“No, listen to me,” my wife said, “I’m telling you I really don’t want to have children.”
I tried hard to think about what she was saying, what I was thinking, what this meant. But I kept getting distracted by the giant glass lens in my face, and the cameraman standing four feet away, recording my every word and movement. How was I supposed to be really honest with that jerk in the middle of things?
This was not the first time we had talked about this. There was an intense conversation a number of years ago when she was still just my girlfriend, and she said that when she was a kid, doctors told her it might be tough for her to have a baby. That was an intimate chat, in our bedroom, and there was no cameraman present for that one (that I know of).
There was also a time when we were driving to visit some friends in New York City—a couple we had known for quite a while—and I said to her, “I wonder why those guys don’t have kids.” These were people we liked, in their late 30’s, with exciting jobs in media. I didn’t have many examples of couples like that who didn’t have kids. And often if they didn’t, there was a reason: they can’t get pregnant, he already has three kids with an ex, they’re waiting to hit the next level of their careers.
Without missing a beat she said “I just think they don’t want kids.”
We drove along the highway on our way to their house, and I watched through the glass of the window as houses and billboards blurred by. The concept felt strange, like a lock that I needed to turn around in my mind in order to find the keyhole. They just didn’t want kids. That could be a thing?
Now I live within earshot of that same expressway, that girlfriend is my wife, and the question of whether or not to have kids is something we come back to fairly often. Partly because she is a documentarian, making a film about the complexity of this very choice. And for the first time, she is turning the camera on herself, and me, and our relationship as we grapple with this decision.
So as we are exploring the idea of having kids, or not having kids, the camera has been rolling. Sometimes there’s another person running the camera. Here we are, having these emotionally charged conversations, and I have to try and pretend there isn’t a glass eye staring me in the face. Sometimes I close my eyes. Sometimes I attempt to mentally block out the rest of the world. Sometimes we get so deep into our talking that I do forget there’s a camera rolling.
Until I see it months later as a scene in the rough cut of her film.
I’m sure there have been a bunch of times where you’ve had a tricky conversation with your spouse and wished you had it recorded so you could go back and see exactly what was said. That’s not what I said! That’s not what you said! If only we could have access to the actual conversation.
I’m here to tell you it’s not so.
There’s an episode of the sci-fi series Black Mirror that depicts a future in which all our experiences are recorded by a camera implanted in our eyes, and we have access to play them back from the hard drive of footage on which it’s all stored. The episode focuses on a couple, and their increasing anguish and distrust as details trickle out from their memory-films. Sometimes that’s what this feels like: being on an episode of a surreal sci-fi show.
It’s a surreal feeling to watch yourself on a screen as you talk about raw emotional feelings. Did I really say that? Did I really think that? I look like an idiot. And sound like one. What’s more, now that moment is locked down for everyone to see, forever.
That conversation in the summer ended up focusing on the idea of adoption, that even though we might be deciding to not have kids biologically, there was still a kind of escape hatch available. We could adopt. It would actually help the world, with its surplus of baby humans. We wouldn’t have to make a final decision right then and there. Adoption would always be an option. We wouldn’t have to have kids, but the path could still be open to having a family.
Watching it back in the film I am helpless but to dissect myself like a character in a narrative film. Even though I know it’s me, I keep thinking of the film version of me as “this guy”. In the film it’s clear that “this guy” is using adoption to keep the decision about having kids at arm’s length. Plus, this guy’s body language is so tense. Face so anxious, brow so furrowed. Big sighs, hands bouncing around nervously. Not letting his wife speak, not really letting the ideas sink in.
When I think it about it now, when it’s just me and my own mind, and not a camera or cameraman in sight, it’s still just as complicated a thought process. I enjoyed being a kid, my parents were good people who did a good job raising me and my sister. Ups and downs, like every family, but there was always a real sense of love there, and unconditional support. When I was young, it was still pretty much accepted that my path would be that of the generations before me: grow up, get a job, get married, have kids.
At some point I started rebelling against all that. I vowed to never have a job where I would have to wear a tie. I remember a discussion with a long-term girlfriend about how marriage was traditionally “a way for men to keep economic control over women.” I informed my parents that I would not be getting married in the future. Change starts with us! They took it with good humor.
Is it important to mention that I did end up getting married? The major motivation was to make sure my British wife could stay in the country. Stupid societal institutions. Still don’t wear a tie to work though. Take that, society.
The question of whether to have children or not is a difficult one. My wife’s documentary title attempts to make it feel a bit lighter, reframe it as the question of whether “To Kid or Not To Kid.” But underpinning it are a series of serious questions. Why do people want kids anyway? How does population density affect the Earth? Why is society so adverse to couples — and women especially—deciding not to have kids? These questions deserve lot of consideration. I know her documentary will help bring this conversation more into the popular consciousness, and that’s important. Filming this decision is tough, but ultimately I have to believe it’s a good thing.
These days so many of us are recording and performing: on our social media profiles, in our jobs, in our vacation videos, the web series we are making, our youtube channel, our Kickstarter pitch videos. What happens when there’s a camera rolling during a really important decision, one of the most important decisions of a person’s life? I suppose the best anyone could hope for is that maybe it will help other people think through their own dilemmas.
Our conversation and decision is ongoing, but it is beginning to feel more certain than it ever has. My wife is still making her film. The two are intertwined in some way, and that feels ok. It’s nerve-wracking and powerful to be able to visit my earlier feelings so readily, to watch and analyze myself as “this guy”, as though as he’s a character. But you know what? Having all of this does not make this decision a shred easier.
I won’t lie, I’m looking forward to this filming part of my life being over. I’m looking forward to committing to a decision we make. But there is something undeniably compelling about the fact that this part of my life will always exist, frozen in the amber of a documentary film.
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