For the Unborn Children of My Generation
By Michael Rossman
Sometimes I am weeping when I leave his bed. His arms uncradle my disordered head, his hands cease their gentle stroking of my shoulders, his long body, snake-lean and ripe with summer sun, turns away as he says, “Go now. I want to sleep.” And the flood of feeling bewilders me, I have no words for my relief.
How suddenly it has come, this miraculous pure well of tenderness that rises in him now each night. All day long he is still the porcupine, bristling with macho bravado; I can't offer him a sandwich or a hug without dodging a wise-crack or punch. “Tough 'n tender,” I used to tell him, dismayed by the constant Superman act, his quick learning of all my own hard and violent ways -- “Tough and tender,” trying to give him some better code for what it is to be a man than he gets from the relentless teaching of the TV and his friends, until he tired of my preaching and told me just to read the bloody stories on.
And now when he is seven, moving off, already half a stranger in the house, there surfaces in him this deep spring of tenderness, luminous as he strokes the mouse, strokes me, with touches surer than words. And I weep, unmanned (as we once put it) by my relief, by the gift. Something I did not know how to give my son, as I taught him with pride how to take things apart and puzzle them out and rebuild them, how to scheme and scam and marvel, something I didn't know how to give has been given.
Some tension breaks that I've held since before his birth, ever since I began to face myself in the mirror that angry, thoughtful women were holding up And what floods me, leaving my son's bed, is deeper than gratitude; I weep with the fierce raw joy of survival.Watching him passing from our care into the world's I know that, whatever America will do to him, he has a fighting chance to be a man. It is his survival, and it is mine, for in his tenderness I am made whole too; and nothing else seems quite so precious these days.
Being a parent has its ups and downs. And downs. I wonder how Douglas is doing. It must be two years since his vasectomy. I understood his feelings perfectly; I didn't understand at all. There are other possibilities of fatherhood; collective parenthood felt a lot more reasonable to him than the nuclear-couple model. “I don't want a child,” he said. “I don't want ultimate responsibility for another person's life, don't feel the need to be a biological father. The paths of growth I feel drawn to require fewer rather than more distractions. And every day the women I care about do terrible things to their bodies to negate their fertility, a fertility none of us chose.” Oh yes, I understood, remembering how Karen suffered from the Pill, the IUD, the abortion. It was all so reasonable.
And I was torn by a wild, unreasoning grief, at the potency denied. This man, among my friends almost the sweetest, with so considerate a vision and such gentle strength, not to have a child! It left a hole in me, where I had dreamed us someday walking the mountains north from where he has settled, outpaced by our children.
Knowing the father he would be, I felt part of my own best self dying with a part of his -- as if, to avoid an abortion, he were performing one upon himself, on the father-embryo stirring gently in his womb. It is a private decision, which I respect. And I am left that much more alone now, in a world still peopled with far too many selves to tend, For I do understand his reasons, his needs to choose among the paths of growth -- they are mine, I repeat them each time I hold a baby, shaken by its fragility, each time I dodge Karen's eyes as she speaks of having another, each time she dodges mine as I do.
There's too much to take care of already -- broken plumbing, appointments, the endless avalanche of daily detail. I don't spend enough time with my son as it is, nor with Karen, nor with myself. When I do, I'm distracted because I work too much, and my work's confused now, needs to change in some way that I don't understand.
And Karen's own work is just now coming together after a long apprenticeship. Pregnancy and nursing wouldn't set her back much, but what about after that? The years between one and three, between when they get mobile and when they get civilized, are a killer. I don't have the energy to both run a playgroup again and keep on teaching in the older one's school; something else would have to go besides my work-time in the afternoons. And most of all, perhaps, we are so uncertain together still; the joys and security of all these years together now balanced so precariously against old deep conflicts surfacing anew, strange tuggings of the spirit that leave us often strangers to each other in the night.
And so the years drain on. Now I am pushing 40, and Karen not far behind, and this son who holds me in my sadness is almost half gone from our care. Time presses upon us for decision. And in me is a wel1 of fertility that aches to be renewed.
