Kids Aren’t Us

Esquire (Philippines) - - THIS WAY IN -

In your mid-for­ties, you never thought you’d be that guy: child­less.


I like a house party as much as the next guy. But this one? Not so much. The dress code ap­pears to be bibs and blan­kets. Peo­ple are drink­ing warm milk, which they can barely keep down. And it’s hard to get a con­ver­sa­tion go­ing. I tried chat­ting with the host just now—let’s call him Leo— but he barely said a word. Mostly he just held my fin­ger.

Leo turned one to­day. Hence the party—a swarm of moms and ba­bies giving it the full coochie-coo. It’s not my usual Satur­day af­ter­noon, but his par­ents are friends of mine and I haven’t seen them in ages. We used to play ten­nis to­gether and drink Scotch in this very apart­ment. But then Leo moved in, can­cel­ing ten­nis, and now our sin­gle-malt tast­ing room is lit­er­ally crawl­ing with his clos­est friends. They’ve filled the place with strollers, bot­tles, and Fisher-Price what­ev­ers. And the mu­sic these kids are into, it’s just the same song on re­peat. I get it—the wheels on the bus are go­ing round. They’re wheels.

Be­ing child­less, I can’t help feel­ing like an in­ter­loper at these things. Yet here we are, my wife and I, look­ing a bit lost and won­der­ing if it’s too soon to make an exit. This is the realm of women with pa­pooses, grand­moth­ers play­ing peek­a­boo, and dads who hover like the Se­cret Ser­vice, ready to catch or grab at a mo­ment’s no­tice. We child­less friends from a for­mer life get spun out, as though by cen­trifuge, to the fringes of the party, the far­thest or­bits of ir­rel­e­vance. So we stand on the side­lines, ob­serv­ing the par­ents across a gulf, per­plexed that such a dis­tance should have opened up so quickly.

“Want to hold him?” This al­ways hap­pens: A well-mean­ing par­ent tries to throw us a line be­fore it’s too late. In this case, it’s Leo’s un­cle. He hands me his own baby boy, who starts paw­ing my face. It’s only a mat­ter of time now. “Why don’t you and Mrs. B. make a baby?” he says. “Best thing I ever did.”

And there it is. The ca­sual ap­proach. Rather than tip­toe up to the ques­tion like a bomb that might go off at any minute, just toss it out there like it’s noth­ing. Did you see the game last night? Ever thought of hav­ing a child? I could pause at this point, look at my shoes, and con­coct some aw­ful story about “the third mis­car­riage.” But why make a pro­duc­tion out of it? It’s much bet­ter to just whip out my phone, show him pictures of the dogs, and say, “We’ve al­ready got our hands full with these two.” Keep it breezy. He’ll say, “Awww, cute, is that a Bos­ton ter­rier?” And I’ll say, “Her name’s Onion,” and he’ll ask, “Why Onion?” and the whole topic will be safely averted.

But this guy won’t let go. “No, I mean hu­man ba­bies,” he says.

“I’m just try­ing to keep my pre­baby fig­ure,” I tell him.

“Se­ri­ously, though, you must have a rea­son. Is it med­i­cal? I mean, you could al­ways adopt . . . . ”

It’s not that he means to be rude. He just doesn’t re­al­ize—and nei­ther did the cab­driver, the in­sur­ance bro­ker, the FedEx guy, or any of the oth­ers—that this ques­tion has ten­drils ex­tend­ing into ev­ery cor­ner of a man’s life. If you yank this thread, the whole coat un­rav­els, leav­ing me stand­ing there naked for all to see. Which is not a good look—es­pe­cially at a baby’s birth­day party.

Non­par­ents are pari­ahs. The stereo­types aren’t kind. Women are ca­reerist and cold. Men are feck­less and im­ma­ture. Both are traitors to their na­ture.

I never thought I’d be this guy, the weird guy at the party with­out kids. But then, I never thought I’d be the other guy, ei­ther. I just didn’t think, which ex­plains a lot. I sus­pect that for many men, fa­ther­hood is a dis­tant train on the hori­zon that even­tu­ally pulls into the sta­tion, ei­ther by ac­ci­dent or by de­sign. But it never loomed for me. Grow­ing up, all I knew was that I didn’t want to be like the adults I saw ev­ery day: my par­ents. Not be­cause they’re bad peo­ple— they’re not—but be­cause they were un­happy. We all were.

They’d had an ar­ranged mar­riage. In the seven­ties, within the space of four­teen days, my fa­ther met my mother, mar­ried her, and then moved with her from West Ben­gal to south Lon­don, where strikes were crip­pling the coun­try. They’d each lived through hard­ship be­fore, par­tic­u­larly my mother, but there were no friends or fam­ily around this time; they were in it alone. And to cap it all, they didn’t get along.

