I’m scrubbing dishes in the orange evening when my phone throws a tantrum on the countertop. Here it is. Our president has finally launched the nukes. It’s time to shelter in bunkers we don’t have. Soapy water drips onto the screen before my unblurring eyes process the messages. The world is not ending right now. It’s the group chat for my school’s middle school teachers. Earria announced her pregnancy.
All the other teachers chime in with applause emojis and congratulatory texts. I offer my own celebratory smiley, but I really just want to ask why.
I am one of those dog-mom Millennials. The eldest canine is three years old and afraid of everything. He picks at his meals capriciously—if we close the curtains, if we mix the right organic peanut butter with his kibble, if no cars pass on the street. He won’t eat a treat almost ever. Lately, he sleeps outside on the deck in the North Georgia humidity, despite our urging to sleep in bed with us. It’s a game I play with my husband when we can’t sleep: what happened, or didn’t, to this dog when he was too young to remember? Was he nearly drowned in a river? Beaten? Locked in a basement with no human interaction? Abducted by aliens?
Our second dog is three months old and the opposite of her brother. She is the Platonic ideal of a dog. She always wants more food, more faces to lick, more walks, and more naps in bed. I never wonder what horrors blighted her puppyhood.
I feel bad about our oldest’s neuroses. I worry about him, administer 20 milligrams of Prozac per day, and whisper how brave and beautiful he is into his ear every night. I’m careful not to snag his gaze too long or he’ll pull away from me. Eye contact is a major trigger. I struggle to ensure his happiness, but I do not feel guilty for his maladjustment. I am not its progenitor.
Since Earria’s announcement, I’m seeing babies everywhere. On my evening run as I pass the coffee shop, a father cradles his newborn in the long, dappled sunlight. Why did you engender that being? I half-want to ask, initiating conversations with strangers in the way my husband hates. But that is too intimate a question to ask a stranger, in the evening, devoid of warning.
Earria is not a stranger, and she and I go out to lunch just before school begins. Despite the fact that we’re almost friends, I don’t know how to ask whether she’s horrified that she is generating a being that will live in this world. Instead, I ask if she’s bothered by the fact that all anyone talks to her about now is her unborn child. She laughs, and I promise to not mention her baby anymore unless explicitly requested.
When I get home, the dogs mob me. The three-year-old wags his tail and presses his body between my legs as my hands scratch his back. The puppy rears, knowing she shouldn’t jump on me, her mouth open, wanting to lick my skin. I bring my face close to hers and smell her humid breath. Her tongue mops my cheek.
That evening, I stand before the mirror. My stomach does not bulge with the presence of another sharing my skin. My unborn eggs are tucked in their tubes, away from inevitable pain.
Later, at the grocery store, I begin one of those conversations my husband hates. I don’t mean to, but the man restocking the blueberries looks tired: in his mid-forties, back hunched, hair thinning. He looks like he might be happier if he knew he mattered.
“Thank you for keeping us fed,” I say, and I have no idea how it happens, but our words wind to the topic of his kids.
Two kids, three years apart, both have autism—be careful of those vaccines—not enough money for one of those fancy private schools—how amazing would it be to be able to pay for one of those?—but the boy about to start kindergarten, he’s wearing this new soft shirt without getting upset, and doing so much better with eye contact.
I want to sympathize, commiserate with an anecdote of my own neuroatypical three-year-old, but that seems a bit gauche. I murmur something about how his kids have a great dad, and good luck with school starting. I depart for a good cabbage.
Dog training is not as expensive as years of specialized schooling. And really, it is not the dog who is trained, but the parents. The three-year-old and I have spent hundreds of dollars and hours in classes, working on both basic obedience and the easing of anxiety. “Watch me!” we rehearsed, absent any frightening trigger. “Watch me!” we practiced when a stranger approached—still 50 yards away. “Watch me!” we repeated as a truck drove by in the rain. Each time, he became a bit more reliable, but nothing is easy or perfect. The effort lasts years.
