In my house, I don't have a daughter who's stressing over a dress for the upcoming school prom. There's no son of mine picking out just the marshmallow bits from a box of Lucky Charms cereal. No one is making up flash cards for PSAT vocabulary prep.
Scrolling through the Facebook feed of my closest high school and college friends, I'm the only one without kids, and that's as it should be. I'm 44 now, and my feelings toward little ones remains constant: I like them just fine as long as they're not mine. In a parallel universe, my son Mason is 16 and on the varsity tennis team, while my daughter Abby is a 14-year-old trying out for the junior high production of Bye Bye Birdie. But in the actual universe, my weekends are made up of trying out new restaurants with my wife, binging on Netflix's addictive dramas, and making the occasional pilgrimage to New York City as a New Jersey suburbanite.
There is one person who'd prefer the alternate timeline of Mason and Abby: my mother, who has pined for grandchildren. Because she and I have an honest relationship, she has expressed her disappointment to me as plainly as words can deliver, and I have responded with equal bluntness: There are certain things you can have in life, Mother, and I'm afraid this is not one of those.
I imagine my mother is frustrated, and most likely triply so, because I have two older sisters, one who is married and one who's been with the same guy for so long that they might as well be, and none of us has provided our mother with any children. Three strikes, my mother is out.
What did she do to deserve this fate? Was it something she or my father neglected to do? Or does it have to do with either of them at all? Because as much as I am a product of my parents' DNA, I am also my own person. It's that age-old question, nature versus nurture, the chicken or the egg.
When I reveal my siblings-wide childlessness to people, the braver ones come right out and ask. Like did we suffer through some unpleasant, possibly horrifying childhood? We did not. Though I wouldn't call my childhood idyllic, considering our financial circumstances — my family owned an oriental gift shop that barely paid the rent and stocked the refrigerator — I think we came off all right. Even if the five of us lived in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment near the Jersey shore, we still managed to have many days of lightness and laughter. Yes, our parents fought on occasion, almost always about money, but did either of them ever yell during their verbal bouts that my sisters and I were a burden to them? Not once. Their affection for us never wavered, even on bad days when they returned from the store having hardly sold any merchandise, the bills stacking up in their merciless white envelopes.
So what, then, for this eerie childlessness in the Woo clan? Why is it that three well-adjusted children who grew up to have steady partners and steady jobs and steady residences all decided against reproduction?
Not that I want to be a cliché or anything, but I believe the answer lies within my mother.
My father left for the United States when I was a toddler and we weren't reunited until I turned 10. During the formative years of my life, my mother was all that I had. But as a child, I never quite felt my father's absence because my mother deluged me with love. I could do no wrong in her eyes, even if I did do wrong. I can recall an incident where I got furious at her for something inane (the cause of which I've long since forgotten), and I had the audacity to fling a pencil right at her face. I can still see the black graphite dot between her eyebrows that turned into an angry red indentation, carved into her skin for days. If that pencil had landed just an inch to the left or right, I could've taken out one of her eyes. Here was a moment where I deserved to be punished like the little monster that I was, yet nothing happened.
My mother placed me in the center of my own universe. She told me I was the smartest, the handsomest, the best at anything I did. Even as a child, I knew enough about the world to realize she was wrong, but at the same time, her never-ending stream of hyperbolic compliments gave me confidence. As I grew older and encountered more intelligent, more capable peers, her words acted as a bulwark against reality. They led me to succeed in school, in work, in life, at least as far as my abilities could take me. In short, I've become the most accomplished person I possibly could have.
Unfortunately, that person is also self-centered, selfish, and sometimes self-deluded. I've published a pair of novels so far, and even though I can plainly see that I'm not even close to being as talented as the writers I admire most, there's also a part of me that believes that I belong with these folks, that my genius remains unrecognized for now and it's just a matter of time until I ascend to my rightful place among the literati. I don't think this type of delusion is unusual for writers; many people who find success in the arts, however large or small, get there by the will of their outsized egos.
