Here are the things I know for sure about the life my father led before I was born:
- He went to the University of Kansas.
- He was in the Air Force.
- He liked to camp.
This lack of paternal knowledge isn’t due to some gross oversight on my father’s part. It’s my fault, really. No matter what my dad tells me, it is nearly impossible for me to conceive of his life before I was born. This is true for the same reason that I struggle when I try to imagine the Revolutionary War. Sure, there are pictures and stories, but who’s to say those pictures and stories are an accurate representation of, well, anything?
Further complicating matters is the way parents change when they become parents. They’re like butterflies—once, they were entirely different organisms than they are now. Except that, with parents, the metamorphosis happens in reverse. They change from something delicate and interesting into something plodding and dull and full of weird fluids of assorted colors.
But it doesn’t seem like it has to be this way. It doesn’t seem like we have to know so little about the people who mean so much.
Which is why I’m writing this, a letter to the children I don’t have. This is my time capsule, my chance to set down forever a few things about me now that I’ll probably lose the nerve to tell them then.
If they’re ever born. Because here’s an important note about this letter: I’m writing it long before I might ever have children. Why?
Because it’s easy to write a letter to your kids when you know you’re going to have them. It’s a little harder when, like me, you don’t even have a girlfriend.
Dear Son(s) or Daughter(s),
I am your father. And I am writing this letter to you. There’s one thing you should know about this letter: I’m writing it before you were born. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Oh, that’s adorable! Back when Mom and Dad found out they were pregnant, Dad sat down and wrote a letter to me, his unborn child. How cute!”
First, this letter is to my unborn children, not to my unborn child. Don’t be so selfish. Second, my wife – your mother – was the pregnant one. She did the work, carrying you ungrateful wretches around for nine months, heaving her way out of cars that were too low and pants that were too tight. I get no credit. So don’t say “they were pregnant.” Only assholes say, “they were pregnant.”
And third, no one with whom I’ve recently had the sex is pregnant. I’m not married. As I told the citizens of the Internet in 2014, I don’t even have a girlfriend. So why would I do this?
Parents do a lot of changing when they have kids. This isn’t their fault; having kids is exhausting work that, by all the accounts, prevents people from sleeping enough or from liking any of the music released after the arrival of their progeny.
And—because I think you might like to know that I wasn’t all that different then from how you are now—I want to tell you a little about me, before I get sappy and start censoring the way I really feel about things.
As I write this, I am 36 years old, which is bad news for one of us because it means that by the time you are conceived, the odds you will have Down’s syndrome are higher than if I’d gotten started a little earlier.
Sorry about that.
I am young enough to understand something of the world I live in, but old enough to be confused by that world. I do not know that there will be any forests left when you are my age, and I am relatively confident that the planet will be somewhere between two and five degrees hotter for you than it was for me. I suppose this might have its upshots: maybe you will spend less on clothes than I did?
Right now, Americans are fascinated with outrage; they want to be mad about everything. This shows no sign of abating, but surely it will. (Please tell me it will.)
As for my life, specifically: I spend a large portion of my days and nights assembling sentences in the hopes that others will find those assemblages entertaining. When I am not writing, I teach English and I co-host a podcast (which is like the radio, which is like…Never mind. Neither of these things will be around when you’re reading this).
I read books (which is already strange) and I listen to music on a record player given to me by your great-great-aunt and I have a ten-year-old car that I like quite a lot.
But I suspect you do not care about these matters. So I’ll get around to what you do care about:
Specifically, am I having it? And with whom? Is she your mother?
To that last question: no. This is not the written version of How I Met Your Mother?, which is a television program from the early twenty-first century that is sometimes far better than people say and sometimes far worse.
It is possible, I should add, that I have met your mother, because I have met some very beautiful and interesting women in my life, and it is conceivable that one of these women will come to her senses and let me kiss her, either for the first time or, again.
But what is more likely is that I have not met your mother. (And this, I will admit, is alarming to me.) If you are reading this then you have been birthed into the world and that must mean (by the transitive properties of how penises and vaginas function) that I found your mother. From your perspective, it was always this way: I found your mother and we had you and this is a process that cannot be undone. But from my perspective, it seems almost impossible that this confluence of events will have taken place.
You are like a person born after man landed on the moon, left saying, “Yeah, I can see how that would be difficult, but it makes perfect sense that it happened.” I am an ancient Hun, staring up at the night sky.
It’s not that I’m not trying to set into motion the series of events that would result in your existence. I go to bars and coffee shops and other places where a person can meet people with the opposite genitals from their own. I’ve had girlfriends and they’ve been great, but none of them was the right person to be your mother which wasn’t always, let me assure you, my call.
It is a process that often feels futile, especially when I admit the truth, which is that I’m not even sure I want to have you. (No offense.)
It feels, though, like I should try. It feels like I should give you a chance to exist. And a chance to read this letter.
I mean, it would be kind of a waste if I didn’t, wouldn’t it?
I’m sure you’re busy now, your energy and time consumed by things of which I can’t even conceive. And I don’t want to contribute further to the sapping of your mental resources. So I’ll wrap this up and tell you that I appreciate that you read this far—quite a feat, I’m sure, considering the aforementioned threats to your attention span.
You have my permission to do what you like with this information (and this letter). Let it comfort you. Let it frighten you. Use it to remind me of who I once was. Use it against me if you like.
But whatever you do, please know this: it’s as strange for me that you exist now as it is for you that I existed then (which is actually now, but let’s not get caught up in time-travel logistics; that never ends well).
Nonetheless, I’m glad you’re here. And I hope you can say the same for me.