I Ate My Children by Heide Island

We took a seat at a corner, 1960s style round table with a laminate top, only three of the four feet made contact with the cement floor. As we set our coffee mugs down, a Victorian table lamp with a scarlet, silk shade wobbled on its base. The beaded fringe continued to wag while we arranged our drinks and papers.

Emanuel and I had just met at our university’s annual research symposium for the Board of Trustees. Our posters were assigned adjacent spaces along the wall. Ours were the only neuroscience presentations. While standing beside our work and in between answering questions, we exchanged pleasantries and discussed our projects.  Both of us were struggling to garner grants, the work engine for empirical research.  By the end of the symposium, we scheduled coffee for the following week to discuss the possibility of collaboration.

Emanuel bent his head forward and took a sip from his coffee. As he leaned on the table, ceramic poodle salt and peppershakers clinked together. 

“Wow traffic on the Sunset was brutal this morning,” I said, breathless. 

“You don’t live in the Grove?” he asked, shifting in his chair and sloshing coffee onto our papers.

“No, I live in North Portland,” I folded a napkin and shoved it under one of the table legs. “It's about a forty-five minute drive to get here in the mornings,” I said.

“I love Portland,” Emanuel replied, smoothing his graying hair into a short ponytail at the nape of his neck. “We would live there too but with kids, it’s easier to stay near campus.  Do you and your husband have kids?” he asked, handing me his Curriculum Vitae and research summaries.

I took his papers and thumbed through the first page. “Um, no,” I said absently, not looking up. “Oh it looks like your project on visual search and frontal lobe injury would overlap with my project on post-concussive syndrome,” I offered.

Emanuel repositioned the lordotic Betty Boop collectibles huddled on the shelf above our table. Each figure now faced forward: Betty Belly Dancer, Betty Cowgirl, Patriotic Betty and Nurse Betty, a little troupe of conforming figurines.

“Oh, well you’re young enough,” he winked, “you still have time.”

One of my students walked through the front door.  Her eyes brightened in recognition. She took a step in our direction but turned away when she saw I wasn’t alone.   She gave me a wave instead.

“I’m sorry, what?” I asked.

“You still have time to change your mind,” he said grinning, “about children.” 

“Well, no. Tom and I chose not to have children.” I said, taking a swig of coffee and silently willing him to get on topic. I hand him my Institutional Review Board proposal on post-concussive syndrome, along with my CV, and a couple recent publications.  Not looking away, he took the folder and set it in front of him, leaning in, he wobbled the table, his elbows dimpling the laminate surface.

“I just can’t imagine not having kids,” he breathed, the smell of coffee and creamer on his breath. The Betty Boop gargoyles above Emanuel’s head are chinless, with square faces and wide, vacant eyes.

 “You know, there is just nothing like looking at your baby’s face for the first time,” he continued, “don’t you feel like you might be missing out?”

~

 

"Who will care for you when you age?”

“Don’t you worry about being alone?”

“Who will you bequeath your legacy?”

“Don’t you worry you will regret the decision?”

Childfree websites and blogs refer to these questions as “Breeder Bingo.”[1] Since introductions personal or professional, generally follow an unspoken rubric: work, marriage, and children, in that order, there is always the potential for an unanticipated game of Bingo.  The voluntary childless learn to be wary of their answers, careful not to out their parenting positions.  Breeder Bingo questions belie the underlying motivations parents hold in choosing to have children: an affection for kids; a desire for a larger family; a parental longing; a couple’s desire to create a life together, the establishment of a biological legacy; or less nobly, an insurance policy through old age. Or perhaps there is no motivation, parenting occurs through chance, or accident, the result of defective or negligent birth control.  Regardless of the reason, there are an equal number of reasons not parent. This though, requires an explanation. I have yet to overhear a parent cornered at a party, palming a beer and staring wistfully at a smoke alarm, as a sister, co-worker, or drunken uncle jeers, “So tell me, why do you have kids?” The desire to have children is the default assumption. The childfree must defend their reasons to opt out of procreating, unwitting ambassadors to what was likely a rigorously discussed and carefully considered decision.  Unless you’re an unwed teenager with a crack habit, this irreversible, transformative, and expensive decision, the decision to parent, requires no explanation, no introspective analysis, no provisional paragraph of intent, no parenting plan, no license, and no mission statement. It often feels as though, we as a society, question the parenting decision of the single, 17-year old, cocaine addict less than the responsible, employed, adult childfree couple. Rather we might question the timing, “of course you want a child, but wouldn’t it be better if you graduated, found a job, got married, and kicked the crack?” Historically, the idea of a biological imperative drove the assumption that we felt a need to procreate. But evolutionary biologists have demonstrated that this is not necessarily the case for all members of a given species. Kin selection allows some members of a species to contribute to caregiving without actually procreating themselves.  The biological imperative is to have sex, not necessarily to parent. Not everyone hears the ticking of a biological clock.  Despite this and the growing corpus of literature that suggests that the voluntary childless are happy, productive, healthy, and fulfilled members of their communities, there are still those who require explanation for the choice.

~

The waitress refilled our coffee. “It’s such a blessing to have family as you get older.” Emanuel gushed. I’m worried he might start chanting. This man had the persistence of Ken Starr.  I wondered if childless men get the same inquest.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” he said. “Have you considered what you’ll do if your health fails? Don’t you worry you will regret it? Not having kids?” 