The funny thing is, I've cultivated this delusion. I've fed it, fertilized it, made it grow within me, because in addition to raising my self-confidence to unrealistic levels, there's something else equally powerful that my mother has bestowed upon me: scarcity. As a child of war, the Korean Conflict forced my mother and her family to literally run for their lives. She was 5 when the tanks started rolling and 8 by the time it was over, and during those years she learned what it meant to lose her home, to have all her essential belongings in a burlap bag, to have not enough to eat — which is why Costco is now her favorite place in the world. When she walks into that warehouse stacked full of everything, her shoulders relax. She smiles as she hugs the enormous rolls of paper towels and loads it into the cart. As she gazes at the giant bin of bananas, I'm certain she'd like to swim in them, like the way Scrooge McDuck wades in his pool of gold coins. Her closet in her condo is like a survivalist's dream, triples and quadruples of toilet paper, kitchen gloves, Ziploc bags, because in her uncertain upbringing, nothing was permanent. Nothing could be counted on.
I may not share in my mother's penchant for stockpiling goods, but I'm very careful about money. I've never gazed at a restaurant's menu without seeing the prices first. I've always promised myself I would give to charity once I made a decent salary, but that threshold of decent always nudges just beyond my reach. I do tip, but never more than the standard 18 percent, no matter how perfect the service. Even though I could afford a nicer car, I drive a 2007 Toyota Prius that I bought with almost 100,000 miles on it.
If there's something I value in this world even more than money, it's time — the ultimate finite resource. I hoard my time, I steal my time, I do everything I can to do what I want to do. This is one of my wife's chief complaints about our relationship, that we end up doing things that only interest me. I don't believe this to be true. I believe that the time we spend together — watching plays, dining at fine restaurants, perusing art galleries — are activities that satisfy both of us, but … when was the last time I went antiquing with her? Or attended a weekend seminar on spirituality? Or watched a chick flick?
When have I ever done anything that only she wants to do?
If there is a universal truth about good parenting, it is that sacrifices must be made. I see this with my own eyes: My friends with newborns have given up everything, especially their sleep. In the days of my parents, mothers solely took on childrearing, but that's simply no longer the case, not with a two-income household. Every single one of my old drinking buddies is heavily involved in all facets of kid care, from changing diapers to drawing baths to putting them to bed at night. Playing catch with Tommy for half an hour and checking off their parental duties is more like a fairy tale for dads.
I could never do what they do, and now I know why: There just isn't enough to go around. Not of me, or my time, or my resources. My twin dictums of selfishness and scarcity have turned me into a person who believes that the world is mine and mine alone. Which, I'd like to point out, is not my mother's fault. She may have pressed her personal points of view onto my developing psyche, but I was the one who chose to interpret them into my childless present.
And that is the life I want, a life without kids of my own. Some may say it is a life without hope, because children are literally the future and by choosing not to procreate, it's as if I have rejected the very concept of life itself. Others may say it's an immature life, that you don't truly grow up until you learn to take care of someone else besides yourself. I may have missed out on what might be the most human of all acts, to raise my own child.
All these are probably true, but on the other hand, by choosing not to devote myself to my offspring, I've seen things I wouldn't have seen, like the pyramids of Egypt at sundown, or tasted foods I wouldn't have tasted, like camel stew at a souk in Qatar.
As always, the saddest fact of living a life is just that, the sole nature of our existence, the singular path of our experience. What would it be like to hold my daughter in my arms? To take my son to his first baseball game? To see my children fall in love, get married, have kids of their own?
I have no idea, and I never will.
I visit my mother once every two weeks, and sometimes I try to veer our conversation toward more philosophical matters like these. She listens but ultimately doesn't get any of it. She doesn't understand why someone who has enough to eat would ever feel anything but happiness.
With her husband gone, the life my mother now leads is one of solitude. When she encounters old friends she hasn't seen in years, I know it pains her to answer the inevitable question about her lack of grandkids. These people forget that her children have not borne her a future generation, so when they ask about her little ones, my mother puts on her best smile and tells them that she has three healthy children who are doing very well in their professions and their relationships.
It's all that she can say, because it's all that she has. Us.
Sung J. Woo has written two novels, Love Love (2015) and Everything Asian (2009).