Sunday, February 28, 2010

Married, No Children

Here are some lyrics you won’t hear on a Raffi album.

Pregnant women are smug,
Everyone knows it, nobody says it
Because they’re pregnant.
Effing son of a gun
You think you’re so deep now, you give me the creeps now
Now that you’re pregnant.”

The derivatively named, Garfunkel and Oats, a team of LA performers sings this little ditty. When you watch their performance on YouTube, you might notice that for all their sting and strum, when it comes to smug self-appreciation, they are the ones who deserve a serenade.

I’m going to guess that neither of these women has ever experienced morning sickness, back pain, leg cramps, constipation, acid reflux, months of Braxton Hicks contractions, and actual labor. If they had, they might cut pregnant women some slack for feeling, on occasion, like something rather special was going on in their otherwise unrecognizable bodies.

Still, point taken. The glow from our gestating sisters could probably confuse nesting sea turtles. And, once the baby is born, watch out. Smugness does not fully describe the pride parents take in their children’s existence.

But, it doesn’t accurately describe it either.

I asked a friend who has chosen a childfree marriage how she felt about living in a culture that was so kid-centric.

“I don’t think the world is kid-centric once you’re committed to not having one.”

But, it’s true, she says, that most of her friends are either single or a bit older. Being a married couple in their early forties, without kids, leaves them with fewer peers.

How do the childfree and the childbound co-exist? More important, how do friendships between the two last?

Moms I spoke with said the hardest thing about maintaining that friendship was simply getting together.

And, from the other perspective, the couple without kids might get tired of being invited to kids’ birthday parties, or having grape juice spilled on their white carpets. Or of the expectation that the woman in the childfree couple would love to keep an eye on the kids as a way to make up for all the time she doesn’t get with children.

“I’d rather spend the day with an otter,” said one environmentalist.

And, they grow a bit tired of the questions.

“Sometimes people don’t ask in fear that I have a medical condition,” said the environmentalist.

But, I asked.

She and her husband have been married for eleven years. They’ve welcomed several dogs into their lives, but children are not in the picture. Why?

“The field I am in, environmental issues, is a downer. We are never going to win. The planet is suffering. I don’t feel as bad for humans as I do for plants and animals. I think being in environmental work for so long and getting into it at the time when I should have thought about having kids---it really affected the way I thought about it.”

What does she think about population growth, the reason Alexandra Paul, the actress and activist, stated in her recent article in The Huffington Post?

“I have a friend who is a scientist. He’s thirty-six and not married. Got a vasectomy. He’d been travelling in India and China. It’s not a secret, either. He’s making a statement.”

It was a different statement, but same surgery, talked about miles away in a Manhattan firm. I spoke with a woman in her mid-thirties in the financial industry. A colleague half-joked that her husband should consider getting a vasectomy to keep her from being becoming distracted by parenthood.

“I think there is unfairness to single and childless people at work,” said the woman in environmental issues, “it’s assumed we can stay until ten, or don’t have to go to a soccer game.”

A classification that is tiresome, but also a boon.

“It depends on the person, but I think (not having kids) shows huge flexibility and extra brain space.” And, sometimes, she believes, makes her more attractive to potential employers.

Laura Carroll, the author of Families of Two, writes of the words we use to describe couples with no children. Childless, was replaced by Childfree in the 1970’s. Families of Two, is a phrase unburdened by what she calls, pronatalism, a view that she says is, “the backbone of why those who don’t want children are judged. It’s our deep seated value system that is pro-baby, encourages reproduction, and exalts the role of parenthood.”

What a crazy world. The same culture that exalts parenthood tells SAHM’s they are wasting their talents; penalizes working moms who’ve taken time off; makes same sex couples jump through hoops, and sells us expensive cars and strollers to restore the loss of value and relevance we suffered once we became parents.

When faced with such a dilemma, I usually turn to Facebook. For distraction, of course, not for answers.

But, I recently had coffee with a friend who has chosen to be a family of two, and she revealed a secret from the other side of the Facebook pages. You know those status updates you post about your kids?

Not everybody thinks they’re cute.

Some “friends” actually repost them with remarks of their own. I think the word, “snarky” might best describe the commentary.

Although, it might just be push-back for a few annoyances:

“I bought a baby present for a friend at Babies R Us”, said the environmentalist, “and now I get samples of Similac mailed to me every month.”

“One of the partners asked me if I’d ever fathered a child,” said the woman in finance.” “He sort of forgot I was a woman.”

“A relative asked us why we even bothered getting married.”

And, why is it we expect families of two to have a prepared statement explaining their lifestyle? Given the stakes, doesn’t it make more sense to expect that of those who have children?

“You say you’re walking on air
You think that you’re glowing
But you’ve been ho’ing
And now you’re pregnant.”

“What about when you get old?” I asked the women in environmental issues. “You won’t have grown children to help you?”

No, but they won’t feel the pressure to live near family, either. In her view, they will have freedom.

“We can think about anything we want. We could move to Hawaii.”

Then she said something that highlighted my own smugness about the universal virtues of children, more than any lyric I've seen by Garfunkel and Oats:

“You never know what you’re going to get. Your kids could be awful.”

Coming back to the idea of friendships, it is hard to admit that becoming a parent can radically change a relationship, especially one that might date back to the time of childhood, itself. But the attention required by a child introduces a wedge. Just think how a parent’s behavior would be viewed if the object of their attention was not a little kid: to be distracted and obsessed, incapable of finishing a conversation, fascinated by the new things it can do. Oh, wait, that’s how people relate to their iPhones.

Having children, I suppose, is more like introducing your new friend, who you think is Brooke Shields, to your old friends, Natalie and Tutti. Sooner or later, they know you’re moving on.

I turned to Shakespeare, whose first sixteen sonnets urge procreation as the best way to outwit mortality. But, then comes Sonnet 17, and the beginning of Shakespeare’s much more persuasive argument that it’s in his verse that the object of his poems, and he himself, will be remembered.

And, really, did Shakespeare reach immortality because he was a father-of-three or because he wrote Hamlet?

But, then, again, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600, four years after the death of his only son, at age eleven. The name of the boy? Change a letter and it’s one you’ve known all along.

His son’s name was Hamnet.


Anonymous said...

great ending!

Anonymous said...

so well written, Sarah! Keep up the good work.