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Do children give your life meaning? I’m sorry to hear that

Photo/ Getty mages

Why are people without kids labelled "selfish"? If anything, they should be celebrated.

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 four-year-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 “nice-lobe”. 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 home-birthed 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.    

This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of North & South.
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