In our home, a child wasn’t a de­light but rather a bur­den. If my fam­ily were a trip­tych, it would open with my fa­ther scowl­ing in front of the tele­vi­sion, fol­lowed by my mother seething in the kitchen, and then me in my room, dream­ing of es­cape, each of us pro­foundly alone. I spent eigh­teen years mar­i­nat­ing in their re­sent­ment of each other and then my re­sent­ment of them—a sauce that only thick­ened with time.

I’ve al­ways seen my child­hood and my child­less­ness as um­bil­i­cally con­nected. But that’s not typ­i­cal. For many, an un­happy child­hood is as much a mo­tive to have kids as it is a de­ter­rent. In­stead of avoid­ing fam­ily life, I might eas­ily have re­solved to cre­ate the happy fam­ily I never had. Con­versely, plenty of child­less peo­ple come from per­fectly happy homes. Ev­ery­one reaches this de­ci­sion by fol­low­ing their own path. No two snowflakes are alike.

I learned this from hang­ing out on the Child­less by Choice

Project Face­book page. It’s a small group, with around four­teen hun­dred mem­bers; about four fifths of them are women, which is stan­dard for the non­par­ent sub­cul­ture. They’re a feisty lot, de­fi­ant and de­fen­sive, as though a stand were be­ing taken and par­ents and non­par­ents were some­how at odds, each snip­ing at the other: You’re self­ish! No, you’re self­ish!

Pop­u­lar posts of­ten show chil­dren or par­ents in a neg­a­tive light—a story about a delin­quent mother, say, or a video of a tod­dler throw­ing a tantrum in a restau­rant (sam­ple cap­tion: “Your child should be in com­mer­cials...for Tro­jan”). Par­ents are called “breed­ers,” a term of con­tempt. Non­par­ents are de­scribed as “child-free,” which they pre­fer to “child­less,” since it de­notes lib­erty rather than lack while plac­ing chil­dren in the same syn­tac­tic class as gluten, smoke, and STDs.

Laura Scott, the Florida life coach who founded the page, says her mem­bers are just re­act­ing to the stigma of child­less­ness. But the an­tipa­thy to­ward chil­dren is real. Scott, for in­stance, is a per­fectly pleas­ant woman who gen­uinely doesn’t want to hold your baby. “Any­one un­der the age of twelve,” she says, “I just don’t have an affin­ity for.” And more dys­pep­tic voices are eas­ily found. “I call them small mam­mals,” says Paul, a sci­en­tist from Ox­ford, Eng­land, in his fifties. “They don’t give me or my wife any warm feel­ings. Par­ents make these neb­u­lous state­ments about the deep pos­i­tive stuff that chil­dren bring into your life, but that’s all bull­shit—jus­ti­fi­ca­tion af­ter the fact.”

The likes of Laura and Paul are not as aber­rant as you might think. Birth rates are drop­ping in most de­vel­oped coun­tries. And for the first time ever, there’s ac­tu­ally a sound moral ar­gu­ment to be made for not pro­cre­at­ing: The planet needs a breather, and go­ing child­less is as green as it gets. I could leave a stretch Hum­mer idling in my drive­way all day while burn­ing tires in my back­yard and I’d still do less dam­age than your av­er­age dad.

But the eco-ar­gu­ment is sel­dom the real


rea­son for go­ing child­less. At best, it’s a shield against the crit­ics. My rea­sons, like ev­ery­one else’s, are per­sonal. For me, it was self­ac­tu­al­iza­tion in the Maslowian sense—the drive to ful­fill our cre­ative po­ten­tial and be all that we can be. This is the nar­ra­tive of our times. Rather than pro­duc­ing the next gen­er­a­tion for tribe, faith, or coun­try—al­le­giances that are los­ing their hold—we are loyal to our­selves first in or­der to pur­sue hap­pi­ness and max­i­mize our lives. We live longer than ever; the world’s knowl­edge is at our fin­ger­tips. This is the age of the life hack, the bucket list, and that greedy phrase “hav­ing it all.” So the ques­tion be­comes, Will a child en­hance that ride or de­rail it?

This may not be as self-in­dul­gent as it sounds. If I haven’t found hap­pi­ness my­self, how can I pass it on to a child? Child­less­ness is of­ten framed as self­ish­ness, but there’s no ar­gu­ing with the Philip Larkin poem “This Be the Verse”: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.” In­creas­ingly, the fa­mous physi­cian’s oath—first do no harm—seems the wis­est course.

And there’s some­thing ir­re­sistible about see­ing life as be­ing full of po­ten­tial. It’s the essence of youth. I lis­ten to house mu­sic on the tread­mill. I know all the words to “Hot­line Bling.” I take com­fort in the delu­sion that my clay hasn’t set yet and my pos­si­bil­i­ties in this life are many. Par­ents are be­holden and en­cum­bered. But I’m free to wan­der as I please, or so I like to think.

