When I first told my doctor I wanted a vasectomy, I was 42 years old. She said I should wait, just to make sure. My doctor is younger than I am, and she had just had her first child. My wife and I do not have any children, and the doctor wanted to make sure that we didn’t prematurely preclude ourselves from the joys of parenthood.
Two years later, I told the doctor that my wife, Nicole, has been on birth control pills for most of her adult life. We are in our 40s, and we were certain we did not want to have children. It was time for me to bear the burden of preventing pregnancy, and since I could not do it chemically, it would have to be surgical. And permanent.
In making the decision to take this drastic step of surgically altering my reproductive functioning — and then following through with it — I realized that preventing pregnancy is a pain. It made me appreciate the fact that women in general, and my wife in particular, are usually the ones to bear the burden. But it also made me realize that my desire not to reproduce stems from a deeply rooted pessimism about the future of humanity.
How my wife and I knew we didn’t want to have children
We were sure we didn’t want to have children. We have a big logbook in which we have documented every major decision in our 14 years of marriage. We have family meetings and hash out all the pros and cons and then make a decision and do not waver from it. We used to start the meetings playing instruments and singing “Boil the Cabbage Down” and end them with “I Shall Not Be Moved.” I liked the formality and ritual of the music. My wife, who is marked as “President” of the family on the cover of the red notebook, did not like playing music — my first big husbandly mistake was buying her the mandolin that I wanted her to play — and soon nixed the musical ritual.
We were in such agreement about not having kids that we never even put it in the book. I feel lucky that way. I’ve known a lot of guys who were ambivalent on the kid question. But their wives were certain they wanted kids and were biologically driven toward them. Nicole says she has never felt that biological imperative to reproduce, and neither have I.
I want to be very clear that I am not speaking for her on issues of birth control, only expressing the reasons why it was time for me to take over that burden for our family. But there were the basic things we could agree on.
Neither of us are particularly attached to our own genes. We don’t need to see ourselves or each other reflected in some small face. We don’t owe it to our parents or grandparents, and we each have siblings with kids. (My wife wants me to point out we don’t hate kids. We actually like them, including those we are biologically related to and those we are not related to in any way other than existing in the same world.)
In terms of the global population, there is certainly no imperative to go forth and multiply, given that the world is already sorely bearing the weight of our prolific species. We don’t own a car, we rent an apartment in downtown Baltimore (with no interest in owning), and not having a kid seems like another way to reduce our carbon footprint.
Given that we just elected a president who does not believe in global warming, this last rationale has become even more compelling. In fact, on the night Donald Trump was elected, the vasectomy was the only thing I felt good about.
Sure, people — often uninvited — tried to point out everything we would miss out on. A great infinite love you’ll never know. Those tiny hands grasping yours. The little eyes that cut right to your soul. More practically, my friend Roger asked who would carry my groceries when I got old. I thought of all the old people I know who have been broken by the rottenness of their offspring who become thieves or addicts or just no-account losers and figured I’d carry my own groceries.
As for the little hands and the gazing eyes, babies — I thought of terror. When I was 2, my little brother was born with a heart problem, and they thought he would die. My parents left me with my grandparents and spent several weeks saving his life at a hospital. Perhaps their pain seeped into my young mind, but infancy is terrifying to me. And childhood largely uninteresting. When I read a biography, I skip to adulthood.
To make it worse, I have a deeply pessimistic view of the long-term future. I suspect that within the next couple of generations, some catastrophe will wipe out millions, if not billions, of people. If not my children, then my grandchildren will either be cannibals or be eaten by cannibals. Though I have lived in a brief period of relative comfort and peace, I do not believe that is the way the world generally works.
My wife disagreed with me on this point. She believed in the goodness of people and the idea of progress, that there is a moral arc to the universe. Her desire not to have children was not as motivated by fear as mine — at least until after the election of Donald Trump.
“You were right. People are not inherently good. I am having to adjust to that,” she said one day as we were drinking beer and wondering what had happened. I wished I were wrong. But she still insists her worldview is not quite as dark as mine.
(Another friend, a woman, texted me to say, “I remember u telling me once about not wanting to have kids because our world is gonna be like a Cormac McCarthy book. I agree. And that makes me sad.”)
