The Silence of It All

By Andrea Bianchi

The first time I told a man of my desire for sterilization, my intent to cut off the monthly ovum’s quiet passage through my uterine tubes, he silenced me.

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The no spoken for almost all his gender, though I did not know so then.

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“Let’s not discuss that,” he interrupted. His voice sliced the pathway of my unformed words as they traveled from the lungs to the larynx, before they could be birthed by my tongue. “You might change your mind,” he said.

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Implied in the silence: You might want it all.


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“You’re still young,” he explained. A relative term. His retiring eyes peering between my thighs, no longer as smooth or youthful as my mother’s at my own birth, or those of her expectant contemporaries, whose legs he had first opened over thirty years earlier in medical school.

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He turned to my chart, inserted a note. And so I folded my own notes—the handwritten questions I had not yet read, on surgical techniques, blades or coils, cauterization or clips—and I creased the paper above the crinkling paper gown, closing like my knees after the cold fluorescent stretch of the metal stirrups, as wide as the icy span of the exam room silence.

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I had written out notes before, in a tiny black notebook, to read over the clinking music of the restaurant at dinner with my First Real Love—the first man who wanted a child with me. Two children, maybe three. “A stay-at-home father,” he had proposed over our long relationship. I had demurred; he had departed. Then I had wept, texted, begged. Until now, at this dinner of reconciliation, each notebook page served as a kind of menu for compromise, the categories of wine, appetizers, entrees replaced with location, finances, children. “One child,” my handwriting offered. He read the silent words and smiled.

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But my abdomen clenched, like a kind of full-bodied frown, as if to expel the idea, each time it reminded my womb of its coming promise. “This isn’t going to work, is it,” I whispered into the midnight stillness of my bedroom ceiling a few months afterward. “Probably not, no,” he replied.

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When he sent his soundless text, a few weeks later, to tell me of his first date, his first lovemaking, with the woman who would soon bear his two sons, I had already brought home a kitten, which his allergies had never permitted. And her sterilization, to cut out the ovaries and the uterine tubes, was already, irrevocably done.

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Pets is not listed as a filter on most popular dating apps. But for the category of Kids, the options multiply, like dividing embryonic cells. Have & want more. Have & don’t want more. Want someday. Don’t want. Open. Not sure yet. Prefer not to say.

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Although he did not say his preference on the app, one Man with a Mischievous Grin startled our first-date flirtations with an announcement: “My ex got an abortion for me,” he reported partway into our initial drinks. But by the third cocktail on the third date, I understood my mistaken assumption. The procedure had been a side effect of timing. Not of desire. “Of course I want kids,” he slurred over the DJ’s drunken syncopations in the dark bar. I tried to right my whirling mind, articulate my counterarguments. His retort: “A child is an expression of two people’s love.”

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But I wanted it all. All his love for me.

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“Date me and convince me not to have children,” he challenged then with his signature grin. Yet his brow would furrow, his eyes clench against my voice when I later inserted my rationalizations into our relationship’s routine silences. In the transition between conversation topics at dinner, the ethical benefits: Soothing the overexerted earth. Reducing the metastasizing population. Refusing to sentence a soul to the trials of a life he never asked or chose to have. Then in the naked calm after sex, I would list the hedonistic reasons: Love on the living room floor or kitchen table, without children sniffling, toddling in. Time and finances for dinners, plays, trips, without the considerations of childcare and all its accoutrements: babysitters, bottles, diaper bags, wide-handled carriers. Freedom. The autonomy I had always wanted during the confines of my own childhood. Expansiveness, instead of the financial, attentional narrowing of parenthood.

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Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed, proclaims the title of Meghan Daum’s anthology, a collection of writers defending childlessness, attempting to refute those common titular criticisms. But I did not recommend it to my partner. Perhaps each self-assured speaker did not self-justify with enough of the desperate defensiveness I felt. Or perhaps I feared his cursory glance at the cover, and his instinctive application of those adjectives to me.

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Yet the selfish, I always insisted in my harshest arguments with him, were the parents. Most interested in their own life, their own flesh, the reincarnation of themselves, half of their own cells, in their child. A widening that encompassed only their own egos, stretching like their bulky double-wide strollers across the entire sidewalk, blocking out everyone else.

