“You a Redskins fan?” my doctor asks. He directs his question more at the syringe he’s loading than at me, and I’m thrown by his question. Is it an icebreaker? A joke? I’m not fluent in small talk, but surely he can do better than that. He’s just preoccupied, I tell myself.
“Fair weather fan,” I answer. I’m also preoccupied. Not so much by the needle he’s holding but rather by the attending nurse, a pleasant, matronly woman with platinum hair and oddly snug-fitting scrubs that pinch at her armpits. In her right hand she holds a blue disposable razor. In her left hand, held taut to smooth the surface and expedite shaving, is my scrotum. My testicles are being prepped for a vasectomy.
I’d scheduled the surgery to take place months ago but waffled as the time came. It wasn’t that I feared the procedure. Despite the unsettling mental picture that a vasectomy draws, I’d always likened it to a root canal; a procedure synonymous with excruciating pain, but actually painless thanks to local anesthetic. As for the post-op discomfort, I took a friend at his word that it would be minimal. So easy to trust when told what you want to hear.
“This is going to feel cold and wet,” the nurse says, and I immediately feel her understatement. As she paints my groin with iodine solution—strokes that seem surprisingly broad and messy—I feel a stream run down my crack and puddle near my tailbone. It triggers a response in me to reach for a paper towel, to quickly head off what feels like an accidental spill—like tipping a glass of wine in my lap. My naked lap.
But the nurse doesn’t blot the excess iodine. She turns away, finished, and I struggle to find the words to ask her to wipe me. What exactly do I say? She does this every day, I think, and I’m fairly confident she’d rather have me at ease than lying there quietly in a chilly pool, but my self-consciousness stymies the request. It’ll warm up in a minute.
The reason I’d postponed the vasectomy was doubt. A small speck of doubt. Having divorced four years ago at the age of 45, the scenario for having another child wasn’t unimaginable. Most of the time I felt conviction that I’d completed my list of heirs—that my current fathering role was defined and I didn’t have it in me to expand it. Yet I still entertained fantasy scenarios, ones where I’d meet a woman close to my age (the only ones who really interest me) who wanted to push the biological clock and give birth. I’d ride in the wake of my new partner’s enthusiasm and conquer my fears about becoming a dad again. People did it. I’m not worn out yet. Plenty of retirees attend high school graduations. My fantasy had me doing it all over again, but this time in a healthy and loving partnership, this time a lasting union. It’s a seductive notion.
Perhaps the odds I’d placed against this scenario allowed me to romanticize the idea and keep alive the question of “What if…?” It’s not that I sought to have another child. I really didn’t. I have two kids with my ex-wife: Charley, a hug-happy, 8-year-old with terminal bed-head, and Georgia, a beautifully dorky ‘tween who has no interest in skinny jeans and still thinks I’m king. But linked with the idea of falling in love again was the question of wanting kids, a question oversimplified in online dating profiles: “Want kids? __Yes __No.” It’s the stuff of daydreams, and I found it hard to let go of the vision.
“You’re going to feel a couple little bee stings,” my doctor tells me. A thin line of fluid squirts from the tip of his syringe. Bee stings? The last bee sting I had was on the bottom of my foot and caused my toes to look like sausage casings.
The nurse takes her place at my left side and straightens the sheet over my raised and splayed legs, preventing me from seeing the action. I’m on the wrong side of this sterile curtain, backstage at my own show, and all I can see is the audience—the doctor, the shaver and a second nurse, all of 30 perhaps, with smallish features and stiff, short cropped hair, her head just visible over my right knee. I am on full display. I remind myself that this is an ordinary day for them, that my iodine-slathered genitals make no more of an impression than a keyboard or filing cabinet, though I’m not convinced.
Waiting for those bee stings, it strikes me that all men should have to assume this position at some point in their lives. Laid out flat on an exam table, naked from the waist down, feet cradled far apart for easy access to their privates—it’s what women endure throughout their lives. A single office visit in stirrups may not generate true empathy for what women are subjected to, but the feeling of vulnerability is inescapable. The feeling of exposure is unsettling.
This isn’t to say that men get off scot-free. There are prostate exams, but they’re brief and relatively infrequent. When it comes to genital upkeep, there’s really no denying that men were granted an E-ZPass. I, for one, am grateful.
These thoughts distract me until I feel the distinctive pinch of needle through scrotum. Actually not too bad, I think.
