I was fourteen on the night I was bushwhacked by my father as he sat sipping his Seagrams 7 and 7-Up in the unlighted living room.
I tiptoed downstairs in the dark with the intent of reaching the basement, where the television lured with its single channel, WGAL-TV 8 (NBC). (In our household WGAL entertained, including our mother, seven “gals,” our father rounding it off to 8 viewers in the household, as if we were preeminent in the station’s study of its demographics.)
I tiptoed hoping to avoid any chance encounter with a parent. A couple of my sisters had preceded me downstairs, and all I wanted was to negotiate for space on the couch, knowing that would require a fair amount of pushing, pulling and pinching, before settling in to watch the antics of James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock.
I did not see my father sitting in the dark. I did not hear the clink of ice cubes rearranging themselves in his glass, so common a sound that perhaps I no longer heard it.
Slurring his words, he beckoned to me. “Steph, c’mere a minute.” Explaining that Captain Kirk waited for no one would be futile. I did what I was told.
I slumped next to him in the dark living room. My drunken father placed an arm around my shoulders, and, deeming it the best possible moment to enlighten me as to the limitless happiness he experienced when I was born, he said: “You were the first. I knew I could do it. The rest didn’t matter.”
I knew he didn’t mean he loved my sisters less, only that never again did he experience that jolt of joy as he did when I popped out healthy and whole. Been there done that.
Not for the first time, with fourteen years experience of my father’s parenting techniques, I thought: there are people in the world not cut out to be parents. My father was one of those people.
I may be another, possibly due, in part, to that particular evening.
I receive both sympathy and criticism for not having had children. In my travels, particularly in rural areas of the Third World, it was always the first question from friendly, curious women: “How many children do you have?” In India and Indonesia, these women stroked my hair, and told me how sorry they were that I was unable to birth children. Never would it occur to them that it was a conscious choice. Or, if not exactly a choice, an absence, of that maternal pull that enveloped so many women, and pitched them into paroxysms of grief if they are unable to conceive. I have not experienced that particular heartache.
I had a prescription for contraceptives, and eventually married a man who’d had a vasectomy before we met.
There are some, mostly women, who believe women like me are selfish. We are not willing to sacrifice aspects of our lives to raise a child. I’ve read this many times on mommy blogger sites, heard it shouted by pundits on quasi-news shows.
In 2007, Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize for her novel, The Gathering. It’s a dark, but beautifully rendered evocation of family, and grief. In it the main character resents her parents for having too many children. Unaware and unthinking they never considered the consequences of their selfish behavior on all those children.
Reading this was a revelation. Finally, someone put into print, the equivalent of speaking aloud, something I’d felt for a long time.
Because you want something doesn’t mean you ought to have it. I have a friend who suffers from severe, debilitating anxiety. It’s in her family, in her DNA. She and her husband would like to have a child of their own, but have made the decision not to, for the child’s sake, not the mother’s. They won’t take the chance of having a son or daughter experience the turmoil the would-be mother has endured throughout her life.
How do you feel about the Duggars exploiting their 19 kids on a reality show to pay the bills? How do you feel about the older kids raising the younger kids because the parents lack the time, and the energy?
Those who choose not to have kids, whatever their reason, or however it came to pass ought to be celebrated, not criticized for our lack of ability, according to someone’s standards, to “sacrifice” our selfish lifestyles. We’re a counterbalance to those who have too many kids. Yes, there is such a thing as having too many kids.
So many parents have kids for the wrong reasons. My father had his first kid as evidence of his sperms’ macho motility. The rest came along with little thought. My mother was very young, very fertile, and Catholic.
The childless by choice are not lazy, or selfish. The child bearers are not self-indulgent at the expense of their kids. Or are we, or are they?
One thing I do know is that I’m an awesome Aunt. If any of you moms feel you’ve been sacrificing too much send your darlings to me for a summer break. I’m happy to sacrifice my summer for their enjoyment. As my nieces will tell you we have a blast!