For the first six hours of my daughter’s life, I felt no love for her. I smiled for my camera and I smiled for my wife, but what else was I going to do? My principal feeling was relief—relief that the whole thing was over, relief that the last part in particular was over, relief, basically, that the two of them had survived. There was also pride in my wife for getting through what seemed like an unusually long process (two days of prodromal labor followed by twelve hours of early labor and then twelve hours of active labor). There was exhaustion from pretending to be calm and confident whenever I felt most helpless and panicked. There was shock at the blood, shit and tears, as well as the sheer strangeness of the situation. What there was not, though, was love. Babies had always repulsed me—talk of their beauty felt like a collective conspiracy—but friends had assured me I would feel differently about my own. So as I lay awake that night I told myself not to worry, it might take a few weeks. A couple of hours later I was woken by a series of bizarre farmyard sounds—“congested whimpers” is the best I can do—and found my chest tightening with a rushing sensation that somehow combined mortal fear and adolescent romance. Was she dying already? Before, my daughter had been alien to me, her cries paining me no differently from those of any other baby. Now they hurt me from within.
The philosopher L. A. Paul thinks of having children as so transformative that you can’t rationally decide to do it: the fact that it’s going to thoroughly change your preferences and values means you can’t ask whether you would like it, since if you do have children you won’t be you anymore. I don’t know whether that’s actually true, but just the thought of it scared me. Certainly I had watched a succession of friends become more tiresome after having children. Social events started to take place right after my afternoon nap. Bedtime rituals were accorded the solemn respect of evening vespers. Conversations became broken and fragmented—“Daddy, look at me!”—and when they did maintain a focus it was usually because the subject was how to raise a kid. New parents were the worst: “Behold the miracle, a child is born!” Delusions of uniqueness might be constitutive of new love, but they’re also constitutive of cults. If Paul is right, then none of this gives you a reason not to join the cult yourself, since once you’re on the inside it’ll all seem perfectly normal. But my own reason for not weighing up the pros and cons had nothing to do with the epistemics of personal transformation (or, for that matter, of aggregate utility). It had more to do with the way my wife and I live within a certain narrative of our love. “Unsrer Liebe Kinder schenken!” as the Mozart duet we chose for our wedding implores—“Send children to our love!” Perhaps I was already in a neighboring cult, then.
Not everyone who wants children can have them, of course, and we had started to consult doctors by the time we got lucky. At that point a new set of anxieties arose, some generic and others genetic, but again we got lucky. After a few months I started to become more worried about having a baby than losing one. How would I cope with all the shit? Where would I get my nine hours of sleep? Would I ever find the time and energy to write? By that point it was too late, of course. I kept thinking of a roller coaster—not the “fun” bit, which I normally get through by closing my eyes and reminding myself that nothing lasts forever, but the excruciatingly slow ride to the top, where you have all the time in the world for second thoughts but absolutely no capacity to execute them.