Big Night

New England Review - - Table of Contents - Ex­plo­rations Jill Sisson Quinn

The US con­tains more species of sala­man­der than any other coun­try, but in an en­tire life­time you may never en­counter one. Sala­man­ders—se­cre­tive, fos­so­rial, noc­tur­nal—exit un­der­ground har­bors only in dark­ness. Even those that gather in great masses to breed do so without a sound, mov­ing monk-like through the yam­mer­ing of wood frogs and spring peepers to ephemeral ponds.

In the coun­try's eastern half, many folks would be sur­prised to find they share their neigh­bor­hoods with Am­bystoma mac­u­la­tum, the spot­ted sala­man­der, a crea­ture that looks like it be­longs in the Ama­zon. Two un­even rows of big, bright yel­low dots ex­tend from head to tail on its dark, glossy body, a body I have al­ways thought looks pur­ple, though most field guides de­scribe it as steel gray or black. Spot­teds are stout and medium-sized; at four to seven inches long, they look like they'd make a good meal for some­thing. But they're not easy to find. Sci­en­tists track­ing them with ra­dio teleme­try, through tiny trans­mit­ters sur­gi­cally im­planted into the sala­man­ders' mid­sec­tions, dis­cov­ered one spot­ted sala­man­der liv­ing four feet un­der­ground. To find one of these brightly col­ored an­i­mals be­neath a rock or within a log feels like hit­ting the jackpot.

My in­ter­est in sala­man­ders re­newed with sur­pris­ing force the same spring my hus­band and I be­gan the process of adopt­ing a child. I had re­cently moved away from an area of high sala­man­der den­sity (from New Jersey, which has six­teen species, to Wis­con­sin, which has only seven) and ceased teach­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion; in­stead I was teach­ing English and spend­ing my work­days in­doors. Nev­er­the­less, I aimed to be present for the an­nual noc­tur­nal mass breed­ing of the spot­ted. There was a chance I would see them and a chance I wouldn't, these crea­tures that seemed scarce but were rel­a­tively nu­mer­ous, that lived singly all year long but on a sin­gle evening gath­ered in mul­ti­tudes. It was just this odd com­bi­na­tion of un­cer­tainty and pos­si­bil­ity that I would need to em­brace in my jour­ney to be­com­ing a par­ent.

What's more, the adop­tion process seemed at times (ex­cuse the pun) rather cold-blooded. Me­chan­i­cal. De­lib­er­ate. Too con­scious. Take, for ex­am­ple, the ini­tial pa­per­work, a long list of char­ac­ter­is­tics we had to de­cide whether we would ac­cept in a child. We had checked “yes” for pre­ma­ture birth and low birth weight, and “maybe” for de­vel­op­men­tal de­lays and fail­ure to thrive; “yes” for heart mur­mur, but “no” for heart de­fect; “yes” for cleft lip and club foot but “maybe” for epilepsy and mi­cro­cephalus; “yes” for di­a­betes but “no” for he­mophilia. Un­der both hear­ing and vi­sion we'd checked “yes” for par­tial loss

and “no” for to­tal loss. Some­what con­tra­dic­to­rily, we'd checked only “maybe” for to­bacco, al­co­hol, and drug use dur­ing preg­nancy but “yes” for no pre­na­tal care. We'd checked “yes” for crim­i­nal his­tory in back­ground, “yes” for men­tal ill­ness, and “yes” for all the eth­nic groups listed. We'd folded the pa­per into thirds, slid it into an en­ve­lope, and mailed it to the adop­tion agency we had se­lected, to en­ter it in the May lot­tery.

This was in March. As we waited to hear if we'd won, I needed some­thing else to an­tic­i­pate that, like a child, had as yet eluded me. I needed some­thing to ac­tively look for, some­thing I couldn't be sure I would find. Many have at­trib­uted the “child wish,” as it is called rather po­et­i­cally in the sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture, to bi­ol­ogy—a yearn­ing in­nate and nec­es­sary for sur­vival. “This gaz­ing at my child,” es­say­ist Lia Pur­pura has writ­ten, “is a kind of eat­ing, it is that el­e­men­tally nour­ish­ing.” It seems rea­son­able to as­sume a species would die out if it did not have an in­born drive to create off­spring. But nat­u­ral se­lec­tion would hardly hinge a species' sur­vival to a de­sire for such a de­layed effect. And for most of our evo­lu­tion we didn't even know what act cre­ated chil­dren. If the bi­o­log­i­cal child wish were true, we would be in peril—in­grained with a strong yearn­ing for a par­tic­u­lar end yet lack­ing any knowl­edge of how to achieve it; this would have caused ex­tinc­tion. By now the truth should be ob­vi­ous: what we have an in­nate bi­o­log­i­cal drive for is the cre­at­ing, not the off­spring. It's sex we want, not chil­dren.

It ap­pears, though, as if the hu­man de­sire for chil­dren is in­nate sim­ply be­cause it is so com­mon; most peo­ple want to and do have chil­dren. Ac­cord­ing to the US Cen­sus Bureau's Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Sur­vey, in 2008, the num­ber of women who had given birth ranged from 6 per­cent of teenagers aged fif­teen to nineteen to 82 per­cent of women aged forty to forty-four. So by the end of their child­bear­ing years, most women have borne chil­dren—more than three­fourths, a solid ma­jor­ity. Of the 6 per­cent of mar­ried women, per the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol, who have com­plete in­fer­til­ity, many seek al­ter­na­tive meth­ods of fulfilling the child wish. More than 1 per­cent of in­fants born in 2012 were the re­sult of as­sisted re­pro­duc­tive tech­nol­ogy (ART), a num­ber that does not in­clude the likely high and rarely pub­li­cized num­ber of failed ART at­tempts. In ad­di­tion, 1 per­cent of all women ages eigh­teen to forty-four, about half of whom al­ready have a child through birth, have adopted.

