C.A.L.I.*

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“Studies reveal that most married couples start out happy and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives, becoming especially disconsolate when their children are in diapers and in adolescence, and returning to their initial levels of happiness only after their children have had the decency to grow up and go away.”

—Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

I’m thirty-six years old and I don’t have kids.

Now there’s a sentence that can’t be neutral, even if every word in it is as short and bald as a baby. Who would choose to assert a lack? Yet the other ways we’ve tried to say it—like “childfree”— sound awkward and pointed, like insisting on “Ms” did in the seventies.

My parents were young when they had me, and I got used to being the oldest among their friends’ children. I was happier controlling the universe of half a dozen dazzled toddlers than taking my chances with kids my own age, so I turned into the kind of maternal 12-year-old girl that neighborhood mothers count on. Isn’t she great with the little ones, they’d say, grateful to be having tea and Viennese fingers while I played Ring-a-ring-a-rosy or read storybooks for hours.

I was proud of being seen as “good with kids,” and I’m still vain about it. When a three-year-old decides to be my friend, or a baby flirts, I note another conquest. God knows, it’s easy to get kids to love you: let them check you out before you look at them, don’t ask the dozy questions that most adults throw out, and if they decide to invite you into the world inside their heads, follow its logic absolutely. It’s a bonus if you’re still able and willing to jump around with them, but not vital.

My friend Andy talks about his lifelong dream never to go on a cruise. I didn’t have a lifelong dream never to have children. Like most choices, this one emerged over time from hundreds of smaller ones. Sometimes I tell my friends who are mothers that if I had ten million dollars I’d have a baby. It’s an arbitrary number, out of reach for me but just entry-level wealth down the road in Silicon Valley. Ten million dollars would fill a sandbag against the storms of change that the world and children bring. School fees, college tuition, soccer camp, braces, and psychiatry bills would get paid. I could buy back the time from my workaholic culture to be with a child, rather than working more to keep her from deprivation. I could pay for nannies when I wanted to use my brain again. Having overstretched geographically my whole grown-up life, I could shrink once again the distance between the cities I love and my family in Ireland.

It’s a cop-out, of course. I’m bound up in an individualistic, transaction-based culture, rising and falling by my own efforts, and I don’t like to need anything from the people I like and love. That membrane of separateness, of self-reliance, is as fragile and illusory as a soap bubble, and a child would pop it instantly. The ten-million-dollar thought experiment is a way to keep that bubble floating, to think about change without changing. It turns out that motherhood is one of those things that I’d like to experience, but don’t actually want to do.

In my twenties, the baby announcements were a novelty, and I remember feeling vaguely sorry for the friends who were missing out on the nights out and the sleeps in. Now most of my pals are parents, and each “We’re pregnant!” feels like the news that a friend has got a dream job in Cleveland. I’m glad for them, but there’s a large, disgruntled child in me who wants to send baby back to the hospital.

The truth is, I’m not envious of my friends who have children. I’m envious of the children who have my friends.

There’s genius in a kid’s fresh worldview, and I like to keep up with their latest sayings and doings. I play slideshows of their Hallowe’en photos on my second monitor at work. I’m a small-time scholar of fashions in child-rearing, and I ask endless questions about parenthood and the transforming, heart-stretching love that it inspires in the most unlikely people. (My friend Padraig, who once claimed that as a father he would be “harsh but cruel; distant, yet remote,” is now hopelessly in love with two small boys and a girl.) I can’t imagine what it feels to walk around with a piece of your heart outside your body, though I do remember the painful tenderness I felt for my baby sisters.

But I’ve come to prefer the company of real, live children in concentrated doses, followed by nighty-nights and grown-up chat. Children were once small, not very competent apprentices in the family enterprise, who couldn’t wait to be big and useful. Today, they are the clients, and parents act the part of the incompetent account manager, offering endless options that don’t quite please and blanket praise for every eaten pea and filled potty. (“Oh, good jo-ob, Micah!”) The whole show is tedious. Why are people spending so much time training kids to “make good choices,” and so little teaching them to accept the world with grace? (I treasure the old-fashioned, please-and-thank-you kids I know, who seem to be not just better mannered but more content.)

Karl Lagerfeld told a story about his horrible Prussian mother, who once told him, after he repeated a childish story too often, “Karl, you may be six but I am not, and your stories are very boring to me. Please try to be more interesting, or be silent.” Whenever a chat with a friend gets interrupted for the fiftieth time by a domineering five-year-old, I think fondly of monstrous Mrs. Lagerfeld.

That human reproduction should be choice at all is a comically short blip in our history, and we haven’t yet figured out how to manage it. (Looking at continental Europe, Japan, and non-immigrant America, our selfish minds seem to be winning over our selfish genes.) For now, we’re looking around us to see how many children we should have and how to raise them. My Irish friends, who can count on decent free schooling and nearby families, have three apiece. My coastal Americans started later and for the most part have just one or two.