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I wanted to give all my love to him, not to half of myself, duplicated in my child. Was not my turning outward, toward him, a kind of selflessness?

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“I resent the spectacle of all this breeding, which I see as a turning away from the living, an insufficient love for the rest of us,” laments the childless narrator in an outburst singled out as a selfish tantrum by more than one mother-cum-critic who dismissed Sheila Heti’s recent novel, Motherhood. Two days after its publication, the title, in all capitals, in a kind of hand-drawn horror font, announced its agenda from the silence of my coffee table, where the Man with the Mischievous Grin might notice and open it. I posted its image also to social media, to be sure. But he tapped twice without a second absent glance and then scrolled on.

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Perhaps, though, I was glad. As the book slumped against the cat in my lap, the swish of each page-turn emitted a sigh: of relief at his refusal to read; of sadness at the novel’s lack of rational justification for forgoing procreation. Instead, the protagonist of Motherhood appeals mostly to the irrational—to coin flips and tarot cards, psychics and bodily sensations—to interrogate her desire not to reproduce. Why, I wondered, when logic, reason, spoke for her side—and for mine.

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“Having children is not rational,” I insisted to the Man with the Mischievous Grin during one of our sloppy, sloshing debates at a bar. The anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar agrees: “[P]ro-natal intuitions are the product of (at least non-rational, but possibly irrational) psychological forces,” he believes. “[R]ationally motivated non-procreation … is evolutionarily more recent and advanced,” he argues in his manifesto, Better Never to Have Been.

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“Oh wow. This book,” responded a man, years later, on a third or fourth date on my sofa, as I startled my cat from his lap and replaced her with Benatar’s paperback. He turned the fragile covers over in his hands, gentle, reverent, as if caressing an infant’s skin. “No human kiddos,” his dating profile had read. Not sure yet, he had selected next to the baby bottle icon. His one definitive declaration: “Cat Dad.” I smiled at our seeming similarities, at the harmonious chime of his text later that night with a link. “Listen to this sometime,” he recommended of a podcast interview with Benatar, and I assumed the philosopher’s voice spoke also for his, filling the silence after he left.

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“If we aren’t going to have kids,” the Cat Dad announced months later on a drunken date, putting his firm parameters for a possible relationship on the sticky table of a tiki bar—an island-vacation simulation stuck in a dark basement in our wintry city—“we have to travel at least once a year internationally,” he said. As if some sort of compensation were required for this sacrifice, this relinquishment of his chance to have it all.

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“Imagine,” I told the Man with the Mischievous Grin, tipsy beside him on wobbling bar stool, “if I refused to be with you, no matter your unique qualities as an individual human, unless you could produce one thing for me—a wealthy lifestyle, say. A mansion, a boat.” He shook his head, dismissed my argument as unbalanced. “That’s not the same,” he resisted. “Children are different.”

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“I’m looking for the mother of my children,” announced a Real-Estate Heir in the middle of a summer Sunday afternoon in the middle of a rooftop restaurant in the middle of the conversation in the middle of the first date—his fourth desperate date of the day. My wineglass flashed, suspended in the sun. The sparkled carbonation pricked my tongue. “I’d encourage you to look instead for the love of your life,” I replied. He shook his hair, swung his tumbler through the air. “They are one and the same,” he said.

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Mother. Lover. He would have it all.

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With all the women on the dating apps, he matched, indiscriminate, he said, then arranged successive meetings, frantic for fatherhood, offering a sort of business proposition, a genetic negotiation, with his swoop of abundant hair rising as high as his stock portfolio above his deep-set blue eyes, his structured jaw cutting as crisp as his designer button-down. I tugged at my cheap blue dress, its thinning, skimpy skirt, as he told me of the sweet woman who had shared his pillow that morning before the three dates before mine. “Choose her,” I encouraged him. She offered children. I offered only myself. Her naked morning Madonna, ironically, to my clothed whore.

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“I’m glad you don’t want children,” said the Single Father I loved long ago. “But it concerns me that you don’t like them,” he continued, his nose wrinkling as squealing kids flitted about us like sunbeams in a park, where we waited for an apartment showing. Our first together with our three cats. Our options limited to the train line where his son lived, north of the city, with his mother. “I hadn’t wanted children,” he had told me. “Or at least not yet.” And so his wife had been crying, he said, when she emerged from the bathroom with the pregnancy test. I never asked: Were the tears of happiness? Or of fear. Of this man who wanted it all: A compliant woman who liked but somehow did not want what it was she liked.

