News & Politics

I Always Assumed I’d Have Kids. I Didn’t. Here’s How I Answer “The Question.”

Photos courtesy of Kristina Henry. Photo illustration by Yodith Dammlash.

“Do you have children?” When I was newly married, I winced at the question. Not at its audacity but at my failure. As I saw it, I’d flopped at something basic and human.

Married at 27 to my 23-years-older husband, Mike, who’d undergone a vasectomy years before, I was convinced we’d have kids someday. The vasectomy reversal after we got married was supposed to be an easy fix (unfix?)—but not in our case. For various reasons, we chose not to do in vitro or adoption. Marriage has hiccups. We soldiered on.

What-ifs are among my favorite pastimes. Not so with Mike. Twenty-five years later, here we are, a dreamer and a realist. My dreams are now of the more doable variety: foreign vacations, new restaurants in nearby cities. Mike’s realism remains, but he does indulge my fanciful notions and has some dreams of his own, including post-retirement Italian and cooking lessons.

Our imaginary children, while not so set in my mind as they once were, remain amazing. Both are boys in their late teens—maybe one is 20. They share a slight goofiness. One is just a little more clever. Both are smart but not genius smart. They’re athletic. I hope one might become a pilot like their dad.

My fantasies don’t involve the everyday trials of parenting. There are no parent/teacher conferences, no drinking-related incidents. No talking back, no tuition worries. My imagined life includes a house on R Street near Dumbarton Oaks and a vaguely diplomatic part-time job related to a European country. I’m not particular about which country. By part-time, I mean we spend our summers in a small Swiss town.

I’ve often reverted to my imagination as I’ve observed my family’s and friends’ child-rearing. “How hard is it to say no?” I’ll ask Mike. “I mean, seriously—what a brat.”

“We’d eat dinner together as a family.”

“If she were ours, she’d never leave the house in that dress.”

Mike, who’s more old-school, agrees, though I have the feeling he does so more for marital peace.

Now past childbearing age, I like to think I’ve mellowed. I still judge, but silently. Most of the “brats” in our small solar system turned out well. They’re kind, ambitious, polite. More important, they’re thriving and happy. I take pleasure in their company and want to hear about their plans, what they think of the world. It’s nice to enjoy them in increments. I get the best of them, while their parents get all of them: the good, the bad, and the moody. When I find myself passing judgment on someone’s parenting or delivering another sermon to my husband, he mentions our dog. Ebb tugs on his leash and growls unprovoked at better-behaved dogs. I’m sure I’m sometimes seen as a poor pet owner.

I don’t have that Georgetown house or a conveniently part-time job in the diplomatic corps, but I’ve got a nice life in Easton on a tree-lined street with neighbors I refer to as my Eastern Shore family, volunteer work with nonprofits involving afterschool programs and swim lessons for kids, and visits from Washington-area family and friends.

Mine is a small sorrow, but as far as my marriage goes, I’d gladly do it all again—except I wouldn’t waste so much time thinking about what-could-bes. I wouldn’t expect Mike to undergo a costly medical procedure that in the end didn’t work. I would remind myself that all we have is the present.

These days when people ask if I have kids, there’s no cringing or feeling of failure. I say, sincerely curious, “No, how about you?”

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Washingtonian.