“Studies reveal that most married couples start out happy and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives, becoming especially disconsolate when their children are in diapers and in adolescence, and returning to their initial levels of happiness only after their children have had the decency to grow up and go away.”
–Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness
I’m thirty-six years old and I don’t have kids.
Now there’s a sentence that can’t be neutral, even if every word in it is as short and bald as a baby. Who would choose to assert a lack? Yet the other ways we’ve tried to say it—like “childfree”— sound awkward and pointed, like insisting on “Ms” did in the seventies.
My parents were young when they had me, and I got used to being the oldest among their friends’ children. I was happier controlling the universe of half a dozen dazzled toddlers than taking my chances with kids my own age, so I turned into the kind of maternal 12-year-old girl that neighborhood mothers count on. Isn’t she great with the little ones, they’d say, grateful to be having tea and Viennese fingers while I played Ring-a-ring-a-rosy or read storybooks for hours.
I was proud of being seen as “good with kids,” and I’m still vain about it. When a three-year-old decides to be my friend, or a baby flirts, I note another conquest. God knows, it’s easy to get kids to love you: let them check you out before you look at them, don’t ask the dozy questions that most adults throw out, and if they decide to invite you into the world inside their heads, follow its logic absolutely. It’s a bonus if you’re still able and willing to jump around with them, but not vital.
My friend Andy talks about his lifelong dream never to go on a cruise. I didn’t have a lifelong dream never to have children. Like most choices, this one emerged over time from hundreds of smaller ones. Sometimes I tell my friends who are mothers that if I had ten million dollars I’d have a baby. It’s an arbitrary number, out of reach for me but just entry-level wealth down the road in Silicon Valley. Ten million dollars would fill a sandbag against the storms of change that the world and children bring. School fees, college tuition, soccer camp, braces, and psychiatry bills would get paid. I could buy back the time from my workaholic culture to be with a child, rather than working more to keep her from deprivation. I could pay for nannies when I wanted to use my brain again. Having overstretched geographically my whole grown-up life, I could shrink once again the distance between the cities I love and my family in Ireland.
It’s a cop-out, of course. I’m bound up in an individualistic, transaction-based culture, rising and falling by my own efforts, and I don’t like to need anything from the people I like and love. That membrane of separateness, of self-reliance, is as fragile and illusory as a soap bubble, and a child would pop it instantly. The ten-million-dollar thought experiment is a way to keep that bubble floating, to think about change without changing. It turns out that motherhood is one of those things that I’d like to experience, but don’t actually want to do.
In my twenties, the baby announcements were a novelty, and I remember feeling vaguely sorry for the friends who were missing out on the nights out and the sleeps in. Now most of my pals are parents, and each “We’re pregnant!” feels like the news that a friend has got a dream job in Cleveland. I’m glad for them, but there’s a large, disgruntled child in me who wants to send baby back to the hospital.
The truth is, I’m not envious of my friends who have children. I’m envious of the children who have my friends.
There’s genius in a kid’s fresh worldview, and I like to keep up with their latest sayings and doings. I play slideshows of their Hallowe’en photos on my second monitor at work. I’m a small-time scholar of fashions in child-rearing, and I ask endless questions about parenthood and the transforming, heart-stretching love that it inspires in the most unlikely people. (My friend Padraig, who once claimed that as a father he would be “harsh but cruel; distant, yet remote,” is now hopelessly in love with two small boys and a girl.) I can’t imagine what it feels to walk around with a piece of your heart outside your body, though I do remember the painful tenderness I felt for my baby sisters.
But I’ve come to prefer the company of real, live children in concentrated doses, followed by nighty-nights and grown-up chat. Children were once small, not very competent apprentices in the family enterprise, who couldn’t wait to be big and useful. Today, they are the clients, and parents act the part of the incompetent account manager, offering endless options that don’t quite please and blanket praise for every eaten pea and filled potty. (“Oh, good jo-ob, Micah!”) The whole show is tedious. Why are people spending so much time training kids to “make good choices,” and so little teaching them to accept the world with grace? (I treasure the old-fashioned, please-and-thank-you kids I know, who seem to be not just better mannered but more content.)
Karl Lagerfeld told a story about his horrible Prussian mother, who once told him, after he repeated a childish story too often, “Karl, you may be six but I am not, and your stories are very boring to me. Please try to be more interesting, or be silent.” Whenever a chat with a friend gets interrupted for the fiftieth time by a domineering five-year-old, I think fondly of monstrous Mrs. Lagerfeld.
That human reproduction should be choice at all is a comically short blip in our history, and we haven’t yet figured out how to manage it. (Looking at continental Europe, Japan, and non-immigrant America, our selfish minds seem to be winning over our selfish genes.) For now, we’re looking around us to see how many children we should have and how to raise them. My Irish friends, who can count on decent free schooling and nearby families, have three apiece. My coastal Americans started later and for the most part have just one or two.
It’s hard to rear children with just two parents, let alone one. When the rest of the community is not pitching in with advice, sanity, and day-to-day care, and won’t agree to pay for decent schools and healthcare, your little family has to hunker down. All your resources, financial, physical, and emotional, must make up for the lack of the tribe we’ve counted on for thousands of generations. You concentrate your investment in just a few precious children, so that you have enough to shield them from blows and deprivations. You offer them every opportunity you can make, and mold your day and your life to their evolving activities and needs. There isn’t much time or energy left for others, let alone yourself. And besides, you’re living with the funniest, most inspiring people you’ve ever met, and you had no idea that you could love this much. When they’re not boring you to distraction they are the most fascinating creatures on earth. What an adventure.
As your single friend, I think I get it and I’m delighted for you. But I also miss you, and I’m looking forward to solo, selfish, spontaneous sessions with you, just you. One of these days we’ll dream up more ways to make meaning in this world.
*CALI: Childless and lovin’ it.