“Don’t worry, you’re not going to feel a thing,” the shaving nurse says, and thankfully I find she’s right. I watch as the doctor busies himself before me. The look of fixed concentration I expect is missing. He makes obscured hand-offs to the nurse, but for all I can see and feel, they could just as easily be assembling a sandwich.
Resigned to my obstructed view, I lay my head back and squint into the harsh overhead lights. I imagine I’m in a delivery room, pregnant and about to give birth. Yes, I think, I’m having a baby. I am about to bring a life into this world through the miracle of childbirth. The expression is cliché, but that’s precisely how I saw it when my ex-wife gave birth to our daughter—a miracle.
Twelve years ago I’d entered into parenthood reluctantly. I’d questioned my ability to raise a child, to embrace the responsibility, to be a good father. Like so many dads before me, however, my doubts faded as quickly as my daughter entered the world. Her birth generated a new kind of love, one in which my emotional vocabulary expanded and took on the dialect of parenthood. She hadn’t tossed and turned inside my womb for nine months, but her pink and wrinkled face, now swaddled and framed in a cotton cocoon, felt as much a part of me as my own limbs. From that moment on I couldn’t picture life without her.
Then came talk of a second child and the reluctance reappeared, this time in a new form.
“Once you’ve had one kid, having another isn’t a big adjustment,” some friends with children would say. “You’ve already handed over your freedom card.” It wasn’t the diminished freedom that concerned me, though. My apprehension wasn’t fueled by the prospect of wrestling with the Diaper Genie twice as often, or thoughts of herding two kids through the aisles of Safeway. It was something akin to infidelity. I wasn’t an adulterer; this had nothing to do with my wife. Rather, my feelings of unfaithfulness and betrayal were linked to my daughter.
How could I possibly share what I felt for my daughter with a new child? How could I split that love in two and direct it toward another without somehow short-changing her? She had seniority. It seems silly now. Embarrassing, really. But at the time, intoxicated and naïve in my new role as a Dad, I wrestled with these questions. The emotional mechanics seemed too complicated. There was no more room in the center of my new world.
I grew to accept the idea of having a second child. Not embrace, but accept, and with that lack of enthusiasm came guilt. We conceived another child, but where was my excitement, my anticipation? Seeing my son’s developing form on the sonogram, feeling his kicks from inside the womb, painting his room with cartoon bumblebees—nothing connected me the way I thought it should.
Then my son was born. Standing in the delivery room, holding him close, I felt his breath on my cheek for the first time, all warm and moist and alive. I discovered again that my life before then seemed foreign, and that the space I’d created in my life for my daughter was actually quite roomy.
“How you doing back there?” my doctor asks. He sits up straight on his stool and appears to be taking off his gloves. He is taking them off. He’s finished.
“You’re done already?” I ask. What did I miss?
“Yes, indeed. I’m always tempted to drag it out a bit so that my fee seems justified,” he answers. “Truth is, I have a handful of these scheduled this morning.” The nurse gives a knowing shrug and recites my post-op instructions. They involve a bag of frozen peas and couch time.
“And between now and six weeks from now,” she continues, “you need to ejaculate at least 20 times. We then test your semen, and again at eight weeks.” She holds up an orange Ziplock bag containing two ridiculously large vials and some paperwork.
“Once you get two clean screenings,” the doctor chimes in, “you can recycle whatever condoms you have left over.” Before the words have left his mouth, his expression suggests he’d like to retract them. “You did tell me you were in a committed relationship, yes? I’d never advocate unsafe sex.”
“Yes,” I tell him, “I’m in a committed relationship.”
I suddenly feel defensive. I become present to the unease that had followed me through the front door and into the stirrups—a self-consciousness about why I’m here. I look through the nurse’s eyes and see just another guy, seeking the ultimate form of birth control so that he can run freely through the sexual playground that is middle age. I see a guy subjecting his no-longer-private parts to a scalpel, all for the privilege of not wearing a condom. I see Rush Limbaugh walking in, denouncing me as a slut.
I can’t deny looking forward to skipping past the Family Planning section in CVS. That’s clearly a benefit. But I wished they knew more about my decision to have a vasectomy, more about my struggle to let go of some idealized vision of fatherhood. As if they care.
