My wife Cindy and I hadn't planned to have kids, not before we were married, not in the years after.
We weren't hardcore against it, just not as pumped to procreate as you should be if that's what you want. We had a great punchline whenever we were on a plane or in line somewhere and a baby somewhere began to scream: Let's have kids!
We already had full lives. We were both working dayjobs. I was also writing books while she was also acting on stage, television and film. Our free time outside of these activities was spent supporting our artist friends, seeing their readings, plays and (at times questionable) performance art.
Things began to change, though, as we found ourselves on the deep end of our 30s. Our friends were having kids, staying home and being squares. That shrank our social circle but we were still as busy as a childless couple could be. Cindy landed a major film role and ended up quitting her dayjob -- no more sneaking out to auditions for her. After that, her acting gigs only ramped up. I landed a contract with a major publisher to write what turned out to be a mystery series set in New York's Chinatown in the 70s.
Our schedules conflicted and she would miss my readings and I would miss hers. You know you're making it when you miss each other's events, we remarked with wonder. We tried to carve out time for friends when possible, though.
One overdue appointment was to go out to New Jersey to see friends who had undertaken the Herculean task of having two kids. Two! It seemed like they had had the first one five seconds ago. Time, for us, wasn't going by quickly, necessarily. It's just that as adults we weren't subject to the same calendar events that people with kids are. We didn't notice back-to-school sales, snow days or summer-camp enrollments. Disregarding the months, New York City has two seasons, really. For us, the weather got cold and then it got warmer, and the subway sucked on the weekends, year in and year out.
Jersey is not even an hour away but it is a different world. I remember that we were thoroughly charmed by the house that our Jersey friends lived in. They had a dog that would freak out if it heard a photo click so you had to mute the phone to take its picture. But their kids! They were two little girls, I guess aged five and seven. They put on a magic show that was the funniest thing I'd seen in years. I laughed at the younger daughter for not being able to palm a card correctly and she burst into tears. I felt horrible about it and still do. I'd pay for her college if I could.
On the train ride back into the city I began to wonder what it would be like to live with children that were inexhaustible and happy.
I hadn't had a happy childhood. Maybe that was one reason why I wasn't anxious to have kids. My parents had owned a business and my sister and I were forced to work there every day of our lives. On top of that we were bawled out for not getting straight As in school.
Maybe I was afraid of reliving those years if I became a parent. Maybe I was afraid of what sort of parent I would be.
A short time after our Jersey visit, Cindy came back from her ob/gyn appointment, clearly grappling with something. Her doctor had asked her if she had planned to have kids because the window was closing. My wife had said probably not, but her doctor said that she shouldn't think about what her answer was today. She should think about what her answer would be in five years and take action today.
For the first time we began to entertain the idea of conceiving and raising a child. The idea grew and literally took on a life of its own. One day I said, I think it would be a thrill to have a kid together. Cindy was on the same page and dropped the pills.
She began reading about conception and discovered how incredibly naive we had been. We are all lulled into the belief that women are able to conceive and give birth until their late 50s, probably due to hearing about older celebrities having kids at that age. But those stories never detail if in vitro fertilization (IVF, a method that costs $10k a pop) a surrogate or any other methods were used. The fact is that there is a precipitous decline in fertility in the late 30s. Forty and beyond comes with increased risks at every stage from conception to birth.
It seemed a little cruel that now that we actually wanted to have a kid, there was a distinct possibility we couldn't have one.
Fortunately, though, we found ourselves pregnant after several months. We were dumbfounded. Oh, boy, this was it. I looked around the apartment. Everything looked too small and dangerous for babies. It was drafty, too. We kicked out announcement emails to our closest friends.
I met up with an old friend who was the father of two boys. We had met in the early days of the Asian American Writers' Workshop, the early 90s, when he was a poet with badass tattoos all over his body. Now he wore buttoned shirts with long sleeves. "Before I had kids," he told me, "I couldn't imagine having them. Now I can't imagine my life without them."
Just as our enthusiasm for being parents was cresting, however, we were handed devastating news at a checkup. Organs that should have already developed were missing. There were no limbs. The fetus couldn't be carried to term because it had trisomy 13 syndrome. Each cell had extra genetic material and as the fetus grew, more abnormalities, ones that were "incompatible with life," would be apparent. It is a syndrome that occurs in one out of 16,000 newborns, but the chances increased with advanced maternal age, which means over 31.
I left my body and floated above the room as the doctor talked to us. After, Cindy, the most empathetic person I know, teared up as she noted how hard it must have been for the doctor to tell us.
We were 41 and 42. The termination of our pregnancy at our ages probably meant that that was it. Our last shot at being birth parents. There was nothing preventing another pregnancy, but we were only getting older. Our chances were going down and the risks were going up.
I felt chastened by the end of our pregnancy. Soon after, I ran into an old friend I hadn't seen in a decade on the street but we recognized each other immediately. We're both Asian so we still looked the same. We walked a few blocks and had lunch. The serendipity of New York City sometimes feels like fate.
I filled her in on things and told her that we had just terminated a pregnancy. She solemnly held up three fingers. I knew that she had three kids but she had also had three miscarriages.
I'm sorry that I never knew, I said.
It's more common than you think, she said. Nobody talks about it, though.
I recalled an old childhood memory. I think I was about six years old. We were in the kitchen and my mother told me to congratulate my aunt on being pregnant. Over the next few weeks, my mother would pointedly make me congratulate my aunt whenever we saw her. One day, my aunt unexpectedly showed up at our house and I opened the door. Anxious to beat my mother to the punch, I shouted, Congratulations on being pregnant!
She burst into tears and stumbled into the house. She had lost the baby and had come over to tell my mother.
My wife and I settled back into our lives. We continued to be busy. We didn't think about another baby. Yet I was a little haunted by what my poet friend had told me, now that he had kids he couldn't imagine not having them. Now that I had embraced having a child, I couldn't quite imagine not having one.
You know how when love has let you down, all you see in films, books and other media are stupid people kissing and being in love? I was having a little of the same thing, seeing people pushing their kids on swings or reading about Chinese generals of old leaving tasks of vengeance to their children.
During this time Cindy and I had the honor of playing parents for the music video to "Home:Word" by Magnetic North and Taiyo Na. We were aged up and had to act being disappointed with the frayed state of our relationships with our teenaged kids. It was a Wong Fu Production and actually a lot of fun to do.
One day, when we were at ease with ourselves, my wife and I decided to begin trying again.
The next few months were especially busy because of me. We went to Taiwan for a research trip and then she accompanied me on a book tour across the country. Right after that, we flew to Beijing for an Asian American studies conference at a foreign-languages university (Thank you, Elaine H. Kim!).
Two weeks later, we discovered we were pregnant again. Who knows, maybe the Asian excursions stirred something up.
Cindy continued to be busy throughout the pregnancy. If you've seen her in Noah Baumbach's film Mistress America, that's not a prosthetic: her baby bump is real.
We were both 43 when our son Walter was born. He is now three and a half years old and begins preschool this fall. Every day is a magic show.
I had thought that we had been leading full lives, but I didn't know I had more room for this much love in my life.
Ed Lin, a native New Yorker of Taiwanese and Chinese descent, is a writer. His sixth book, Incensed, will be published in October by Soho Crime. www.edlinforpresident.com