These last two groups clearly want chil­dren. They've gone well be­yond the mech­a­nisms na­ture has pro­vided to ac­quire them: the first may have in­duced ovu­la­tion with drugs and un­der­gone mul­ti­ple cy­cles of in vitro fer­til­iza­tion, ac­cepted eggs into their bod­ies they did not create and sperm from men they've never met; the se­cond has per­haps made un­com­fort­able decisions about the sort of child they want—its age, abil­ity, race, and, for a lit­tle more dough, gender— and spent so much time pre­par­ing and sign­ing pa­per­work that the process may be­gin to feel more akin to di­vorce than adop­tion. Both cases re­quire sig­nif­i­cant

amounts of money and en­ter­tain­ment of the child wish for much, much longer than the year it takes most peo­ple to have a child nat­u­rally. So, when we go to such ex­tremes to have a child is it re­ally the child wish we're fulfilling, or has the wish taken on some other na­ture? In other words, what, ex­actly, is it we de­sire when we de­sire chil­dren? I've al­ways been fas­ci­nated by sala­man­ders. Early on, I saw them re­treat­ing now and then be­neath a ring of pi­o­neer-laid stones around a fa­vorite spring in the woods where I grew up. Later, walk­ing off some ado­les­cent woe, I leaned into a steep hill, brushed away leaves, and found the soil be­neath so moist and rich with sala­man­ders I could hardly be­lieve it. (Long be­fore, there would have been un­be­liev­ably more: the non-na­tive earth­worm, brought to Amer­ica in Euro­pean ship bal­last, gob­bles up the for­est's leaf lit­ter, leav­ing less to sup­port our na­tive in­ver­te­brates and, thus, fewer in­ver­te­brates to feed our wood­land sala­man­ders, then, fi­nally, fewer sala­man­ders.) In my job as an en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tor in New Jersey I taught ele­men­tary and mid­dle school stu­dents. Sala­man­ders, if you knew where and when to look, were of­ten the eas­i­est thing to con­jure up for a hun­dred city kids who had just two and a half days to spend in the woods. Sala­man­ders are more nu­mer­ous than tur­tles. They are eas­ier to catch than frogs. You kneel at a for­est seep, fin­gers numb, lift­ing and re­plac­ing rocks wrapped in moss, one af­ter an­other. Most re­veal noth­ing. But then some­thing hap­pens in the mud be­neath an up­turned stone: what looks like just the cur­rent of the stream es­cap­ing be­comes a sala­man­der.

In gen­eral, sala­man­ders don't bite, though, sur­pris­ingly, most do have tiny, flex­i­ble, cone-shaped teeth used for grasp­ing prey. They don't pee on you like toads, or musk you like stinkpots or mink frogs. They don't scare the hell out of you at first like snakes do. As long as you don't grab them by the tail (which would be cruel—many de­tach their tails in self-de­fense and leave them be­hind wrig­gling wildly for the con­fused preda­tor while they es­cape, then burn pre­cious calo­ries in tail re­gen­er­a­tion) they are easy to han­dle. They seem rel­a­tively un­trou­bled by cap­ture, star­ing at you with dare-to-amuse-me eyes. If you want to com­mune with some an­i­mal, sala­man­ders can be an ex­quis­ite choice.

Many species, de­spite over­all gen­eral pop­u­la­tion de­clines, are still shock­ingly nu­mer­ous. “If you took all the sala­man­ders in the for­est and put them in a sack,” I would say to my her­petol­ogy stu­dents at the en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion cen­ter, “and then put all the small mam­mals in that same for­est in a se­cond sack, the sack of sala­man­ders would be larger.” An­other com­par­i­son: sala­man­ders make up more than 2.6 times the biomass of birds dur­ing the peak breed­ing sea­son. Once or twice a year, my stu­dents didn't need these thought ex­per­i­ments; on a warm day af­ter rain, there would be mass mi­gra­tions of red efts, the toxic-look­ing— and, to a blue jay, toxic-tast­ing—ju­ve­nile, ter­res­trial stage of the eastern spot­ted newt. You couldn't walk without fear of crush­ing one. Those days were a great un­planned les­son on ful­fill­ment and de­sire. With kids trans­port­ing efts by hand

across roads and paths, adopt­ing par­tic­u­larly cute ones as tem­po­rary pets, we never got where we were go­ing. Where we were go­ing be­came where we were. What we un­earthed be­came what we had set out for. Sala­man­der courtship and breed­ing of­fer quite a few zoo­log­i­cal sur­prises. Up to a third of red-backed sala­man­ders are monog­a­mous, a rar­ity for am­phib­ians— though their monogamy, it turns out, is more so­cial than re­pro­duc­tive. Many ter­res­trial sala­man­ders guard their eggs, curl­ing body or tail around their clutch in the kind of cir­cum­fer­en­tial hug one might more rea­son­ably ex­pect of a ca­nine or ro­dent. But per­haps noth­ing tops the re­pro­duc­tive be­hav­ior of the spot­ted, which, once a year, holds a bac­cha­na­lian nup­tial dance that lasts into the wee hours of the morn­ing.

No one is sure what drives the var­i­ous species of am­bystoma, the mole sala­man­ders, out of the net­works of small mam­mal bur­rows they oc­cupy singly for up to fifty-one weeks of the year, to mate in spring. Be­cause they all ap­pear at the same time, mi­grat­ing to safe, fish­less wa­ters, her­petol­o­gists have come to call this event “Big Night.” To am­bystoma, the es­sen­tial fac­tors for Big Night must be quite pre­cise. But to us, with our cal­en­dars and ther­mome­ters and sling psy­chrom­e­ters, it's just an­other num­bers game.

