Reproductive Labor by Holly Melgard

Let’s just make an example.

BOMB 157 Fall 2021
The cover of BOMB 157, Summer 2021 features a photograph of a woman screaming against a hot pink background.
Reproductive Labor Quote

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” 

—Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks 

People keep asking me if I want kids, and I don’t know how to answer that question. I suspect I do, but what does it feel like to know you want kids? 

Is wanting to have kids a physical sensation? When you see other people’s kids, do your loins start burning and dilating with want for something to come out of them? Does looking at a baby make your womb throb, your sperm squirm, your wallet pulse? Is it a warmth and fullness you wish to share, or is it a coldness, an emptiness in your torso you wish to lessen? Does wanting kids ache like a hunger? If I wait too long, will I get hangry for a child to fill up my midsection? Or is wanting kids not a bodily longing at all but more of an intellectual craving? 

How does someone know they want children? Is it enough to want to have had kids—you know, in retrospect—to avoid missing out on anything? Is it like the wish to have already paid a bill or attended an obligatory event you don’t have the energy for?

Or does the desire to have kids form out of the realization that you could have one, like the momentum that comes with realizing untapped potential? 

Is the craving for children anything like the craving for a cigarette? Is it like when you realize you can have a cigarette, you immediately want one and if too much time passes without satisfying that craving eventually it becomes all you can think about? Do I need to know I want a kid with the same certainty that I know I want a cigarette at every moment that I can have one?

Does wanting a kid feel like a lack or craving located in any one body part, or is it more of a holistic, overall physical longing for another? Is it anything like that feeling you get when you’ve been single for so long that all you can think about is who among your friends you can convince to spoon you without it getting weird?

Likewise, is the feeling of wanting a child anything like when I see a baby animal and all I want to do is hold it? Does wanting to spoon that raccoon rummaging in the trash need to be accompanied by a palpable drive to show up for all its vaccination appointments? If I haven’t managed to go to the dentist in five years, can I be trusted with someone else’s nonurgent medical needs? Is the desire to do chores for helpless animals in addition to wanting to cuddle them required to know that I want one of my own? 

Is the feeling of wanting to have that raccoon in my arms distinct from the feeling of wanting to mother or parent the raccoon?

Does wanting children feel anything like preferring to work one job instead of the three I have? Is it part of an urge to simplify your life and consolidate options? Do I want to stay out at this bar or go home? What city do I want to live in? Can I eat chips for dinner? Is it worth taking the time to compare reviews of these eleven floor cleaners before deciding which to buy? Would having kids liberate my time like a set of productive constraints? Is wanting kids just a need for clearer rules, for boundaries like banks to a river? Is it a want to limit one’s self purely out of habit or an effort to widen one’s lane? 

What exactly is the difference between wanting kids and the desire to serve another? Would having children make cooking dinner feel like less of a burden and more like the pleasure of, say, drawing a card or knitting a loved one a scarf? Would having kids make chores less painful? Have people who want kids concluded that living to serve their kid must be easier than living in the service of self? Or does wanting kids subscribe one to the belief that someday the children will do the chores for us? 

I remember what strongly wanting things felt like when I was little, but what if I can’t locate a strong desire for kids now because I don’t know how to want things strongly as an adult? What if I don’t feel strongly about wanting kids because I make negative income, someone else owns my shelter, I’m scared and overstimulated most of the time, I have no assets, and I can’t begin to imagine myself in the future? If these statements are just as true today as they were when I was a child, then do I need to strongly not identify with children to want one of my own? Do I need to first learn how to feel like an adult before I can know how to strongly want things as an adult? Would having a kid make me feel less infantilized by the conditions of my life? 

In what ways is child-wanting a healthy extension of narcissism? Does it feel like the desire to look in the mirror and fix your hair? Like, when you know you want kids, does your reflection in the mirror look too one-dimensional to recognize yourself in it any longer? Does wanting kids feel anything like the desire to upgrade from a regular TV to an HDTV? Or is the feeling of wanting children more like a wish to create a world in which others admire, fear, and respect you? Is that what it feels like: a superiority thing? I would be into that—I never not want that, to be honest—but isn’t the wish to make creatures who revere us what got Victor Frankenstein into so much trouble?

Is wanting kids the same as wanting someone to take care of you in your elder years? In the long run, would kids be cheaper than a nursing home? Does the traumatizing process of childrearing in a world without adequate support for working parents need to appeal for children to feel desirable? 

Also, is the need to afford the current cost of living by mortgaging it on the backs of the next generation what lures people into reproducing?

Does wanting a child feel anything like the desire to conspire with others in the hope that someone will fight to save you? Will having kids be the only way to avoid getting eaten in the apocalypse? Is wanting children a prayer that when that day comes, my own child can chime in to say “Don’t eat her, she’s my mom,” or that I can clap back, “You can’t eat me, I’ve got kids”? I know I want to survive the apocalypse, but is wanting kids no more banal than the want for reliable insurance? 