I never knew its size until my son was born, despite the fathering I gave to my friends and to the works that might bear a better world. I never knew its force until the year I stayed home nursing him, bathing his sweet unscarred flesh while air-war raged and those pictures of napalmed children danced burning in my mind. I never knew its depth until I opened the world to him and watched him finding his way -- long afternoons in the woods, the stores, discovering all anew through him, my own self too.
No, I never knew, and now I do; and it aches in me, this fertility. I don't know what to do with it. I teach my son's schoolmates about the earth's wonders, plan for a Scout troop, take my friends' children fishing, sometimes comfort their tears -- but our lives are still so separate, we are not one family, and mostly I too make the selfish decision, too often putting my son off to focus on my narrow needs, on other fertilities that make me forget the ache. Until we sit at dinner, just we three.
Then the shadows of my sisters and my brother sit between us, and my father and mother within me, reminding me how little I've made real or likely will. And Karen reaches out across the empty spaces of the table to take my hand, our son's, and he takes mine to complete the circle of energy blessing the meal, as I feel whole within the ache, feel the ache within the wholeness, bewildered, fulfilled, unfulfilled. And later remind her to put in her diaphragm, wishing we had a daughter.
From a myriad of such selfish decisions are our lives made, and the next generation's. Sometimes I think it a wonder we managed to have even one child, in between running from the shotguns when they bulldozed People's Park and again when they bombed Cambodia, after splitting up three times and before the market for my work fell completely apart. Are our lives really so precarious as they feel, so unique as we pretend? Or are we just another average couple in our town and time?
I dig through our address book for the answer, for some dry objective numbers to measure what I feel, what is happening to my generation, the part of it I know. The book lists 218 people in their thirties. Our friends now in their forties, who grew up before so much came unglued, have just about one child apiece. Those still in their twenties, who matured during this decade, have hardly any yet.
And we who came to adulthood in the mad Sixties? The 124 of us now in our late thirties have produced or adopted 60 children, less than half a child apiece. (If we have twice as many late births as usual, we may hit 63 in the end.) So Karen and I are indeed our average couple -- except that we've made it for 14 years, almost a record in our circle.
As for the 94 still in their earlier thirties, they've managed only 28 children so far, It's unlikely that they will even reach the 0.5 replacement rate. Zero Population Growth should be proud of us.
Oh, the numbers are a comfort, oh, the numbers make it numb-er, make sociology of the feeling that swept me last Sunday on the lawn as I watched the magician put two white doves into his black hat, tip it over, and shake out only one. All the children cried out in wonder, and the grown-ups too. It was Maya's seventh birthday, she who plays with my son behind the closed door; and the great house and grounds of our friends' small estate were thronged by this excuse for a summer gathering of our extended family. A good part of my address book was there in the flesh, and after the magic came hours of hugs and catching-each-other-up, while our children frolicked joyous in the pool house, so many yet so few.
Who are my people? What is our fertility? What do the dry statistics mean for us all? I run my book through the computer again as their faces flood my mind. We have 14% assorted artists, musicians, actors; 13% healers of the body, the psyche, relationships, with a few planet-healers for spice; 16% teachers of the young and old, at the edge of educational change; 17% poets, journalists, editors, filmmakers, media people, spreading the fructive images of our time; 10% of political profession, trying to reorganize these malfunctioning systems; 5% tending the spiritual and psychic mysteries; as many skilled craftsmen of houses and cars; 4% each at work reforming our food chain, at play with cybernetic and solar technologies, at law; and so on down the line.
Here is the fertile heart of my generation, through whom flow the spirits of service and creation. Here are the comrades of my youth, who risked themselves for justice and the imagination, and when they recovered found slow, imperfect, real ways to persist in the chosen task – to heal, to inform, to reform our lives. We are older now, and few stilI boast of vanguard glory, the romance of self-sacrifice. Most are simply grateful to have survived with some honor, with some chance to give their lives their chosen meanings. Together, the names in my book are not a galaxy of selected stars, but the common yeomanry, yeowomanry of change, tending the fields of our survival and regeneration. Together they form a patch of living tissue, of social fabric -- not so much centered on me as visible through me, knit together into community.