It’s hard to rear children with just two parents, let alone one. When the rest of the community is not pitching in with advice, sanity, and day-to-day care, and won’t agree to pay for decent schools and healthcare, your little family has to hunker down. All your resources, financial, physical, and emotional, must make up for the lack of the tribe we’ve counted on for thousands of generations. You concentrate your investment in just a few precious children, so that you have enough to shield them from blows and deprivations. You offer them every opportunity you can make, and mold your day and your life to their evolving activities and needs. There isn’t much time or energy left for others, let alone yourself. And besides, you’re living with the funniest, most inspiring people you’ve ever met, and you had no idea that you could love this much. When they’re not boring you to distraction they are the most fascinating creatures on earth. What an adventure.

As your single friend, I think I get it and I’m delighted for you. But I also miss you, and I’m looking forward to solo, selfish, spontaneous sessions with you, just you. One of these days we’ll dream up more ways to make meaning in this world.

*CALI: Childless and lovin’ it.

23 comments to “C.A.L.I.*”

  1. Comment by John Cowan:

    If you’re a K-sel-ector, clap your hands;
    If you’re a K-sel-ector, clap your hands;
    If you think that two rugrats
    Are better than seven starving brats,
    Then you’re a K-sel-ector, clap your hands!

  2. Comment by India:

    “I’m not envious of my friends who have children. I’m envious of the children who have my friends.”

    Oh, that’s exactly it.

    I look forward to the day when all my friends’ kids have become too cool to associate with their parents.

  3. Comment by dervala:

    John, I think I’m a D(e)-sel-ector…

  4. Comment by dervala:

    “I look forward to the day when all my friends’ kids have become too cool to associate with their parents.”

    India, no, that’s exactly it. Except that I want to be still 36 when it happens.

  5. Comment by Bernie Goldbach:

    In many ways, Dervala is the perfect adopt-an-aunt.

  6. Comment by Tim Bray:

    “It’s so nice that you’re writing again” he said selfishly. But I’m telling all my friends that don’t already know about you.

  7. Comment by Ann:

    Brilliant Dervala! I’m on your team…I would also dare to do it with 10 million, but not a penny less.

  8. Comment by James Corbett:

    Holy crap Dervala, is that you on Santa’s knee? I have a photo from the very same year in the very same shopping centre with myself and my twin brother John on Santa’s knee! [BTW, I’m 37 and childless,... I wonder if that was really Santa]

  9. Comment by dervala:

    Yes, James, that’s me—and (inexplicably!) he thought I was a boy and gave me soldiers. Worst Santa ever.

  10. Comment by dervala:

    Bernie, especially if I do procure ten million dollars…

  11. Comment by India:

    > Except that I want to be still 36 when it happens.

    Yes, that’s the tricky part, isn’t it? (In fact, I’d be happy to just be 36 again, regardless . . .)

  12. Comment by JerryT:

    “Studies reveal that most married couples start out happy and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives, becoming especially disconsolate when their children are in diapers and in adolescence, and returning to their initial levels of happiness only after their children have had the decency to grow up and go away.”

    This is a lie. The best of times is when the children are at home. :)

  13. Comment by Chris:

    What a wonderful piece. Thanks for putting into words something I’ve been struggling with for a while.

  14. Comment by Jack Dalton:

    I’d have thought that being more interesting comes accidentally to us. If at all. Being silent is often easier and the rest is just about reaching Isadora; with its square and low wall waiting.

    But of course I may be wrong…

    Another wonderful piece. Thank you.

  15. Comment by Hangar Queen:

    Lovely stuff.My three are already far too cool for me but occasionally they will deign to include me in their carry-on.Earlier tonight we all ran out and pressed a rake of glass beads into a just poured cement wall.The state had taken a few feet of our yard and gave us a nice wall to partly make up for it.
    The sight of a 5,4 and 2 year olds sticking the beads in the wet cement soon drew the attention of some scary looking West Viginia construction dudes.They laughed,produced rubber mallets to embed the beads and joined the kids in decorating the wall.

    Incidentally I have a great pic of me with the 1976 Todds’ Santa.Madness.

  16. Comment by Ronan:

    Yes, its impossibly hard. We have 2 and one more coming. Do I miss life B.C. (Before Children)? We could travel and go out a lot (more than a handful of times a year!). Had friends that we didn’t just talk about kids with.

    Sure I enjoyed that time, but there comes a point (for me anyway) when you realize the party’s over. I especially liked the point about how precocious kids are now. That’s why you need more than one. Otherwise the little emperor (or empress) rules the roost. All in all, they’re worth it I think.

    I wonder if the day will come when the government will pay us to have them. Instead of punishing us for having them like it does now. Its better in Canada than Ireland but in America its insane. I think if society actively supported parenting children at home then a lot of the attitudes you talk about would change. That means subsidizing someone to stay home with them while they are small.

