I am standing in a bathroom stall at a train station in Kyoto, staring at a Japanese pregnancy test. Since I do not understand Japanese, I have decided to interpret the results by figuring out which kanji most resembles a foetus or, failing that, a pregnant woman. Not only is this not how the Japanese kanji work, it is also ineffective: given the right angle and a little imagination, they all do.
This was, as you can imagine, not a planned part of our trip. Rick Steves, travel sage that he is, does not cover what you should do when you’re on vacation and your period tracking app tells you that you are more than a week late.
As days come and go but my menstrual cycle does not, our trip becomes unified under a cloud of this uncertainty. Here is a snapshot of us outside of a shrine (I might be pregnant). Here we are standing in front of cherry blossoms (I might be pregnant). Here I am eating sushi (which I probably shouldn’t do because I might be pregnant). Here I am eating more sushi (don’t you judge me).
Finally, at my husband’s urging, I take a pregnancy test. Unable to discern the outcome on my own, I walk out of the bathroom holding the box (I have had the presence of mind — only barely — to throw out the test) and have him translate the results with his phone.
Rick Steves has not prepared me for this.
“What does it say?” I ask.
“Um…the ground is firm?”
He tries again. This time the translation notes something about standing in a field. Japanese strikes me as a very figurative, beautiful language. I do not need figurative, beautiful language when trying to determine whether or not I’m pregnant. This never would have happened in Germany.
On his third try, the translation reads, “Pregnancy result: on the negative ground.”
I stare up at my husband, expecting him to laugh and heave a heavy sigh of relief. Instead, he begins to cry. Rick Steves has not prepared me for this, either.
If you ask my beloved and me whether or not we are going to have children, the answer is a resounding, firm, and definitive, “I guess not.”
For the better part of the past decade, we’ve existed in a sort of limbo about children — we take slightly more steps to prevent pregnancy than we do to encourage it. We are not trying to have a baby. We’re just sort of lazy about it.
Many people in my life claim that they knew the answer to this question when it was first asked of them. Some say they’ve always known. But my husband and I become flustered criminals on the witness stand in a bad courtroom drama. We’ve been together for 16 years. Our mid-30s grow smaller in the rearview window. We should know by now whether or not we want to be parents. And in a way, we do. Because it’s not a resounding yes, it’s a soft no.
Friends, loved-ones, colleagues, well-meaning strangers, less-well-meaning strangers, the clerk at the grocery store, and the woman who waxed my legs that one time have all weighed in on the issue. We’ve each been assigned blame for depriving our spouse of the child they so clearly want. We’ve been told we need to have kids. We’ve been told my nephew needs a cousin. (Thanks a lot, bro.) We’ve been told we’ll regret it. (Thanks a lot, Debra from Safeway. May the self-checkout kiosk be your demise.)
Even my husband and I — who have discussed this issue ad nauseam — still dance around it with one another from time to time. We both wonder if we’re still on the same confused page. Or if one of us has figured something out, and isn’t saying anything.
I think the root of the problem is this: Having children is binary. You either have them or you don’t. And yet the feelings surrounding the issue, for me and my husband at least, are not binary. They are complicated and murky. My husband admits that his tears at my negative pregnancy test were mostly out of relief — but not all of them were. We are both happy and sad that we don’t have children.
Years ago a friend of mine, staring at his then-toddler daughter, told me that he could imagine a life in which he didn’t have children. “That may sound terrible,” he said, “but it’s true.”
He unquestionably loved his child (he and his wife have gone on to have two more). But it was only after having one that he could envision a life where he didn’t.
Vocalising such sentiments has long been taboo, but now it seems that the only way to make it through parenthood in one piece is to talk about how hard it can be. My Facebook feed is full of parents sharing the sheer carnage their children have left in their wake: the poop-smeared walls and siblings covered in permanent marker.
Whether or not these people love their children never comes into question. They obviously do. They’re simply being honest about their reality: Not every moment of parenthood is great.
So I need to be honest with myself. Not every moment of life without kids is great, either. And parts of it definitely are. My husband and I sleep in so often it’s not even called sleeping in anymore. We get to write and travel and have nachos for dinner without worrying about what kind of example we’re setting. We also wonder if we’re missing out. We both agree that my 5-year-old nephew is unquestionably one of the best humans on the planet.
This realisation doesn’t necessarily mean that we should have children. And our happy childfree life doesn’t necessarily mean that we shouldn’t. It simply means what we’ve always known: that kids are a big, huge, life-changing decision.
Sometimes, the answer is clear. And sometimes, you find yourself pouring over it, staring at the results again and again, and wondering if you got it right.