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The woman who was wanted before me lurked in the corners of the home of a long-ago lover, the Man with the Sad Eyes. Among the volumes on his bookshelf: a translation dictionary for her native language—Russian or Ukrainian or some other exotic tongue. And then, among the muted tongues and breasts and legs of exotic models in magazines, lying silent in his top dresser drawer: a positive pregnancy test. Dry, brittle now with evaporated dreams of fatherhood, with memories that he recounted with wet eyes of the wait in the abortion clinic parking lot. So perhaps, I realized, a visit to a hospital to remove the wombs of his two fertile cats had seemed to him too akin to that earlier ending—until my pleas at last relieved their howling heat with belated sterilization.

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“Table sterilization conversation for now,” states the final page of my patient chart, the note no doubt entered as I crept off the exam table, out into the waiting room. When I returned there later, after the time of almost 12 trimesters, silence still stretched across the office. Fish hung suspended like fetuses in a watery womb, beside racks bulging with brochures of expanding bellies. In a flat envelope, my records were slid across the reception desk. And then, behind a broad, fluorescent-lit desk, the office manager requested my reason for the record request, demanded to know of any dissatisfaction with my care. “I didn’t think he respected me to make my own decision to be sterilized,” I stammered, unprepared. She exhaled, eyebrows relaxing into a smile. “Oh, the doctor just wanted the best for you. He’s old-fashioned like that.”

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Were they old-fashioned, too, the doctors in the all-women practice where my legs opened for my next annual exams? Where the ultrasound wand detected that the small copper device, which had ensured the emptiness of my uterus, had slipped soundless from the void. “A common complication with childless women,” the gynecologist explained, discouraging a second insertion, a successive expulsion. My request, then, for a second opinion on sterilization. “Sure.” Her reply as quick and efficient as the speculum while she tugged the twisted strings of the misplaced copper from my body. “I’ll find someone in the office to do the surgery.”

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Yet when she called with the surgeon’s name, days later, she admitted multiple other colleagues had first declined, citing the limited time of my three and a half decades to decide. Their presumed debates at the coffeemaker, or in email chains, like a clutch of mothers tsking at the antics of a disobedient child, were blanked out when I later read the records, skipping in silence from the IUD removal to the preoperative consultation without a word.

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“The patient was not accompanied by anyone at the visit,” the notes observe. No Man with the Mischievous Grin, who had nodded with downturned, soundless lips when I had sat beside him on my sofa to tell him of my plans. “Guess we’re definitely not having children,” he had said. Or perhaps I had misheard. Not we’re, but you’re. I stayed silent. Afraid to clarify. All alone.

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Alone then, for the delineation of the procedure’s risks: “infection, bleeding, hemorrhage, injury to bowel, bladder, ureter or vessels, wound complication,” the pre-op records recount. “Patient has clear understanding of all above issues. Verbalized understanding.” And then my signature sealed my consent a few mornings later as the surgical assistant thrust the clipboard over the rails of the hospital gurney, where I waited alone to be wheeled to the operating room, and she read aloud again the possible horrors, drowned out by one final, far more complicated complication: regret.

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Are you sure? Will you change your mind? The questions had lingered, like poisonous disinfectant fumes, in the hospital bathroom mirror before I had returned to the gurney, to the irrevocable removal of the tubes used to support new life. And then a dying roach, struggling alone to drag her paralyzed abdomen against some probable pest poison on the bathroom floor, had stopped my stockinged feet. Clenched my stomach, my uterus. An omen? A warning of remorse?

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But at the doctor’s mention of regret, I shook my head with a silent, certain smile. The same certainty when I had announced—in my high-pitched five-year-old voice, its emphatic consonants prompting my parents’ laughter—“I’m never getting married.” Perhaps because I had misconstrued mate selection as some sort of twisted lineup of eligible grooms in the church lobby only minutes before the wedding ceremony, without enough time to ask each tuxedoed specimen, over the organ’s warning prelude, my list of dealbreaker inquiries. Or perhaps because I had conflated marriage with children. A separation society may still have yet to distinguish.

