Yesterday I spent the afternoon culling through the digital pile of letters I’m considering for the November Dear Sugar Letter. Each is an email I dragged into the folder I labeled “Holiday Troubles” after I first read them. Each presents a problem that’s created or exacerbated or made more complicated by this time of the year. I usually have no trouble selecting a letter, but this month I found myself bouncing back and forth between two, reading each of them over and over again, ruminating on them as I walked the dogs or unpacked the suitcase I brought on my Thanksgiving week travels.
It’s a particular feeling—to drop into the trance of someone else’s quandary, to feel maddened and saddened about it as if it were my own, as I did with each of these two letters. One is from a man whose wife doesn’t want to attend his family’s Hanukkah gathering this year because his aunt called her fat a few months ago and refuses to apologize. The other is from a woman whose cancer has recently recurred after a decade in remission and she’s devastated that her two young adult children will likely be motherless by next Christmas. I’ve decided to answer them both—one this month, the other next month. If you’re a subscriber you’ll get them on the final day of the month, as always.
My kids had the entire Thanksgiving week off of school, so we hit the road, spending the first half of the week with one family we love like family near Burlington, Vermont and the second half with another family we love like family in Philadelphia. If I were to write my own letter that would be filed under “Holiday Troubles,” what to do on the holidays and with whom would certainly be the topic. Neither my husband Brian or I have much in the way of family. My children had only one grandparent when they were born—Brian’s mother, Joan—and she died in 2016. Brian’s an only child and though I love my siblings, we stopped celebrating holidays together decades ago, after our mother died.
So it’s just the four of us. Every year I internally fret about this during the holiday season, worried about how my kids are missing out on important things that other kids have. Layers of cousins, bonds with elder relatives who cherish them, a deep sense of belonging to an unbreakable web that extends beyond the tiny web the four of us can weave ourselves. Sometimes my longing for that warm, extended family of my imaginings is so palpable it feels like an aching limb growing out of my heart.
The only way I can temper the roaring sorrow of it is to remember that this life—the one I have, the one my children have right now because Brian and I are their parents—has its own advantages. Our web gets to be a wide and loose and multi-colored one, woven with beloved friends around the world who are our chosen family. Where others are bound by family obligations and long-held traditions that sometimes pinch, we are gloriously free. We get to make it up ourselves.
To hold the beauty of what is while also bearing the weight of our sorrow limbs that ache for what might have been is the trick of life. To be able to do both things is the key, if not to happiness, then contentment; to a liberation that only accepting what we cannot change can bring. It’s the task I’ve set myself to again and again when I’m feeling that ache. It’s the advice I’d give had I chosen one of the many of the letters in my “Holiday Troubles” folder that asked, in essence, why does it have to be this way instead of that way?
It has to be because it is. Because, like I wrote in the column from the archives I’m including below, that other life isn’t yours. It’s a sister life that sailed by on the ghost ship you didn’t board, by choice or by chance.
I tried to stay off social media last week as much as possible, but every time I sailed through I saw posts about gratitude and I want to express some of my own. As many of you know, a new edition of my book Tiny Beautiful Things was published this month and I’m so grateful to those of you who bought the book and/or cheered about it online. Thank you. Truly. As always, if you want a signed copy of it (or of any of my books), you can order yours here. Tiny Beautiful Things was the November pick for Reese’s Book Club and tomorrow I’m doing a virtual event that all of you are invited to attend. I’ll be in conversation with Tembi Locke, who wrote the wonderful memoir, From Scratch, which was recently adapted for a Netflix limited series. The event is at 3pm PT/6pm ET on Nov 29 (that’s tomorrow!) and it’s free, but you have to register for it, which you can do here.
Also tomorrow, and also free online event: I’ll be doing a special plenary session on forgiveness as part of the Global Scientific Conference on Human Flourishing. My session will be moderated by Ben Arthur of the SongWriter podcast and will include a Dear Sugar column, a live performance of the song that the fabulous MILCK wrote based on my column, and a conversation with Dr. Suzanne Freedman about the science of forgiveness. Our session starts at 9:45am PT/12:45pm ET. You can register for it here.
