Doree Shafrir | Longreads | October 2018 | 12 minutes (3,123 words)
It never fully dawned on me that Halloween was really a holiday for kids until I was trying, and failing, to have a child myself. But really, it wasn’t immediately obvious to me in my 20s and much of my 30s, when Halloween seems like the ultimate party for adults — an excuse to prove, via costume, just how clever and/or how sexy you are. Then one day, bam, it hits you: you’ve outgrown sexy adult party Halloween, and all your friends are doing daytime kid-party Halloween and taking their baby pirates and toddler dinosaurs trick-or-treating while it’s still light out, and since you’ve been trying to have a baby for two-and-a-half years it’s a little much to be bombarded with all these photos on Instagram for, like, three days straight. So instead you’re at home watching The Crown because it’s basically the chamomile tea of television and that’s about all you can handle right now.
Since Halloween is now a several-day spectacle, it’s hard to escape, and last year, Halloween fell on a Tuesday, so naturally the weekend before was filled with festivities. Compounding my misery at seeing everyone’s kids looking even cuter than usual for days on end was that the week before, we’d found out the IVF embryo we’d transferred “wasn’t viable,” as they say in the biz. I’d been pregnant for about 4.5 seconds — my blood tests had shown me to be barely pregnant, and from the beginning the doctor had told me there was only a very slim chance it was going to make it. But I’d been in an agonizing limbo for a week-and-a-half while the embryo — a girl, which we knew because it had been biopsied and tested for chromosomal abnormalities before we had our doctor insert it, via a catheter, in my uterus — took its sweet-ass time deciding whether or not it was going to stick around. It probably heard me talking about the wage gap and how we were all going to die in natural disasters because of climate change and was like, nah, I’m good.
So I was already deep into self-pity mode when Halloween came around. I hadn’t been asked to go to a single Halloween party, except for a kids’ party that I had been invited to because the host clearly felt sorry for me after it came up in a gathering where I was the only one without kids. “You should totally come!” she said, in the bright, cheery, please-don’t-actually-come-it-will-just-be-awkward-for-everyone way that people who have kids and are currently pregnant invite people who have been trying to have kids for two years to their kid-oriented gatherings. So of course, I didn’t go. My husband Matt was away for Halloween weekend, because he’d taken an eight-week job hosting a TV show that required him to be in New York every weekend. This was week four, so we were deep into long-distance marriage territory, and I was starting, a little bit, to lose it. I was alone with our dog Beau, who, thanks to his behavior issues (namely, his predilection for lunging aggressively at strangers and acting like he was going to bite their heads off), couldn’t dress up like a carton of French fries and participate in any kind of dog costume festivities. My social media feeds were filled with pictures of parties, literal and figurative, that I hadn’t been invited to.
One day, bam, it hits you: you’ve outgrown sexy adult party Halloween, and all your friends are doing daytime kid-party Halloween and taking their baby pirates and toddler dinosaurs trick-or-treating while it’s still light out.
It’s not like I was ever a real Halloween enthusiast as a grown-up anyway. I didn’t ever plan far enough in advance to have a really good costume, never had friends who wanted to coordinate on a group costume, except that one time in college that my friend Marc was Clark Kent turning into Superman and I was Spidergirl, and the other time that two girlfriends and I decided to be “the ‘90s.” (This was around 2004, when “the ‘90s” were still recent enough that it was hilarious that we would dress up like them. Now all you have to do to re-experience the ‘90s is spend time with people who were too young to actually remember them but who consider themselves experts because they watched a few reruns of Saved By the Bell — a show that I didn’t actually watch in the ‘90s.) I tended to throw something together last-minute, reusing the few Halloween props I kept around — which included a long black-haired wig and clip-on glittery devil horns — which culminated in the year that I was a Real Housedevil of New Jersey for lack of any better use of those things.
But even if you don’t particularly like Halloween, there’s still something reassuring about knowing that it’s there, that if you really wanted to, you could put together a costume and go to a party and get drunk and maybe make out with a doctor. A fake doctor, of course, but a doctor nonetheless. (Also: grown-ups who LOVE Halloween are kind of iffy, don’t you think? Like really, you’ve waited all year just to show off your Cereal Killer costume?) That when you’re still in your early 20s, you could put on devil horns and wear a vintage blue dress and call yourself a devil in a blue dress and on your way back to your boyfriend’s friend’s apartment, where you’re staying the night sharing a sofa (not a sofa bed — a sofa) with your boyfriend, said friend, who is so drunk that he will spend the rest of the night and early morning throwing up, will start inexplicably screaming, thereby encouraging two men with crowbars to run towards him and almost beat him up until you defuse the situation.
Halloween really brings out the best in people.