They emerge in the first warm rain af­ter winter. But how warm and how rainy is any­body's guess; dif­fer­ent stud­ies con­clude dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­tures and some­times just fog or sud­den snowmelt is enough. The most ac­cu­rate pre­dic­tor may have been right un­der our noses—or our feet—all along: in a ten-year study of mole sala­man­ders in St. Louis County, Mis­souri, mass mi­gra­tions started when soil tem­per­a­tures a foot deep reached at least 40.1 de­grees Fahren­heit and the ther­mal pro­file re­versed—mean­ing it was fi­nally warmer at the sur­face than un­der­neath.

On that afore­men­tioned first warm, rainy night af­ter winter, spot­teds re­turn to the place of their birth, likely aided by the smell of the wa­ter and plants of each par­tic­u­lar pool. In ex­per­i­ments, blind­folded—yes, blind­folded—sala­man­ders have eas­ily been able to find their pools; in­ter­cepted adults pre­ferred home pond odors to those of for­eign ponds.

Then, un­der the wa­ter, the dance be­gins. Ac­cord­ing to James W. Pe­tranka, in Sala­man­ders of the United States and Canada (2010), the male con­tacts the fe­male with his snout, once, twice, again, and again; she prods him in re­turn each time. He cir­cles her cease­lessly, rock­ing his head back and forth over her back and be­neath her chin. Then, shuf­fling aside, he de­posits sev­eral pack­ets of sperm on sub­strate in the wa­ter, or on top of other males' de­posits. Called sper­matophores, these are six- to eight-mil­lime­ter ta­per­ing gelati­nous stalks with lit­tle calderas at the top hold­ing the sem­i­nal fluid. The fe­male searches for them, a side step with the back feet, a walk with the front. She chas­sés across the pond bot­tom, squat­ting over sper­matophore af­ter sper­matophore, tak­ing in sem­i­nal fluid with her cloa­cal lips. The mat­ing oc­curs in groups of three to fifty or more,

and with all that twist­ing and turn­ing of spots I imagine it must look like a sort of sub­aquatic Jack­son Pol­lock paint­ing.

Al­though it is re­ferred to as Big Night, the mat­ing pe­riod can ac­tu­ally last from three days to over two months; but even when pro­longed, breed­ing usu­ally oc­curs in just a few ma­jor bouts. The point is not to miss it. Be­cause I couldn't know when it was go­ing to hap­pen, by my logic, I needed to be at the wa­ter be­fore it pos­si­bly could. So all through March I hiked to frozen pools. I wasn't wear­ing snow­shoes any­more—but only be­cause the trail was so packed I didn't need them; if I stepped off the path, winter was still knee-deep. Five years ago, af­ter four years of try­ing un­suc­cess­fully to con­ceive, my hus­band and I gath­ered with sev­eral other cou­ples at a lo­cal agency for an in­for­ma­tional meet­ing on adop­tion. It was ex­actly the op­po­site of Big Night. There we were: the city's in­fer­tile, un-fe­cund, no mat­ter our achieve­ments, un­able to create in the most ba­sic, most an­cient of ways, in a way some peo­ple did by ac­ci­dent. There was no need to meet and greet. We knew all about each other—the baby­name books re­signedly shelved amidst rows of travel guides, all the in­sane things we'd con­sid­ered, like post-coital head­stands and egg-white lu­bri­cant. But in spite of the air of de­feat, the faces of the women looked para­dox­i­cally tri­umphant; their de­ter­mi­na­tion to be moth­ers would not be trounced by this re­fusal of their un­born chil­dren to come into ex­is­tence, to con­tin­u­ously pass out of them like tears, not solid, but liq­uid. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a fat folder of hand­outs, my hus­band and I pa­raded to our seats, navigating the cir­cuitous route af­forded by round ta­bles butted up against walls in a small room. We sat down and took off our coats. I heard some­thing but didn't move. Then, a voice: “Your wal­let,” it said. I turned and saw the source of the sound I had ig­nored. My wal­let had fallen out of my pocket. It was now ly­ing on the floor in the cen­ter of the room. The finger of the man who had seen it fall ex­tended to­ward it, as if ac­cus­ing us all of what it seemed we were about to do: buy some­thing. Not a baby, of course. What was it we re­ally wanted?

Al­though the child wish it­self may not be in­nate, it may still have nat­u­ral un­der­pin­nings. Our bi­o­log­i­cal clock is per­haps not set at “baby” but at more ab­stract things: se­cu­rity, love, es­teem, mean­ing­ful­ness. Such needs can be met in many ways, in­clud­ing hav­ing chil­dren. And the child wish, of course, like all hu­man be­hav­ior, is heav­ily influenced by learn­ing and en­vi­ron­ment. Per­haps no other pe­riod in his­tory than the 1950s and 1960s, with its fo­cus on the per­fect fam­ily—think Fa­ther Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver— has made it seem as if not hav­ing chil­dren is ab­nor­mal, that if you choose to re­main child­less, you don't know what you are miss­ing.

The child wish can be so strong, some­times good peo­ple who want to be par­ents do des­per­ate things. A week ear­lier, I had read a blurb in the US news sec­tion of my lo­cal pa­per about a man and woman who traded an ex­otic bird

for two chil­dren. The guardian of the chil­dren wanted two thou­sand dol­lars, orig­i­nally, for the boy and girl, four and five years old, re­spec­tively. But the cou­ple, who had been try­ing un­suc­cess­fully to get preg­nant for years, did not have two grand, so they gave her $175 in cash and their $1500 pet cock­a­too.

The “adop­tive” par­ents, ac­cord­ing to the case de­tec­tive, “had good in­ten­tions from what we see.” But I had trou­ble be­liev­ing this, that to buy a child, even to raise it as one's own, was not tainted with the same un­law­ful­ness as to sell one. An eco­nomic trans­ac­tion seemed no way to start a fam­ily. Weren't the buy­ers as much at fault as the sell­ers? Af­ter all, if there were no de­mand in the first place, there would be no sup­ply. Isn't that the law of eco­nom­ics?