Will Self once said that un­til you have chil­dren, you are es­sen­tially a fic­tional char­ac­ter. You can al­ways write your­self a plot twist, change your name, change your life. But chil­dren put an end to all that—they re­quire par­ents to be pil­lars of con­sis­tency so that the life of pos­si­bil­i­ties is now theirs. I’ve never quite shaken off the sense that a child might be the death of hope for me. There’s the teenage ter­ror of closing doors that were once open, whether we went through them or not.

Be­sides, when my wife and I first dis­cussed it, we had no room for a child, quite lit­er­ally. We were prac­ti­cally liv­ing in a stu­dio. We’d both got­ten a late start in a dicey line of work—she writes scripts; I write ar­ti­cles. And we were free agents, liv­ing that wob­bly life of feast, then famine, then more famine, then okay, that’s enough famine, I’m not kid­ding, it’s get­ting cold in here. Bring­ing a child into our home would have been like chuck­ing a baby onto a roller coaster.

We’re on a stead­ier ship to­day, no doubt. And adop­tion hasn’t been en­tirely ruled out. But we view it the way a wing­suit dare­devil as­sesses the weather be­fore leap­ing off a moun­tain—the con­di­tions need to be per­fect. Can we af­ford nan­nies and sit­ters and pri­vate school and soc­cer camp? Will we have time to play catch and watch end­less re­runs of Bar­ney & Friends? Ev­ery time, we end up in full agree­ment that one of us will have to be the stay-at-home par­ent. At which point it goes quiet and I usu­ally re­ceive an email that can’t wait. “Sorry, dear, can we do this later? Banana Repub­lic is of­fer­ing 40 per­cent off . . . . ”

I think I’d make a de­cent un­cle, since un­cles get to go home af­ter­ward. But fa­ther­hood is 24/7, good days and bad. And a child doesn’t need my bad days. I worry that my bag­gage will go once more around the carousel, and one my child might be on a ther­a­pist’s couch talk about me.

“Oh, don’t worry, we all fuck them up!” Th what other dads tell me. They’re so cava­lier, a I like that about them. A spot of psy­chologi dam­age is par for the course.

In 2013, Time mag­a­zine pub­lished a co with the head­line “The Child­free Life: Wh Hav­ing It All Means Not Hav­ing Chil­dre fea­tur­ing a smug cou­ple on a beach livi the high life. This is a com­mon per­cep­tion the child­less: They’re peo­ple who sur­vey the op­tions and chose self-grat­i­fi­ca­tion, a l with­out re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. I made no such choi My life tum­bles along and I blun­der throu mak­ing choices that can’t be un­cho­sen, thi true, but child­less­ness wasn’t one of them. It a con­se­quence, a side ef­fect, not a goal. Althou I try to deny it, life in the end is a win­now of op­tions as we be­come the prod­uct of o de­ci­sions, whether we meant to or not. And this way, the rea­sons for not hav­ing childr have ac­cu­mu­lated through the years, like sn against a barn door. Leave it long enough an just won’t open any­more.

Lately—this shows you how con­flicte am—I’ve been think­ing that par­ent­ing mi ac­tu­ally be the best path to self-ac­tu­al­izati We were driv­ing home a while back—my w the dogs, and I—when the traf­fic nar­row to one lane, slow­ing to a crawl. From ev direc­tion chil­dren flooded into the street, dressed in Hal­loween cos­tumes, these adora lit­tle Bat­men and Tinker Bells. And it was su a life-af­firm­ing scene, I felt the sad­ness in ch­est. The path not taken has sel­dom look so pic­turesque.

These poignant mo­ments, they hap­pen the time. Fam­i­lies are in­escapable—in malls, bill­boards, on tele­vi­sion. From my desk at ho I hear the sound of re­cess from a pri­mary sch at the bot­tom of the hill: yelp­ing and chas and play­ing. The usual ques­tions churn: W am I do­ing this for? Why do I ex­ist? What is all my self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion if I can’t dump it onto a small child?

We went home that night and hugged dogs ex­tra-tight. We didn’t dress them up zom­bies, but maybe next year. Maybe th what hap­pens to peo­ple like us. The childl of­ten call other things “ba­bies,” and there’s ques­tion that Onion and Cujo are our fu sur­ro­gates. Dogs won’t end up on a ther­api couch.

It’s also true that they won’t visit us as wither away in a nurs­ing home. They won’t “Daddy” or grad­u­ate or give us grand­childr But this is our life and we must em­brace Al­though I’ll miss out on the joys of Hal­lowe I can at least cre­ate “book ba­bies,” an idea I al­ways liked. Af­ter all, child­less­ness of­fers w books re­quire: acres of time and si­lence. O it’s never quite silent for me. There’s al­ways sound of re­cess.

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