So here is what I know first-hand of my generation's fertility -- a small patch torn at random from a larger fabric that enweaves some two million of us in our thirties and late twenties, as nearly as I can figure, who were involved in the noisy and quiet experiments of the '60s, and who continue them. It is not the whole of my generation, only about one-twentieth of it -- a coherent minority defined by age, by class, by color (still), and most of all by our peculiar experiences as agents of change -- weaving together a generational subculture of shared beliefs, values and aspirations, and a shared fate. Pick any one of our two million lives, open the address book, examine the small patch of fabric around it. The texture is everywhere pretty much the same. And we shall have one-half a child apiece.
The general fertility rate has now dropped to slightly less than one child per person. That's a national average; it masks a whole lot of variation. Even among traditional breeders, the birthrates are falling. But you know some group must really be taking it in the crotch, the womb, and it's us, folks. I doubt there is a population in America today so large and so well defined, with so low a collective replacement rate.
I know what happened to us. lt happened to me. I took it all in, I sought it, I couldn't avoid it. I woke in the shadow of the Bomb, with that nightmare vision of everyone gone. I embraced sex divorced from procreation; I was enlightened about contraception and abortion. As my world came unglued, I explored new concepts of work and career. I struggled with new visions of what it meant to be a man, a woman, I invested myself in new forms of family and fulfillment, I practiced new ways to negotiate intimate relationships. The economy shook me, the national weathers chilled me; I was hunted; I read each new dark signal of death in the sky; I explored the eternal realm where it seems that none of this matters. I survived the dislocation, I walked the still-green earth knowing there are too many of us. Each item influenced my fertility. I was just another bozo on the cutting edge of transformation, vast intimate forces working through me. It changed me, it deranged me, it was very nice, there was quite a price: at least one-half a child apiece, plus some payoffs still developing. I was the agent of change, its victim, its heir.
As were we all. We and our descendants.
What happened, what does it mean? I would say we have been decimated, but I know what that means. In olden times, the Turks (or whoever) lined up the captured infidels, counted off, and slaughtered every one in ten; it was thought a heavy toll. In our enlightened day, the standard is the Holocaust. Half my cousins and six million other Jews were crisped in the ovens; but the survivors and the unthreatened bred fervidly in life's affirmation.
“So where does that leave us?” I ask the 27-year-old kid in me who still wears feathers from the Haight, who still feels we are a tribe of some sort, a nomad culture, time's immigrants lightly encamped in an uneasy land.
“Lots of native American tribes had it even worse in a single generation, from the whites,” he reminds me.
“But what does it mean that we're doing it to ourselves, by our own choice, our own hand?”
A tumult of voices erupts within me, as if I had tossed the question up to my friends at the party. The anthropologist summons for comparison the recent case of the Ibo, extinguishing themselves because there was no food. We are well fed, but perhaps we do lack something.
“Of course!” says the minister in me, pouncing upon the suggestion. “It's the death of Faith!”
“Of faith in the future,” the social psychologist corrects him. “It's the disintegration of belief in, of projection into, a coherent and meaningful future reality.” He goes on to enumerate all the indices of confusion, their impact on the social psyche, and why they struck us hardest -- reminding the anthropologist of the small Brazilian tribe, recently “discovered,” who have chosen not to bring children into the inexorable mad chaos advancing upon them.
“But that's not how I feel,” the community organizer protests. “What defined us, what moved us to action, was precisely our belief that we might shape a more meaningful future together. Our collective works are a sketch of it, modest and confused but with an emerging integrity, developing year by year. We are still at work in the same spirit.”
“Nonsense,” snorts the therapist, sensitive to the mechanisms of denial, coming clean with her own fears. “The impulse of the Movement, the 'counterculture,' always came from reaction, from protest against a dehumanization growing steadily worse. The brief flare of belief that we might miraculously transform society died in the streets of Chicago in '68. We failed to change America's institutions, and in this decade have turned instead to changing our own selves to fit them -- using all sorts of rationalizations to cover our feelings of failure, of powerlessness, while the younger ones stew in impotent apathy. Take another look at our work, at how many of us spend our time patching up one or another kind of casualty of the industrial order, or describing and coping with the continuing disintegration of society and meaning. You think that doesn't affect our birthrate?”