    We both worked when our first was small and it was a nightmare. This was Celtic Tiger Ireland with the hour and a half commute— drop the kid in the creche before dawn and see them for a half hour before bed at night. I know that we are very lucky that we can manage with only one of us working now. (Needless to say we said goodbye to the never-ending party of the Celtic Tiger and moved away) Even the terms we use are wrong. The partner minding the children works just as hard as the “real worker”. Why should keeping a family strong not be seen as a career. Apologies for the rant but unless you are very lucky at what you work at I can’t see much that is more rewarding than having kids.

  17. Comment by dervala:

    Such a treat—I was cleaning out my comment spam folder this morning (2000+ messages) and discovered all these extra, recent comments that were wrongly filtered. I’m thrilled to hear from you all, makes it all worthwhile.

  18. Comment by dervala:

    Ronan, I totally get your rant (and I do see and hope for the day when the incentives are skewed toward having children, or at least not so strongly skewed against.)

    My piece is really about how it feels to be a woman in my late 30s and constantly facing awkward sympathy, as if having children were the only life that’s rewarding. It’s not, and nor is deciding not to have children about wanting to keep the party going. (Okay, a bit.) :-)

    Who in the world is going to say that their children are/were not worth it? To me, the equivalent is being able to say that yes, not having children is also a sacrifice—I know that I am missing an extraordinary experience—but that conscious sacrifice is also worth it.

    I once thought that having a family was the be-all and end-all. I’m amazed to find that I no longer do, and not only that, but that I’m fed up with how puny that perspective is. I respect the institution of the family, though I feel a bit sorry for its tattered state these days. And it’s nice when parent-types respect us childless women back, rather than assuming we made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in Barren Lane.

    Nice job ditching on the Tiger early—it looked like a car crash then, and it looks even worse now.

  19. Comment by Ronan:

    Thanks Dervala,

    By the way, that Santa picture is priceless. My wife coincidentally uncovered a similar one of my sister and I at Switzers in 1974. Santa had a very dodgy looking cotton wool beard. It was sponsored by Paddy’s whiskey of course!

  20. Comment by Hangar Queen:

    Looking at it again your Santa has the air of a whacked out East LA Vato about him.

    Class.

  21. Comment by finnyknits:

    Thank you for this post. My buddy Elkit linked me over here and it’s a perspective I’m always seeking – the voice of a childfree woman over 30.

    My husband and I have never wanted kids, but that hasn’t stopped our families from asking us repeatedly if we’ve “changed our minds”.

    As though you can go from having zero desire for a life changing event to an all-consuming desire overnight.

    I’ve never made a blog topic request before, but I’d love to hear more about your experiences and thoughts as a childfree adult.

    Great post.

  22. Comment by Nicole:

    Hi Dervala,

    I came across your blog via Penelope Trunk’s by accident.

    I felt like this was an entry from my own soul. I am at this exact position in life. I am 33 and have never wanted kids. I even told my fiance that if he wants kids from me that I have just a few requirements:

    1. I require one nanny per kid

    2. I require a 2 week, kid-free vacation to a destination of my choice per year, per kid.

    3. A personal trainer, 3 days a week to get my bum back where it belongs.

    So imagine, 2 kids = 2 nannies + 4 weeks vacation anywhere! Yippee! Earlier in our relationship, he could not afford that, so it was a great deterrent but now he can. Damn!

    We also live in Norway where the gov’t rewards people for having children. It is a sweet deal! They can receive 35,000 NOK ($5000 USD) just for having the kid if the mother does not have a job, both parents receive maternity leave. It is 6 weeks for the parent that chooses to remain working, AND the stay-at-home parent gets to keep his or her job and pay (though slightly reduced) AND 1 year maternity leave, plus the yearly required paid (3-6 week) vacation. Wonderful!

    That being said, I am the only childless female left in the group. I am the oddity. I miss my friends in the same way you have perfectly decribed. I still see them often though it is not the same now that the babies are around. Now, it is as if they are distracted by a huge, madly-ringing cell phone, though he is cute as a button! Trying to arrange a coffee date is similar to extracting the troops from Iraq.

    The pressure is on from all sides to join this baby cult, family members (both sides), friends, employers, Norway, even my man is starting to look at me funny. I look at these new moms lugging around strollers in the snow, worn-out from lack of sleep, hair wild and clothes rumpled from lack of personal time, stressed about finding a sitter just to go to the movies and then they still have to look after their husbands. Nothing about this seems appealing to me and yet I feel like I am going to sucked into this tornado before too long.

    Yes, motherhood is supposed to be this wonderful thing yet while growing up, yet all the moms even my own said, “Don’t do it! Hold out as long as possible!” My 98 year-old great-grandmother had 13 kids and those were her exact words in our final conversation. Kids like me, I think they are cool, for other people. I prefer dogs.

    So thanks for putting this entry out into the world, it is nice to know I am not alone.

  23. Comment by Arianne:

    My father once told me “You shouldn’t want to have kids. You should want kids to have you” which is complemented so well by your “I’m not envious of my friends who have children. I’m envious of the children who have my friends”. Great post – I’m on the same page.