I remember being in a car with an older man in California years ago. He’d read some of my writing somewhere and had invited me to visit him if I was ever in Santa Cruz. It turned out that not long afterwards I did happen to be in Santa Cruz and did in fact need a place to stay for the weekend. So I contacted him. This older man whose name I’ve forgotten was a retired dentist, divorced, lanky and silver-haired, a golfer, and as soon as I met him I could see he was one of those man-children that never matures into a actual adult. He bragged about all the affairs he’d had with his dental hygienists over the decades and claimed that back in the seventies, it was the norm for dentists to have trysts with their dental assistants. “Just like pilots sleeping with the stewardesses,” he said. “That’s just the way it was.”
He was taking me to a restaurant on a wharf and in his Porsche he told me that his children were grown and he’d come to believe it had been a mistake to have children. “If you never have children you never have to worry about them. They don’t exist. Nothing to worry about. You only ever have to worry about yourself. Worry-free!” He turned to look at me with an expression of amazement that reminded me of a child putting down the last piece of a puzzle.
We were passing all the shiny California cars as he zipped in and out of lanes, lush-green hills off to our side. “But what about the experience of getting to have children,” I said, “of loving them and them loving you back, of playing with them, watching them discover things, of seeing them grow up? You would miss all that if they didn’t exist!” I kept my eyes on the highway’s centre boulevard wild with orange poppies.
He said I was missing the point. “You wouldn’t know any of that if you didn’t have them in the first place. You can’t miss what you never had!” He seemed very adamant and went on to tell me that his daughter had been a rebel her entire teenage-hood. She’d gotten into drugs, the wrong boys, alcohol, graffiti. It had been a constant source of anxiety for him and his wife and had caused the demolition of their marriage. He repeated the word demolition several times. “Now that my daughter is grown, an adult,” he shrugged, “she’s settled down but she’s still not what you’d call an easy person.” All those years he could have done something interesting rather than being a parent, he went on. He could have lived in a cabin in Patagonia, an island in the tropics, or learned kite surfing. He sacrificed years of living to have a kid who caused him stress, constant worry. What was the point? He also had a son, he added as if he’d forgotten, who never gave him any trouble at all and was “good as gold.”
“So you’re saying you’d be happier now if they never existed? You really believe that?” I was incredulous.
“Undoubtedly,” he said, squinting ahead as we veered into the parking lot at the wharf.
This conversation unnerved me. I loved kids. I wanted kids. And I’d finally met a guy I liked with whom I’d talked into one day having one. We were engaged. Now a retired dentist was telling me it wasn’t worth it? Sure, the dentist was kind of a jerk but I could see some logic in his argument.
Many years have passed. My husband and I had a child, a son who is now seventeen. We love being parents. It has enriched our lives beyond measure and I can’t imagine what direction my life would have taken otherwise. No parent can. Our son is part of the fabric of our lives so much so that I barely remember the person I was before. If “she” exists, that other me who didn’t have a child, she went off on her own in a parallel universe to keep exploring the world. Maybe she became a famous writer and lives in the mountains of Bali or a remote New Zealand peninsula. But back in this world, I’m now one of those parents who worry. Not a lot, but enough that I’m constantly aware of it. Worried about our son’s education, for example, and worst of all, worried last night, when I woke up in the darkness and the conversation with the dentist came flooding back to me for the first time in years. At that moment, my son was out on the highway with his friend who’d just gotten his license. My son and his friend grew up together bonding over their mutual fascination with toy cars and now they were driving actual cars. They’d dreamed of driving their own cars since they were three. Now it was 3 am and I couldn’t sleep and my son wasn’t home yet. Where were they? Didn’t they realize how dangerous driving at night was? Teenagers have terrible risk assessment. Driving is always dangerous, the most dangerous normal thing that humans do on a regular basis, but most dangerous of all at night, flying blind through the blackness in a wisp of flimsy metal. A deer, a drunk driver, anything could end their beautiful young lives in a nano-second. Why hadn’t I emphasized this more? The dentist’s long-ago words filtered up through the cracks of my brain as I stared out the window at the stars. The worry, the constant worry.
I heard the door open half an hour later and only then could I roll over to go back to sleep. The worry is worth it, has always been worth it, the price all parents pay, the bargain we made, the drive through the unknown we were willing to take.
As for the dentist, I never kept in touch.