“Well, you know we do have health insurance, Emanuel,” I said a little sarcastic, Emanuel’s lips pursed in a tight smile. I made an overt gesture toward our papers on the table. “So what do you think about grants?  Are you in the process of applying for soft money?” I asked.

He glanced at the papers on the table but seemed disinterested in the purpose of our meeting.  He studied me across the table.

“Seriously though,” he continued, “what about during holidays?”

I moved our papers, aligning them side-by-side.  I could not believe I was still in this conversation. I should have ordered something to eat. French fries with truffle oil, I would kill for French fries. This reminded me of a quote from the comedian W.C. Fields, “I like children…fried,” he said.  ‘With truffle oil,’ I thought.

Emanuel picked at the table’s Tabasco bottle, shucking away the sagging label with his fingernail.

“What about when your parents pass away? You won’t have family,” he said, a long curl of wilted red paper lifted away from the Tabasco.

 “I’m hoping Tom will still be around. I believe husbands count as family,” I retort. “Besides, I’m an only child. My house was always empty and Tom’s family is huge. We get to be the fun aunt and uncle.”  

~

 

Children are the glue that defines a family. In the absence of children, regardless of sexual orientation, a family of two is simply a couple.[2] The voluntary childless are the itchy kid in the corner, with a head full of lice.  Of course, they should be seeking out the Nix bottle, cleansing the loneliness and the social isolation and joining their peers during story time. Instead, they elect to sit in the corner with an empty nest and an abbreviated biological legacy.  This invisibility of the two-person family is particularly evident in counseling and community resources. Rita DeMaria and Sari Harrar, the authors of the Seven Stages of Marriage, a popular self-help trade book, outlined the development of a happy marriage through seven stages. Since three of the seven stages are based on the conflicts and attachments that develop following children, the childfree couple is destined to a marital purgatory, endlessly looping through four of the seven stages.[3] The reality of this perception is unfounded within the empirical literature. 

Psychologist Marsha Somers of Temple University surveyed 74 voluntary childless couples and 127 parents about their parenting decisions, including post-decisional regret. She found that despite the stereotype that the voluntary childless are lonely, not a single individual within the childfree sample reported dissatisfaction or remorse concerning their reproductive choice.  In contrast, several parents reported regret and general unhappiness with their parenting decision. This number certainly, was small, only 4 respondents from the entire parenting sample.[4] Further, these results do not necessarily generalize to all parents, or all voluntary childless adults. Nor do they suggest that couples who parent secretly long for the childfree days. But these findings are consistent among the growing literature of the childfree demographic. Zhang and Hayward similarly found no significant difference in self-reported depression or loneliness between parents and childless adults of advanced age.[5] Among Canadian elderly, there were no significant differences in emotional, physical and financial stability between parents and the voluntary childless.[6] At the end of life, the childfree did not regret their parenting decisions, nor did post-menopausal women report post-fertility regret. In longitudinal studies of U.S. and Welch adults, the voluntary childless entered residential care at lower levels of disability, thereby incurring less economic costs later in life than their parenting peers.[7,8] But the stereotypes persist.

~

 

Finally, blessedly, Emanuel opened my folder. He glanced down at the IRB proposal.             

“You know,” he said lifting the proposal and thumbing through the rest of the papers, “having your own children is different, better than just being an aunt and uncle.”

My chest tightened, all of my patience pushed out. The flock of Betty Boops glowered at me from their perch. Helen Mirren, the talented British actress, allegedly said in an interview, “Motherhood holds no interest for me.  It was not my destiny. I kept thinking it would be, waiting for it to happen, but it never did. I didn’t care what people thought. And whenever they went, 'what? No children? Well, you’d better get on with it, old girl,’ I’d say 'No! Fuck off!’” [9]

I closed Emanuel’s research folder, placed my hands over his vitae, research statement, and his most recent publication. Taking my cue from Dame Mirren and pulling from the chop of WC Fields, I abandoned my ambassadorship. 

“Emanuel,” I said looking him in the eyes, “we did have children but I ate them.”

 

 

References

 

1. VirtualDavis (2013). Why No Kids? http://whynokids.com/advice-tips/breeder-bingo/

2. Forsyth C (1999) The Perspectives of Childless Couples. International Review of Modern Sociology 29: 59-70.

3. DeMaria RHS (2006) Seven Stages of Marriage: Laughter, Intimacy, and Passion Today, Tomorrow and Forever. New York, NY: Readers Digest.

4. Somers MD (1993) A comparison of the voluntary childfree adults and parents. Journal of Marriage and Family 55: 643-650.

5. Zhang ZH, MD (2001) Childlessness and the Psychological Well-Being of Older Persons. The Journal of Gerontology 56B: S311-S320.

6. Rempel J (1985) Childless Elderly: What are they missing? . Journal of Marriage and the Family 47: 343-348.

7. Aykan H (2003) Effect of childlessness on nursing home and home health care use. Journal of Aging and Social Policy 15: 33-53.

8. Muramatsu N, Yin, H, Campbell, RT, Hoyen, RI, Jacon, MA, & Ross, CO (2007) Risk of nursing home admissions among older Americans: Does states' spending on home-and community-based services matter? Journal of Gerontology: Social Science 62B: S169-S178.

9. Rainey S (2013) Telegraph. Helen Mirren confronts the final female taboo.