I grew up on a four-house, dead-end street in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. Technically it was a “private lane” — it even said so on the street sign — but from what I could gather, that mostly meant that when it snowed our street didn’t get plowed.*
At the entrance to our street there was a big brick house where a British couple and their three children lived. The dad was almost ridiculously British, a tall, droopy doctor who clattered off “to hospital” every day on his bicycle, and the mom was the self-appointed neighborhood busybody, always watching who was going in and out of the lane from her living room window. (Think Miss Marple in her younger days, but into organic food.)Their oldest and youngest kids were the same age as my brother and sister, and then they had another boy stuck in the middle. Every year, the family would commandeer the garage of the house across the street, as well as their own garage, for a Halloween party. It was as though this British mum, having moved to America, decided that she was going to out-America all the Americans. So all the kids in the neighborhood would troop through and bob for apples and get some candy on their way to more lucrative trick-or-treating opportunities.
By high school, I had mostly left dressing up for Halloween — and what were in retrospect some horribly offensive childhood costumes, like “an Arab” in third grade and in fifth grade, a geisha complete with whiteface (the ‘80s were nothing if not filled with misguided white people cosplaying as “exotic”) — behind. Being a teenager on Halloween is another one of those weird transitional times. You’re too old to go trick-or-treating — sure, you can accompany a younger sibling, but when you’re 16 you want to hang out with your younger siblings as little as possible — and you’re too young to drink legally, and Halloween is often on a weeknight anyway, so even if you’re able to sneak off and go to some horrible high school party where the drinks are way too strong, you still have to get up for first period the next day. Of course there was always the option of being a bad kid and going around egging people’s houses, but that wasn’t really my scene either, and besides, I didn’t have a car. Throwing eggs on foot is somehow the saddest thing I can possibly imagine.
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Today, social media has made dressing up for Halloween so much more of a thing. For those of us who grew up without it, it’s hard to fathom what day-to-day high school life must be like with the added million layers of stress about whether that idiot boy in your U.S. government class liked one of your photos on Instagram, because as much as social media drives adults crazy, it has to drive teenagers even more crazy, so just imagine the extra stress that Halloween brings on when you’re an already insecure, depressed, anxious 16-year-old! I know that people say today’s teens don’t see a difference between the “real” world and the online world, but still: It sounds like hell.
In the early ‘90s, we had no Instagram, we had no Snapchat, we had no cell phones. In any case, we were mostly too cool and disaffected to wear costumes to school, which would indicate sincerity and earnestness at a time when irony, alienation, and cynicism ruled. Earnestness is tiring, but I think cynicism is even more exhausting. I started high school in 1991, just as Kurt Cobain and the rest of the Seattle grunge scene were starting to become nationally prominent. There was a senior guy who got on the loudspeaker every morning and played a snippet of music before going into announcements, which he read in a knowingly detached drawl. It seemed like every day he was subtly poking fun at the headmaster, a humorless woman who would leave the school at the end of the year. I’d seen Pump Up the Volume four times in the theater the year before and was obsessed with Christian Slater’s character, a high school student who ran a pirate radio station from his house, and this kind of sly anti-authoritarianism was both incredibly attractive and also so perfectly ‘90s that it almost hurt.
Since you’ve been trying to have a baby for two-and-a-half years it’s a little much to be bombarded with all these photos on Instagram for, like, three days straight.
When I was a teen, being over Halloween was a statement about growing up. It said, very clearly, I am not a child anymore, and instead of putting on a Wonder Woman costume or letting my mom put me in fucking whiteface, I am going to sit on my bed and put my Beastie Boys CD into my mini-stereo and read Sassy and wish my parents would let me have a phone in my room. Maybe that’s why I never fully embraced Halloween as an adult: I never fully got over my generation’s posture of Halloween literally being too cool for school. But maybe this is also why, later, I was surprised, and more than a little shaken, to find myself caring so much about this holiday that I thought I’d left behind. Halloween, it seemed, was managing to literally haunt me.
I never thought, when I started doing IVF treatments, that a byproduct of those treatments would be that I would actively start to hate Halloween. Not that it would have changed anything, necessarily, but it just would’ve been one of those things that’s nice to know. Like, “this is going to cost tens of thousands of dollars, you’re going to have hormones injected into you constantly, it might not work, oh and you’re going to really start hating Halloween. Any questions?” When you’ve been stuck in pre-parenthood for what feels like forever, it can seem as if you’ve never known anything different, that your life has always been this way and always will be this way, and even though the rational side of you knows this isn’t true, you still might want to throw your phone across the room when one too many pictures of a cherubic infant in a pineapple costume comes across your feed.
There’s no way to be right on time when it comes to having kids — it seems like you’re either the first among your friends, or you’re playing catch up — but certainly turning 40 and not having a kid felt like crossing some kind of Game of Life Rubicon. Living in New York in my late 20s and half of my 30s, I was surrounded by women who were like me: we worked in media, we lived in Brooklyn, we were not married and we did not have children. It was easy, in those days, to feel like this was the way life was always going to be. I wanted to get married and have kids in the vague, slightly ambivalent way that many of my friends did: when we met the right people, we told each other, then it would happen, but we weren’t in any rush. The women in the age cohort just above us, five or 10 years our senior, had managed to figure it out; they’d had kids well into their late 30s and early 40s, hadn’t they? What no one had caught on to in those days was that many of them had struggled for years to have kids; all we saw were the end results, not the work and money that had gone into them.