I think that’s it, friends. After my events tomorrow I’m going to hunker down for this magic month, when autumn turns to winter and the light seeps into darkness. I’m going to celebrate the beauty of what is. Join me.
P.S. Keep scrolling to read my column from the archives: The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us.
P.P.S. If you want to become a paid subscriber, I’m offering 15% off for new subscribers through the end of the year. Just click here.
The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us
For those of us who aren't lucky enough to "just know,” how is a person to decide if he or she wants to have a child? I’m a 41 year-old man and have been able thus far to postpone that decision while I got all the other pieces of my life in order. Generally speaking, I’ve enjoyed myself as a childless human. I’ve always had a hunch that as I continued on my path my feelings about parenthood would coalesce one way or the other and I would follow that where it took me. Well, my path has taken me here, to the point where all of my peers are having children and expounding on the wonders (and of course, trials) of their new lives, while I keep enjoying the same life.
I love my life. I love having the things that I know will be in shorter supply if I become a parent. Things like quiet, free time, spontaneous travel, pockets of non-obligation. I really value them. I'm sure that everyone does, but on the grand gradient of the human condition, I feel I sit farther to one end than most. To be blunt, I'm afraid to give that up. Afraid that if I become a parent, I will miss my "old" life.
As a male, I know that I have a little more leeway in terms of the biological clock, but my partner, who is now 40, does not. She is also on the fence about a child, and while the finer points of our specific concerns on the subject may differ, we are largely both grappling with the same questions. At this point, we’re trying to tease out the signal from the noise: do we want a child because we really want a child or are we thinking about having one because we’re afraid we will regret not having one later? We both now accept that the time for deferment is coming to a close and we need to step up and figure it out.
When I try to imagine myself as a father, I often think back to my two wonderful cats that I had from the age of 22 until I buried them in the back yard almost 2 years ago. They were born prematurely to a mother that was too sick to care for them. I bottle fed them, woke up in the middle of the night to wipe their bottoms, was there for every stage of their growth from kitten to cat and basically loved the be-jeezus out of them for their entire lives. I raised them to be trusting, loving creatures. And I did it consciously, even thinking at the time that it was great training for the day I had a child if that felt like the right thing. I really was their dad. And I loved it. Yet I also loved it that I could put an extra bowl of food and water on the floor and split town for a three-day weekend.
So here I am now exploring the idea of becoming a father. Exploring it for real and deeply. Sugar, help me.
There’s a poem I love by Tomas Tranströmer called “The Blue House.” I think of it every time I consider questions such as yours about the irrevocable choices we make. The poem is narrated by a man who is standing in the woods near his house. When he looks at his house from this vantage point, he observes that it’s as if he’d just died and he was now “seeing the house from a new angle.” It’s a wonderful image—that just-dead man among the trees—and it’s an instructive one too. There is a transformative power in seeing the familiar from a new, more distant perspective. It’s in this stance that Tranströmer’s narrator is capable of seeing his life for what it is while also acknowledging the lives he might have had. “The sketches,” Tranströmer writes, “all of them, want to become real.” The poem strikes a chord in me because it’s so very sadly and joyfully and devastatingly true. Every life, Tranströmer writes, “has a sister ship,” one that follows “quite another route” than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the people we might have been live a different, phantom life than the people we are.
And so the question is who do you intend to be. As you’ve stated in your letter, you believe you could be happy in either scenario—becoming a father or remaining childless. You wrote to me because you want clarity about which course to take, but perhaps you should let that go. Instead, take a figurative step into the forest like that man in the poem and simply gaze for a while at your blue house. I think if you did, you’d see what I see: that there will likely be no clarity, at least at the outset; there will only be the choice you make and the sure knowledge that either one will contain some loss.
