In Theory

Can I be honest with you?

I hope so. In my writing, here and otherwise, it’s all I try to do. Truth in fiction is about verisimilitude, and clarity, and refinement of ideas. Truth in real life, though, is a bit different.

I met my wife in 2004, when I was newly twenty-five years old. She was just about to turn twenty. She was in the year below me at university, because I’d been working in industry for a while before returning to higher education. We got together three months later, and we haven’t been apart since.

It’s now 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic in full swing. We’ve been on lockdown for weeks, both of us working from home, and we’re lucky to be able to say that it’s been easy. We love each other, but we also like each other. We get on really well. We have just the right amount of stuff in common.

We’re both rational people, and scientists at the core. We’re emotional but communicative. Our default coping mechanism is humour. We talk constantly, and never seem to get tired of it. We’re one of those couples who don’t need to work at being together, because we always want to work at it. That’s a huge stroke of good fortune.

We never particularly wanted kids. It took us years to even get a dog, and oh how I wish we’d done so sooner. We both feel a bit awkward around children, and have always preferred to focus on our own life together, and our own respective work.

But the world doesn’t stand still. You get older, and your friends do too, and then those friends start to change. Before long, somebody announces they’re having a baby, and then someone else, and then everyone is doing it. For us, that stage of life began about five years ago. At this point, almost everyone we know is a parent. I became very accustomed to saying Congratulations! in a way that wholly concealed the more genuine commiserations embedded within.

At first the proliferation of pregnancies was a novelty, and maybe a cautionary tale. Then it became unsettling. Then it became a source of mild anxiety, just like any other life-stage when our cultural obsession with the norm makes those with different priorities wonder if they’re stunted or broken in some way.

Sometimes, they’re even right.

I have a brother, and my wife has a sister. Both are now parents; of a two-year-old and an almost one-year-old respectively. Those announcements arrived percussively. I could see that my wife was struggling with her own conflicted feelings. It became normal, after the latest revelation of yet another pregnancy in our social circle, for there to be a private period of sadness for us afterwards — coupled with bemusement and even amusement at the incongruity of it.

I’ve never wanted kids. My professed position was ambivalence, and my interpretation of that position was that there are really only two answers: Definitely Yes, or anything else which equated to No. Perhaps that was naive. In any case, for at least a decade now, whenever the topic rarely came up, I said that I didn’t have any particular desire to ever have children. My wife agreed. I also said, however, that the only non-negotiable part of my life was being with her — meaning that everything else was at least nominally up for discussion. She agreed with that too.

Over time, we got used to agreeing about it.

But agreement and debate and rational thought only get you so far. That’s been the large lesson of the most recent decade of my life, and it would infuriate my teenaged self. It infuriates me a bit, too. But there you have it.

I’ll be forty-one soon, and thus my wife is now thirty-five. Her temporary feelings of phantom loss triggered by others’ occasional happy news haven’t increased in length, but they’ve increased in severity over the years. The dog and I didn’t understand them particularly well, but he and I both found them distressing. He got a lot of cuddles at those times, and he gave as good as he got.

Understandably, then, my wife and I felt a very strange mix of emotions when we were told we probably couldn’t have kids even if we wanted to.

We hadn’t been trying. We hadn’t decided to. There had been no reconsideration of positions, or exploratory discussions to that end. But there were suspicions, and doctors, and referrals, and tests. Waiting. Uncertainty. Repeat. And all the while, we were each trying to figure out whether we were sad, and whether we should be sad, and whether we were even allowed to be sad. I don’t think we ever really answered those questions.

There are people who think that procreation and child-rearing is the point of life, and that your real life only begins when you have children. I find that view both disappointing and alarming, as well as faintly crazy. I know some people who are very like that — people who were practically born to breed — and I wish them good luck, but I feel like they’ve sacrificed a hell of a lot to be able to view their own existence through that narrow lens. I don’t ever want to feel that way.

What I did feel was that all of my emotions were wrapped in an “if”. If my wife is sad, then I’m sad about all this too. If my wife decides she actually wanted this in retrospect, then I’ll feel bereft on her behalf. If she communicates that she feels something, then I’ll mirror it. I didn’t really know how I felt, except that I had a kind of whiplash; like I’d skipped over a significant chunk of the middle of a story, and was dealing with the fallout far too soon and without any time to prepare.

Commiserations? Or congratulations?

Profound tragedy, and thwarting of human emotional completion? Or dodged a bullet, and more time for personal fulfilment?

I remember driving home from the hospital, and being aware that I was taking the corners at a lower speed than usual. It was like there was a bomb on board, balanced on the console between us, and I had no idea what might cause it to detonate. It never really did detonate, either; it just fizzled out over the course of days or weeks. I think we wilfully smothered it in mutual uncertainty about how we ought to be feeling.

I kept asking myself if I would be a good father, and I immediately got stuck on the problem of defining what that would even mean. I asked myself if I would like fatherhood, and I had the same problem. Given the chance, my brain would probably tell me that I — largely — liked it at the time, because that’s advantageous from an evolutionary perspective. I’m not made of stone, and I’m nowhere near naive enough to believe that a person’s opinion can’t be changed far more effectively by chemicals than via argument. I also know that our bio-variable nature is sometimes a very good thing, too.

I reminded myself that I’m already almost forty-one, which is getting on a bit for fatherhood. I’d be nearly sixty when (and if) they went to university. I don’t feel old at all right now, but I know that’ll change quickly. And what a world it is at the moment, and what a world it’s rapidly becoming. How do you factor all that stuff in?

Damned if I know.

Perspectives change; that much is clear. Opinions change. Even situations change, including biological ones, however unlikely that might be. Miracles don’t happen — they don’t exist, after all — but life is complex enough to allow for some flexibility every now and then.

It can happen. It does happen.

It did.

Will I be good at this? Will I want to be? Reasonably and probably are the most likely answers. I’m committed to a fair try. The numbers don’t even remotely add up… but sometimes numbers don’t tell the whole story.

That’s about as honest as I can be.

Our son — so unlikely, so unexpected, so endlessly theorised and questioned and ultimately agreed upon — is due in late September.