A question of little ones (and big zeros)
There was no ghost. In fact, you could say it was the opposite that Kyle Daniels saw—or thought he saw—the morning he scrambled into work with panic in his throat.
“Hey. Hey James,” Kyle whispered over top of the cubicle wall. “What’s a kid cost?”
“Huh?” our coworker said.
“Kids. How much? Ballpark.”
“Is this another black market thing? I really don’t have time today.”
“No, I’m serious,” the twentysomething said, then regrouped. “Like, if I, um, ever wanted to have a kid, how much would I need saved up, right off the bat?”
The older man sighed. One of the few employees with children, James must have endured our curiosities so routinely that he figured this for another aimless probe.
“I dunno Kyle, it’s actually more about –”
“Goddamn it. Never mind,” Kyle said, flinging his shoulder bag to the ground and whirling toward the patio where we took our breaks. It was only 9:15, and he’d never needed one more.
James stared at me, both of us bobbing in the wake of the exit. “What the hell was that about?” he said.
I had a fairly good idea. Not the particulars of course—whether my friend owed his anxiety to a lapse in judgment or latex was uncomfortably immaterial—but the takeaway was clear. Kyle’s perch on the family tree was suddenly in danger of not being the closest to the ground.
I sympathized. Most people can cite at least one “close call” with their biological imperative. And whether that uncertainty lasts three weeks or three hours, the scenarios one’s brain streams on a constant loop are marvels of both a gloomy brand of fatalism and brass tacks crisis-management.
Kyle was no different. Short fuse and flop sweat notwithstanding, he had advanced to the proactive stage of his freak-out. Out on the patio, he paced the war room of his mind, factoring gestation periods against pay periods and running calculations based on a foggy recollection of the last bank statement he’d bothered to open. He needed definite, if not reliable, information. Anything that would say: This is what you’re up against. He was a commander on a mission.
Unfortunately, we were a sorry-ass bunch of joint chiefs. What’s a kid cost? I’d have sooner guessed at third world nuclear codes. And James just couldn’t get past the implausibility of the question. He seemed uncomfortable with, even aggravated by, its shortsightedness. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel for Kyle or had never experienced a “scare” of his own. But after becoming a devoted father, he struggled to remember what there was to be afraid of.
That’s probably what led him to the humor of the situation in advance of others. We caught up eventually. Weeks later, long after the alarm had proven false, even Kyle wrung belly laughs from the joke his outburst had become.
What’s a kid cost? Don’t tell me you paid sticker. Whataya mean I can’t extend the warranty?
It is a funny question, I remember thinking—reductive and insensitive to a knuckle-dragging degree. But I also remember finding something commendable in the logic. Kyle was simply assessing his paternal fitness at what was then its weakest link. And when the realities of your existence still include laundry mats and security deposits, there’s a responsibility to be that caveman. It may be a crass reaction to new life, but “How many more wooly mammoths will I have to kill each month?” is also an incredibly appropriate one.
Still raking for quarters beneath the cushions of my own day-to-day, I understood Kyle’s fear that morning. However, distance from the situation also gave me the luxury of considering James’ perspective. With some squinting I saw my life one day looking more like his. I, too, would be the devoted father.
Now, nearly a decade later, I’m not so sure.
Fortunately, short-term survival isn’t the hurdle it used to be. Though the wife and I will never be mistaken for One Percenters, odds are decent that we could keep an offspring or two out of the soup lines for the requisite eighteen years. I sense, however, that because this isn’t 1832, and we aren’t living out a Charles Dickens novel, the bar should probably be set a little higher. And if I remember anything about being a kid, it’s that “I’m bored” kicks in precisely where “I’m hungry” leaves off. This is where the zeros pick up speed. A minute ago it was three squares and a crib. Now you’re in for My Gym, pre-k, t-ball, jazz-tap, band camp, boy’s state, and Virginia Tech.
Take a peek-a-boo at those margins through the prism of the so-called “Great Recession,” and it’s easy to see why one in five young Americans have put off having children.
