On a sunny London morning, a woman careened towards me with a baby carriage, smiling and bouncing with happy. I had just spilled hot coffee down my arm and the front of my shirt. As she rolled past me, all I could think was, “Oh good, an ashtray,” having the unambiguous urge to toss my cigarette into the seemingly vacant cavity she pushed along the sidewalk. It’s not that I want to maim or flick ash onto a baby’s face, it’s just that I am very much unaware, distracted, often bemused by my own wanderings, that I do not harness or observe the presence of baby energy.
I am not that girl.
Often, my awakening to children and babies is forced—an occurrence delivered with high-pitched screams and tension, for me, most evident, while trapped at the airport. At LAX, I was waiting to board my flight to Sydney, when a family comprised of two sunken eyed, exhausted parents and three children entered my world: there was the eldest girl in pigtails, under ten, her brother, not over six or seven, and some version of a toddler (girl or boy, I didn’t care, the parents didn’t seem to either, belied by the deliberately androgynous haircut).
As in many travel situations, I tried not to be overwhelmed by natural, unavoidable annoyances—other people’s odors, amplified announcements, delays, lost baggage, and harsh lighting. The most affecting irritations are invoked by the ignorance of others: this is the kind that cannot be so quickly diffused or excused. In this case, the parents thought it a socially responsible idea to give their children toy instruments—one had a drum, the other, a recorder, and the youngest, some kind of electronic percussion instrument. The parents were oblivious to the eye-rolling directed at them, remaining not only unaware and slouching, but unsympathetic to the fact that no one, not even the most desperate, unmarried, Midwestern girl, thinks their kids are as cute as they do. When the little bastards got bored, they threw their instruments on the carpet and wandered towards the windows, pounding and pawing, leaving large greasy fingerprints that were made visible by a setting sun through the glass, the planes hovering distantly, in an otherwise beautiful shot.
When children are present, IQ’s plummet: speech, manner of reason, and appreciation for the general welfare of the public is irrelevant—normal social skills need not apply. I have heard from some mother-friends of mine that walking out of the house covered in bodily fluids becomes normalized. Parents are swayed only by acts that will potentially quell their screaming children and move as quickly as possible through each moment, each day. As my one divorced single-father friend once so eloquently explained, “You give up your whole life to take care of these ungrateful little pieces of… people.”
Waiting to board the ferry from Malaga to Melilla, I was stuck at a coffee shop guarding a pile of bags while my twenty-something travel buddies wandered around looking to find the ticket counter. I was stopped on the street by an Irish woman and her husband, also lost, having just given a confused, panoramic, sun-shielded glance of the pier. Both looked younger from far away than they did up close (skinny and smiling, even if falsely, signal youth). She had the kind of legs even Barbie would admire, slim and tan, wearing a short jean skirt like a high school cheerleader. They introduced themselves (“Sheila and Jim”) and we helped each other navigate entry, gather tickets, find the ramp and forge ahead with our bags. Lagging behind, I watched them holding hands and skipping up the ramp.
After boarding the ferry, I learned that the couple was in their mid-forties and had married late. They fell in love and both agreed they did not want to have children. They had traveled to Africa several times and were currently on an excursion to Chefchaouen to find some of the best hash in Morocco. They had done their research. Jim pulled out a notebook of literature on how to buy pot in Morocco, the illegalities, ways not to get caught and the best cities to find what you are looking for. They invited us to join them on their exploits, but we were headed 14 hours in the opposite direction.
Sheila and I bumped into each other as she was coming out of the bathroom and I had to ask, “Now, really, what is your secret? How did you get those legs?”
She laughed and said, “Everyone says that. It’s nothing really. I have my father’s skinny gene.” She asked me about what I was doing in Morocco and my travels. We talked rapidly and succinctly, each of us baring our own life story as though there were no other place to have this conversation, but in the hallway, outside the ferry bathroom on the Strait of Gibraltar. When she found out I had called off my wedding she said, “I think that is great. You know, there are so many young girls who just don’t even realize what is out there. They don’t even know what they are capable of. I decided very young not to have children, so it was never hard for me.”
Not that I am one of these “young girls” she describes, but the advice, support and confirmation was well-received. For the first time, I wasn’t being asked, “Don’t you want to be married?” or, “Why don’t you have children?”
Sheila was wild and hard, but also tender and motherly: when a button broke on my shirt, she kindly gave me some scissors and sewing equipment. When I broke the scissors, she smiled, and winked, then the lines on her sun-infused, freckled skin feathered when she refused the leftover Euros in my purse. Sheila and Jim gave us maps and led us off the boat, hailing us a cab and giving us instructions on how to get through customs at midnight.
A month later, I met an older woman on the train to Manchester traveling from the Grasmere Lake District in Northern England. She was returning to Spain to see her husband and children, striking me as lonely and overly gregarious, almost pushy, but proud to talk about her family. She told us about her daughters, one who had two children, and the other, a married lawyer who had made the decision not to have children at all. This was the only moment she ever looked sad, looking down at her hands that clenched tightly, “I fear she is missing on what is important. She may have her travel and her money, but what is it worth in the end?”