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“I thought that’s just what you were supposed to do,” my father said, his pitch dissipating with an upward shrug, when he admitted he had never wanted children, and I asked him why he had chosen to anyhow. Ancient thinking, I surmised. The obligations of that long-ago era—when my mother had acquiesced to his marriage proposal only upon the condition he secure a steady job—had pressed against his personal desires. Or perhaps against his body itself, which was trying to prevent, with a kind of ironic mother’s care, the inevitable infection of his offspring with the genetic disease that had taken his own mother in the middle of his childhood.

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My mother never took her eyes from me, the youngest of her three teens, the whole family required to travel as a unit in the bulging womb of our minivan. From its wide back windows, I would watch the sleek sports cars, the two-seaters, and dream one day I would be one of the lean couples in low-slung seats who slipped into the left lane past bulky trucks and slow sedans and our minivan, that doublewide stroller of the roads.

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I never pushed a stroller, the way my older sister did, as she, unlike me, babysat the suburban neighborhood kids. Who would have slipped, wriggling, from my misplaced grasp. Would have babbled in a language incomprehensible to me, then mastered just enough vocabulary for a cruel, cutting remark. “Mommy,” a high-pitched child interrupted once as I stood, toes turned in with the awkwardness of adolescence, lips pressed together over the slice of my snaggle tooth, and waited for our parents’ conversation to conclude. “Why do her teeth look like that?” The mother bent down with some explanation, unremembered, unheard.

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Silence, then, on first, second dates. No rhythmic tick of a biological clock to interrupt every other sentence. No insistent minute or second hand clapping on the wrong beat of the background music. No alarm sounding to signal the end of long, leisurely fun. Was I not every man’s ideal date?

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Want someday, most men select today on dating apps, just beneath their age: 39. 48. 57. “Better get on that ‘someday’ sometime soon,” I mutter to these would-be progenitors of inevitable young orphans, whose fatherless futures do not seem to disturb the silent smiles in their photographs.

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Beneath the pictures with children’s faces blocked out with black squares—a metaphor, maybe, for any possible relationship, with black, blank gaps of time spent not with the partner, but with the child—men begin their self-descriptions with one prime self-identifier: “Father.” “Dad.” And then they put any potential, self-possessed woman in her place, with romantic overtures not for her, but for their progeny: “My daughter is the love of my life.” “My son is my whole world.” “My kids will always be my top priority.” “My son is the number one person in my life. If you can’t handle at best a 1A, 1B situation I am not the guy for you.”

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But I want A, as in All.

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I slip these deficient propositions off the left edge of my screen, then pause my scroll for the men who slip in a hidden reference to fatherhood in the last line of their profile, like an absentminded afterthought. An absent father, perhaps. And, therefore, perhaps a present lover.

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The Single Father I loved long ago almost never saw his son. Took the train line just once up north to some band performance. Yet like a mournful cornet, the dirge of his guilt inserted its minor-key discordance into all our conversations, all our outings, to parks, museums, concerts that his son would have enjoyed. “Call him,” I urged after their years of silence. I tiptoed from the bedroom, crept as quiet as my cat across the apartment’s squeaking floors, as if an infant were sleeping in the big chair by the bed where he made the phone call, his tones periodic, low. Then it was over, as brief as a child’s fitful nap, and he opened the bedroom door and wiped his eyes.

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I did not cry at the slicing shoulder pain in the recovery room, after the surgeon pumped my belly pregnant with air, which slipped silent into my body’s cavities, bubbles crunching within the crepitus skin of my abdomen, where the incision, which had reopened the severed umbilical cord—that first connection to motherhood—later wept with infected, milky tears. And I did not cry when the Man with the Mischievous Grin tried my still-tender vaginal opening with tentative thrusts. But my whole body shook at his voice message a few months afterward, and my lungs gasped for air in the tearing November wind. That month of dark reminders: “My dad died two years ago,” he said, announcing the death of our love, then outlining his plan to somehow replace his father by becoming one—never fearing, as he neared 50, of leaving his children even sooner than his father had left him. “You don’t want, you can’t have children,” he said, “And I’m starting to resent you, because I want a family. And I’m unable to search for a potential mother to my children.”

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“I want to be your family,” I replied. Why could I not be all for him.