The biologist, impatient with such airy speculations, reminds us of research on abnormally crowded colonies of rats. He outlines the various ways in which compensatory “depopulating” reactions begin to be expressed through particular subpopulations -- the young males turning homosexual, the females aborting or eating their first broods.
“That's a dehumanizing view,” observes the lesbian feminist. “What differentiates us from animals is the development of our ability to make choices, and to make meaning by our choices. The freedom not to have our lives determined by the necessities of parenthood -- especially as enforced by the interests of capitalism -- is a crucial accomplishment new to human history. For women, at least.”
The historian reminds us of the long view. “It's just a shift of cultural fashion, brought on so suddenly through our intense media connection -- an initial response to new circumstances, which will soon even out.”
“But it's my generation, my friends, who got caught in the lurch and cut in half,” I cry.
“So who are we, the Chosen People? Quit whining about how hot it was in the oven,” says my conscience. “You chose your life; do you regret it?” I do not. It has been rich.
“But we were special,” says the utopian planner, “because it didn't just happen to us; we did choose it. We chose to turn our lives to shaping the future, and this troubled price of 0.5 is not simply the cost of our experiments, and their logical extension, but a fruit in itself, an exemplary gift to our time and the larger tribe -- not a self-sacrifice, but a deliberate collective example of self-discipline and self-limitation, tending the ultimate webs of responsibility. In two generations, should our lead be followed, humankind's press upon the earth might be lightened enough for balance, and the net of life restored.”
“The teeming subcontinents will neither notice nor follow our example,” predicts the realist. “And it's not just an idle gesture, it's a tragedy. Our million unborn children will scarcely affect the overall birthrate. But the small fraction of the next generation who will try to take some responsibility for the human condition and the course of history will be sharply reduced.”
And now the argument turns uglier. “That's flat-out racism,” accuses the welfare worker, a rare dark face in my crowd. “How do you figure it? Are twenty kids in the ghetto worth one of yours? Or is it thirty?”
“It's a little worse than that,” whispers the Jew in me, pale with heat, remembering the last time a people proclaimed themselves superior and set out to determine the fate of the world.
While they squabble, I tend my dead: Douglas's unborn daughter, the 130 children missing from my address book, all the fathers and the mothers unrealized, the part of myself and Karen and the future that I let be aborted into vacuum two years ago, almost without breaking stride, as if it were just $75 down the tubes, as if we were soldiers stepping over one of ours fallen, ordered to fall, in a desperate and necessary campaign. Oh child! Oh, my child!
And I did know the recent research on how people develop their own unique gestural languages in the womb, and I had other reasons besides ancient lore to not kid myself. It was someone, not just 0.5 grams of differentiating flesh, that we flushed in the sixth week. I can't get around the contradictions, I want to and don't want to. I would get my tubes tied if I did not still want another baby, maybe.
Meanwhile, I debate the fertility we chose to negate, pregnant with contradictions. For we have enriched contemporary life by more than just the theater of our youth. What has been born and reborn through us has spread into the American stream, influencing each least eddy and the whole. In the eye of history we shall be seen as a fortunate generation, the bearers of a great pulse of fertility; and perhaps we shall be numbered among the parents of a worthy human future.
Disordered and partial as its fruit may be, I know I have cast my seed upon the land, fathered more than is often the share of a man. But I know also, with knowledge as deep as blood, that there is some intimate, irreplaceable furnace in which our regeneration is carried on. I feel its burning, unplumbed space inside me, in the chambers of my life, between me and Karen, in the solitary cabin of my mountain friend, everywhere aching like an unfulfilled womb. And I shout into its emptiness, past the growing shadows of my own experience, asking the echoes why and what it means.