Dutch philoso­pher Paul van Ton­geren has writ­ten that a para­dox arises when “the man­ner in which we want some­thing is in con­flict with the na­ture of the thing we want.” Al­though he seems to be writ­ing pri­mar­ily about the use of as­sisted re­pro­duc­tive tech­nol­ogy, I can see how adop­tion also ap­plies. Ac­cord­ing to van Ton­geren, the child wish hinges on el­e­ments of sur­prise com­bined with unmatched love; we don't choose our chil­dren and we love them un­con­di­tion­ally. What we de­sire when we de­sire chil­dren is ac­tu­ally a wild un­bridling from choice and con­trol—the most in­tense as­ton­ish­ment and rap­ture the uni­verse can pro­vide. Yvonne De­nier, of Bel­gium's Cen­ter for Biomed­i­cal Ethics and Law, agrees: when we wish for a child, she notes, we want some­thing that by its very na­ture es­capes us, some­thing we are un­able to con­trol at­tain­ing. We can­not de­cide to have a child, she writes, in the same way we might de­cide on a hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion, by weigh­ing pros and cons and choos­ing the char­ac­ter­is­tics we do and do not want.

Com­pared to the heat of pas­sion in which one nor­mally pro­duces chil­dren, as­sisted re­pro­duc­tive tech­nol­ogy and adop­tion can, at times, feel rather cal­cu­lated. Be­yond sex, fulfilling the child wish nat­u­rally is pas­sive, a nine-month un­rav­el­ing from womb to world gov­erned only by imag­i­na­tion. It takes just two peo­ple. ART and adop­tion, in con­trast, usu­ally take much longer and in­volve crowds of stake­hold­ers. Both feel de­lib­er­ate, pre­med­i­tated, a long road of things chang­ing hands. ART can feel like play­ing God, dis­rupt­ing nat­u­ral se­lec­tion, mess­ing with the rhythm of the uni­verse. We mea­sure adop­tion's progress not by sono­grams and tiny knit caps, but in fits and starts of legalese and pa­per­work. At times, one wor­ries that adopt­ing means par­tic­i­pat­ing in a sys­tem that ex­ploits the poor. One un­hinges at the phrases child laun­der­ing and hu­man traf­fick­ing.

My hus­band and I left that day without fill­ing out any pa­per­work, un­able to pin­point ex­actly what it was we wanted or to rec­on­cile that with how we were go­ing to get it. We also never set foot in a fer­til­ity clinic. Five years passed. We met a cou­ple who did not want to be­come par­ents, a friend­ship that did not re­quire brac­ing our­selves for the in­evitable phone call or din­ner an­nounce­ment that would change ev­ery se­cond spent with them to a re­minder of our in­ad­e­qua­cies. We took up wine and mo­ji­tos and went to Paris. We got ad­vanced de­grees. Ev­ery month we buried the pos­si­bil­ity of a child, un­til we had no more room for grief.

Once, teach­ing that her­petol­ogy ses­sion at the en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion cen­ter, sur­rounded by fifth-graders, I held a north­ern red sala­man­der we'd just found. As I re­layed some fact or an­other the sala­man­der be­gan to writhe, opened its mouth, and out popped an­other, smaller sala­man­der. “It just had a baby!” one of the chil­dren shouted. “No,” I said af­ter a mo­ment, gen­tly cor­rect­ing him, “I think that was din­ner.”

Many sala­man­ders, in­clud­ing the north­ern red, en­gage in can­ni­bal­ism. The tiger sala­man­der—the coun­try's most wide­spread species—ac­tu­ally pro­duces larva that can de­velop to be ei­ther can­ni­bal­is­tic or not. When pop­u­la­tions are dense, the can­ni­bal­is­tic morph ap­pears. Through smell, it can tell whom it's re­lated to and how closely they're re­lated, pre­fer­ring to prey on non-kin.

The fifth-graders and I knew that am­phib­ians don't have live births, and births don't orig­i­nate from the same place as words. But what had hap­pened seemed per­fectly nat­u­ral, ex­pected even: some­thing smaller had come from some­thing larger. So I have to ad­mit, look­ing down on what had oc­curred, feel­ing topsy-turvy from the mo­ment, birth was also my first thought.

The ten­dency to see death as birth, or link the two in some way, is not all that un­rea­son­able a leap. For an or­gan­ism pro­grammed for sur­vival, recog­ni­tion of mor­tal­ity re­sults in all kinds of tricks of the mind to re­duce our anx­i­ety, in­clud­ing, ac­cord­ing to one study, in­creas­ing our de­sire for chil­dren. It makes sense: chil­dren of­fer both lit­eral and sym­bolic im­mor­tal­ity. They can carry on one's genes, one's be­liefs, one's busi­ness, one's mem­ory. Part of our wish for hav­ing a child is re­ally about re­duc­ing our fear of no longer ex­ist­ing.

Is this why, at age thirty-eight, sit­ting in an air­port wait­ing for our plane af­ter vis­it­ing my fam­ily at Christ­mas, watch­ing worn-out par­ents try­ing to cor­ral their spir­ited chil­dren, I turned to my hus­band, who had over the past five years of­ten brought up adop­tion, and said, “Let's do it”?