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“You wouldn’t even like children,” I countered later on a gray Sunday morning in his silent living room. “They wouldn’t fit with your personality,” I said. “But,” he said, “people change for children.” His reply prophesying, with a kind of fanatic faith, a rebirth of his entire temperament. He would quit cigarettes. Commit to reliable employment. No longer the loafer who left the poinsettia in his big picture window to droop and die of thirst while he lounged, every other month, on a different, far-off seashore. Who returned from a lake-house stay with his nieces and nephews and exclaimed, exasperated, at all the noise. I had stayed silent then, hoping he would hear his own articulation of his desires. Would understand the implications of his urge to lock his brother’s gentle lab in the bathroom when he babysat the dog, the big, pleading eyes too needy always at his knee. Or his urge to slap my cat, pleading for a treat in the kitchen one morning at 3:00 a.m. “I need my sleep; I can’t be disturbed,” he explained, after she woke him with her meows. A faint imitation—I pointed out with the same insistence as her poking paw—of a baby’s cries.

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When my cat jumped on the dresser one morning to sample some sugary coffee, or perhaps vanilla hair styling cream, my voice lifted in a languid “no.” Then a limp pat against her abdomen. “You’d be a bad mother,” said the Man with the Sad Eyes as he watched her resample the forbidden substance. “You need to redirect, provide a new activity, not just say ‘no,’” he scolded, sure of his parental strategies, if only the abortion had not thwarted his fatherhood.

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Maybe my attempts at cat motherhood had in fact been mistaken. “I can’t do this,” I told a friend on a frantic phone call when I lost my cat two times in her first two hours at home. In a drawer of electrical cords, where her tiny pink nose poked up upon opening. Then silent behind the refrigerator, where her fur twisted in the metal coils as I tugged at her delicate bones. My fingers slipped on her wriggling kitten torso, grasped at her spinning paws. Uncertain how to hold her still against my skin. To convince her I was all she needed now.

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After all his dates of the day, the Real-Estate Heir sent me a silent goodbye text. “I enjoyed our conversation,” he said, “You’re smart (and hot).” (The whore clothed with the parentheses.) “Thank you for your advice,” he ended. And he took it, he informed me later in one last message. “I’ve found the love of my life. The woman I told you about.” He would marry the Madonna.

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“You know, I could still technically have children,” I offered the Man with the Mischievous Grin. The phantom frown of my missing tubes replaced by the straight line of a stainless-steel needle, like lips pressed together in firm determination, to reroute my cells in a makeshift pathway outside my skin, then back within. He stayed silent at the suggestion. The in vitro procedure necessitating too much conscious intentionality, planned-out, paid-for steps, unlike the “slipping into the practice of making new people” that Benatar believes to be the default of most parents. But what is parenthood itself, if not complicated, expensive. What difference if the beginning were the same. And what should it be—with the modern options of abortion and birth control—if not intentional.

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The “extremely powerful pro-natalist bias … has its roots in the evolutionary origins of human … biology,” Benatar posits. Human. Universal. An entire species that would cease to exist if they all agreed with my reasoning. Normal people have children, I told myself. And so I imagined sons, daughters, grandchildren, flitting like sunbeams about the backyard lawn chair of the male gynecologist, a gray-haired wife bending over his bald head with an indulgent smile, when the email announcing his retirement arrived, giving its silent reminder, half a decade afterward, of his warning no to me. Still childless. Still all alone.

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I started contemplating motherhood, then, sampling a random, haphazard curriculum of contemporary mothers’ fieldnotes in the form of novels, essays, articles. Perhaps to investigate benefits in the undertaking that I had overlooked. Or perhaps rather to expose the underbelly of the entire enterprise, to prove my avoidance self-righteous, right. So I could hand the books to uncomprehending men and tell them, “See? Parenthood is terrible.”

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Behold the whines of the antiheroine in Want, by Lynn Steger Strong, who keeps skipping out of her low-income job, careless about losing it, since she and her husband choose bankruptcy instead of the uncreative careers that could finance their conscious choice to create two children—the toddler still reaching repeatedly for her mother’s breast. “The book is leaking breast milk,” I joked at brunch afterward to my childless best friend. But her eyes filled, leaking, at my cruel remark. Because she had changed her mind. She would marry her boyfriend. They would have a baby.

