This is a linkpost for

I settle into my seat at the concert, pushing my earbuds in tight. The man next to me looks over, and I get the feeling he’s judging me, but it’s not enough to stop me: I heard they sometimes try to scare you with sudden loud noises, or just overwhelm you with a wall of sound until your head is aching, and I hate the thought of that. The only reason I’m here at all is because Marissa was so keen on it; I can never say no to her, especially after how stressful the last few years have been. And we have good reason to celebrate: after two years of hitting roadblock after roadblock, our parenting license finally came through! So I shake off my nervousness and lean back in my chair as the lights dim and the DJ walks on stage.

The first piece kicks off with a slow buildup of nature noises, trees rustling and lions roaring and birdsong, with a deep bass humming beneath it. The bass is so strong that it takes me a while to realize that there’s another track slowly being superimposed on top of it: a sort of high-pitched wailing, and some kind of screaming, almost like a baby’s but slightly off. I’ve heard these sounds before from the videos the vegan activists would show back on campus. I look over at Marissa and mouth “abattoir”; we share a look of disgust. Only ten minutes into the concert and I’m already on edge. I grab Marissa’s hand and squeeze tight.

A month later, we’re at our godmother’s office. It’s well-lit but sparse; she’s sitting behind a white desk, and gives us a little wave as we walk through the door. She was assigned to us along with the parenting license, but she was booked solid until now, so this is our first time meeting her.

We start with pleasantries, and a few routine forms, but after a few minutes she cuts to the chase. “I have some bad news, I’m afraid. Based on our demographic analysis your child is 15% likely to end up in the top decile for both academics and athletics. Of course, that puts you outside the range to get the standard fairness permit, which requires a 10% chance or lower.”

“What does that mean for us?” Marissa is still sitting up straight, but her voice is trembling a little. We should have checked this far earlier, of course, that’s what everyone tells you, but it’s not like we’re rich or famous, we didn’t think we’d hit the caps.

“You’re able to have a child no matter what, of course, but for them to be eligible for public schooling you’ll need either a fairness permit or a waiver. You could get a waiver if either of you have a history of chronic illness; do you?” Marissa shakes her head. “Or you could pay for the expenses of a child in the bottom decile, that would work too.”

“What do you mean by expenses? How much are we looking at?”

“Food, clothes, school supplies, that sort of thing.” She taps a pen. “Plus 50% of their college tuition, paid up front.”

I suck in a breath, meeting Marissa’s shocked eyes before turning back to the godmother. “There’s no way we can afford that. We’re not rich, or anything. I don’t even understand how we’re anywhere near 15%.” I hear a note of pleading in my voice. “Are there any other options? This is done on a per-district basis, right? What if we move? Could we-”

The godmother is frowning, but it’s Marissa who cuts me off. “No, babe, Nina and Steve tried that, remember? And they just ended up having to meet the criteria for both districts, since they’d already gotten the license in their old one.”

“Anyway, it’s not fair to all the other families who are playing by the rules,” the godmother adds.

I mutter an apology, but my mind is still racing through the possibilities. “Is there anything else we can do?”

“Well, there’s one thing. The fairness permit is only necessary for mothers under 35. It says here that Marissa turned 34 a few months ago, so in less than a year you’ll be able to apply for an age-based waiver.”

Marissa and I look at each other, and find silent agreement in each other’s eyes. It’s only another nine months; that’s not much, compared with how long we’ve waited already. Marissa had been 32 when we first decided we wanted a child, but our first parenting license application had been rejected because we failed our parenthood preparation exam, and our second delayed a year after we’d gotten a bad score on our neighborhood impact review. So another nine months… we can manage that. It could be far worse.

The second piece is more classical, with less editing, although I guess they must have done something to make the violins sound so jagged. The music rises and falls, increasingly dissonant, building towards a tempestuous climax. It’s actually kinda beautiful, almost Shostakovich-like, until right at the end when it goes totally off the rails. The violins veer out of tune, and then they’re overwhelmed by screeching and jeering and this disgusting squelching noise. I guess the lesson is that beauty never lasts.

It reminds me of this article by… who was it? Some economist, maybe, about how fashion is an arbitrary never-ending spiral, like a barber pole, where everyone is merely trying to distinguish themselves from the class below them. But I don’t think that’s true, not for fashions in music or art at least. It’s not just arbitrary: it’s all grounded by people striving to move in some direction. The direction used to be towards beauty, and now it’s away from beauty, and both are equally coherent but one is far more accessible. Now anyone can become an artist, not just talented elites; and their art is grounded in the most visceral human emotions, not the sort of transcendental bullshit artists used to focus on. And even if I sometimes find it a bit off-putting, in the long run it’s worth it to give me more empathy for people whose lives haven’t been as pleasant as mine.

Now that uglyism has caught on in music and art they’ve started doing it for fashion too. The latest top-brand eyeshadows puff up your eyes like you’ve been crying, and the new fashionable concealers are dappled to make it look like you’ve got acne scars underneath. I think it’s a great trend: it helps people with the scars fit in, and makes it harder for anyone to feel like they’re better than anyone else. 

Marissa’s wearing one of them now, actually. She’s always trying to make sure everyone around her feels comfortable; I noticed that straight after we’d matched, as soon as we’d started texting. To be honest, she almost felt too sweet at first, like she was more anxious about me having a good time than I was. But every time we hooked up she grew on me, until eventually we ended up spending most nights together. For her part, she always tells people how I make her feel so much safer than any of her past boyfriends. It’s not a classic love story, but it’s beautiful in its own way.