Fear of death is hardly the only motivator for hav­ing chil­dren, and cer­tainly not a to­tally con­scious one. There are a mul­ti­plic­ity of fac­tors, mea­sured by many tools: the “Rea­sons for Par­ent­hood Scale,” the “Par­ent­hood Mo­ti­va­tion In­dex,” and, my fa­vorite mostly be­cause of its ti­tle which sounds like some­thing a six-yearold might create to in­ter­view Santa Claus, “The Child Wish Ques­tion­naire.” I mud­dle through the re­search: a whole host of causes for de­sir­ing chil­dren ex­ists, rang­ing from happy early child­hood mem­o­ries to the in­flu­ence of or­ga­nized re­li­gion and tra­di­tional fe­male sex-roles to the be­lief that hav­ing a child around is “nice,” makes one happy, and pro­vides a unique re­la­tion­ship. Noth­ing is that sur­pris­ing. What ac­tu­ally sur­prises is the re­al­ity of par­ent­hood, which, most re­search sug­gests, de­creases hap­pi­ness. Much has been writ­ten about it. Roy F. Baumeis­ter, in Mean­ings of Life (1992), called this the “par­ent­hood para­dox.” Per­haps the most cited in­di­ca­tor of the low­ered sense of well-be­ing felt by par­ents is the fact that on one sur­vey, women rated tak­ing care of their chil­dren only slightly more pos­i­tive than com­mut­ing and do­ing house­work. This makes

the great lengths folks us­ing ART or adopt­ing go to even more cu­ri­ous. By April, the snow be­gan to melt. I knew the time was ap­proach­ing for Big Night. At work, ver­nal pools strung through my mind like the trail of shiny white peb­bles laid by Hansel and Gre­tel. One night, I took the dog to the woods. In the past, she had stum­bled upon a spot­ted sala­man­der or two when we weren't even look­ing. But that night, when the beam from my head­lamp, aimed at cu­ri­ous holes in the mud—prob­a­bly open­ings where squir­rels had buried and dug up nuts, or rained-out tracks from deer hooves—crossed be­fore her in the dark, in the rain, she just looked con­fused.

If even the dog was flum­moxed, I thought, what would a baby do? We had re­ceived a re­turn let­ter from the adop­tion agency con­firm­ing our en­try in the May lot­tery, but with no in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing when or where it would hap­pen, or how they would de­liver the re­sults. I wor­ried a lit­tle bit. Could a baby do this? I won­dered.

Could you bring a baby to the woods in the rain on a cold night? Sit it on your hat or gloves laid side by side—like you some­times do your­self—on top of the wet grass, while you mo­seyed around look­ing for am­phib­ians? A fear over­took me. How would I change as a par­ent? Would I leave my baby at home with my hus­band while I went on am­phib­ian hunts? Would I stop hunt­ing al­to­gether? I didn't find any sala­man­ders that night, but when I got home and took off my clothes to shower, I did find the first tick of the sea­son. Ticks don't faze me. But how would I feel if I found this tick crawl­ing over the pudgy lit­tle kneecap of my am­phib­ian-hunt-spec­tat­ing baby?

A cer­tain level of am­biva­lence to­ward par­ent­hood is com­mon. A 1997 study in the Jour­nal of Mar­riage and the Fam­ily found am­biva­lence to­ward child­bear­ing in 20 per­cent of young cou­ples. A 2010 Jour­nal of Re­pro­duc­tive and In­fant Psychology ar­ti­cle con­cludes some am­biva­lence to­ward child­bear­ing is “wide­spread.” And the 2012 Na­tional Cen­ter for Health Sta­tis­tics re­ports that 37 per­cent of US births are un­in­tended, mean­ing mist­imed or un­wanted— more than a third. Par­tic­u­larly for women, to whom most child-bear­ing and -rear­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties still fall, and who more ac­cu­rately an­tic­i­pate all these re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, whether or not to have a child is a com­plex is­sue.

And sta­tis­tics show the so­cial pres­sure to have chil­dren may be chang­ing. One study fol­lowed 12,700 UK women born be­tween 1950 and 1960 to their mid-forties. Seven­teen per­cent are child­less. That num­ber was 10 per­cent for those born in 1946 and rose to 19 per­cent for those born in 1960. De­lay­ing par­ent­hood has birthrates down in mul­ti­ple coun­tries: Greece, Switzer­land, Bri­tain, Ja­pan, Canada. While de­lay­ing par­ent­hood doesn't nec­es­sar­ily mean cou­ples will re­main child­less, it does al­ter the idea that child­less­ness is self­ish, shame­ful, or to be pitied.

A mar­ried friend of mine who de­cid­edly does not want chil­dren—never has, never will—once asked her mother, who also had two boys and an­other girl (all

healthy, all suc­cess­ful), what she thought about hav­ing chil­dren. The re­ply: “If I could do it again, I wouldn't.” My friend was pleased with the an­swer, which vin­di­cated her own feel­ings. And yet, of course, she would not ex­ist if this very woman had not con­ceived her. Chances of be­com­ing preg­nant through ART, one cy­cle of which costs, on av­er­age in the US, $12,400, an amount rarely cov­ered by health in­sur­ance, are 40 per­cent for women aged thirty-five and un­der, 32 per­cent for women aged thirty-five to thirty-seven, 22 per­cent for women aged thirty-eight to forty, 12 per­cent for women forty-one to forty-two, 5 per­cent for women forty-three to forty-four, and 1 per­cent for women forty-four and older. De­spite less than promis­ing odds for even the youngest age bracket, each year more than eighty­five thou­sand women choose ART, on av­er­age re­quir­ing three cy­cles (over $36,000) to have a “live birth,” a clin­i­cal-sound­ing term which also in­cludes ba­bies born alive, pre-term, who won't sur­vive.

Adop­tion may seem like less of a gam­ble: if you have un­lim­ited funds, in­con­ceiv­able pa­tience, and open­ness to a child with any type of needs, you will end up a par­ent. But most peo­ple do have bound­aries. When I looked at the num­bers, I was com­fort­able with the $3,000 re­quired for a home­s­tudy and ini­tial fees even though I knew we might never be cho­sen by an ex­pec­tant cou­ple con­sid­er­ing adop­tion; but I wor­ried about the un­pre­dictable amount we might pay for pre­na­tal care, le­gal fees, and coun­sel­ing to an ex­pec­tant mother who could un­der­stand­ably change her mind at some point dur­ing the preg­nancy or (in Wis­con­sin) the thirty-day pe­riod af­ter birth (called a “false start”—for the ma­jor­ity, 72 per­cent, false starts costs less than $5,000); the pos­si­bil­ity of this hap­pen­ing mul­ti­ple times (38 per­cent of adop­tive par­ents have at least one false start); or, in the un­likely chance a birth­mother with whom we were matched gave birth to a baby with se­ri­ous de­fects (chances: less than 4 per­cent), that we would make the de­ci­sion to walk away. If we did this, our losses would be big: the en­tire cost of the adop­tion (usu­ally around $25,000), any hope of ever be­com­ing par­ents, and our own in­tegrity.

