We pose in July sunshine, my wife and I and the two girls. The older one is 6, the younger 3, and with their bright eyes, dark hair, and shy smiles, they’re as drop-dead gorgeous as people always said our kids would be.
Except they’re not ours. The photo, from an outing with friends, depicts the family we only might have been. The friends lived nearby one summer, and we grew to love their little girls. I looked at the photo later that day, and for a long while after I wished I hadn’t.
We had spent the afternoon on the Common, and at one point the older girl asked me to take her on the merry-go-round. Afraid of falling off, she insisted that I hold her throughout the ride. “Don’t let go,” she said, and soon I realized I didn’t want to — ever. I’d never taken a child on an amusement ride, and now countless other things not done, and never to be, suddenly crashed down on me. If anything, I held on tighter. The ride ended, the girl ran back to her parents, and my sense of loss was palpable.
When I looked at the photo later, it became nearly unbearable. I thought of warnings I’d received when I was young enough to have heeded them: If you never have kids, you’ll regret it. I’d always dismissed this as doomsaying, but now I knew I shouldn’t have.
Coincidentally, a few months earlier, my wife and I had discussed how we felt about being childless. We hadn’t done this before, and at the time, neither of us professed regret or relief. We agreed that it was simply how things had gone, and the passage of time had settled the matter. It was neither good nor bad — it just was.
Then that faux family photo came along and sabotaged my cool neutrality.
Eventually I told my wife I had come to see being childless as a mistake. She paused, then said only, “I didn’t know you felt that way.” I knew what she was saying — that the sentiment wasn’t mutual — and I had a queasy sense of role reversal. We hear more about regretful non-mothers than their male counterparts, though I suspect this is more adherence to tough-guy stereotype than representative of reality. My wife and I were silent for a while, then I changed the subject. A reality of long-term togetherness is acceptance of its limitations, of problems to be dealt with solo.
Later I told a friend how I was feeling, and he said, “I’m sure you would have been a good father.” Ouch. In retrospect, though, his reaction was a masterpiece of compassion. He’d paid me a high compliment without attempting to safeguard me from regret. I felt good about the former — who wouldn’t? — and my wise friend surely knew that only time, not words, could soothe the latter.
He was right. The acute phase passed, and though a certain wistfulness lingers, it can have its upsides — birthday cards I’m inspired to write to those two girls, gifts I send them and other friends’ children. And while some men see a young woman who could be their daughter and wish she were their wife, there are those of us who quietly and simply wish she were their daughter.
Advancing age can motivate us to value what remains, which may explain why ultimately, my awareness of the family I don’t have has bolstered my appreciation of the one I do. It’s a family of two, but a family nonetheless. When I look at that photo now, I can see not only what is not there but what is: my family and other people’s kids, together in summer sunshine. Part of me may wish I had more, but I wouldn’t want to have less.Geoff Kronik lives in Brookline and writes fiction and essays. Send comments to connections @globe.com.