Because I promised not to talk to Earria about it, I want to talk to Earria about it. I want to ask why it happened. She’s too careful for it to have been a surprise, but were they intending it? Had she and her husband spent sleepless hours in sterile waiting rooms? Perhaps they’d saved a million or more dollars, building a ramp to smooth their child’s path. Of course they have life insurance, catastrophe insurance, and a family dental plan. But even if they’ve saved a million dollars, waiting in the bank to pay for so many things—diapers, daycare, doctors, psychoanalysts, summer camps, music lessons, sports leagues, tutors, a car, college—they must realize that it can’t be enough.
Lately, my three-year-old has stopped sleeping, which means that I have stopped sleeping. He’ll rest for two or three hours each night, but then he jumps onto the bed, panting, whimpering, swirling around as though to tell us that the world is ending. Cocooned in my own neuroatypicality, I know the world is ending, I feel the encroaching doom, and I research pathways to flee the United States. I don’t need his wisdom.
He acts as though a thunderstorm has collapsed the roof, but when I usher him outside for the third time to make sure he doesn’t need to poop, Cassiopeia blinks at me through the trees. At 3:30 in the morning, the crickets are riotous, but the world is almost still. The dog looks at me as though I’ve lost my mind to be standing in wet grass, barefoot, wearing only my t-shirt and underwear. Why would I do such a thing? I plod back inside so we can repeat the ritual an hour later.
When I’m not playing Guess Why The Dog Is Crazy with my husband at night, I imagine the future. California is gone, burned out by wildfires or quaked into the Pacific. Georgia has dried up, even here in the mountains, and is too hot for comfortable living. It doesn’t snow anymore in Massachusetts, but it is safe, at least inland, away from the superstorm hurricanes that shredded Boston and Cape Cod into barren dunes. Never mind Nantucket.
A human child of mine might be alive to see that world, provided they don’t succumb to phenylalanine-induced cancer or get shot in the latest school catastrophe. But my dogs will all be dead—the ultimate protection.
I cannot, in point of fact, keep my dogs safe. The latest what-if is whether the dogs will ultimately be incompatible. One might maul the other. Will we have to rehome one? What if we predecease them, pulverized by an 18-wheeler on I-285? Unlike many of my worries, it’s not an unfounded fear. I-285 has the highest fatality rate per mile of any interstate in the United States.
Though I cannot keep them safe, I do not believe that anyone can keep them safe. Would the psychosocial needs of my oldest boy be better met by a more-experienced parent? Perhaps. But I believe that I try harder than most, and love him more. The littlest would be happy almost anywhere, but we have a big backyard for her, and an ultra-soft new mattress, and daily sweat to lick from our bodies. I work to mitigate their pain and bring joy to their days. But I do not feel responsible for their suffering. I did not incite their existence.
As I dry off post-shower, following our daily ritual, the pup licks my ankles while her big brother lounges outside. I stand before the mirror. I press my fingers into my belly, just above my pelvic bone. Do we really need more of us? Would one of my eggs take pleasure in pressing her toes into the hurricane-wrecked dunes that were once Cape Cod? How will cancer feel, metastasizing in lymph nodes that I made? How will he react when someone curses his perfect latte skin? Will the hatred splinter beneath his cheek?
I tell Earria that I think I might adopt a child someday. I will warm its milk to the proper temperature, burp it after feedings, and soothe it from nightmares. I will do the best I can by my child, but I will not have birthed its inevitable depression, dementia, and death.
Earria tells me she’s adopted. Using her teacher voice, she instructs, “You can’t love an adopted child less.”
“I know,” I say. But it wouldn’t be my fault.
Miranda Forman currently lives in Atlanta where she teaches high school and trains for marathons, but she’s also been a director of marketing, college writing instructor, and unpaid sous-chef. Her work is published in The Emerson Review, Hobart, and Word Riot, and she has a poetry chapbook “Atlanta Millennium” available on Amazon. Although she has won no major (or minor) literary awards, she has won two local 5K races and is occasionally lucky in raffles. Read more at http://mirandaforman.com