I won­dered how we would fund an adop­tion should we win the lot­tery (par­don that irony). I did some re­search; one ar­ti­cle listed hard-to-get grants, loans, and ideas for sav­ing up this large chunk of money, end­ing, rather ridicu­lously, with the idea of garage sales and bake sales. Leave no stone un­turned, the last line said.

ART and adop­tion both in­volve un­cer­tainty, though hardly the type von Ton­geren and De­nier de­scribe that char­ac­ter­izes the child wish. Any un­cer­tainty in­volved in ART and adop­tion clashes with a cav­al­cade of con­sciously and care­fully con­sid­ered decisions, pro­ce­dures, phone calls, and ap­point­ments. Of­ten, you must move for­ward de­lib­er­ately in the face of crush­ing de­feat. The child wish can be­come a child ob­ses­sion. Why do peo­ple go through with it?

I found more in­sight into the an­swer to this ques­tion not from stud­ies of the

mo­ti­va­tions of cou­ples con­sid­er­ing IVF or adop­tion (such stud­ies tend to give re­sults not much dif­fer­ent from stud­ies of those try­ing to con­ceive nat­u­rally), but in stud­ies of prob­lem gam­bling. Re­search on gam­bling ad­dic­tion gleans in­sight on how we make decisions, how we re­spond to per­sonal gains and losses, and why we take risks. Hu­mans seem to be drawn to the as­tound­ing oc­cur­rence, re­gard­less of its like­li­hood of hap­pen­ing. We are tra­di­tion­ally bad odds-mak­ers. We be­lieve that a win is likely af­ter a se­ries of losses, just as we ex­pect sun af­ter a week of rain, or, if you are look­ing for sala­man­ders, vice versa—though here our as­sump­tions may be cor­rect, as weather does fol­low pat­terns. We ab­hor cog­ni­tive re­gret—stop­ping some­thing too early and miss­ing out on the next big re­ward—and are driven to re­coup our losses. There is al­ways the pos­si­bil­ity that, al­though we never know where or when we'll hit it, a big win is just around the cor­ner. One more rock over­turned, one of my sources said, and you'll find din­ner.

The closer it got to the adop­tion lot­tery, how­ever, I found my­self no more dis­tressed about los­ing than I was about win­ning. I be­gan, sala­man­der-style, to get cold feet. The adop­tion lot­tery seemed a bit un­con­ven­tional, de­spite its be­ing hosted by a li­censed Chris­tian so­cial ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion of Wis­con­sin and up­per Michi­gan. When my hus­band and I first heard of it, I imag­ined that if they drew your ap­pli­ca­tion, some­where, in­stan­ta­neously, a stork that would soon ap­pear above the thatched roof of your own house was pluck­ing a baby from the pond where all lit­tle chil­dren lie, ac­cord­ing to the Hans Chris­tian An­der­sen tale, “dream­ing more sweetly than they will ever dream in the time to come.” It seemed al­most too good to be true.

The prize, though, if they drew your ap­pli­ca­tion, wouldn't be a baby but ac­cep­tance into the agency's do­mes­tic in­fant pro­gram, just the start of the some­times mul­ti­ple-year process of be­com­ing an adop­tive par­ent. It's a pop­u­lar agency, prob­a­bly be­cause of its long, suc­cess­ful his­tory of pro­vid­ing good coun­sel to birth­par­ents and adop­tive fam­i­lies, as well as its rea­son­able fees. So, in­stead of deal­ing with a never-end­ing wait list, they hold a bian­nual lot­tery.

At the meet­ing re­quired to en­ter the lot­tery, we were told that on two un­spec­i­fied dates—one in early May and one in early Novem­ber—so­cial work­ers from the or­ga­ni­za­tion's var­i­ous of­fices through­out the state would gather to­gether, num­ber the ap­pli­ca­tions, put the num­bers in a hat, and blindly draw a par­tic­u­lar quan­tity de­ter­mined by their leader. Af­ter we mailed in our ap­pli­ca­tion, I won­dered of­ten about this event. I imag­ined tiny slips of pa­per— the one with my num­ber on it for in­stance—blow­ing off a ta­ble when some­one ex­ited or en­tered the room be­fore it made its way into the hat, leav­ing me with no chance at all of be­ing picked. Was there a lot­tery wit­ness? Did a se­nior cit­i­zen stand against the wall, hands joined to­gether solemnly as on so many states' tele­vised daily lotto picks, to en­sure ev­ery­thing went fairly and squarely? And if, as the so­cial worker in­formed us, we would be al­lowed to re­con­sider the items

we marked on the ap­pli­ca­tion again at a later date—whether we could par­ent a child with mi­cro­cephalus or one born from a schiz­o­phrenic, for in­stance—why was it even on the lot­tery ap­pli­ca­tion in the first place? Was this re­ally some kind of weed­ing-out process? I imag­ined the so­cial work­ers—all women, most likely moth­ers them­selves—laugh­ing wildly at those whose ap­pli­ca­tions in­di­cated a de­sire for the per­fect child, rip­ping them up, and trash­ing them im­me­di­ately. If this truly was a lot­tery, why not just have us write our name and num­ber on the back of a raf­fle ticket and, if our ticket were drawn, con­sider the hard ques­tions later?

