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Can Artists Be Parents and Stay in Love?

If you’d asked me when I was twenty if I wanted kids, I would have told you, “Maybe, not right now.” If you’d asked me when I was twenty-five, I would have laughed and said, “Babe, I can’t even take care of myself.” If you ask me now, I’d confess, “I don’t know.” As someone who grew up in the Bible Belt, many of my childhood friends had their first kid years ago. Hell, some of them have three now! I admire their certainty. I envy it. As an artist, I have to wonder, can artists be parents and stay in love?

When my husband and I had our initial compatibility conversation about marriage, religion, family planning, and the five-year plan, we said we were open to the idea of kids, biological or adopted. Personally, I’ve never been very interested in childbearing. It seems like a lot of pain for a lifelong commitment. And, every year, I learn something more unsettling about pregnancy (i.e., it can fuck up your teeth). So, during the initial confession, I told Richie that I’ve always been open to adoption but that I could be open to having a child if it were something my long-term partner wanted to pursue. Put plainly: I could be persuaded.

Richie Smith to left wearing glasses, a smile, and a shirt that says "I want all things beautiful, good, and kind." Bailey Merlin to right wearing an orange shirt, a smile, and hilding a glass of wine.

About a week into knowing my husband, I knew he’d be a wonderful father. There was something in the way that he asked questions that told me that. If I were ever going to be convinced to have kids with anyone, it would be him. We decided that we wouldn’t have the conversation about having children until we were in our thirties.

When Covid shut down the world, our perspectives shifted. We, children who had lived through three or four unprecedented times in America already, were face to face with something that touched every part of the world. We realized what so many had known for decades: The world is dying, and people are unjust and cruel. How could we have a child? We decided to put it off. Besides, we were living with a newborn and saw how it weighed on the most competent humans we knew. If they looked like that with help, how would we feel? Neither one of us is at the top of our mental health game on a good day.

My friends who have children, when I see them, tell me that children are the most joy they’ve ever known. These are the same people who told me that marriage changes things. I didn’t believe them before the wedding, but they were right (though I can’t tell you how exactly since the shift is subtle). I imagine they are right about the joy. I look at them, though, and know that their lives have changed. My friends, who are ostensibly good parents, have been transformed by their children. The best parents maintain their identity and still go out to tend to their passions, but that seems like a rarity. Yet, they have changed. Irrevocably. Every step they take is in service of a child.

We actually have a couple of friends who are artists with two children that prove that it is very possible to have a family and stay in love. But I don't think they're selfish in the way that I am selfish.

I’m afraid that I’m too selfish to be a good parent. If I can’t be a good parent, what business do I have thinking about children? I don’t want to have to feed a baby from my breast every few hours for several months or even years. I don’t want to have my sleep disturbed. I don’t want my home to be messy. I don’t want to sacrifice my body. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t. I think selfishness is a valid reason not to have a child. Plenty of my friends had selfish parents, and they still suffer from it to this day. Wouldn’t it be more selfless to ensure that no child suffers that?

The longer I’ve known him, the more I’ve fallen in love with Richie. My depth of devotion makes me fear having a child because I know it will change our relationship. When I brought this up to him, I was elated (yes, elated) to hear him say that he felt the same way. “I love you so much,” he said. “Why would I want to disrupt that?”

We agree that we are selfish artists deliriously in love with one another, and we don’t want anything to upset that.

So, we talked to a genetic counselor. Our reasoning was that before we even start thinking about the possibility of pregnancy, we want to make sure that it’s a medically sound choice. After that, we’ll see a fertility specialist to check the health of our players. Maybe we hope that a doctor will tell us that neither of us is fit to procreate. That, at the very least, would stop the conversation. I mean, on my side of the argument, I know how heartbroken I would be if I finally decided to have kids only to realize that none of my pregnancies would be viable. 

Next spring, my IUD runs out the clock. I’d prefer not to get another one because the pain of removing and replacing those devices is…well, I can’t properly put it into words. Suffice it to say that anyone who places one without local anesthetic should have their medical license revoked. I’m turning 31 this year, and it’s time to think about the rest of my life. Our lives.

If we get a clean bill of health and decide that we really want children, then I’ll have the IUD removed. Maybe we’d adopt if we had more money. If we’re not cleared and/or decide that we don’t want to give up pieces of ourselves in exchange for something greater, then I’ll have the IUD removed, and Richie will have a vasectomy. 

Last night, we watched Mike Birbiglia’s stand-up special (or perhaps it was more of a one-man show) about reluctant fatherhood. We laughed, of course, but we also reflected. Something clear from the show's outset is that he loves his wife and doesn’t want anything to change about their relationship. When they married a decade prior, they were on the same page about not having kids. However, she changes her mind, and he loves her too much to stand in the way of something she wants, which he knows she’ll be good at.

The strain this child puts on the relationship is staggering. These people, these artists, who love each other. She knows he didn’t want a child, so she works hard to keep the burden of childrearing on herself. As a result, they drift away from each other until there’s a crossroad moment that requires Birbiglia to be a better partner.

At the end of the special, he pantomimes the moment he felt like a father. We, the audience, know that everything after that will be different. He feels like a father. He wants to be a father. It’s triumphant. Considering that Birbiglia and his poet wife Jen are still together, this seems like the beginning of a new phase of life for both of them.

Richie and I sat in silence for a while after watching that, both of us wondering if we’d be reluctant parents, if we’d lose one another in parenthood, or if we could find a way to fall more deeply in love with one another. The third task seems the most like a crusade for the Holy Grail, doesn’t it? To love someone while this new entity comes into your life to knock down every wall you’ve ever built to keep yourself safe. 

Maybe this is my hubris talking, but I think Richie and I could figure it out. Not alone, of course. If we have kids, it’s because we’d still be living communally and have the help of the people around us. We’re thinking about that, too, where we’ll live next—even more than the baby question. We want to own the house where we raise our child, but we’d like to own that house with people we trust. But after that…maybe after that.


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