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I stayed silent, then, about the protagonist’s best friend who arrives unannounced at the novel’s end as she flees for hundreds of miles to escape her newborn. “I can’t do it,” she says. Then puts a pump to her breasts to extract the excess excretion, which the narrator places by habit in the fridge, to preserve for no one. The breast milk flows, too, intermixes amongst two mothers, two babies, in Elisa Albert’s After Birth, as the narrator wiles away hours, days, pages, whole swaths of her existence in a cloistered cocoon, accomplishing nothing but the swapping of babies and breasts. “I had no idea how fucked up this was going to be,” one of the mothers says of motherhood.

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“I often think that people wouldn’t have children if they knew what it was like, and I wonder whether as a gender we contain a Darwinian stop upon our powers of expression,” Rachel Cusk ponders in A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother—just before she expends thousands of words expressing exactly what it is like. Evolution has not muted anyone. It is just that no one is listening. Yet why am I somehow able to hear what to others sounds like silence?

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After a decade of silence, my First Real Love sent another soundless text to tell me of his separation, now in separate rooms in the suburban house with the wife who bore his two sons. For them—toddling about with smeared smiles and streaked hair—his love chose to endure; for her—bloated, bosomy—he chose to love no more. Offered his love instead, again, to me. I demurred. “Our lives have gone separate ways,” I said. “You wanted kids. And I always wanted a relationship where I was someone’s top priority, and he was mine. Maybe that doesn’t exist, but it’s what I’ve always hoped for.” He responded, hopeful: “I always thought I could have both.” “Hmm,” I texted, gentle. “I don’t think that exists.” He disagreed: “I sure as fuck hope it does.”

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My reply to him, or maybe more to myself: “It’s hard to have it all.”

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“You’re Exhibit A!” I wanted to say. Instead, I spoke it later, on an accidental date with a man with four teenagers. They had been silent in his profile, absent in his photos. His tall, suited form alone at elegant, adult-only parties, business lunches, lush travel destinations. A casual reference to a city bachelor pad. No mention of the suburban second home near his ex-wife, which he disclosed, with his children, when we ordered drinks. My hands slipped from the menu to my lap, my back backing away from the table, away from the date. Then I forced my torso forward for the following four hours, the iteration of each bitter divorce proceeding, each child support hearing, each shortcoming of his one-time lover. Turned mother. Turned monster. Whom he would replace, he relayed, with another passionate lover. A long relationship integrating, remaking his family. For he was certain, despite my expressed skepticism, despite his own evidence, already presented in a court of law, that it was still possible to have it all.

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“You have a lot of wonderful young humans in your life who would (and should) be top priority,” I replied to his plea for a second meeting. Wary to repeat an earlier second date with a different silver-haired dad, who angled his glasses over his glowing phone to respond to multiple urgent missives from one, or was it two, of his three daughters, or his two exes. While I swung my legs on my barstool like a silenced child, waiting for a parent to attend to more important matters.

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“She just doesn’t understand,” interrupted the Single Father I loved long ago, as I made shaky after-dinner conversation with his son, as I asked about his activities when he visited his friends’ homes. “She doesn’t mean to pry,” the Single Father explained, excusing my novice attempts at step-parenting, my limited comprehension of the teenage language. My lips closed into a silent, stupid smile, face forward, cheeks hot in the cold dark of the cab’s middle seat between my lover and his son. He stayed on the other side of his father later on the train, where we left him to take the rest of the line north to his mother’s home, as I turned my back, clattered out at our stop, toward our apartment. And then I lay down to read on the sofa bed that we had planned for maybe someday—maybe never, it turned out with our ending soon afterward—for a visit from his son.

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A son was born after the Real-Estate Heir’s wedding, after that day when his smile had swept up like the lift of his bride’s gauzy veil, like the film of her long skirt, like the breakers at their seaside ceremony, like the swell of well wishes rising beneath her online photograph. Which was replaced later, on her social profile, with the three of them, the father’s hand limp around her shoulders, her arms full of the son. Then just the two of them, mother and son, like a Renaissance portrait of the Madonna herself, her golden ringlets forming a thousand angelic halos above her head, her eyes gazing into the saving face of her son. But the father, like Christ’s own, had disappeared, ghostly, immaterial. And a phantom photo from the past, back when her arm held only his waist, remained on his profile. His life silent, suspended in time. With no sign of the child.