You and I are about the same age. I have two children, whom I birthed in close succession in my mid-thirties. If a magic baby fairy had come to me when I was childless and 34 and promised to grant me another ten years of fertility so I could live a while longer in the serene, feline-focused, fabulously unfettered life I had, I’d have taken it in a flash. I, too, had spent my adult years assuming that someday, when it came to becoming a mother, I’d “just know.” I, too, placed myself on the leave-me-the-hell-alone end on the “grand gradient of the human condition.” I decided to become pregnant when I did because I was nearing the final years of my fertility and because my desire to do this thing that everyone said was so profound was just barely stronger than my doubts about it were.
So I got knocked up. With a total lack of clarity. On this, Mr. Sugar and I were in complete accord. Though we were generally pleased to be having a baby, we were also deeply alarmed. We liked to have sex and ramble around foreign countries in decidedly un-baby-safe ways and spend hours reading in silence on two couches that faced each other across the living room. We liked to work for days without interruption on our respective art forms and take unscheduled naps and spend weeks backpacking in the wilderness.
We did not, throughout my pregnancy, have many conversations about how awesome it was going to be once our baby was born and doing these things would become either indisputably or close to impossible. Mostly, we had ambivalent, mildly sickening talks about how we hoped we hadn’t made a dreadful mistake. What if we love the baby but not as much as everyone says we will? I’d ask him every couple of weeks. What if the baby bores us or annoys us or grosses us out? What if we want to ride our bicycles across Iceland or hike around Mongolia? Fuck. We do want to ride our bicycles across Iceland or hike around Mongolia!
My point is not that you should have a baby, Undecided. It’s that possibly you expect to have a feeling about wanting to have a baby that will never come and so the clear desire for a baby isn’t an accurate gauge for you when you’re trying to decide whether or not you should have one. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.
So what then, is an accurate gauge?
You say that you and your partner don’t want to make the choice to become parents simply because you’re afraid you “will regret not having one later,” but I encourage you to reexamine that. Thinking deeply about your choices and actions from the stance of your future self can serve as both a motivational and a corrective force. It can help you stay true to who you really are as well as inspire you to leverage your desires against your fears.
Not regretting it later is the reason I’ve done at least three quarters of the best things in my life. It’s the reason I got pregnant with my first child, even though I’d have appreciated another decade from the magic baby fairy, and it’s also the reason I got pregnant with my second child, even though I was already overwhelmed by the first. Because you are content in your current childless life, attempting to determine what you might regret later strikes me as the best way for you to meaningfully explore if having a child is important to you. So much so, that I suspect that whether you’ll regret it later is the only question you must answer. It is the very one that will tell you what to do.
You already know the answers to everything else. You know you’re open to becoming a father and that you’re also open to remaining childless. You know you’ve gotten pleasure and satisfaction from nurturing the lives of others (in the form of your dear cats) and also that you get deep satisfaction from the freedom and independence a child-free life allows.
What don’t you know? Make a list. Write down everything you don’t know about your future life—which is everything, of course—but use your imagination. What are the thoughts and images that come to mind when you picture yourself at twice the age you are now? What springs forth if you imagine the 82 year-old self who opted to “keep enjoying the same life” and what when you picture the 82 year-old self with a thirty-nine year old son or daughter? Write down “same life” and “son or daughter” and underneath each make another list of the things you think those experiences would give to and take from you and then ponder which entries on your list might cancel each other out. Would the temporary loss of a considerable portion your personal freedom in middle age be significantly neutralized by the experience of loving someone more powerfully than you ever have? Would the achy uncertainty of never having been anyone’s father be defused by the glorious reality that you got to live your life relatively unconstrained by the needs of another?
What is a good life? Write “good life” and list everything that you associate with a good life then rank them in order of importance. Have the most meaningful things in your life come to you as a result of ease or struggle? What scares you about sacrifice? What scares you about not sacrificing?