Still, it can’t be impossible, I tell myself. I’m just going to have to play my cards right. Take the breaks where I can get them and keep the big stuff out in front where I can put my shoulder to it when the time comes. Remember, it’s the little choices that–Aha! So this is it, I think. That first step across the threshold of middle-class adulthood. The moment I commit to the pursuit of life’s epic questions. Namely, “Why is that light on?” “Who left this water running?” and “What happened to your old one?”
It’s fine, I assure myself. Best not to fight it. The key is to be honest and acknowledge exactly what’s happening. I am officially stepping into my father’s battle-scarred, orthotic shoes. I flash to them, Kiwi’d and yawning beneath the old recliner, and for just an instant I dread the Mr. Roger’s routine this will create at the gym. But no matter. The old man did all right by me and everyone else. I may not have always gotten, but I certainly never wanted. There are worse paths to walk.
“Goddamn it, these shoes will do just fine,” I say, kneeling down for a closer look. I’ve even begun to admire the seams when a jangling thought occurs. It’s something I’ve never even considered so it echoes now with a tinge of shame.
What if they’re too big?
WHO DOESN’T LOVE A CARVING STATION?
To hell with chocolates. The first quarter of your life is really more like the buffet at a nice hotel. Everything is bright and fresh, and it stretches so far out beyond you that imagining the end is impossible. The people who brought you are helpful. They seem to know exactly what to spoon onto your plate. They serve you straight up for a while, then take to making suggestions. Now and then something doesn’t taste quite like they led you to believe, but on the whole it’s a pretty sweet spread. So you pig out for the next twenty years or so.
At this point you see that not only is there an end, but you’re fairly relieved to have reached it. Suddenly some of the stuff those folks dished out isn’t sitting too well. Honestly, you’re stuffed. It all seems so restraining now and you feel like you can’t breath. Time to step away. So you say goodbye and, truth be told, spend the next few years walking around with your pants unbuttoned. It feels great. And you’re not hurting anyone, right?
Every once in a while something reminds you of the buffet, and you find yourself missing things that didn’t even occur to you when they were at arm’s length. It starts to dawn on you just how much work it must have taken to string the whole thing together. Definitely wasn’t cheap, you think. Those people sure were nice to take you. You hope you didn’t seem ungrateful there at the end. When the mints got passed around you said Thank You, but, hell, so did the mints. Oh well, you can’t sweat it now. You’ve got shit to do. Besides, they said it was their pleasure. And you never actually saw the bill come. Maybe they had a gift certificate.
So you’re out walking around, getting shit done, and one day you start chatting with someone. It’s about nothing at first, then a little of everything. You like the way she walks. There’s no rush, but you’re not holding each other back either. Crazy thing is, you’ve been walking for like three blocks, and you’re still talking. Eventually, buffets come up and she remembers a lot of the same things you do.
For the first time in a long time, you feel a little empty. A flicker of want under your last rib. It’s nothing major. But about about when you decide it’s not worth mentioning, she taps you on the shoulder.
I dunno. Seems early. You?
I could eat.
After that, it’s hard to think about much else, and there’s a place on the next corner. Something about the way the street lamps cut into puddles on the pavement catches in your chest. You’re not sure at first. Then you recognize the way the hostess drops her consonants. When she lowers her glasses to scan the seating chart, a bright, hot shock goes through your body. You’ve been here before. This is the place.
You and your walking partner talk it over. You’re definitely going. But doesn’t it seem kind of a waste: this spread that goes on and on and just the two of you? Shouldn’t you show it to someone else?
You sweet-talk your way around reservations and adding an extra chair or two—it’s hard to tell who might be joining. This is all going to work out. There’s just one thing. The hostess says at this place they take payment upfront.
Gotcha. Okay. How much?
It’s hard to say really.
Well then how can I—
I’m sorry sir, it’s just our policy.
We also can’t hold the table indefinitely. I’ll need you to decide.
The minute you consider becoming a parent, the loan that was your own childhood comes due. Suddenly you know exactly how high the bar is set. Now the “what-ifs” start flying.