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“But you got the child you always wanted,” I murmured to an unexpected text from the Man with the Sad Eyes, two years after he had left my home, his shoulders slumped with sadness, his arms heavy with the carrier for his two cats, infertile now at my insistence. “I have a paternity test tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock,” he wrote, “to see if I’m the father to a daughter whose mother was a rebound after you, and may go down as the worst mistake ever made.” A mistake? Why not instead a replacement for his long-ago aborted fetus? A substitute for our hypothetical child who would have suffered under my bad mothering? “I’m sorry,” I said instead. His reply: “The truth is already there. I just have to find out what it is.” Then silence, suspended like a commercial break in a lurid television show, awaiting forever the proclamation of his fate.

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I saw the future of the Man with the Mischievous Grin, saw the back of his bald head in any and every bald-headed dad, their type ubiquitous, indistinguishable, bobbing, weaving in anger, frustration, elbows up, out, like human hackles, above a double-wide wailing stroller, shoving, blocking the pedestrians of my city’s sidewalks, where the wives, the pregnant-again mothers, trailed, haggard, silent, behind, while I walked alone, my lips and hope as flat as my emptied abdomen, in the weeks after he left me. And I wished upon him the misery that he had chosen.

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“Having children is miserable. Isn’t life miserable enough already?” I shouted, too loud even for the boisterous bar that he had chosen for the final time that we would meet, three years since my surgery, since the surgical assistant’s warning of regret, since the postoperative complication of our decayed, gangrenous love. “But the point of life is to face and overcome challenges!” he replied. And his signature grin soared up into two sheer cliffs.

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He had sent me a picture of himself on a mountain once, coated in brown leaves, slippery with fetid decay, which his gym shoes gripped precariously, while his whole body lunged forward against the incline. Yet tilting him backward, like a boulder almost always ever about to pull him over, was a child. One of his nephews, strapped in some contraption to his back. Sisyphus with bright orange baby carrier. “I just left my nephew at the lake house,” he explained now. And this time, he had not noticed the noise. “It’s hard not to want that after just having seen it,” he said. “I’m searching for my mate now.” For the family I could never be for him. I stepped down from my barstool, left my unfinished saccharine drink, and went home silently alone.

                                                                                         )

“I’m never getting married.” My mistaken high-pitched childhood announcement—with its misunderstanding of matrimony meaning motherhood—had been a prophesy. A prescient understanding that I could never have it all.

                                                                                         )

Women have long known they cannot have it all—all always defined as both career and children. “This,” says the narrator of After Birth as she surveys the breast-fed babies and reflects on her PhD program halted by pregnancy, “[this] is my motherfucking dissertation.” And maybe in the same way, neither can I have my kind of all—a partner without motherhood. Dry breasts, and so, likewise, dry unkissed lips.

                                                                                         )

“We kiss so well,” said the Cat Dad, bending his warm lips toward me over the corner of the table at the tiki bar. “We fit together so well,” he marveled, pulling my body warm against his chest in bed. But then, on his sofa later, he slurred, apropos of nothing, drunk with honesty: “I’d make a great father.” So was that the reason he hesitated later at my request for exclusivity? Why give commitment to my body, even if it fit so well with his, if that womb would not give him children. Don’t know yet, I reread on his dating profile beside the baby bottle. Not sure yet, he had indicated regarding his relationship intentions. But perhaps he did know, after all. Because for his next date, at the aquarium, where toddlers stumbled from their strollers to press their hands and noses to each watery womb, he took instead of me another woman, who already looked like a mother, her arms soft and comfortable in her online photos, her breasts low, her belly swollen with the hormones from the stainless-steel needle that had only recently urged and then extracted her eggs, the nascent cells of their fused future, frozen now, waiting only for his warmth to come to life.

                                                                                         )

Why had my body opted out of this human cycle of life? And had I, consequently, inadvertently, forfeited my right to the corresponding human experience of love? Was a child the price to pay for a man? A kind of human barter—the offering of a body, through and with my own, for the profit of a partnership.

                                                                                         )

Don’t want. I click the limiting filter on a dating app. Swipe on one, two men who do not desire a child. Then a bright yellow screen flashes up, a warning light, before my life stops, turns red. “That’s everyone.” You have had it all.