Some psy­chol­o­gists be­lieve gam­bling mir­rors sex­ual ex­cite­ment, with its re­peated buildup, cli­max, and re­lease of ten­sion. Maybe this is why the idea of the adop­tion lot­tery ex­cited my hus­band and me so much, why we chose this agency over oth­ers where we could have signed a con­tract and jumped right into the adop­tion process. It felt nat­u­ral to be­gin par­ent­hood this way: to cast our lot, and then wait a month or two to see what hap­pened. Mid-april rolled around. I still had not seen a sin­gle sala­man­der. One week­end, the fore­cast was warm and rainy, but I was busy en­ter­tain­ing a friend who had flown in to visit. On Satur­day she slept in, and I grabbed an um­brella to walk the dog and check out an over­flow area near our lake, find­ing two deep open holes: tur­tle hatch­lings must have over­win­tered in the nest and emerged in the last few days. It was a sign of some­thing—but as of yet, I saw no am­phib­ians.

We stayed in­doors all week­end. On Sun­day morn­ing, we missed a call from my hus­band's lit­tle brother. On Sun­day night, it was still rain­ing. He called again, and my hus­band dis­ap­peared to talk to him. He re­turned to an­nounce that his brother's wife was preg­nant—twelve weeks preg­nant, with iden­ti­cal twins.

I left my hus­band and guest to hunt for sala­man­ders. Many fac­tors were at work in my de­ci­sion to go out that night, and I don't deny any of them. The ma­jor mis­take in psychology may be the be­lief that aware­ness changes be­hav­ior. It doesn't: we like our so­cial pres­sure, our sor­row, our envy. I knew I should be over­joyed by the prospect of two new nieces or neph­ews—and I was—but I ad­mit I was also ir­ri­tated, as if there were some kind of cos­mo­log­i­cal math oc­cur­ring that didn't add up: two ba­bies for them, and zero for us.

I drove the streets past ev­ery pond I knew, look­ing for slick sala­man­der bod­ies in my head­lights, won­der­ing how many I was run­ning over in my des­per­ate quest. But it be­gan to snow. In the morn­ing five inches would cover the ground. I be­came dizzy from the windy coun­try roads, star­ing into the on­com­ing flakes with my brights on. The sea­sons ran through my mind, lap­ping one an­other. They tan­gled in my brain and I couldn't shake the feel­ing that I'd missed some­thing, even though I knew it was still early. It felt too late.

A week or so later, I bought a pair of boots—no mat­ter that I should be sav­ing

money—at the lo­cal Fleet Farm, the kind kids wear to jump in pud­dles (or ob­ste­tri­cians, I re­cently found out from a friend, whose son's birth proved messy and more dif­fi­cult than the norm). I couldn't be­lieve I'd been traips­ing around the shores of ponds all these years without them. I also couldn't be­lieve I was still traips­ing around the shores of ponds at my age, a kitchen strainer in hand. I knew I should be shut­tling kids to soc­cer prac­tice, pi­ano lessons, laun­der­ing the clothes of kids who do this. Was there some­thing wrong with me? Be­cause I didn't have chil­dren I couldn't stop be­ing one? I felt like a ten-year-old boy, not a thirty-eight-year-old woman. In an old army am­mu­ni­tion plant near Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, a reser­voir con­tains a pop­u­la­tion of tiger sala­man­ders that, in adapt­ing to their en­closed en­vi­ron­ment, have be­come neotenic, re­tain­ing for life their ju­ve­nile char­ac­ter­is­tics—feath­ery gills, keeled tails. They still re­pro­duce, but along with their young, never leave the wa­ter to live on land as do most adult tiger sala­man­ders. Of­fi­cials want to drain the reser­voir, seen as a safety haz­ard, but lo­cals are work­ing hard to pre­serve it and its sala­man­der pop­u­la­tion.

The day be­fore Easter I hiked to a pond a cou­ple miles into the for­est. It was dry and warm, so I still didn't find any sala­man­ders. For this rea­son, I was re­luc­tant to put on my boots, which I had been car­ry­ing in a back­pack. Fi­nally, since I didn't want to have car­ried them in vain, I slipped them on and waded into the wa­ter. That is when I saw them.

All over the sub­strate, on sub­merged sticks and grasses, like a thou­sand tiny glass slip­pers, lay the sper­matophores of now-van­ished male spot­ted sala­man­ders. I picked up a stick where a sala­man­der had laid three in a row to ex­am­ine them more closely. They were translu­cent, the size of half your pinky fin­ger­tip. You might think they were some kind of tree mold, or some­thing a snail left be­hind. They lit­tered the bot­tom of the pond like con­fetti, ev­i­dence of the start of the sala­man­der new year. Upon fur­ther in­spec­tion, I found float­ing be­neath last year's sub­merged cat­tail leaves loose con­stel­la­tions of eggs co­a­lesc­ing into in­fant gal­ax­ies.

I wanted to pick them up, but two feet was as far as I could go. I be­gan to sink a lit­tle and wa­ter threat­ened to del­uge my boots. I was in the muck. De­spite know­ing that the day-to-day tasks of rais­ing an in­fant (chang­ing di­a­pers, do­ing laun­dry, clean­ing up vomit) and rais­ing a teenager (wor­ry­ing, feel­ing hated) are un­likely to in­crease my hap­pi­ness, and that so­cial pres­sures to have chil­dren and la­bels of self­ish­ness for the child­free are di­min­ish­ing, I have not lost my child wish. Per­haps my (and oth­ers') child wish is so strong be­cause the para­dox of par­ent­hood was nonex­is­tent in the an­ces­tral evo­lu­tion­ary en­vi­ron­ment. When we lived in small clans and tribes, chil­dren weren't such a drain on just two peo­ple. The “vil­lage” helped to care for the howl­ing, noc­tur­nal in­fant and ado­les­cence wasn't so try­ing on par­ents be­cause chil­dren be­gan their own fam­i­lies at pu­berty.

