By Emily Giffin
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2006 Emily Giffin
All rights reserved.
I never wanted to be a mother. Even when I was a little girl, playing dolls with my two sisters, I assumed the role of the good Aunt Claudia. I would bathe and diaper and cradle their plastic babies and then be on my way, on to more exciting pursuits in the backyard or basement. Grown-ups called my position on motherhood "cute" — flashing me that same knowing smile they give little boys who insist that all girls have cooties. To them, I was just a spunky tomboy who would someday fall in love and fall in line.
Those grown-ups turned out to be partially right. I did outgrow my tomboy stage and I did fall in love — several times, in fact — beginning with my high school boyfriend, Charlie. But when Charlie gazed into my eyes after our senior prom and asked me how many children I wanted, I reported a firm "zero."
"None?" Charlie looked startled, as if I had just confessed to him a terrible, dark secret. "Why not?"
I had a lot of reasons, which I laid out that night, but none that satisfied him. Charlie wasn't alone. Of the many boyfriends who followed him, none seemed to understand or accept my feelings. And although my relationships ended for a variety of reasons, I always had the sense that babies were a factor. Still, I truly believed that I would someday find my guy, that one person who would love me as is, without condition, without the promise of children. I was willing to wait for him.
But around the time I turned thirty, I came to terms with the fact that I might wind up alone. That I might never have that gut feeling when you know you've found the One. Instead of feeling sorry for myself or settling for something less than extraordinary, I focused my energy on things I could more easily control — my career as an editor at a big publishing company, fascinating trips, great times with good friends and interesting writers, evenings of fine wine and sparkling conversation. Overall, I was content with my life, and I told myself that I didn't need a husband to feel complete and fulfilled.
Then I met Ben. Beautiful, kind, funny Ben who seemed way too good to be true, especially after I learned that he actually shared my feelings on children. The subject came up the night we met, on a blind date orchestrated by our mutual friends, Ray and Annie. We were at Nobu, making small talk over yellowtail sashimi and rock shrimp tempura, when we became distracted by a young boy, no older than six, seated at the table next to us. The boy was ultratrendy, wearing a little black Kangol hat and a Lacoste polo with the collar turned up. His posture was ramrod straight, and he was proudly ordering his sushi, proper pronunciation and all, with no input from his parents. Clearly this was not his first trip to Nobu. In fact, I'd have guessed that he had eaten sushi more often than grilled-cheese sandwiches.
Ben and I watched him, smiling in the way people often smile at children and puppies, when I blurted out, "If you have to have kids, that's certainly the kind to have."
Ben leaned across the table and whispered, "You mean one with a bowl cut and a hip wardrobe?"
"No. The kind that you can take to Nobu on a school night," I said matter-of-factly. "I'm not interested in eating chicken fingers at T.G.I. Friday's. Ever."
Ben cleared his throat and smirked. "So you don't want to live in the suburbs and eat at Friday's or you don't want kids?" he asked, as I noticed his slight, sexy underbite.
"Neither. Both. All of the above," I said. Then, just in case I hadn't been clear enough, I added for good measure, "I don't want to eat at Friday's, I don't want to live in the suburbs, and I don't want kids."
It was a lot to put out there so soon, particularly at our age. Ben and I were both thirty-one — old enough to place the issue of kids firmly on most men's list of taboo topics for first dates. Taboo assuming you want kids, that is. If you don't want them, then raising the topic is akin to announcing that you are close friends with Anna Kournikova and that you and she enjoy three-ways, particularly first-date three-ways. In other words, your date probably won't view you as marriage material, but he'll certainly be enthusiastic about dating you. Because a thirty-one-year-old woman who does not want children equals a nonpressure situation, and most bachelors relish nonpressure situations — which is why they target women in their twenties. It gives them a cushion, some breathing room.
On the flip side, I knew I could be automatically disqualified for long-term consideration as I had with so many guys in my recent past. After all, most people — women and men — view not wanting kids as a deal breaker. At the very least, I risked coming across as cold and selfish, two traits that don't top the list of "what every man wants."
But in the messy world of dating, I had grown to favor candor at the expense of positioning and posturing. It was a nice advantage of not wanting kids. I wasn't up against that infamous clock. Nor was I about checking the boxes on a blueprint of life. As a result, I could afford total honesty. Full disclosure even on first dates.