                                                                                         )

“Are all your stipulations essential? Maybe temper some of your preferences,” my friends, my brother, all suggest. Maybe expand, like a belly pregnant with possibilities, the filters’ restrictions—on distance, politics, stature, education … children. But my womb, like my mind, contracts, closes. Like an involuntary muscle. The body stating its silent choice.

                                                                                         )

Perhaps, then, the sensations of the body are ample, appropriate justification for forgoing procreation in Heti’s Motherhood. With my initial reading, I had scoffed at the narrator’s circuitous chronicling of her recurrent dreams and emotions, her cycling hormones and blood, as if her body could offer the answer, the rationale, on whether to produce a child. A better justification would originate from the rational mind, I had believed, as I underlined pointed sentences in Benatar, then highlighted Motherhood’s choicest passages—the narrator’s boyfriend’s logical takedowns of parenthood. “It’s like someone who digs a big hole in the middle of a busy intersection, and then starts filling it up again,” he quips of the self-inflicted, self-interested business of procreation, before he critiques society’s pro-procreation pressures on heterosexual women: “Nobody looks at a childless gay couple and thinks their life must lack meaning or depth or substance because they didn’t have kids,” he reasons. Only straight women were expected to reproduce.

                                                                                         )

And then I understood, on my second, third rereading: His mind, his philosophical reasonings, had at last aligned with the narrator’s body, with her nonrational rationale. “Why don’t we understand some people who don’t want children as those with a different, perhaps biologically different, orientation?” she asks. “I suspect the intensity of this desire lies deep within our cells,” she posits, akin to a sexual orientation, beyond choice or control. Innate, instinctual.

                                                                                         )

“Why do I have to have an explanation?” a first date retorted recently when I questioned his aversion to the acidic pickles that accompanied his cheeseburger. Just because, he implied, silencing the discussion as he put his drink to his lips. And so I gave him the same answer later when he questioned why I did not want a child.

                                                                                         )

I went home alone after that date. Alone after a hundred others. After my First Real Love. After the Man with the Sad Eyes. The Man with the Mischievous Grin. The Single Father I loved long ago. The Real-Estate Heir. The Cat Dad. My cat alone greeting me at the door.

                                                                                         )

“Do you think it’s sad, how we sterilize cats, cutting out their hormones, their sexuality?” I asked my best friend once. “No, they’re forever kittens now,” she said. She who would marry her boyfriend and have a child. “Always babies now.” Human mother to feline child. But I preferred a different metaphor. Spayed cat as aging, infertile woman. Like me. Two female friends—cross-species companions—who no longer had it all. Some silent, internal bits of flesh now missing. Yet still holding within our bodies a beating heart. And so much love.

                                                                                         )

Was that my future then? Like the two main characters in Sigrid Nunez’s novel What Are You Going Through? Two aging friends, one estranged from her daughter, one childless and separated from her anti-natalist ex-partner, both single, both alone, together, at the end of the novel … and of life. And then the narrator is left, an old woman languishing on a park bench, admiring, maybe envying, a beautiful young couple in love. Beside a fountain, its exuberant, eternal song of hope splashing any silence away.

                                                                                         )

“This is not the life I wanted,” I wailed to my brother across my kitchen table one dark December evening not long ago, my hope snuffed out too soon like the waning winter light. “I wanted a partner,” I lamented. He interrupted. “You could have gotten married,” he said, “and you could be divorced now with three kids.” I stared, silent, with no reply. Because maybe I did have the life I wanted after all. A life without the children I did not want. Could the goodness of a life be gauged by what is not, rather than by what is, there? Could an absence (of children, of my fallopian tubes) be appreciated the same way a presence (of a partner, of romance) might be? Maybe silence, that ultimate absence, could be just as beautiful as sound.

                                                                                         )

When he left, the stillness of my empty apartment enveloped me again. The same sterile silence of that male gynecologist’s office, his warning no of long ago, still extending throughout the years, throughout a thousand lonely nights at home, with my cat resting quiet on my lap. But if I listened, intent enough in the silence of it all, I could hear the tiny yes of her purr.


Andrea Bianchi lives in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Witness, The Rumpus, CutBank, Epiphany, The Smart Set, The Boiler, and elsewhere. Her writing was also selected as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2021.

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