Short Story: “Don’t Blame the Children”

In the near future, virtual reality allows couples to meet their potential children before they’ve been conceived.
smiling father and son looking at each other while sitting on yellow sofa in vr headsets

smiling father and son looking at each other while sitting on yellow sofa in vr headsets © LightField Studios /

November 13, 2023 04:01 EDT

Something to consider when reading/listening: Does having more options make us more free? 

“You can be a parent or you can be a success. But you can’t be both.”

That’s what Dad told me and my brothers after he’d failed as an artist. I was about twelve and I had no idea whether or not I wanted to be a parent. But I knew, I knew for certain, that I would not, under any circumstances, be one of those people who blamed his failures on his kids. 

Sometimes I wish Twinkle had existed thirty-five years ago. My parents made no secret of the fact they preferred my brothers and I’m sure they’d have preferred hundreds of other variants too. 

Noma and I were two years into our relationship when it first launched. We weren’t in any rush to have kids but like lots of couples at the time, we decided to try Twinkle out for a bit of a laugh. 

This was when it was still purely theoretical. The purpose was simply to give you an idea of what your kids might be like. You had to pay through the nose too. 

Anyway, we went in, they scanned our DNA, we put on the VR goggles and we were in a room with a newborn baby. 

She’s so precious. So delicate. Eyes that could hardly open. A mouth that could hardly shut. But she grips my finger with her wrinkly little hand and I know I would do anything in the world to protect her. 

And when the timer buzzes and our Twinkle session expires, I know for certain that this is what I want. A child with Noma. We need to find a way to make her real.

And Noma says, “Thank God.” And she laughs. And, reading my expression, she says, “Nope. No. I’m sorry. This isn’t right. She’s not… that’s not my daughter.”

So we do it again. And again. 

About a month later, we’re in a room with fifty newborn babies. Fifty different versions of the offspring Noma and I could theoretically produce. Some look more like her, some more like me. Some are screaming, some are asleep. Some are barely distinguishable from each other. 

We did what you do. We skipped forward, we got to meet them at every age from zero to seven. We met twenty-five sons and twenty-five daughters. We changed nappies and sang lullabies and pushed swings. I’d have been proud- more than proud- to have any of them for real. There are two or three who I can still picture now. Who I still dream about. But no. None of them. There wasn’t a single kid Noma could abide. And that evening she broke up with me. 

By the time I was two years into my relationship with Anna, Twinkle was no longer theoretical. Now you got to choose the child you liked best and they would ensure, when you wanted to get pregnant, that your sperm and your partner’s egg were encoded with the exact DNA that would bring that child about. And so Anna wasn’t happy with fifty options. She wanted thousands. For a solid year, we did it six times a week, meeting more and more potential children each evening. 

Our children, with our ears and eyes and noses. The instinctive sense of love I felt towards them being drained away with each new face. 

Anna kept extensive notes on her favourites, comparing them with each other, taking photos and videos to show to her friends. 

The whole thing was driving her mad. It didn’t matter how many options she had, none of them was quite right. Then one day she came home and told me she’d met a man in a bar, they got chatting, they had a few drinks, she told him her troubles and he suggested using Twinkle with someone else just to get a point of comparison. So she did it with him that evening. And when she met baby number thirty-seven, she knew, she just knew, she had to have him. 

And not long after that, the idea of an established couple using Twinkle was almost unheard of. Why would you bother building a relationship with someone if you had no idea where it was heading? Twinkle was repackaged into a dating app and you could check your potential offspring with millions of potential co-parents. We created a world where a woman can meet her kids before she meets her partner. 

And I’m on the app of course I am. I have a look every now and then at some of my potential children. I can sort them in order of looks, intelligence, empathy. Some of them seem like great kids but none of the women out there seem to agree. Too scatty or snotty or disobedient.

Women always had higher standards than men in the dating market but when it comes to choosing their kids, these standards are off the charts. And the trouble is some of the women are so keen on their child of choice, so desperate to bring him or her into the world that they’ll sacrifice exclusivity and pay the required donor whatever he wants. So for every five hundred childless men like me, there’s a man who’s father to five hundred. And women are pairing off with each other, two best friends raising their perfect children together without a man in sight.  

But it’s not just my ability to meet women that’s taken a hit, is it? Because a few years ago now someone came up with the logic that to judge a man you should meet his children. And this logic has spread to employers, to banks to insurers. Whenever I apply for anything, the woman in charge will spend some time with a classroom full of our theoretical children and she’ll use that to judge my merits.

In a traditional interview situation, I might be able to hide my personality defects. But if you meet enough of my virtual children, you’ll get a far better understanding of what I’m like. I’m not sure it’s logically sound but that’s the logic that’s prevailed. And my theoreticals — and everyone seems fairly agreed on this point — do not do me credit. 

We try so hard not to end up like our parents, don’t we? The way my dad resented me and my brothers for holding him back, it still hurts me even now. And I was determined not to reach that point myself.

But here I am today. I’m out of work. I can’t meet a woman. I’ve not amounted to anything. And despite being childless, I do blame it all on my kids.

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


Only Fair Observer members can comment. Please login to comment.

Leave a comment

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member