So after I floated the kid issue out there with Ben, I held my breath, fearing that familiar, critical look. But Ben was all smiles as he exclaimed, "Neither do I!" in that jubilant and marveling tone people adopt when they've just stumbled upon a staggering coincidence. Like the time I ran into my third-grade teacher at a pub in London. Maybe the chances of being on a first date and discovering that neither party wants children aren't quite as slim as sitting on a barstool on the other side of the ocean, sipping a pint, and glancing up to see a teacher you haven't run across in two decades. But it's certainly not every day that you can find someone who wants to have a monogamous, meaningful relationship but also opt out of the seemingly automatic choice to experience the magical world of parenthood. Ben's expression seemed to register an understanding of all of this.
"Have you ever noticed how couples discuss the merits of having children early versus late?" he asked me earnestly.
I nodded as I tried to pinpoint his eye color — a pleasant combination of pale green and gray outlined with a dark ring. He was handsome, but beyond his fine nose, thick hair, and broad, muscular build was that incandescent intangible my best friend, Jess, calls the "sparkle factor." His face was alive and bright. He was the kind of man you see on the subway and wish you knew, your eyes uncontrollably darting to his left ring finger.
Ben continued, "And how the main feature of each scenario is freedom? The freedom that either comes early in life or late in life?"
I nodded again.
"Well," he said, pausing to sip his wine. "If the best part of having kids early is getting it over with, and the best part about having kids late is putting off the drudgery, doesn't it follow that not having kids at all is the best of both worlds?"
"I couldn't agree more," I said, raising my glass to toast his philosophy. I envisioned us defying the forces of nature together (the stuff about man wanting to sow his seed and woman wanting to grow life inside of her) and bucking the rules of society that so many of my friends were blindly following. I knew I was getting way ahead of myself, imagining all of this with a man I had just met, but by the time you reach thirty-one, you know immediately if a guy has potential or not. And Ben had potential.
Sure enough, the rest of our dinner went exceptionally well. No awkward lulls in the conversation, no red flags or annoying mannerisms. He asked thoughtful questions, gave good answers, and sent interested but not eager signals. So I invited him back to my apartment for a drink — something I never do on a first date. Ben and I did not kiss that night, but our arms touched as he flipped through a photo album on my coffee table. His skin felt electric against mine, and I had to catch my breath every time he turned a page.
The next day Ben called me just as he said he would. I was giddy when his name lit up my caller ID, and even more so when he announced, "I just wanted to tell you that that was far and away the best first date I've ever been on."
I laughed and said, "I agree. In fact, it was better than most of my second, third, and fourth dates."
We ended up talking for nearly two hours, and when we finally said good-bye, Ben said what I had just been thinking — that the call felt more like five minutes. That he could talk to me forever. One can hope, I remember thinking.
Then came the sex. We only waited two weeks, which went against all the standard advice from friends, family, and magazine articles. It wasn't so much that I had to be with him in any urgent, lustful sense (although that was certainly part of it). It was more that I saw no reason to squander a single night together. When I know something is right, I believe in going for it, head-on. Sure enough, our first time was neither quick nor awkward nor tentative, the usual hallmarks of first times. Instead, our bodies fit together just right, and Ben knew what I liked without having to ask. It was the kind of sex that makes you wish you were a songwriter or poet. Or at least a woman who keeps a journal, something I hadn't done since I was a kid, but a practice I promptly began the day after we made love.
Ben and I quickly discovered that we had a lot more in common than our view on children, and a lot more binding us together than our crazy chemistry. We had a similar background. We both grew up in New York with two older sisters and parents who divorced late in the game. We were both hardworking, high achievers who were passionate about our careers. Ben was an architect and loved buildings as much as I loved books. We enjoyed traveling to obscure places, eating exotic food, and drinking a little too much. We loved movies and bands that were slightly offbeat without straining to be intellectual. We relished sleeping in on the weekends, reading the paper in bed, and drinking coffee into the evening hours. We were the same combination of clean freak and messy, of sentimental and pragmatic. We both had come to believe that short of something magical, relationships weren't worth the trouble.
In short, we fell in love, everything clicking in place. And it wasn't the one-sided delusional happiness that comes when a woman wants desperately to believe that she's found her guy. Our relationship was so satisfying and honest and real that at some point I started to believe that Ben was my soul mate, the one person I was supposed to be with. It was a concept I had never believed in before Ben.