What if you can’t do for yours what yours did for you? What if, in stretching to provide, you neglect or even withhold something more important? What if you’re not cut out to endure the lifetime of what-ifs this first domino triggers?
The fearless may be right. “What if?” may very well get you nowhere. But don’t you remember a few faces at the buffet who looked as if that’s where they’d rather have been? Bad things happened in that line too. You saw pushing. You saw fatigue. You saw people lose their places and even each other. Worst of all you saw regret. Back then you just thanked God it wasn’t at your table; now you pray it isn’t contagious. See, you know this trip isn’t about watching. It’s about being watched.
ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMINS?
Money. Patience. Wisdom. Faith. They’re all equally interchangeable in the high stakes Mad Lib I now wake in the middle of the night to play.
Do I have enough _____ to guide and sustain a reasonably happy, considerate human being?
The prevailing cultural sentiment holds that love is the only resource that matters. Supply it in adequate measure and all the others follow suit. But the culture also likes to remind you that, until your finger anchors a tiny fist for the first time, you have no conception of what love truly is. The gap between these platitudes explains a lot about the world we live in. Scan the month’s top news stories and you can see just how conflicted we all are about who’s fit to be a parent and what those criteria might be.
How dare Snooki play Donna Reed? And just what makes Sandra Fluke think she’s better than biology? It’s a twisted captain that lumps Georgetown Law in the same boat with Jersey Shore, but so goes the S.S. Can’t Win For Losing. Get your bailing buckets ready girls; gunslinger Tommy Jordan joined the crew when he opened fire on his daughter’s laptop and became the 38th parallel of postmodern child rearing (currently 344,987 likes to 34,236 dislikes). Hope he takes to close quarters. We’ve got Tiger Moms and Deadbeat Dads. Jessica Simpson just dropped trou on the sundeck. And look up there! How’d all those damned Duggers squeeze into that crow’s nest? What’s that…Jim Bob’s got an announcement to make? Careful Padre. The wind is stiff, and it’s blowing in all directions.
Ask Stephanie Decker about wind. Or children. Or the raw instinct that thrusts you between the two without a second’s hesitation. When bricks and furniture funneled around her crumbling basement at 175 mph, the Indiana mother lay down on top of her son and daughter and told them, “You are not going to die.”
Think about that pronoun long enough and you physically ache.
As it happened, the storm ceded life and settled for limb—her right leg at the ankle, her left above the knee. Leaving the hospital two weeks after the amputations, Decker laid it out just as plainly for the New York Daily News.
“I feel pretty awesome,” she said.
I want to feel pretty awesome. I want to love something so much that I accept my own end as fair trade for its preservation. I want that involuntary smile and the selflessness that cues it as they measure for the prosthetics.
But I’m not naïve enough to think all that comes swaddled in pastels. And as intrigued as I am by the sense of purpose children seem to impart, I’m equally leery of the excuse some turn them into. Hang around enough of the wrong people after their third vodka tonic and you’ll be horrified to learn just how many groundbreaking inventions, novels, cures, performances and physiques the world has been denied on account of its youngest residents. And if there’s anything more insufferable than a could’a-been’a-contender stifled by reproduction, it’s the martyr anointed by it. The thing is, if you plan to have a child, I’m not sure “sacrifice” is a word you get to say ever again. Your priorities may change. Your ambitions may evolve. But anything surrendered is done so on behalf of your desire to be a parent, not the child that results.
So what does a kid cost? Twenty years? Eight hollow-points and a new hard drive? Your own two feet?
Turns out it’s a hell of a question. And if you’re going to be worth a damn as a parent, there can only be one answer.
I don’t care.
It’s not the way I’m used to buying things. So for now, I’ll walk the hall at 3 AM to quiet my mind in place of a son or daughter. I’ll try to trust that the terms of this deal come to feel more natural with time. And I’ll assure myself there’s a bit of that left. Then I’ll return to the question, because, eventually, we’ll need to decide.
I know they can’t hold the table indefinitely.
 This will inevitably be their first choice, if only out of spite.
 Natural disasters, birth defects and chronic illness aside.