queer children. But I still can’t help but wonder if they sometimes wish they had at least one straight child, upping their chances of getting a gaggle of grandchildren to fill up their final decades of this life.
My parents’ only hope of being grandparents lies with me — their 30-year old trans son.
My parents’ only hope of being grandparents lies with me — their 30-year old trans son who goes back and forth between sobriety and weed addiction, between being a ho and being booed up, and who recently quit his teaching job to pursue the two easiest fields to make a living in — writing and comedy.
I’m a wild card. Some days I feel so satisfied. And other days, life feels predictably pointless — no matter how much I write, how much I laugh with my friends, or how much good sex I have. Then I see a toddler react to blown bubbles with the amount of enthusiasm and wonder I would probably exhibit if launched into outer space. That cracks open a window in me. I think to myself, All right, I need one of those.
Then I quickly remember that my main form of sustenance for the past month has been honey turkey on a roll, and a baby can’t eat that for at least a year. And I live in an apartment with three other adults and potential black mold and I love doing shrooms and dancing until 5 a.m. Plus, there are too many humans alive already who don’t have what they need and the planet is dying anyway. The window slams shut.
Lately, it feels like my parents have given up hope on the “grandparents chapter” of their lives, which they assumed would be (the last) part of their story. This manifests in morbid declarations of their limited time, long sighs, not-so-subtle jealousy when discussing all their siblings’ grandchildren, and an almost freakish adoration of their 25-pound tabby cat.
My father is a rabbi and my mother is an artist and an educator. In about 11 months my father will retire from 40 years in the rabbinate, and my parents will move from my Cincinnati hometown to the East Coast.
When I was home a few weeks ago my mother informed me that she had donated several boxes of baby clothes, books, and toys that she had been collecting over the 30-plus years of our lives, intended for her future grandchildren. When she told me this, my chest tightened.
I felt like she had spent years planning a party for me, poured her whole heart into it, and then I told her I had other, cooler plans. I felt my fear of living without her and symbiotic sadness for everything she regretted or missed, wrapped up with both my parents’ sadness about not having grandchildren. I feel it so much I am seriously considering finding a way to give them a kid, even though sadness seems like a terrible reason to bring a life into this world.
But I have seen many people, in my extended family and beyond, who are clearly in unhappy, unsatisfied marriages and choose to have children. I have witnessed men ignore their wives, but light up when speaking about their grandchildren.
I wonder if parents use children and grandchildren to feed a hunger for purpose and permanence that they can’t satiate on their own. In this way, we can try to avoid the inevitable dead ends in our own lives by creating more life, something that feels so powerful and significant.
And even when offspring aren’t the intention, sex can operate as an escape from pain, a distraction from how tedious life can be, a little seasoning when our days keep coming out bland. I know I have tried to fuck my sad away before. And if I were not trans, this sensual sadness might very well have co-fathered some children with me.
While the money and effort it would take for me to conceive a child no doubt affects my feelings about the matter, I think this hesitancy to have kids extends beyond my being trans. And while living outside of societal norms and not giving a damn about the expectations of straight society also plays a part in my attitude, I think this choice also extends beyond queerness.
Most of the straight people my age that I know are not parents, on purpose. My generation has been accused of being vain, self-centered, and immature. It does seem like we are resistant to “growing up” in certain ways. Or maybe we are just redefining it. It’s cool that we are prioritizing our friends, art, partying, youth, our freedom of time, over just making more humans to inherit a broken world! Or is it selfish and narcissistic? Like most things, I think it is a combination.
But maybe older generations should consider how having children is also self-centered in its own right, seeing as it is motivated in some ways by a fear of being forgotten. We want our legacy, our name, and our cheekbones to walk this earth long after we are physically gone.
If we are not in some kid’s family tree project as great-great-great-grandpa James, then were we really ever here? Having descendants is like a kind of tiny celebrity we can achieve.
And it’s true — my mother is the Beyoncé of my heart. (Correction: My mother and Beyoncé both own my heart.) My father is my own Rabbi Hillel. I love, cherish, and respect them. I will carry them with me, in me, and through me for as long as I’m alive.
But by not having children, I feel like I am disappointing them and robbing them of something that could bring happiness and, much more importantly, peace. That hurts my heart. (Which apparently then hurts their hearts, so I am doing double damage.)
What if after my parents are gone I regret my decision to not have children now, when they are here and could be grandparents and my children could know them? What if my parents are right and raising children is one of the most meaningful things we can do as people?
What if after my parents are gone I regret my decision to not have children now?
When I was home last month for my father’s 70th, I asked my parents why they thought raising children was so valuable. My father first said something to me about biology being at play, which I dismissed because biology and I have a fraught relationship. God and I, on the other hand, are real tight, which is why his next comment spoke to me. He said, “Children teach us that we are part of something infinitely bigger than ourselves and at the same time we are each immeasurably precious and important.” I have inherited from my father the desire that all humans have room within themselves for those two truths — we are precious and we are small, we are essential and we are just a piece, at the same damn time.
Unlike my father, I do not think that true recognition of these colossal concepts is necessarily part of the package of procreation. I fear many people raise children without ever grasping that they themselves, their children, and all humans are tremendously powerful and terrifyingly temporary. Maybe if raising a child guaranteed awareness of those things and fueled action to guarantee that not just certain lives were treated as precious, our world wouldn’t be so fucked right now.
I turned to my mother. She looked at me sweetly and then said, “I think my motivation in having you little chickens was to increase love. I think I wanted to approach parenting as a way of planting more love in the world.”
She added, “It seemed like a chance for me to create other people that would then create more love. Not much else in this life seems doable, but that seemed attainable... and really important.”
As a child, I was regularly told that I was loved and that I was important. I believe that kind of privilege is one of the most significant of the many privileges I possess. Strangely, as an adult, I feel like that is something I have been able to give back to my parents. I tell them all the time how loved they are, how incredibly important they are.
My mom couldn’t help herself, so she added without my asking, “I always thought that being a grandparent would be another way to love our own children. You know, by helping and loving your children.”
“Well, if you agree to nurture and love my child full-time, as in it lives with you and you feed it and pay its bills, then I’ll find a way to get you one now,” I said.
“You’re enough for us. Don’t worry,” they assured me. But I am worried.
I am worried I am not doing it right, that I am prioritizing the wrong things and living in a way that I will later regret. I am worried that I am letting them down, ruining the end of their lives, not being future-minded, that I will be old before I know it and then it will be too late. It’s all a gamble; rolling the dice means being responsible for a whole-ass human: The stakes are high, and the clock is ticking.
I was born at home with a midwife. My parents were so hippie that they planted my placenta under a rose bush. Every season, they send me a picture of the bush’s first blossom. This picture is usually blurry and off-center because they haven’t totally mastered digital photography yet. But it is cute and it makes me feel weird and special. I am trying to find a way to tell them that even if I never plant my own placenta rose bushes, they have given me more nutrients that I can even handle. That is why I try to overflow into others. My mother said she made me to plant more love in the world, so maybe in that way I am not failing her.
I send them my songs, my jokes, my poems and stories — these are my blurry blossom photos. These are the things grown from the seed of me that they planted and protected with their whole selves.
As they enter the final stretch of their lifetime, I am going to have to deal with loss. They will too. If I don’t have kids while they are alive, I am going to have to hold their hurt, knowing that hurt does not cancel out all the other true things we feel. And as they prepare to exist outside of physical form, as they deal with the fear of what happens when those of us who will remember them are also gone, there is only one thing I can think to tell them and show them: “You’re enough for us. Don’t worry.” ●
This story is part of a series about debts of all kinds.