Preventing pregnancy is a huge pain — and women tend to be the ones to bear the burden
“I like the way you put that, that you want to take over the burden of the birth control,” my doctor said when I brought it up to her. But how could I not — Nicole hardly knew what she might be like without taking these doses of hormones that she’s been on since she was 16. She used to smoke, so it was more dangerous, but even now that she’d quit, we thought she should be able to see how she liked life without extra estrogen. And after being together for 16 years, there was no way we were going back to condoms.
This was a few weeks before the news broke that a study on an effective male birth control hormonal injection was discontinued because of some of the same side effects women have been dealing with for the past 50 years, including acne, anxiety, and depression. Even though a majority of men in the study said they would take the drug if available, the number who dropped out — which was high — caused the study to be discontinued and the drug not approved.
So if I wanted to take the burden of my family’s birth control, I had to get my sack slit.
The doctor said she would refer me to a urologist. But I go to the doctor at a Catholic hospital, and when I called the number she gave me, I was shocked when they said they don’t do the procedure.
This too is a common experience for women. People decide what you can do with your own reproductive organs because of their religion. And contraception could become so much more fraught with a president-elect who promises a Supreme Court appointment who would overturn Roe v. Wade. So, again, I was getting a small taste of what women go through. It was kind of refreshing that they were going to be repressive to me too.
So I got another urologist, went in for a consultation that took about 15 minutes, and left with an appointment to get my sack slit.
Here’s what’s supposed to happen. The doctor shoots up the right side of the scrotum with a local anesthetic, cuts open the scrotum, and pulls the vas deferens, the tube that carries sperm, out of the sack. Then he makes two snips, cutting out a section. He cauterizes each of those and clamps it, before moving to the left side and doing the same thing.
By cutting a section out of the vas deferens, which carries the sperm, it prevents it from entering the semen and leaving the body upon ejaculation. Instead, it absorbs back into the body. According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 50 million men have had a vasectomy.
And for many men, the desire for a vasectomy is connected, as it is for me, with a fear of the future. A 2014 Cornell University study of 9,000 men found an increase in the numbers of vasectomies during the great recession, rising from 3.9 percent of men interviewed to 4.4 percent.
But the problem with worrying about the future is that the more immediate the vasectomy became, the more I feared the procedure itself. After all, I was going to get my balls cut open. Voluntarily. Medical procedures generally make me feel queasy, so there was that. Then there was the fear that my dick would somehow stop working, that rather than simply keeping sperm from coming out of it, the procedure would keep it from functioning. And despite everything I’ve ever felt, there was a small thought, barely conscious but spreading through my gut, that I would somehow be cut off from the future.
Getting a vasectomy made me realize that a lot of people still believe in something like eugenics
Whenever we talk about not having kids, someone will bring up the movie Idiocracy, where the dystopian future is created when the smart and thoughtful couple ends up waiting so long that they never have kids and the “dumb” people reproduce at an astounding and thoughtless pace. I’d never seen the movie, and since I was hearing even more about it because of this year’s election, I decided to watch it. It’s one of those stupid high-concept flicks where the one-sentence premise is actually better than the movie.
But the fact that so many people mentioned it showed me how many people still believe in something like eugenics. After all, that is the big picture of the film — if smart people procreate, we have a better gene pool and a better future. If not, we’re doomed to watering our plants with electrolytes.
In fact, the vasectomy has deep ties to eugenics. Shortly after he performed the first vasectomy in the US in 1897, Albert Ochsner, one of the founders of the American eugenics movement, argued, “If it were possible to eliminate all habitual criminals from having children, there would soon be a very marked decrease in this class.”
Eugenics is an exceedingly stupid view of the way evolution works. No individual ever knows the long-term evolutionary outcomes of discrete actions. But on an ethical, individual level, it is true that in getting the vasectomy I am actively deciding to pull myself out of that gene pool and end the line of errors and ejaculations that created me.
It is equally likely that if we had children, we could contribute to the world’s decline. As I continued my convalescence and Donald Trump appointed his children part of the transition team and sought clearance for them, I think I came to understand why Plato’s “Republic” outlawed the private family.
Once you have kids, you start to want them to do better, to be better off, than everyone else, and you make decisions that may be good for your own family but not for society or the world. People always talk about having kids as an unselfish act. And it is true that once you have them, you, in some sense, subordinate yourself to them. But you also subordinate everything else to them, as an extension of yourself, which makes you far more, rather than less, selfish. When you say, “I’d give the world for you,” you mean it, and you do.
