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1 Jul 2022

Kawakami // Breasts and Eggs

Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs is a fearlessly written book that more honestly considers the gravity of the decision to bring children into the world than pretty much anything else I’ve read (since the book of Genesis).

A poignant excerpt:

“I’m sure you’ve given a lot of thought to how to have your baby, but have you really thought about what that really means?”

I looked at my own knees in silence.

“What if you have a child, and that child wishes with every bone in her body that she’d never been born?”

Yuriko stared at her fingers.

“When I say this sort of thing, people always feel sorry for me. Poor you, never knowing your real parents, living through years of abuse. No wonder you can’t find anything good in life. I can see the pity on their faces. Sometimes, they’ll tell me it’s not my fault, tell me it’s never too late. They’ll start crying and hug me. They’ll look me in the eye and say I can turn things around. These are good, kind-hearted people,” she said. “Here’s the thing, though. I genuinely don’t think I’ve had a bad life. I don’t need anyone’s pity. Whatever it is I’ve had to live through, it’s nothing compared to being born.”

I looked at Yuriko’s face. I replayed what she had said inside my head, in an attempt to fully comprehend what she was saying.

“You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?” She exhaled through her nose. “It’s really simple, I promise. Why is it that people think this is okay? Why do people see no harm in having children? They do it with smiles on their faces, as if it’s not an act of violence. You force this other being into the world, this other being that never asked to be born. You do this absurd thing because that’s what you want for yourself, and that doesn’t make any sense.”

Yuriko stroked her left arm with her right palm. Her arms were white against the sleeves of her black dress, or almost blue, depending on the angle of the light against her skin.

“Once you have children, you can’t unhave them,” she laughed. “I know how this sounds. You think I sound extreme, or detached from reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is real life. That’s what I’m talking about—the pain that comes with reality. Not that anyone ever sees it.

“Whenever I say this to somebody, I can see it on their face. It’s never crossed their mind that bringing a child into the world could be remotely violent. Hey, everyone loves surprise parties, right? One day you open the door, and everyone’s there waiting for you, ready to surprise you. Here are all these people you’ve never met, never seen before, congratulating you, big smiles on their faces. Parties are different, though. You can go back through the door behind you, but when you’re born, there’s no leaving. There’s no door. There’s no way back to how things were before. I hate it to say it, but not everyone likes surprise parties. Most people go around believing life is good, one giant blessing, like the world we live in is so beautiful, and despite the pain, it’s actually this amazing place.”

“I admit that bringing a new life into being is selfish and violent.”

“You say that now,” said Yuriko, “but that kind of proclamation hasn’t stopped anyone else from doing it. People always find a way to justify their behavior. You tell yourself that’s the way it is, then do whatever you want.” Yuriko smiled wanly, then addressed me in a quiet voice, like she was talking to herself. “So, what is it? What makes you want to have a baby so badly?”

“I don’t know,” I answered automatically. Onda’s grinning face swept through my mind. I pressed my eyelids with my fingertips. “I don’t know. Maybe there’s no real reason.” I nodded slowly, out of steam. “I just have this deep-seated need to know my child.”

“Everyone says the same thing,” Yuriko said. “And I’m not just talking about artificial insemination . . . Everyone. They think babies are adorable. They want to try being parents. They want to see how their children will turn out. As women, they want to make full use of their bodies. They want their partner’s genes to live on. Or maybe they’re lonely and they want someone to look after them when they’re old. Whatever the reason, it’s all the same. Do you see what I mean?

“It’s always about them. They’re only thinking about themselves. They never think about the poor kid being born. No one gives a damn how that child is going to feel. Isn’t that crazy? Once they’ve had a baby, most parents would do anything to shelter them from any form of pain or suffering. But here it is, the only way to actually keep your child from ever knowing pain. Don’t have them in the first place.”

“But—” I said. “But how could you know? If you don’t go through with it.”

“Right. How could you know?” Yuriko asked. “It’s a bet, a gamble—but who wins, who loses?”