One part of my daydream scenario for becoming a father again had, in fact, occurred: I’d met a woman who was both close to my age and open to having a child. This was Mary, a mindful and emotionally outspoken acupuncturist with blue-grey eyes and front teeth that overlap just slightly, adding a singular allure to her already effortless smile. Mary calls me on my shit, wears almost no makeup, and occasionally snorts when she laughs. I fell in love.
But rather than enlivening the notion of having another child, meeting Mary prompted me to focus beyond the hypnotic hypothetical. Could I actually become a father again? Until then, I had held the notion at arm’s length, allowing me to gloss over my looming 50th birthday and already-too-small house and dog-paddling-to-stay-afloat life. How real was this idea?
I’d discovered years earlier that my capacity for loving children was greater than I had realized. Having another child, surely that love would stretch further and I’d once again find it impossible to envision my life without this new child, another member of the team. But I began to see that having another child wouldn’t simply add a new player. Rather, it would be more like establishing another franchise, a spin-off team with a different set of coaches, and managing them both.
This image provoked a familiar feeling, one I’d long ago dismissed as the naivety of a young parent—the feeling of betrayal. If I became a father again, how could I possibly direct any of my time or energy or love away from the two kids I already had?
After my divorce four years ago, the custody arrangements cut in half the time I now share with my kids. Suddenly 100 percent of my fathering felt compressed like a gas into 50 percent of the space. Contents under pressure. I became hyper-aware of being fully present with them, wanting to absorb all I could while giving them as much of me as the demands of daily life allowed. Yet driving home alone after a weekend together, “The Cat’s in the Cradle” buzzing like a mosquito in my ear, I’ll tell myself that I could have made time for a couple more hands of UNO, I could have added more pieces to the Lego creation du jour. Lack of enough time is the consistent theme of my parental Monday-morning quarterbacking.
Maybe I underestimate my ability to integrate a new player, to expand the roster and dynamic of the current team with the help of another head coach, someone alongside me to guide and instruct and love and grow with these little players. Maybe Mary is that coach. We’d talked about the kid issue before we even met. I had called the possibility of fathering again “a long shot,” yet I realize the decision to go through with the vasectomy was mine, selfishly mine, and not without some disappointment.
I’d kept the possibility of another child open just enough to bask in a selective vision of new fatherhood, some romanticized picture of the nuclear family. Being relegated to part-time parent by divorce had left a void in me. I was no longer filling bowls with Cheerios every morning or reading “The Stinky Cheese Man” each night before bed. The comfort from their day-to-day presence was gone. But parenting another child full time would not fill this void, regardless of the new love created. Instead, I’d be compromising further my time to focus on the kids I already have. As it is, my list of players is complete. My son and daughter deserve every bit of attention I can afford them. They come before anything else.
“You can get dressed now,” the young nurse says, tapping her finger on a role of medical tape. “You’re all set.” Yes. I’m all set. I inch off the table and walk bow-legged to the changing room. I remove the backless hospital robe, take a seat on the bench, and stare down at my newly neutered self. My inner thighs are coated in iodine solution—a mottled canvas of yellow-brown, like a spray-on tan gone horribly wrong. The gauze taped over my scrotum, however, is flawlessly white, betraying nothing of what lies beneath. Of course I have to look.
I peel back the tape and gingerly lift the gauze, revealing not a gory mess, but something more like a bruised kiwi, reduced for quick sale. The incisions themselves are quite small. They are unnerving, but because I’m still numb, there’s a strange disconnect from what I see. I reattach the tape, get dressed in slow motion, and wish I’d asked the doctor how long the anesthetic lasts.
It’s now 10:30 in the morning and I’m due to pick up my kids this afternoon. I’d cleared my schedule in advance of the vasectomy and wasn’t supposed to have the kids today, but the opportunity to be with them arose and I took it. After recuperating at home for a few hours, I’ll put away the bag of peas, meet the kids at school, and do my best to act casual. I imagine by then I’ll be walking like Redd Foxx, unable to hide that something’s up. I can picture my daughter staring, with more curiosity than concern, and asking me “Why are you walking funny?”
I’m not one to lie to my kids, but they don’t need to know about the vasectomy. Neither do they need to know all that went into the decision to have it performed. I’ll likely tell them I strained something, that it’s nothing, I’m fine, and change the subject as best I can. Then I’ll pull out the Lego bins, sit criss-cross applesauce on the family room floor, and ask them what we can build together.