‘Why do people have children?’
As Estelle Tang watches her friends raising children, she turns to literature to guide her thinking about a very thorny question.
‘Is this your first child?’
‘Aye. Aye,’ he enthused, then breathed deep. ‘Immortality.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Immortality. That’s whit weans are, y’ken? An endless line of weans through history, y’ken?’
– Michel Faber, Under the Skin
The reasons people have children are usually pretty obvious. Some of them go like this:
- The Biblical reason: ‘And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein.’ (ie. God said so.)
- The what-you-tell-a-child version: When a mummy and a daddy love each other very much, etc.
- The aristocratic version: Mummy and Daddy are very rich and want to keep it in the family, alright, darling?
- The pre-birth control reason: Two people had sex and one of them got pregnant.
- The Whitney Houston reason: I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.
And so on.
Some of my friends are having babies – to be honest, it would be a crime if they hadn’t at least tried. Their good looks, kindness, hilariousness and weirdly strong legs deserve to be perpetuated in the gene pool. But I doubt they had the future of humanity in mind. They probably had kids for more personal reasons: to create a family; as an expression of love and hope; to experience a new and life-changing relationship; to try to make sure there will be smart people voting in 18-years-distant elections. I don’t find it difficult to understand why other people have children. I’m just not entirely sure why I would have one. And now that people in the western world are better able to decide whether or not they have children, more in charge of the process than any other known time in history, the decision to have a baby is one that can be cautiously considered.
On the other hand, I’m the last person who should ever become a mother: I’m anxious and pessimistic. I’m kind of a fuck-up. I can’t even afford to own a dog. Not many things come easily or well to me, and the likelihood that I would be a fantastic mother seems laughably low. In Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, she writes about her hapless childhood neighbour, Nettie Levine, stranded in single motherhood by the untimely death of her husband. ‘Nettie, it quickly developed, had no gift for mothering,’ writes Gornick. ‘Many women have no gift for it.’ There’s no way to know without trying whether I have that gift or not, but isn’t it a little late to ascertain that after the baby is already here?
Fear of the unknown is a factor. What if, having had children, my life will branch into parallel tracks, like it does for the mother in Lydia Davis’s short story ‘What You Learn about the Baby’?:
You begin to understand paradox: lying on the bed next to him, you are deeply interested, watching his face and holding his hands, and yet at the same time you are deeply bored, wishing you were somewhere else doing something else.
Then there are the worries not about me, but this fraught world and its future: It’s not really selfish to not have kids, as Pope Francis said earlier this year is it? I mean, sure, when Noah and his pals got off the ark they needed to address an acute shortage of people – but who would my personal childlessness affect, apart from, well, me? Given how poor stewards we are of the earth, I fret that the ‘immortality’ Michel Faber’s hopeful Scot refers to in Under the Skin can surely only last a few more generations. In the face of this, should I really add to the population? Aren’t we actually running out of resources? And why would I bring a child into a world that is overwhelmingly racist, sexist, ableist, and homophobic, when I myself dream of catapulting into space to escape it all, on a weekly basis?
Against my mental furore of uncertainty, there has been one account of motherhood that has given me some comfort – strangely so, because Merritt Tierce’s novel Love Me Back is a challenging and ambivalent expression of maternal connection. At 17 years old, Marie is valedictorian, headed for Yale. Then she becomes pregnant on a church mission trip. She marries the father of the baby. Instead of going to college, Marie gets a job at a beauty company, then at chain restaurants: first Chili’s and then Olive Garden. The novel tracks Marie’s progression through various menial jobs, her life subsumed by shame and waste and uncaring sexual partners and, sometimes, this child. Pregnancy was a railroad switch, directing her life in a completely different direction. When someone asks her for life advice, she says, ‘Accept that shit is all fucked up and roll with it’.
Regret is something Marie writes with her body; she destroys her marriage by sleeping with different men and indulges in illegal drugs. Yet despite the grind of it all, the baby is a wonder: ‘She smelled so sweet and she was so soft and warm.’ She is the beautiful script laid over the invisible ink of Marie’s other, lost life. The baby doesn’t have a name. She barely appears in the novel at all. But she is perfect. The scenes in which she appears may be rare, but they radiate peace. She is not a justification for any decisions Marie has made or a panacea for problems past. She is not a reason. She is her own thing.
We can’t have pets in my apartment so we put together a jigsaw puzzle of a Saint Bernard on the floor in the hall. You name him Barry, after the legendary Alpine rescue dog. You buy a bag of dog food with your own money and leave bowls of food and water next to him. I hear you apologize to him once when you accidentally step on his tail.
Marie’s fears regarding motherhood echo mine, though she has a flesh and blood reason for hers. ‘I want to do it right,’ Marie says of being a mother, ‘not much as I can right, just right’. To which Cal, a lover, responds kindly, ‘You got to do it some kinda way to start’. I want to be assured I won’t screw things up for anyone, and I’m half persuaded the best way to avoid it is just not to ‘start’ at all.
Starting is one thing, of course; the race itself is another. I look to Gornick’s Fierce Attachments for a portrait of the mother and daughter towards the finish line. It’s not a pretty one, but it’s forceful. In the book’s final scene, the two women sit at the kitchen table after dinner. It is a forlorn image, coloured by the heartbreak Gornick has detailed over the course of the book, selfish lover after bizarre affair after repetitive, brutal disappointment. In an unprompted plaint, she says, ‘It would be nice to have a little love right now’. In response, Gornick’s mother commiserates, but selfishly: ‘Well, now perhaps you can have a little sympathy for me’. Their relationship is always this way: so furiously agonistic you’re constantly surprised they haven’t somehow already combusted in blazes of pure fury. Gornick is furious. How dare her mother try to steal the focus away in this moment, as always? Instead of resolving itself, the fight lapses into an uneasy pause that emphasises the distance between the two women.
My mother breaks the silence. In a voice remarkably free of emotion – a voice detached, curious, only wanting information – she says to me, ‘Why don’t you go already? Why don’t you walk away from my life? I’m not stopping you.’
I see the light, I hear the street. I’m half in, half out.
‘I know you’re not, Ma.’
So, then: no conclusions yet. I’m still a bonehead with problems. I might yet still be a bad mother bringing a child into a bad world. Or perhaps I never will. But even among all this, I am beginning to suspect that there’s a reason not to fear the idea of motherhood itself so very much.