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I can roughly divide my novels into two stacks. They either address what I want, or what I fear. Perhaps to my spiritual detriment, the latter pile is the taller, and from my crowd of phobias – of failure, other people – one rose head and shoulders above the rest some years ago.
I was petrified of having children.
I first foreswore motherhood when I was eight years old. The rueful, she'll-soon-change-her-tune smirk that this proclamation elicited from my elders only solidified my resolve.
As for what prompted my precocious aversion, I can only speculate. Having borne my two brothers and me did seem to have further entrenched my own mother's second-in- command status in our family. As for my ambitious, restive
father, he was forever relishing aloud that glorious day when he could finally have "adult conversations" with his children. While he may have meant us to take this impatience as a compliment, I couldn't help but reﬂect that it would have been more efficient by half should he have conducted his conversations with adults, period. Moreover, he made little effort to disguise the fact that until that day arrived we were an annoyance. But rather than feel wounded, I think I sympathized. We were annoying. We were loud and sneaky and broke things. At eight, maybe I was simply horrified by the prospect of being saddled with myself.
As a teenager, I began to hedge my bets. My future incarnation might prove subject to all manner of preposterous urges, even if I already suspected by fifteen that a pigheaded commitment to doing what I'd always said I'd do if only because I'd always said it was with me for life. So I started to append casually to my I-don't-want-babies line, "Oh, at most I can see being one of those women who has a kid at forty- five." The caveat seemed safe, since when you're fifteen the age of forty-five is a distant abstraction. Forty-five = never.
Well, surprise, surprise. I'm fifty-three.
It was the encroaching proximity of this adolescent due- date of sorts – coinciding with the imminent closure of the reproductive window – that moved me to address this matter at forty-two. I was in a stable relationship of six years' standing.
If my own earnings were in freelance ﬂux, my partner had a steady job; we could afford parenthood, financially. And my partner was nightmarishly accommodating on this issue; whether we had a family fell into the same category as the material for our living-room curtains. As I picked a washable rayon for the drapes, I could select the fabric of our domestic life, too.
So what, exactly, was I afraid of? Big, fat fears are often bundles of smaller ones, and any woman contemplating what never used to be a choice could rattle off the downsides of motherhood: hassle and expenditure (and not only of money). An acceptance that comes reluctantly to boomers of being a grown-up for keeps. The relegation of one's own ambitions so far to the back burner that they fall off the stove. A precipitous social demotion that I inferred from the chuckle of those smug adults who discounted my renunciations at eight: You say you want to be a writer, but you're a girl, and all you really want to be is a mommy.
And then there's the risk that the project does not go strictly according to plan, and little Tiffany or Jason has problems. Since just about any stranger could come knocking nine months later, coitus without contraception is, as Eva observes, "like leaving your front door unlocked". Unsafe sex, indeed.
Yet my greatest fear was of the ambivalence itself. I hadn't wanted to be a mother since I was eight. What if I bit the reproductive bullet, and this queasiness failed to abate? What if, even, it got worse? Imagine bearing a child and then realizing, with this helpless, irrevocable little person squalling in its crib, that you'd made a mistake. Who really, in that instance, would pay the price?
Meanwhile, a series of barely pubescent boys had started shooting their classmates. Like most Americans, I was appalled. The perpetrators were all white, substantially middle-class, and couldn't endure a little ribbing from peers or rejection from girlfriends without taking their tawdry, quotidian pain out on other people with a disproportionate vehemence that boggled the mind. Apparently I was obliged to add to my list of motherhood's shortcomings, along with diapers and lost sleep: son might turn out to be a killer.
Out of this intersection of private and public angst I wrote Kevin, crafted in great trepidation. It seemed presumptuous to write about motherhood when I'd never had children myself. To my relief, no reader has yet to approach me in indignation that I didn't know what I was talking about. Because I didn't.
Still, I had friends and siblings with children, I was once on the short side myself, and apparently – when it comes to my terrors – my imagination is vivid.
Though any writer is pleased by admiring reviews, I've been more fascinated by the responses to Kevin from so-called "ordinary" readers. Not only are many of these amateur reviews well written and reﬂective, but they divide almost
straight down the middle into what seem to be reviews of two different books.
One camp assesses a story about a well-intentioned mother who, whatever her perfectly human deficits in this role, is saddled with a "bad seed", a child evil from birth whose ultimate criminality only she seems to perceive but is helpless
to prevent. Even in retrospect, nothing this poor benighted mother might have done differently would have headed off her son's becoming one of those infamous high school murderers at fifteen.
The second camp of readers appears to have read another novel entirely: about a mother whose coldness is itself criminal, and who bears full responsibility for her son's rampage as a teenager. Having allowed an uneasiness with the whole parental enterprise to poison her relationship with the boy even as an innocent baby, this mother is an object lesson. Parents get the children they deserve.
I have found this division gratifying. Mission accomplished. The novel does implicitly ask "Has Kevin been mangled by his mother's coldness, or is he innately horrid?" Yet I hope that this question is no more resolved in the book than crude oppositions like "nature versus nurture" are ever reconciled in real life.
Is Kevin inherently evil, or is Eva – who admits about motherhood, "I was terrible at it" – finally to blame for how he turned out? I don't know. You tell me.
Many of you have told me. Which brings us to a point of genuine humility, even for a writer so notoriously uppity. Fictional creations are fragile. On bad days, authors can't suspend their own disbelief. The characters seem plainly
fabrications. The story feels made-up. But fiction is a two- way street. Readers bring imaginations to the table, and contribute additional substance to a book. Hearing back from my audience – through readings, e-mail, letters, and Web
site reviews – has made this novel more real to me. Intelligent, astute, and creative feedback has turned these characters into larger, fuller, and more complicated people than they were in my head when I tried to bring them to life. A novel is able to tap into its readers' brain power, much as a big project like climate-change calculation can enlist the computing power of individual laptops around the world. Readers' collective belief in this book, the personal experiences they've brought to bear on the text, and their vigorous arguments over, say, "Is Franklin a fool, or a merely a nice man who desperately wants
a happy family?" have immeasurably enriched my own novel for me, and I am profoundly grateful.
But I have a confession. I faced my fears, and they bested me. Throughout the composition of that worst-case scenario, I continued to use contraception. I will never be "one of those women" who has a child in her forties.
Nevertheless, there is something nihilistic about refusing to reproduce, selfish in the worst way. Granted, the latterday Western emphasis on personal satisfaction has a logic to it; to find meaning in life through children is effectively to foist the existential dilemma on to the next generation, which will presumably foist it on to the next, ad infinitum, and no one ever has to justify why we're here. Yet to remain deliberately childless expresses a lack of faith, as my protagonist puts it so ineloquently, "in the whole human thing". Take individual fulfilment at the expense of parenthood to the limit, and one generation has a cracking good time, after which the entire human race, poof, disappears.
For a long time I felt vaguely superior to parents, whom I regarded as having been suckered. And certainly the list of reasons to give progeny a miss is as long as your arm: tedium, exhaustion, son might turn out to be a killer. I couldn't do it; I am too much of a coward. But despite the money, the risk, and the bother, most folks – with recourse to reliable birth control still have children. Nowadays, I'm anything but scornful.