Friday, February 24, 2012

On Being Childless

In life there are no risk-free trials.

A few days ago, the woman with whom I’ve been living these past four years sat down beside me while I was watching TV with a sad look on her face. When I asked her what was wrong, she said that she was sorry that she hadn’t given me a baby of my own. I was surprised by this sudden confession – so surprised that I had to stop and think of an answer.

I am old enough to be able to look around me at my friends and marvel at their children, some of whom are in diapers, some in school, and a few even in college. My friends look at me, childless but not fr want of occasionally trying, and feel sorry that I haven't yet taken, as one friend put it, "a dip in the gene pool". I look at them and wonder where on earth they could've found the temerity to do it.

I have to admit that I don't like children - either in the flesh or as an idea. My friends invariably tell me that having one would change my mind. Looking at my own child, they argue, and knowing that I was involved, however remotely, in giving him or her life would somehow overcome my prejudices. I used to think that they must be right.

It's probably because of my own childhood, or what I remember of it. If only I could've thought of it all as unfair (which it partly was), the desperate loneliness, the feeling that no one could possibly understand what I was feeling and that it would would never end. Of course, it did end. But only as soon as I was no longer a child. And this brought home to me the terrible proof that it was the very condition of being a child that had to be endured, that the sense of adults taking unfair advantage of a child's position of inferiority was genuine. This is especially obvious whenever an adult inflicts pain on a child as punishment. If the child were equal in size, an adult would think twice about such abuse. When I see kids in show business talking on TV, it surprises me how together, how aware and expansive they are. It surprises me because, when I was eight or ten years old, I felt utterly lost.

Many people never set out to have children, but wind up having them anyway. One friend of mine was determined in his twenties to remain childless because his own childhood was so terrible. Now in his thirties, he has had two children. I haven't had a chance to ask him what changed his mind, but both our lives have taken so many turns since we last met, it could account for just about anything.

Some people, no matter how long they live, can never forget the sometimes nightmarish reality of childhood and can still feel it acutely. As George Orwell wrote in an essay about his school days:

"In general, one's memories of any period must necessarily weaken as one moves away from it. One is constantly learning new facts, and old ones have to drop out to make way for them ... But it can also happen that one's memories grow sharper after a long lapse of time, because one is looking at the past with fresh eyes and can isolate and, as it were, notice facts which previously existed undifferentiated among a mass of others ... Our chief clue is the fact that we were once children ourselves, and many people appear to forget the atmosphere of their own childhood almost entirely ... Treacherous though memory is, it seems to me the chief means we have of discovering how a child's mind works. Only by resurrecting our own memories can we realize how incredibly distorted is the child's vision of the world."(1)

At least two of the qualities that are required to be a parent - an even temper and patience - are in short supply in my personality. I have sometimes found myself in the impossible position of being called on to impose discipline to the ten-year-old girl whose mother lives with me, and finding that, while the child certainly deserved to be paddled, I was not at all prepared to do the paddling. Indeed, watching a child grow up has shown me what a terribly lengthy and painful process it is. Human development is inhibited by the size of our brains. While some of us may be physically grown at sixteen, experience has taught us that intellectual and emotional maturity takes a bit longer.

But the main reason why I am childless and why I am against even the idea of having a child is due to something that no parents ever talk about: the fact that a parent has to use coercion in some form to get a child to do what he wants him to do. The notion that a child will do what you tell him to do merely because you are the parent and he is the child is sheer fairy tale. From the earliest age, telling a child to do something, especially something that they don't want to do, makes them think about two things: what will I get in return for doing this and what will happen to me if I don't? It may not sound nice, but the child has to be coerced in some way, with love and affection or with pain. He must either be enticed with the promise of some reward, even if it simply making his parent happy, or threatened with violence.

What people find most charming or adorable about children I find most intimidating: their helplessness in the face of every power on earth that, but for the protection of family and the law, would harm them. They have to be instructed in the world's indifference to their welfare or their happiness. The experience of simply watching children react to such indifference, seeing them slowly become aware that the world wasn't made for their concerns, that it wasn't made for things like love or friendship but for some bizarre struggle for dominance, one man over another, seems dreadful to me. What can a parent possibly do to prepare a child for the inevitable disappointment, the unavoidable broken heart? It seems to me precisely the security of a loving home that makes a child particularly unprepared for the real world.

And, to top everything off, I am simply too old to have a child. My father was forty-five when I was born, which was also too old. He had his first heart attack when I was ten, and my mother prepared me for the possibility of his death. Every time I was called out of class at school, my first thought was that my father had died. By making me aware of the possibility of my father dying, my mother was simply preparing me for the inevitable. As it turned out, he didn't die until I was thirty. My mother was off by two decades.

So when my asawa sat down beside me and confided her regret, I could only reassure her that I didn't mind the fact that she hasn't borne me a child. In fact, I thanked her for it - for neither of us being able to make a biological connection.
It was the least I could do, even if she didn't quite believe me.

(1) "Such, Such Were the Joys", first published in Partisan Review, September-October 1952.

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