The voices who answer, joining the Babel in my head, are only my own, unlike the others. I am scarcely my son's age, facing into the world, growing up in an ordinary American Communist family, not long after the war. My mother teaches me to love the snails and lizards, my father brings me to shake the hand of the great Negro singer Paul Robeson. While the witch-hunt gathers, they read us the stories that teach us to care for fairness and the downtrodden, for the dignity of work and the mundane beautiful world. Then they send us to bed, before the hushed cell-meetings begin.
I am thirteen when the Rosenbergs are executed. All the other kids are talking about baseball at school; my family goes to the beach that weekend, to recover our selves in the deep water. I am babysitting for neighbors decent enough to tell us of the FBI visits; I'm home at night alone tending my own siblings, waiting for the knock on the door. I am fifteen, the Thaw is just beginning, and I'm coming out in my Problems of American Democracy class, daring to write a term paper on free speech, on the local lady who's banning Catcher in the Rye, which I adore, from the town library. I'm talking the risk and the issues over with my parents, hearing them say “Do what feels right,” while my sisters and brother listen at the shaded table.
I'm nineteen,a young man in the world, finding at last a few comrades who share the passions and values I learned at home. The papers have not yet named us the New Left; it is the last moment before the Sixties begin and our impulse breeds and mutates wildly. I'm almost alone at the gates of San Quentin, in yet another vigil against an execution; the midnight wind that chills the thirty of us there howls over the blanket I share with this girl young enough to be my sister, as we talk about the poisonous rain and of what use marching for peace might be and of our families, as we wait for a dawn we feel will never come. And I'm thinking, as we agree that leaflets don't really reach people, about the nested years, the crowded nest where what was precious, what made us fully human, caring for more than just our own skins, was preserved and re-formed. And I say, “But whatever happens, at least we can have children. Maybe we can breed a better world, if there's no other way.”
And I am thirty-seven now, touched and appalled by my innocence, my arrogance; confused by the strange turns of history and by all the voices in my mind. My back hurts as I bend to the typewriter, and my knee too; my flesh knows I will never again tumble with a child in that first spontaneous abandon. As I type late into the night, the children of the party lift their summer bodies up from the pool of my tears to sun themselves on the keys.
Josh and my son are fighting; Maya is teasing the magician while the others cheer her on. They are graceful, independent, strong; they are shining with vitality, damaged by our confusions, excesses and failures, nourished by the rich swirl of our lives. They are the most intimate craft of our love, our promise to the future -- we give them our best, as best we can, as ever since time began. And we are still young, we are strong, there is room in our arms and food at our table for twice as many, a million more. I don't know what it means.
And now my son, the Frog Prince himself, appears in the shadows, tearing at his genitals. “I can't sleep,” he tells me, on the edge of tears.
“Neither can I,” I say, with quick cheeriness. “Poison oak gotcha again?”
“Uh-huh,” He has caught the first bullfrogs of this season already. He comes home sopping wet each day from stalking them in the pond, his cuffs rolled up to run from the rattlesnakes, his fly unzipped.
“I trust you at least had sense enough not to pee near the water?” I ask, as he comes to lean against me under the late light, poking at the typewriter, too punchy to puzzle out the words.
“Uh-huh. What are you writing this time?” I tell him it's just another story, and to stop clawing himself. “But it just won't stop itching,” he says, and starts crying. I know, oh I do know, I tell him, as I go for the calamine lotion. Lie down now, lie down.
When I return he's on my office bed, he's in the pond. “They shouldn't hunt them.” Hunt who? “The bullfrogs. They hunt them for their legs, it's not fair. Unless a pond has too many.”
“But you like bullfrog legs,” I remind him, wincing in sympathy as I swab the cool lotion between his legs, feeling the enormous vulnerability rise within me, aware of Karen asleep in the next room.
“It was just one time,” he corrects me, “and I don't anymore. I want to sleep in here.”
“All right. Will my typing bother you, Frog?”
“No. But turn down the music. And lie with me awhile.” I tuck the patchwork in around us as the summer wind stirs through the open window. He will not let me hold him, but his lean arms reach out to cradle my disordered head and he strokes me gently, twitching with his own distress, until we fall together into uneasy dream.