People try to argue with me about this, saying that the world would stop if people quit procreating. That is true. And society would fall apart if people quit collecting garbage or working at sewage plants. But I do not do those things either.
My wife and I had to figure out what, in the long run, we would be to each other without children
It wasn’t just the larger, abstract questions. My wife and I had to figure out what, in the long run, we would be to each other without children.
So many of our friends who are married find the meaning in their marriage through their kids. It has been, historically, a reason to put up with all the bullshit that comes with living and sleeping with the same person for a long time. Nicole and I have to think of another meaning in our union. Who is going to carry your metaphysical groceries?
There could be something daunting about that — it could put a tremendous weight on both of us. But there is also something beautiful. We don’t have to be everything to each other — we both have extraordinarily full lives of friends, students, colleagues, and collaborators — but we can remain the main thing to each other, while still seeing the world more clearly. Every decision we make about our relationship will center on our relationship, asking what is good for us, as a unit, and in every decision we make about the broader world, we are free to ask: What is better for us all? And in that way, I am certain that Nicole is enough for me, certain I don’t need a child to make the relationship meaningful; I am thrilled and comforted, stimulated and calmed by this amazing woman.
As we looked for models of couples without kids, there aren’t that many in popular culture to turn to. For a while we felt like Frank and Claire Underwood on Netflix’s House of Cards, but eventually that analogy felt too horrible as their evildoing increased. But two of my fathers’ brothers remained childless; I am quite close with both of them and feel that in their lives, filled with godchildren and long-term friends, we do have a model.
My parents, once they had me and my brother, separated themselves from most of their friends who weren’t the parents of our friends or people they worked with, while my childless aunts and uncles kept up a vast connection of friends and godchildren, traveling and working.
“Getting the snip”: what it’s like to have a vasectomy
As I got on the bus to ride up to the hospital on the day of the operation — Nicole was at work — I felt clammy-handed and uneasy. The rowhouses passing by outside the window seemed haunted, ominous. I was putting a window between myself and the future.
By the time I got into the elevator at the hospital, heading up to the sixth floor, I started spinning. I steadied myself on the elevator railing. The doors opened. I walked out of the elevator and into the hallway. I paused and thought about turning around before I opened the door.
When I walked into the waiting room, there at the desk was a novelist I sort of know. At first, I think we were both embarrassed. I didn’t want to ask what he was there for in case it was erectile dysfunction or something else I didn’t want to know about.
“Getting the snip,” I said when he finished his paperwork.
“Yeah can’t even get a vasectomy in this town without running into someone you know,” he said.
Soon the doctor called him in. I filled out my own paperwork, which included insurance — the procedure was largely covered, although I did have an $80 copay (It is not covered by the Affordable Care Act). After what seemed like only a few minutes, the door opened, and the novelist came hobbling out.
“Painless,” he said, looking a little pale and uncertain as he made his way, also unaccompanied, out into the world.
“You’re next,” a nurse said. She and the doctor were both older than me, which was somehow comforting. She told me to take off my pants and underwear and lie down on a gurney.
“I bet you haven’t had another man shave your balls before,” the doctor said as he raked a razor across my wrinkled skin. I thought that was rather presumptuous, assuming such a narrow range of experience on my part. But he was right, and I was surprised by how quickly he moved the blade across my scrotum. It made a whisking sound, like the underside of the chin. Now when he stuck the large needles into the right side of my sack, I closed my eyes and tried to wrap my arm around my face to blot it all out. The nurse grabbed my arm and said, “It’s going to be okay, baby,” or something very close to that. It was shockingly familiar, but not unwelcome.
Then as the doctor started to cut away at the vas deferens that would carry the sperm into the rest of my semen so that it might ejaculate, the nurse began to ask me questions about my job. I make most of my money covering cops and courts in Baltimore.
The conversation was going well and distracted me until just as I smelled my own innards burning as the doctor cauterized the ends of the vas, the cut-out bit looking like a white maggot on a silver tray. That’s when they started talking about the Freddie Gray case and how the prosecutors overreacted and how the medical examiner should be fired.
