Jenny Ni­cholls takes the in­de­fen­si­ble po­si­tion.

Do chil­dren give your life mean­ing? I’m sorry to hear that. By Jenny Ni­cholls.

North & South - - Columns -

I caught her at the front door as she tripped over some­thing small, yel­low and plas­tic. I was new to the neigh­bour­hood, and her hus­band had in­vited us for din­ner, my part­ner and I. Af­ter apolo­get­i­cally ex­tract­ing her el­bow from my stom­ach, she stood back and sur­veyed me kindly. “Do you have any chil­dren?” she asked, this stranger. I de­murred. “Oh, well! There’s still time!” she groaned in hor­ri­fied sym­pa­thy.

She seemed like a nice wo­man. But I’m not sure whether it was her pin­point ac­cu­racy at es­ti­mat­ing my age that ir­ri­tated me the most, or the placid ex­pec­ta­tion I would en­joy her in­ter­est in my fer­til­ity level. In any event, I had clearly fluffed the en­trance exam to her club.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are par­ents. But do these child fac­to­ries have some­thing in com­mon which sets them apart? I don’t know. They only open up about their chil­dren when I ask. (Which I often do. They have the coolest kids.) And I en­joy their abil­ity not to tell me the same thing three times, in three dif­fer­ent ways, as those stuck talk­ing to fouryear-olds, un­der­stand­ably, tend to do.

“Yes, if you could put it over there. Put it on the table. On the table. Next to the bowl. BOWL.”

They don’t even mind if I swear... as long as those im­pres­sion­able young­sters aren’t around to tell me off.

A friend, Isa, was born in a coun­try where it is prac­ti­cally the law to pro­cre­ate. She spent her 20s de­fend­ing her baby deficit be­fore hav­ing a daugh­ter in her 30s and mi­grat­ing. Hav­ing been steeped in sex­ism dur­ing her early years, Isa is more trig­ger-happy on the sub­ject than I am. And few things an­noy her more than the “selfish” la­bel awarded to the kid-free wo­man. “Par­ents are the selfish ones!” she hollers at me. “They think only about their own child! They think it is ALL THEM!”

She aims this last tor­pedo at those who credit ju­nior’s ev­ery achieve­ment to their own blend of ge­nius: or­ganic food, per­haps, or just the right bed­time read­ing.

An­other less self-aware friend ex­cused her un­ex­pected ab­sence from a bar­be­cue – but only af­ter I phoned to find out where she and her three teens were – by say­ing her kids “weren’t in­ter­ested” in com­ing. The host had spent the af­ter­noon mak­ing food for them, and her chil­dren had to try to pre­tend that they didn’t care.

This sort of thing makes me think there is much un­der-re­ported parental toad­y­ing, in which a par­ent’s de­sire to please their child out­weighs ba­sic cour­te­sies – to other chil­dren, as well as adults.

I don’t feel “selfish” for not hav­ing chil­dren. In fact, I think peo­ple like me ought to be en­cour­aged. The Earth has many prob­lems, and a hu­man short­age is def­i­nitely not one of them.

Am I “self-ab­sorbed”? Pos­si­bly, al­though not enough to won­der if that is true. I must say I haven’t no­ticed friends blos­som into self-deny­ing saints af­ter par­ent­hood. Maybe I’m too busy wor­ry­ing about over­pop­u­la­tion.

To the ca­sual ob­server, like me, par­ents seem as stingy, or as kind, as they were “be­fore”. Their brain does not sprout an ex­tra “nicelobe”. The only ap­par­ent out­ward change is ex­haus­tion, and a shrink­ing vo­cab­u­lary thanks to zero read­ing time and talk­ing to a tod­dler all day.

And while I take my hat off to those who en­dure the gory splat­ter­fest of birth – go girl, etc – you don’t re­ally de­serve a medal, even if you de­lib­er­ately home­birthed for rea­sons, which you say, are not at all selfish. It is the next 20 years that re­quire the Right Stuff. But does a child give your life mean­ing? If so, I’m sorry to hear it didn’t have any, be­fore.

Those with ba­bies some­times be­have as if they also de­serve an award for hav­ing sex. News­flash, babe: for those with all their mol­e­cules in the right place, ex­trud­ing an in­fant with a cra­nium through a space slightly too small for it is not a moral achieve­ment.

Par­ents say their life is tough. They have to watch Game of Thrones so late, they’re too tired to en­joy the... di­a­logue. But are these sac­ri­fices, and the smell of nappy na­palm, enough to pro­pel one onto the mez­za­nine floor of sanc­tity?

Re­cently I be­came em­broiled in one of those un­winnable bat­tles on so­cial me­dia with a person I’ve never met. An anti-vaxxer, she had posted links which nuked her own po­si­tion. I joy­fully – al­right, per­haps too joy­fully – pointed this out. Si­lence. Then... “Jenny... do you have chil­dren?” The ul­ti­mate in­sin­u­a­tion. No meta-anal­y­sis would save my ar­gu­ment – be­cause suf­fer­ing chil­dren could not mat­ter to me as much as they mat­tered to her. Mum­mies are on a higher moral plane than non-mum­mies, you see.

I pre­var­i­cated. “Why can’t you give me a straight an­swer?” de­manded my tone- deaf foe.

So I told her I found the ques­tion point­less and in­sult­ing. “So you don’t!” came the tri­umphant re­ply. +

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