After the appointment there’s no further contact from our godmother for five months, until a letter arrives. I see it in the mailbox and feel a clench of fear in my gut. It’s probably just a routine update, I tell myself, but I decide to open it before Marissa gets home, just in case. My gut was right. The letter tells us that, since we haven’t applied for an fairness permit within six months of receiving our parenting license, the license has expired. We’ll need to apply again next year, and the fact that we’ve already wasted a license will be taken into account.

Marissa is devastated when I tell her. I do my best to comfort her, but I’m in shock myself. I spend hours pacing, trying to figure out what to do. Eventually I decide that we need expert help. I text around, and my friend Steve points me to the best family lawyer he knows, the one who finally managed to get his and Nina’s fairness permit approved. He’s expensive as hell, but I grit my teeth and send the money through, and even pay 20% extra to get an expedited appointment. We’ll manage, somehow.

We’re in his office the next day, and he gets straight to the point. “This isn’t a great situation for you two. If you’d come to me before the fairness evaluation, then maybe we could have done something. And even after that, we could have applied for a permit extension. But now that it’s expired, you don’t have too many options: losing one permit makes it much less likely that you’ll get another by the standard routes.

“Luckily, though, there is one workaround.” He pauses, and I can feel the dull ache in my stomach loosen for a second. “Women who are over 35 and living on a single income are given more leniency when applying, and can fast-track their applications. So you’ll need to quit your job.”

“Oh, that’s actually perfect. Marissa hates her job, and she didn’t really want to work while she was pregnant anyway-”

“No, I mean you’ll need to quit your job. They don’t want to incentivize women dropping out of the workforce.”

I blink at him. “But-”.

“If that doesn’t work, come back and we can see about moving you to a higher-income neighborhood, where your kid won’t be in the top decile any more. But for cases like these they do thorough reviews to make sure you’re not trying to game the system, so it’ll probably take a few years. The single-earner workaround is a much better bet.”

I spend the next few days tallying up our savings and our budget, and figuring out where we can cut costs. It’ll be tight, but we can probably make it. So I quit, and we start the process all over again.

The last piece is called Egoless. It starts with total silence for a long time, maybe four or five minutes. Here and there you can hear scattered whispers, but most people are too scared of disturbing the performance to make any noise. Then, very gradually, a drumming rhythm starts to build up. First slow, with every beat of the drum lingering in the air; then quicker and quicker. As the tempo rises to its unbearable peak, the drums fall silent, and a humming voice fills the air.

“Humans are a disease on the planet.”

The voice echoes in the sudden stillness. After an eternity of silence, it repeats. “Humans are a disease on the planet.”

Slowly, the pace quickens, the drums rising again. “Humans are a disease on the planet.”

“Humans are a disease on the planet.”

“Humans are a disease on the planet.”

“You are a disease on the planet.”

The voice stops, letting that last phrase linger, then slowly launches up again.

“You are a disease on the planet.”

“You are a disease on the planet.”

“You, yes you, really you, the person listening to this, the one sitting there in a nice chair, in a comfortable life, in your smug sanctimonious self-righteousness, you who’s trying to laugh off what I’m saying right now, you who isn’t taking any of it seriously even though you tell yourself that you’re such a good person. You personally are a disease that’s killing our planet.”

The music has started to swell, and now you can hear a cacophony of voices, repeating the same thing over and over again, layering over each other “-smug sanctimonious-” “isn’t taking any of-” -‘comfortable life-” “-killing our planet-” slowly growing louder and louder until finally it peaks with a deafening clang of cymbals that sounds like a piercing scream. And then we’re on our feet applauding, all of us, for minutes and minutes.

When we finally turn to go, I feel equal parts euphoric and worn out. Now I see why Marissa likes this type of concert so much. You’ve been brought down as far as you can go, your ears hammered and your mind wrung out, until it feels like there’s nothing left that can hurt you, and nobody who can judge you. You’re totally safe. I think again of our parenting license, sitting nestled on my desk at home, and breathe a sigh of contentment. The world is all as it should be.

I spend the next few months making as sure as I can that everything will go well. In theory the process should be simple, but there’s always another provision of the regulations to understand, or another horror story online I need to figure out how to avoid. It’s worse for Marissa now that she’s the sole breadwinner; by the time we visit the godmother’s office for the last time, she’s put on enough weight from the stress that she almost looks pregnant already.

This trip is meant to just be a formality though: it’s for the on-site psychiatrist to verify that we’re both of sound mind, and for us to drop off our application in person. We’ve gotten two lawyers to verify all our documents, and I’ve checked them myself more times than I can count. Everything about the application is perfect. It’s got to be perfect.

I can’t find the right place to leave it at first, but eventually I spot an envelope-sized slot in the wall. As I slide the application in my eyes turn to Marissa’s face, now more lined than when we first met, but in this moment glowing. She’s the sort of person who never gives up hope; it’s one of the things I love most about her. She would—no, she’s going to—be such an amazing mother. I give her a kiss, and we slowly make our way home.

This story isn’t intended as a prediction; I don’t expect that western governments will directly prevent people from having children any time in the foreseeable future. But birth rates are plummeting anyway, in part because there are so many bureaucratic restrictions on the things people need to have children—like housing, jobs, visas, schools, childcare, cars, and many more. Those restrictions are far less outrageous than the restrictions portrayed above—but for would-be parents, the outcome is often the same.

New Comment
1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:08 AM

This was excruciatingly frustrating to read, well done.