I covered the trials of the officers in whose custody the 25-year-old black man died in April 2015. It was grim to sit, day after day, trial after trial, listening to the medical examiner and other experts discussing the injury to Gray’s spine while an image of it — the actual spinal cord — was projected on a screen behind them.
I wasn’t in a position to argue, but I felt kind of angry, annoyed, and nauseated. Of all the things to talk about right now, why did they have to go into that? But now it was time for the next nut, and here came the needle, and the nurse again whispered calmingly into my ear as I closed my eyes and clenched my teeth.
My brother, who has two wonderful kids, had a vasectomy, which caused him considerable problems. He’s gone through two open-heart surgeries, and although he doesn’t remember the one he had as a baby, he says the vasectomy was harder to recover from than the time he got a long-leaking valve replaced by a cadaver’s. He said he had the problems because he didn’t wear tight enough underwear and didn’t rest long enough. So I bought a pair of super-duper compression spandex ultra-tight underwear and brought them with me. Soon enough, the doctor slipped them up over my hips.
That was it. Outpatient and almost abstract. All that was left was a couple of days on the couch with frozen peas on my crotch — he said I should be able to run and have sex within a week. It would probably take 15 ejaculations, he said, for the semen to be free of sperm, so after I had come 15 times, I should jerk off into a jar and bring the semen to a lab to be tested.
To be clear here: After a vasectomy, you still ejaculate. One friend texted me: “I was also wondering, like, is my cum going to be all clear and watery? Because that’s gross, right?”
It is not all clear and watery — it is of roughly the same consistency and color, and is ejected with the same sort of force as before the surgery.
It’s just that the sperm isn’t able to get into the semen.
After I posted about the surgery on Facebook, everyone I knew asked me about my balls when they saw me
Five days later, I was on the couch, reeling after an excruciating attempt to walk the dog barely a block.
The weekend had been grand. Nicole and I stayed in and watched Netflix and didn’t drink, and she brought me food and more frozen peas, and I was moderately doped up. But by the following Tuesday, I was really regretting the whole thing. I could see the beautiful fall day passing by outside the window of what now seemed like my cell.
I was in good health, and I had voluntarily undertaken such a procedure? What was I thinking? Why would anyone voluntarily risk their sex organs? Why would anyone who doesn’t drive and relies on walking for everything do this to the ridiculously painful orbs that already lurk between the legs?
That’s when it hit me: Balls are a huge problem to start with, an argument against intelligent design. If Apple made men, we would have been recalled. And the older one gets and the lower his balls hang, the more absurd the proposition of having extremely sensitive orbs hanging down between your legs becomes. Summer is already a nightmare, trying not to sit on them as you go about a semiproductive life. And now, just as the cool and beautiful relief of autumn set in, I took that everyday testicular discomfort and magnified it into something truly ridiculous.
After I posted about the surgery on Facebook, everyone I knew asked me about my balls when they saw me. No one would ever socially ask a relative stranger, “How’s your penis?” because penises are sexual and sometimes threatening and loaded with all kinds of deeply symbolic freight. Testicles are just a punchline.
It felt like mine had been punched. Every time I walked. If you don’t have balls, there’s a sensation that goes up through your gut, makes you double over and feel existentially nauseated, and it can seem like it has gone away and come again in another wave. (A CBD-heavy strain of weed helped the nausea a bit.)
But as part of the practical and pain induced panic that came over me, I also fell into some abstract despair about being separated from the future. Deciding not to have kids is one thing, but surgically rendering yourself unable to do so, I realized later, was a different matter altogether.
In the depths of despair, I wrote to the novelist, who was happy to hear about my pain. He too found himself feeling worse, rather than better, on Tuesday and had been as worried as me. Now both of us, at least, felt like this was just the way the recovery goes.
Finally, nearly two weeks after the surgery, the bruises on my balls started to subside and I could make it through most of the day without putting frozen peas down my pants. And with that, I once again became comfortable with, and even excited by, my separation from the gene pool; my decision that my wife will be the primary “other” in my life. And because she is my contemporary rather than my offspring, it places us more firmly in the present, in the world we are living in.
Having children, I see, requires having a deep sense of hope or faith that I lack. I want to be wrong about the grimness of the future, but I’m not about to bet someone else’s life on it.
Baynard Woods is the author of Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff. He is editor at large for the Baltimore City Paper. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and numerous other publications.