Equal and opposite forces

The Guardian does this series where they get regular contributors to answer some of the most common queries that people fire into Google.

Zoe Williams recently wrote a piece on the topic “Why Have Children”

I found it oddly unsatisfying. So here is my take instead.

Why have children?

I don’t know. There is a gap between the reasons you might want children, and the reasons you might find you enjoy having children. This gap exists in any life – the difference between the idea and the reality. Reconciling ourselves to this gap is not required, but is perhaps wise. On a good day, we look at our spouse or our children and feel like these are the people we are meant to love. On a good day, love is the lens, and there is a sparkling clarity to seeing life through this lens.

Having children is a peculiarly irrevocable decision, especially for mothers. You might feel like you’ve stepped into a spin-off series from the story of your life, where the main character is now this other person, and you are a supporting figure.

You might see this as a good thing or a terrifying thing. What you gain, maybe, is a certainty that comes with the strength of love. What you lose, maybe, is the power to start all over again from scratch, unencumbered. Love tethers and binds and anchors – all metaphors that can be seen as comforting security or limiting restriction. For some people, knowing that you have done something permanent to your future could turn your shadow lives into taunting demons, a million unlived visions in which you’re not tired all the time, in which you still do those things you used to do and can’t do anymore.

Except, the world is replete with fathers who have shaken off family ties and pursued other interests, started again from scratch, maintained a dim connection to their offspring but refused to be defined by their status in relation to those children. That is, in fact, always possible. As with any life, the life of a parent is one of daily choice, constantly reaffirmed commitment.

What is it then, to have children? It cannot be the same for everyone, it cannot be the same for the abusive parent as it is for the loving parent. It cannot be the same for the parent of a sick child and a healthy child, for the parent in a loving relationship and the sole parent, for the parent who had a happy childhood and the parent who is estranged from their own parents.  

My first moments of parenthood were spent in different room from my child, each of us separately receiving medical attention. I didn’t hold him properly for hours. My husband bonded with him before I did, staring transfixed at the perspex box, watching the chest rise and fall, checking the monitors. I felt like maybe I wasn’t necessary to this new person, like I’d expected to be. Who we are as parents can change, must change. There is not a single earth-shattering moment that makes us as a new image. A supporting character in a spin-off series, I said, but that’s not a very good metaphor because no life is the centre of anything, unless we all are. There are always multiple subjectivities and viewpoints.

I am loathe to suggest that there is something parents experience that non-parents cannot also experience. Who could ever know? How could it be measured? One of my dear friends is currently doing VSA in the Soloman Islands; another is living in London and a while ago posted some photos of a climbing expedition in Norway, standing on precipices. My son learns new words every day, and he laughs like no-one else ever has, and he likes to rest his head and his hand on my growing belly and say “bubba move”, and he likes to drag a step ladder across the house and press the buttons on the washing machine, and he likes watching videos of himself doing silly things. These lives cannot be compared, any attempt is a disservice to each and all of them.

I found a book today in a sale stack that I remember having as a kid, “Five Minutes Peace”, about Mrs Large the elephant who wants to escape from her kids for five minutes. I remember liking that book a lot. So I re-read it, then I bought it. It’s funny, ‘cause the whole point of the book is that the mother elephant wants five minutes peace and she doesn’t get it (she gets 3 minutes and 45 seconds). I remember reading it with my mum and thinking it was hilarious, but I’m not sure we were getting the same joke…

Ah, and then there’s the question of your partner, what having children means for that. My husband and I met more than a decade ago, it’s a weird thought, we were only kids ourselves, we’ve been together as a couple almost our entire adult lives. It annoys me how he never cleans up as he goes when he cooks dinner and how he misplaces objects like keys and glasses and then acts likes it’s a weird mystery that he can never find them. It annoys him that I get annoyed by things like this. Every morning, he gets up when the little dude wakes and does the first nappy change of the day. Every night, I think he looks too tired. When we got engaged, another one my dear friends (“you have great friends” says my mum) said “Yay! You’ve found your forever person!”. And this is true, and part of me feels like having children is sweeter and more full-bodied because they are his children, they are our children; then that shadow of the life unlived points out that perhaps we would have been equally fulfilled if we had never gone forth and multiplied, because we would have had more time for each other.

The shadow life isn’t a demon here, it’s just the devil’s advocate, pointing out that there is no need to affirm that what you have is the best, pointing out that different might have been equally good. And the only conclusion I come to is that it’s best not to overthink life. Children: you either have them or you don’t, and either way, each day you wake up to the life you’re living, with its various joys and challenges, its pain and loss, the potential for discovery and kindness and newness and sameness; and that’s all part of the exhilarating contradiction of existence that each of us experiences in an entirely personal way, and that’s fine, that’s how it’s meant to be.