“Wait, what’s a bet?” I muttered.

“The whole situation,” she said. “You’re betting that the child that you bring into this will be at least as happy as you’ve been, at least as fortunate as you’ve been, or, at a minimum, that they’ll be able to say they’re happy they were born. Everyone says life is both good and bad, but the majority of people think it’s mostly good. That’s why people go through with it. The odds are good. Sure, everyone dies someday, but life has meaning, even pain and suffering have meaning, and there’s so much joy. There’s not a doubt in your mind that your child will see it that way, just like you. No one thinks they’ll pull the short straw. They’re convinced everything will work out fine. But that’s just people believing what they want to believe. For their own benefit. The really horrible part is that this bet isn’t yours to make. You’re betting on another person’s life. Not yours.”

Yuriko pressed her left palm to her cheek and sat there for a minute. The night was filled with an elusive color, not quite black or gray. The breeze brought the smell of rain. A car was coming down the road, too far away to guess what kind of person was inside. Pale yellow headlights drifted from right to left then disappeared.

“There are children,” Yuriko said, “who are born into a world of pain and die before knowing anything else, no chance to see what kind of place the world is. With no ability to speak for themselves, they’re plunged into the most painful existence only to have it taken away. Life is pain. Did Aizawa ever tell you about the children’s ward?”

I shook my head.

“Parents want to hear their kids say ‘I’m happy I was born,’ to hear their beliefs reinforced. That’s why parents and doctors are always making new life, even though no one asked for it. And in the process, those tiny bodies are sometimes cut up, stitched back together, hooked up to tubes and machines, or bled dry. Lots of them die in overwhelming pain. When that happens, everyone’s hearts go out to the parents. There’s no greater sadness than that. The parents break down and cry, do what they can to overcome their grief, and thank the child. They’re grateful to have had the chance to know them. They’re truly thankful that the child was born, too. But what is that? Who, exactly, are they thanking? The child who knew nothing of life but excruciating pain? What gave them the right to have these kids, when they could easily wind up spending their whole lives in horrible pain, thinking of nothing but dying, every single second of the day? What could possibly make that okay? What made them so sure that things would never go that way? So certain that they wouldn’t lose the bet? Is everyone that stupid? Tell me—what are parents actually risking? What’s on the line for them?”

I was quiet.

“Here’s one way of looking at it,” Yuriko said after a pause. “Imagine you’re at the edge of a forest, right before dawn. There’s no one else around, just you. It’s still dark, and you have no idea what you’re doing there. For whatever reason, you make up your mind to walk straight into the forest. After walking for a while, you come to a small house. Slowly, you open the door. Inside, you find ten sleeping children.”

I nodded for her to go on.

“All the children are fast asleep. Now, in that moment, in that small house, there’s no joy, no pain, no happiness, no sadness. There’s nothing, because all the children are asleep. So what do you do? Wake them up or let them sleep? The choice is yours. If you wake them up, nine children will be happy that you did. They’ll smile and thank you. But one won’t. You know this, before you wake them up. You know that one child will feel nothing but pain from the moment they open their eyes until they finally die. Every second of that child’s life will be more horrible than death itself. You know this in advance. You don’t know which child it’s going to be, but you know that’s going to happen to one of them.”

Yuriko clasped her palms together in her lap and blinked once, slowly.

“If you bring a new life into the world, that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re waking one of these kids up. You know what makes you think doing that’s okay? Because it’s got nothing to do with you.”

“Nothing to do with me?”

“Because you’re not one of the kids inside that little house. That’s why you can do it. Because whoever the child is, the one who lives and dies consumed with pain, could never be you.”

All I could do was blink.

“People are willing to accept the pain and suffering of others, limitless amounts of it, as long as it helps them to keep on believing in whatever it is that they want to believe. Love, meaning, doesn’t matter.”

Her voice had grown so soft that I could barely hear her speak.

“Do you realize what you’re doing?”



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