Or is the wish to spawn really just an elaborate effort to minimize mortality? Could imprinting my legacy onto my children be a way to haunt after I am gone, even if simply by provoking descendants to tell stories about me around the family dinner table a generation from now? And is the wish to be remembered more of a child-wanting thing or more of a bargaining-with-loss thing? Would not wanting to die reflect more of a concern to preserve myself than a longing to serve others?

What do you picture when you feel that want for children? Is it anything like the split-screen versions I see of my deathbed wherein, on the left, my grown child weeps into my dying face, and on the right, no one stands beside me as I lie dying? Is wanting children similar to wanting to make people cry? Should I be leaning into that desire or leaning away from it? 

What if I don’t strongly crave the company of children because so many of my friends being artists means that I’m basically surrounded by childlike people all of the time? Would fewer people want children of their own if kids were more integrated into adult spaces?

Do I need to be sick of everyone else to want children? Are child-wanting people like, “Well, we’ve basically said everything there is to say to each other, so let’s just start over from the beginning. Say mama. Can you say mama?”

Is wanting a kid the opposite of the social drive? Does it instead feel like the desire for social withdrawal? Does the knowledge of wanting a kid only come to you after noticing what a disappointment people ultimately become? Like, at a certain point, do you just have to make your own people because all the ones you didn’t make inevitably fail no matter what you do?

Is wanting kids more like a world-building thing or world-ending thing? Is it a want to make more world or a want for less of this one? Is it a taking on or letting go?

When I picture having kids should I experience the joy I get from looking at miniatures? Does the vision for having children feel anything like the fun of staring far too long at the diorama of New York City at the top of the Times Square McDonald’s—each of these spaces being insufferable in themselves (New York City, Times Square, McDonald’s), but enchanting when combined into a diorama scenario? Is it a sign I want kids if I enjoy seeing my world shrink? 

What if I don’t feel so certain about wanting kids because when I look around, I simply see no room for them in my small, urban apartment? Is that why my friends in more rural spaces have been breeding earlier and in higher quantities? Does the lower population density make them worry that not enough people will show up to the party? Are they having kids so someone will eat the chips before they go stale? 

When you want kids in a big a city, do you stand on the crowded subway just like, “There’s an empty spot in that corner that could fit one,” and then stress out at the sight of an empty spot going to waste? Is that what wanting children feels like—a wish to fill potholes in the road?

Do I need to have a surplus of means to support a child before I can feel certain about wanting one? What if I don’t feel strongly about wanting children because I don’t have enough ducks in a row? What if my owing a lifetime of student debt for a graduate degree but earning a smaller livelihood than my working class parents is killing my want for a kid because I have no budget to afford one? 

What if having less than my parents did is stifling my imagination for wanting kids because I can’t picture any way to reproduce the life they gave me? Poverty hurts children, but people should have kids regardless of income bracket, ducks or no ducks, right? 

Wouldn’t expanding the number of those who Ezra Pound called “the unkillable children of the very poor” only increase the population of those able to teach the rest how to survive the apocalypse to come? 

Is there any way to avoid the apocalypse on the horizon given the direction our economy and ecology are headed? What are the chances this world will get better and not worse, less than ten percent or more than seventy? Don’t predictions matter when family planning? Do I need to be a sadist to want to assign another consciousness to partake in the end of the world? Is there a difference between the desire to reproduce and the drive to punish? At this point, what is the difference between wanting a kid and wishing the end of the world on someone? 

Does wanting kids feel like a want to surround yourself with certain colors? What if kid-wanting is really just a masked affection for childishly color-coded interior design? If I cared for neon greens and pinks, would I want kids more definitely? Or does wanting children feel like the want for a toy? Are children just toy people? I know what wanting toys feels like. That could be fun. 

Holly Melgard’s experimental poetry books include the Poems for Baby trilogy, The Making of The Americans, Black Friday, Reimbursement, Cats Can’t Taste Sugar, and Catcall. She also coauthored White Trash and Liquidation with Joey Yearous-Algozin. A performance version of “Reproductive Labor” will appear in her new book Fetal Position from Roof Books in fall 2021. Her poetry book Inner Critic: A Journal of Inner Criticism (Kenning Editions), as well as a selected edition of her writings (Ugly Duckling Press, 2023), are also forthcoming. She teaches writing at New York University and The City University of New York.

Originally published in

BOMB 157, Fall 2021

Our Fall 2021 issue features interviews with Rabih Alameddine, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Suzanne Jackson, Candice Lin, Kevin Morby, Naudline Pierre, and Diane Williams; an essay from Hafizah Geter; short stories from Akil Kumarasamy, Harris Lahti, Holly Melgard, Edward Salem (winner of BOMB’s 2021 Fiction Contest), Adrian Van Young, and Diane Williams; a comic from Ricardo Cavolo; nonfiction from Hugh Ryan; poetry from John Keene and Marcus Wicker; a portfolio by Manthia Diawara; and Nam Le’s newly hand-annotated interview from 2009.

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The cover of BOMB 157, Summer 2021 features a photograph of a woman screaming against a hot pink background.