So say Sonja Lyubomirsky and Ju­lia K. Boehm of the Univer­sity of

Cal­i­for­nia, River­side, in their 2010 ar­ti­cle “Hu­man Mo­tives, Hap­pi­ness, and the Puz­zle of Par­ent­hood” ( Per­spec­tives on Psy­cho­log­i­cal Science). Fur­ther­more, they point out that stud­ies in­di­cat­ing a cor­re­la­tion be­tween par­ent­hood and de­creased well-be­ing have a se­vere lim­i­ta­tion: it may not be pos­si­ble to mea­sure the kind of joy we re­ceive from hang­ing out with our kids.

Con­sider this: When my nephew was a baby (he is eigh­teen now) I car­ried him along on a hike with my mother and his two sis­ters. We jumped over pud­dles in ATV trails where, an­nu­ally, Amer­i­can toads laid their jel­lied egg-strings, and de­scended to the creek where my fa­ther had of­ten taken my sis­ters and me as chil­dren. A soft wind blew aspen leaves from the trees. I took in the whole scene. But then my at­ten­tion was caught by some­thing I will never for­get: my nephew's long mo­ment of fo­cus on a sin­gle leaf fall­ing to the creek, from sky to wa­ter's sur­face. It was the first time he had seen the likes of this. He had no room in his head for the big pic­ture, for cy­cles and sea­sons and laws of physics. His life thus far was a patch­work of pri­vate as­ton­ish­ments. Maybe this is what chil­dren give us. The night of Easter was warm and hu­mid. When I walked the dog, the spring peepers were deaf­en­ing, like some kind of un­oiled mech­a­nism in­side my ears. De­spite my pre­vi­ous day's dis­cov­ery of the eggs and sper­matophores, I rea­soned that maybe a bout of late­comer-breed­ing would hap­pen again that night.

Back home, sweat­ing, I sat in a chair fac­ing my hus­band, who was on the couch typ­ing up his doc­toral the­sis.

“I feel like tonight is the night.” I said. “It's foggy. It's still sixty de­grees. And it's very hu­mid.”

I was sur­prised when he put his lap­top to the side and grabbed his cam­era to ac­com­pany me. We made the brief drive to the pool. Right away, when we ex­ited the car, I saw some­thing dark and glossy in the mid­dle of the road. A sala­man­der. Not the spot­ted but the blue spot­ted: slightly smaller and more slen­der, deep in­digo on top, cloud-col­ored on the bot­tom, with sky-blue speck­les. Blue spot­teds also mi­grate to ver­nal pools in great masses, though their mat­ing dance is more pri­vate as they pair off in the wa­ter, spread out, and lay their eggs mostly singly, at­tached to un­der­wa­ter veg­e­ta­tion.

When we en­tered the woods, we were in new ter­ri­tory. My hus­band and I have spent plenty of time out­side in day­light hours, and cer­tainly done our share of camp­ing, but this was the first time we'd been out and about to­gether in a dark wood. And it was un­ex­pect­edly pleas­ant. Some­thing rus­tled, a sound we were sur­prised to find when we shined our lights at the ground came from leaves lift­ing over worms push­ing out of the soil. For a while we saw noth­ing, but when we got closer to the wa­ter they started ap­pear­ing, ev­ery five feet or so a blue-spot­ted sala­man­der, same as the one we saw on the road.

“This is a good pool,” my hus­band de­clared, and I felt a small surge of af­fir­ma­tion. “I won­der if there are any in the frog pond by my work.”

“The frog pond?” I asked, cu­ri­ous. “The over­flow area by the lake,” he replied. We went to check out this pond, along with an­other one, nearby. The night was per­fect. We la­bored for hours, cov­er­ing ground we'd never walked in day­light. Even though we saw no nup­tial danc­ing, it was clearly a Big Night for blue-spot­ted sala­man­ders. I'd never seen so many. We didn't get home till af­ter mid­night, and fell into bed, ex­hausted. We did not win the lot­tery. The news was de­liv­ered in the mail along with an­other child char­ac­ter­is­tics check­list—blank, to be pon­dered all over again—and an in­vi­ta­tion to en­ter the next lot­tery, which would oc­cur in Novem­ber. Ear­lier that week, we had also re­ceived a large manila en­ve­lope en­clos­ing a poster-sized draw­ing of “Quinn County.” My niece, for a school as­sign­ment on map­ping, had named a dis­trict af­ter us. I won­dered what part of that child's mind, who lives eight hun­dred miles dis­tant and whom I hadn't seen for a few months, I oc­cupy. What word ig­nited her mem­ory of me, brought me into ex­is­tence in a place I no longer in­habit, to be gifted with a whole prov­ince?

We must never balk at un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory. The worlds we dis­cover, like those unan­tic­i­pated red eft mi­gra­tions that so en­grossed my stu­dents or the mid­night pa­rade of blue-spot­ted sala­man­ders my hus­band and I en­coun­tered, are of­ten more as­tound­ing than what we set out for. For the truth is this: no one is des­per­ate for a child un­til they can't have one. The child wish is an art. We may en­ter­tain it any way we want as long as we know it is not about ful­fill­ment. We must rec­og­nize that the laws moth­ers ev­ery­where lay across the land—the grass is al­ways greener; life is a gam­ble—were writ by the uni­verse long ago and to live fully we must em­brace them.

Fin­ished with lot­ter­ies, I picked up the phone and called an­other adop­tion agency that had open­ings. I would, I de­cided, bur­row be­neath the bills and con­tracts, let them oc­cupy a level I was not fully con­scious of, as do those fos­so­rial crea­tures I so ad­mire, sur­fac­ing and resur­fac­ing for the false starts. I would in­vite the am­biva­lence, the un­cer­tainty that ac­com­pa­nied my orig­i­nal wish for a child, which is what, fi­nally, de­fines it. Right then all I felt was calm. It was a calm that al­lowed me to imagine what it would look like, if I ever found those spot­ted sala­man­ders on Big Night, in the beam of my flash­light: the yel­low spots on their backs a hun­dred gold coins tossed into a foun­tain—the child wish, in what­ever way it would, un­rav­el­ing.

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