Kelly Davio’s previous Waiting Room columns for The Butter can be found here.
As a woman, you never know when the question is coming—only that it is. You may be having a perfectly innocuous conversation about the traffic, your favorite brand of peanut butter, or even your latest dental work when someone springs it on you: “You have kids, right?”
This spring, while I was representing the literary journal I co-edit at a small but hopping book expo here in Seattle, a man parked himself in front of my table and began to regale me with a lengthy description of a poem, probably one he’d written himself. I confess that, after a while, I wasn’t really paying attention—I was amusing myself with the fact that his voice sounded almost identical to David Lynch’s, and wondering whether I could somehow direct the conversation toward Twin Peaks for my own amusement. That’s when he asked, apropos of nothing, if I have kids. I replied that I do not.
“Oh, you’d never understand the poem, then.”
My tolerance for men patronizing me is notably low, so I turned to my co-publisher and said, about as loudly as possible, “Joe, you hear that? I can’t understand poetry because I haven’t had children!”
A few people chuckled, and poor Joe looked mortified, but the man who was not David Lynch didn’t seem to recognize that I was making fun of him. I was too busy fantasizing about kicking his teeth in to pay further attention. He finally moved on to another table—presumably to find somebody whose poetry comprehension had been elevated through childbirth—and I tried to forget about the incident, but it kept gnawing at me for the rest of the day.
Now, I’m a happily childless person. So if even I wanted to relieve the man who wasn’t David Lynch of his full set of teeth, I can’t imagine how a woman dealing with infertility must feel when she hears such insensitive comments. I have never longed for a baby, and I haven’t felt my life to be incomplete for lack of one. I’m everybody’s auntie and nobody’s mom, and take great pleasure in spoiling the children in my life before sending them home to their parents. But I’m fully aware that these facts are unimaginable to some, and that they make me, in these people’s eyes, something less than an actual woman.
I’m also aware of the fact that, even if I wanted a child, I shouldn’t be giving birth to one. The drugs that keep me above ground are toxic—they carry black box warnings so scary that while writing the prescription my doctor asked me three times whether I was sure that I never wanted kids. Even if there existed a magical, cellular-level eraser that could scrub all the poison from my body, any baby I carried would still have a one in five shot at having the same disease that I do, but at such an amplified severity that he or she would likely die not long after birth. Death on arrival doesn’t seem like a good gamble.
Yet I’m not a person who can’t imagine loving a child who was anything less than the picture of health, or of whom I couldn’t brag to other parents about various measurement percentiles (it seems to me, as an outside observer, that parenting an infant often involves ranking babies against one another in some kind of percentile-related horserace). This may be my own bias, but I believe we sick people are as capable of meaningful living—and as capable of loving and being loved—as anybody.
But just as there are people like the man who wasn’t David Lynch who can’t imagine a childless woman, there are also legions of people who can’t imagine having a sick kid. We all know them. We’ve heard expecting parents say, “I don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl, just as long as it’s healthy.” Then they look particularly solemn while stroking their bellies. We all know how we’re supposed to interpret their statements—we’re meant to hear it as magnanimity and a desire not to see their offspring suffer. But we who are sick understand intuitively that we are, in these people’s minds, the worst possible outcome. We are the spooky unknown. We embody others’ darkest fears. And sometimes, we are less, in their eyes, than full people.
So here I am: a great failure of modern womanhood. The person who hasn’t fulfilled—and won’t ever fulfill—her biological endgame. A woman whose own biology has gotten away from her.
From the other side of the great chasm of human progress, I can tell you that being the worst possible outcome—the scary, not-quite-real woman—isn’t all that bad. In fact, my life is downright ordinary and satisfying. I have meaningful relationships with the people in my life—that includes adults and children. I find fulfillment in my work. I have my little family of two. I enjoy a vivid imaginative life.
Hell, I even understand poetry.
Kelly Davio is the co-publisher and poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013). She is the former managing editor of The Los Angeles Review and is a reviewer for Women’s Review of Books. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, The Rumpus, and others. She earned her MFA in poetry from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, and is a freelance writer in the Seattle area.