Happy second birthday, Jackson. Here is a fun ball that features the likeness of the Sesame Street character Elmo. It bounces, too. I selected this gift because I’ve heard from your dad, Matt, that you are interested in Sesame Street characters and bouncy balls. I have been friends with your father since we weren’t much older than you are now. There he is, watching our conversation with his trademark furrowed brow. What a neat guy your dad is.
As I eat this Cookie Monster–themed cake, I’m reflecting on your dad and I. We’re still close, but our lives have gone in different directions. I’m not calling your father a coward, exactly, but it takes courage to defy society’s expectations. I’m your dad’s same age: 38 years old. When I tell people I don’t want kids, they insist that I’ve made a mistake. That I’m missing one of the most gratifying parts of life. That I’ll never understand the Billy Joel song “Lullabye.” They can say what they want; I am content with my choice to remain childless. Also, call me “Uncle Jon.” You must care for me when I am old.
Enjoy the Elmo ball. I give it with no expectation of anything in return—which, if you’re not a sociopath, probably makes you feel even more like you ought to look out for me later on, should the necessity arise.
You can talk to your dad in a bit. You see him all the time. Right now, I am proffering my hard-won insights.
Your purpose isn’t to please your parents. It’s to find your own bliss, whether that comes from bar trivia, travel to destinations that allow you to bring your dog, or covering my rent once I’m too old to work but haven’t amassed a large enough 401(k) to last through retirement.
I live in the shadow of a future in which I am decrepit and abandoned. No children. No grandchildren. No one to even wonder how I am doing. Just a lonely, decaying man. But that’s a small price to pay for my freedom.
By not having children, I’m doing my part to fight climate change and other global problems exacerbated by a growing population. To forge a brighter tomorrow for young folks like you. Oh, you needn’t say “thank you.” A good house with a personal chef, not some second-rate assisted-living facility that may as well be an old-man drop box, will be thanks enough.
You can take a swing at the piñata in a minute, after your Uncle Jon makes a few more important points.
When I visit you and your dad here in the suburbs, it’s sad. You don’t want that for your adult self. It’s not a rewarding existence to settle a toddler down from his tantrum at two in the morning. What you want at my age is to be in a bodega at two in the morning, with your drunk friend, settling him down from his tantrum.
This is advice that your parents, with their biases, will not give you. They are too motivated by a primitive desire to propagate their own genetic material. If a selfless dedication to the happiness of another is the true mark of a father, perhaps I am more of a parent to you than your “real” parents, and thus more entitled to your support several decades hence.
Look at that scowl on your dad’s face. I don’t think that’s someone you’d rather feed, clothe, and medicate than me.
My care will not be cheap—even before inflation, it might run you mid–six figures per year. And, as explained before, I have not saved much. But do not be discouraged; with smart investments and budgeting, you will be able to provide for me and still have some money left over for your own needs—assuming that, like your Uncle Jon, you do not procreate or adopt.
Does that sound okay to you? Can you agree to that? Yes? Ha. Fantastic.
As you may know, oral contracts are enforceable in the State of New York, which, if I am correct, is where your parents’ fancy Croton-on-Hudson mansion was built and where we are standing now.
Don’t try to back out. There was an offer and an acceptance, and that Elmo ball—which is bouncy, as you no doubt remember—is what we call a “consideration” in exchange for your promise. If you can’t afford to meet your end of the bargain, do what the rest of us do and find some two-year-old mark who will agree to save you from destitution in your declining days.
Quit crying; you have to be accountable for your decisions.
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Jonathan Zeller is a writer, editor and comedian who’s contributed to McSweeney’s, The New York Times, and Teen Vogue.