I remember the day when all of this hit me. It was relatively early on, but well after we had exchanged our first I love yous. Ben and I were having a picnic in Central Park. People were all around us, sunning, reading, throwing Frisbees, laughing, yet it felt like we were completely alone. Whenever I was with Ben, it felt like the rest of the world fell away. We had just finished our lunch of cold fried chicken and potato salad and were lying on our backs, looking up at a very blue summer sky and holding hands, when we began that earnest but careful conversation about past loves. About the people and experiences that had brought us to the moment we were in.
Fleeting references to our history had been made up to that point, and I was well aware that we were both silently making those inevitable comparisons, putting our relationship in context. She is more this and less of that. He is better or worse in these ways. It is human nature to do this — unless it's your first relationship, which might be the very reason that your first relationship feels special and remains forever sacred. But the older you get, the more cynical you become, and the more complicated and convoluted the exercise is. You begin to realize that nothing is perfect, that there are trade-offs and sacrifices. The worst is when someone in your past trumps the person in your present, and you think to yourself: if I'd known this, then maybe I wouldn't have let him go. I had been feeling that way for a long time with respect to my college boyfriend, Paul. My relationship with Paul was far from flawless, and yet I hadn't found anyone in a decade who could squelch the more than occasional longing for what we had shared.
But with Ben, something was different. I was happier than I had ever been. I told him this, and I remember him asking me why it was different, why I was happier. I thought for a long time, wanting my answer to be accurate and complete. I began to awkwardly detail what made my relationship with Paul fail and spent much time ticking off Paul's specific attributes and qualities. I then listed for Ben the ways in which he was better — and more important, better for me.
I said, "You are a better kisser. You are more even-tempered. You are more generous. You are smarter. You are more fair-minded."
Ben nodded and looked so serious that I remember saying, "And you recycle" just to be funny. (Although it was true that Paul never recycled, which I thought said a lot about him.) As I talked, I had the distinct sense that I wasn't really capturing the essence of the way I was feeling. It was frustrating because I wanted Ben to know how special he was to me.
So I sort of gave up and asked Ben the same question about his ex-girlfriend, Nicole. I had begun to piece together a pretty decent picture of her based on snippets of conversation. I knew she was half Vietnamese and looked like a porcelain doll. (I might have snooped through his drawers once and come up with a photo or two.) She was an interior designer and had met Ben on a big museum project in Brooklyn. Her favorite book was One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was also Ben's favorite book (a fact that irrationally annoyed me). She smoked — they smoked together for a long time until he quit. They lived together for three years and dated for nearly six. Their relationship was intense — high highs and miserable lows. They had only broken up the winter before. I still hadn't heard exactly why. So of course the word rebound haunted me. The name Nicole filled me with crazy jealousy.
"Why is this relationship different?" I asked Ben, and then worried that I was presuming a bit much. "Or is it ... different?"
I will never forget the way Ben looked at me, his pale eyes wide and almost glassy. He bit his bottom lip, one of his sexier habits, before he said, "That's actually not a difficult question at all. I just love you more. That's it. And I'm not saying that because she's in the past and you're in the present. I just do. In absolute terms. I mean, I loved her. I did. But I love you more. And it's really not even close."
It was the best thing anyone had ever said to me, and it was the best for one reason: I felt exactly the same way. The person who loved me like this was the person I loved back — which can feel like an absolute miracle. It is an absolute miracle.
So it came as no surprise when Ben proposed a few weeks later. And then, seven months later, on the anniversary of our first date, we eloped, tying the knot on an idyllic white crescent beach in St. John. It was not a popular move with our families, but we wanted the day to be only about us. Right after we exchanged our vows, I remember looking out across the sea and thinking that it was just the two of us, our lifetime together stretching endlessly ahead. Nothing would ever change, except the addition of wrinkles and gray hair and sweet, satisfying memories.
Of course the subject of children surfaced often during our newlywed days, but only when responding to rude inquiries regarding our plans to procreate from everyone and anyone: Ben's family, my family, friends, random mothers in the park, even our dry cleaner. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Baby Proof by Emily Giffin. Copyright © 2006 Emily Giffin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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