So there you are on the floor, your gigantic white piece of paper with things written all over it like a ship’s sail, and maybe you don’t have clarity still, maybe you don’t know what to do, but you feel something, don’t you? The sketches of your real life and your sister life are right there before you and you get to decide what to do. One is the life you’ll have; the other is the one you won’t. Switch them around in your head and see how it feels. Which affects you on a visceral level? Which won’t let you go? Which is ruled by fear? Which is ruled by desire? Which makes you want to close your eyes and jump and which makes you want to turn and run?
In spite of my fears, I didn’t regret having a baby. My son’s body against mine was the clarity I never had. The first few weeks of his life, I felt honestly rattled by the knowledge of how close I’d come to opting to live my life without him. It was a penetrating, relentless, unalterable thing, to be his mother, my life ending and beginning at once.
If I could go back in time I’d make the same choice in a snap. And yet, there remains my sister life. All the other things I could have done instead. I wouldn’t know what I couldn’t know until I became a mom, and so I’m certain there are things I don’t know because I can’t know because I did. Who would I have nurtured had I not been nurturing my two children over these past seven years? In what creative and practical forces would my love have been gathered up? What didn’t I write because I was catching my children at the bottoms of slides and spotting them as they balanced along the tops of low brick walls and pushing them endlessly in swings? What did I write because I did? Would I be happier and more intelligent and prettier if I had been free all this time to read in silence on a couch that sat opposite of Mr. Sugar’s? Would I complain less? Has sleep deprivation and the consumption of an exorbitant number of Annie’s Homegrown Organic Cheddar Bunnies taken years off of my life or added years onto it? Who would I have met if I had bicycled across Iceland and hiked around Mongolia and what would I have experienced and where would that have taken me?
I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.
Wow! Thank you for sharing this throwback, Cheryl. It hit me in the heart, (in the best way), as my husband and I are delicately navigating our first holiday season as bereaved parents. Since losing our seven-year-old son in January, we sold our home in Colorado and moved to the PNW on a grief-stricken, get-us-the-fuck-outta-here whim. We're lost together—everything is currently upside down—but we keep coming back to "what is." I'm going to keep your advice to "Undecided" close to my heart as we eventually find our bearings in how to move forward in life, whilst honoring our little Leo. Thank you and happy holidays to you and your fam! <3
Though I still have family technically-- a brother and a mom who are still living-- I've never had the sort of family that made returning home for the holidays joyful, or even vaguely attractive. Our love for each other was too fraught and tended towards anger and violence, which would be inevitably followed by gaslighting. Growing up that way wasn't without its usefulness, however. It taught me to pay attention to systems and dynamics, to always try to attend to why people are the way they are, the complicated reasons they do the things they do. It's also made me grateful for family whenever I get a chance to enjoy it. Both my chosen family and other people's.
I went to my honey's family for Thanksgiving this year. It was the first time I'd met his parents, and the first time they'd had all three of their children, plus everyone's significant others and also some of the grandchildren in the same place at the same time for years and years. It was exactly the kind of extended family holiday that I don't get and have sometimes mourned the absence of deeply. At the same time, though I won't say that any of them take their family for granted, it was clear that they'd never thought deeply about what they have or why they interact the way they do. Everything was just an unreflected-upon given.
In a conversation with the two sons and their parents about the family dynamics and my partner's younger sister's periodic crankiness about the proceedings I offered that maybe she's put off, since she lives near their parents all the time, at having her golden big brothers show up and suck all of the air out of the room. Maybe, like younger siblings everywhere, she's just trying to grasp at some feeling of power, some sense of agency in the face of personalities that feel overwhelming to her. It was like they'd never thought there might be a why to how she is or who she is. They'd never tried to place themselves inside her reality to find some greater understanding or empathy. They love her, but they've also in some ways dismissed her as "just being difficult."
I didn't get the kind of extended family who happily gathers together at the holidays, and I was so glad to be able to borrow one for this last weekend. But I did get a more thoughtful, reflective, and empathetic eye, which I wouldn't trade at this point in order to have a different family than the one I have. Every single path has its tragedies and gifts, whether chosen or received by chance.