But for awhile, in those willfully if blissfully ignorant days, there was a happy moment in my social media life that I think most adults experience, albeit at different ages: it’s that period before babies, but just after people stop going to the Halloween parties where they get completely wasted, where your stream is taken up not with children but with very adorably dressed pets — mostly dogs, of course, because what self-respecting cat is going to let its owner humiliate it with a costume? This was a phase in the Halloween life cycle I could get behind: Bring on your pictures of Pup-o-Ween, of Golden Retrievers dressed as UPS drivers and a million dachshund hot dogs. What I didn’t know then is that the stream of dogs becomes a stream of babies very quickly, almost before I really realized what was going on. The first few friends who had kids were enough of a novelty that I didn’t even feel envious — I was mostly curious about the logistics of having a new, helpless, tiny human around at all times. Other people without kids complained about the number of babies in their social media feeds, but for a long time, they didn’t bother me. That is, until trying to have a baby became an uncomfortably significant part of my life, and then they really started to bother me. I’d gone from being somewhat ambivalent about having kids, but leaning towards wanting them, to having to force myself to admit that the idea of having a small person who you could dress up as a box of popcorn, no questions asked, seemed like it could be kind of fun.
Mixed in with this jealousy was guilt. Even though technically I was resenting their parents — both for having the temerity to have children when I couldn’t, and also for posting adorable pictures of them — it sort of felt as if I was resenting babies themselves, which just feels like a sneaky cherry-topping-of-guilt on a shit sundae. I didn’t want to hate babies! What did babies ever do to me? They’re babies! But that’s the great thing about infertility — it fucks with your emotions in ways you never would’ve been able to anticipate. It turns you into a person you never wanted to be.
Of course, it’s almost always women who bear the brunt of this emotional fuckery, and I was maybe just a tiny bit pleased when it finally seemed to be getting to Matt, too. Only a tiny bit, because it’s not a great place to be, and really we couldn’t both be depressed about this, because then ours would be the saddest house in the world. But a tiny bit.
Matt was home on actual Halloween last year. He even got out of work a little early. We hadn’t bought any candy — Beau would’ve gone ballistic every time the doorbell rang — and I was pretty sure we weren’t on a hot trick-or-treating block anyway, but we turned off the front stoop light just in case anyone decided to traipse up to the door.
After years of looking at dozens if not hundreds of babies and children dressed up for Halloween, you’d better believe that I have more than a few ideas of what this child will be wearing this time next year.
Matt is a generally more well-adjusted person that I am, so I was surprised that he agreed with me when I said that Halloween had been really hard. “Everyone else at work is the parent of a two-and-a-half-year-old,” he said. “I had to sit there while they showed each other pictures of their adorable dressed-up kids.” I was kind of shocked to hear these words coming out of Matt’s mouth. In our (then) three-and-a-half years together, he’d seemed completely ambivalent about Halloween. He didn’t hate it; he didn’t love it. It seemed like it was just another day on the calendar for him.
Matt is a comedian. He writes on a sitcom now, but he got his start in stand-up and podcasts. This means he is incredibly open about everything emotionally tough that’s going on with him, but also makes light of it. Which for someone like me, who tends to take everything extremely seriously, has been mostly good. He’s made me see that infertility was more of a dark comedy than the Shakespearean tragedy I had made it in my mind. But Halloween had made even Matt crack.
Before I could even get myself riled up about this Halloween, something completely unexpected happened: in August, after our third embryo transfer, I found out I was pregnant. I say that it was completely unexpected — even though we very deliberately had a doctor put an embryo inside me — because I’d pretty much given up on the idea, after years of disappointment, that IVF could ever work for us.
In the first few weeks, when it seemed especially tenuous, I found that reminding myself, “Today, I am pregnant” calmed me. No matter what else happened, I knew that at least in that moment, I was pregnant. Even now, in the second trimester, it’s hard to get too excited about it, even though I’ve been reassured at every ultrasound that things are just fine. So doing things to prepare for my child’s arrival, like thinking about the nursery, or my “birth plan,” or even a baby shower, can seem overwhelming and fraught. But after years of looking at dozens if not hundreds of babies and children dressed up for Halloween, you’d better believe that I have more than a few ideas of what this child will be wearing this time next year. I just think I might keep the photos off Instagram.
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*By the way, here’s how crazy real estate in Brookline is: Our house — which my parents bought in 1982 for $120,000, which is around $310,000 today, and sold in 2001 — is now worth $1.7 million. On the one hand, I’m glad I got to grow up in Brookline at a time when you could still have a normal job (my mom taught ESL and my dad worked sporadically exporting textiles) and live in Brookline, but on the other, I can’t believe my parents sold that house!
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Doree Shafrir is a writer and podcaster. She lives in los Angeles.
Editor: Sari Botton
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