My parents try to goad me into the childrearing life-phase, explaining that, “No one is ever ready,” but it seems clear that some people are never ready and should not be populating this world at all. Recently, I stayed with a photographer friend in Minneapolis: early forties, single father, half-French, half-Mexican with beautiful tan skin, green eyes, and white teeth, like the grown child of a dentist. Ramon and I sat at the picnic table in his backyard, drinking wine while he showed me a photo album, spanning his college years through the present. Most of them were of girlfriends, including the mother of his child, and sundry models, one he introduced as a heroin addict who had since overdosed: “I have worked with the best,” he told me.
While he proudly explained that his daughter was the best thing that happened to him, the story was complicated. His model-girlfriend became pregnant only weeks before he intended to leave her and return to Mexico to become a filmmaker. For the first year, he played part-time father, coming in and out and contributing when necessary. After they separated, when his daughter was only two years old, he was called by Child Protective Services because his ex-girlfriend overdosed and ended up in rehab.
He was later awarded full-custody, which sparked a subsequent legal battle after her release. While looking at photographs, he showed me what was once a crucial piece of evidence during litigation: a photo taken of his toddler daughter draped over her strung out mother, covered and colored in make-up. There was something beautiful and haunting about the way his daughter had applied the eyeliner and blush, as though she mimicked the drug addict mother with dark, sunken eyes and heavy, pouting lips. The two small bodies were entwined, the child’s head resting on her mother’s naked and skinny hip. This photo that told a childhood of stories, was blown up poster-sized and called Evidence A.
The photo itself became infamous and he was awarded full custody. I suggested it was art.
I have a friend in New York, a few years shy of 40, who is unmarried and desperate for a child. Last time I visited her, we laid on our backs in her bed like crazy women, brainstorming how she could “accidentally” get her relatively new boyfriend to knock her up. In this case, the straightforward request would not do: he wasn’t ready and they weren’t married, though she felt her biological clock ticking inside her like a suicide bomb. The guy was also an overly responsible Wall Street type so it wasn’t like he was susceptible to any “fast ones.” We thought of the obvious: poking holes in the condoms or getting him drunk. When pressing other friends for suggestions, one recommended taking the used condom into the bathroom and pulling the turkey baster trick. Still, we found logistical, biological, and moral issues with this brilliant, but diabolical scheme.
This desperation is not unnoted. Children do become an extension of the self, even if unknowingly. It starts out biologically, then evolves, into general dependence and personal accountability, at some point sort of morphing into a kind of individual satisfaction… though the inverse is also true. Considering the death of her child, I know of a woman who explained that even though she knew her son’s suicide was not her fault, she could not get over what felt like the death of something inside her–the death of herself. The parent-child relationship is one I have yet to understand, though its beauty and tragedy, often confusing, cannot be shorted.
Recently I have been impressed by the simple, utter joy experienced by grandparents. I sat at a café in Vietnam and was approached by an older couple who were announcing the birth of their first grandson. Without knowing me, or speaking English, they treated me to breakfast and coffee (announced via our translating waitress). In Dublin, I met a man at the bar who bought a round for the bar celebrating the birth of his grandson, explaining to me that, “Der ain’t any greater joy than seein yar grandbabes.” My own parents are like reborn Christians, dizzy with devotion to their new grandchildren. Recently, at a hotel, I met a man at the bar who glowed when he announced his daughter was having twins, even though she was still in college and unmarried. There is no shame when welcoming new life.
Since my brief return to the States, I have had to confront the reality of the overwhelming place that children occupy in the world. This was a summer of family reunions, birthday parties, weddings, showers and birth announcements, introductions to newborns, and the harrowing sense that time is pushing all of us forward. Grocery shopping, Interstate stops and suburbs remind me that the economy, culture and psychology of the world is directed at cultivating, socializing, and providing for the next generation. Why wouldn’t it?
My life is not amenable to children and I have not yet swallowed the rhetoric (women without children are selfish or sterile). Abandoning the Midwest seems like a good idea for now, where people like to procreate and mid-twenties pregnancy seems to catch like wildfire. Armies of families begin to form young, making it hard not to feel alone when everyone in your age bracket has at least two other bodies hanging from them.
Before I packed my car again and left for San Francisco, I was at a corner café/bar with a friend in Milwaukee. We were having mimosas in the afternoon before a thunderstorm forced everyone to huddle inside. In close quarters, the owner handed out serapes to keep us dry. While squeezing into a corner booth, we were approached by two children, a boy around eight, and his sister, probably five or six. This wasn’t the normal case of, “Jesus, where are your parents?” They were cute, funny, polite, and said things like, “When I grow up, I am going to be a rock star, a soccer player, or a restaurant owner,” (he had compelling reasons for all three). We talked about dinosaurs, favorite superpowers, fairies, vampires and children’s movies I hadn’t considered in years. Outside, the thunder crashed, the lightening lit the summer sky and the rain cut streams through the gutters and past the row of cars parked on the street. Until the storm settled, we played catch with a ball made of rubber bands, acted out dragon slayer scenes and pretended we were ninjas. Imagination transcends time and space…it didn’t matter where we were.
Though I am moving forward independently and perpetually feeling somewhat unhinged (for better or for worse), there is always the potential for new influences. Despite my reservations, I can embrace this one thing: channeling imagination and a kind of detachment from a world that has not yet jaded them, children make people happy…stupid happy, the kind of happy where you lose yourself, if only for a moment.