Does a woman really want to be a slave to little people? What I mean, of course, is – does anyone want to be a mother?
I ask because I am on holiday in England in a cottage by the sea in Cornwall, with high surf in the bay and constant rain. That is outside. Inside are my nephews, four, and eight months. They are astonishingly beautiful, with the firm, glowing flesh of people who have never eaten curry. They build things and tear them down, both tiny paradigms of the human race. They sleep 12 hours a day and twitch, dreaming, I think, of Weetabix, and maybe dogs. The other 12 hours they zoom around, constantly in need of watch, like a city waiting for invasion. I look for threats, automatically. Do not burn baby. Do not freeze baby. Do not iron baby. Do not let fox – or dragon – eat baby.
I brought the four year old down on the train. He is not like adults; he is curious about life. And so he will not sit down and read, or chat on the telephone, although he can use one. (He is a genius!) So he ran up and down the train, saying hello to people, asking what they’re eating and asking them how tall they are. It was terrifying.
Eventually a woman blocked him with her body, like an ancient, spidery rugby player, preventing him from entering the Quiet Carriage. Then a man shouted at me; he and Spiderwoman had formed a political party against my nephew and I, even though he is only three feet high. (Tiredness, as you see, makes you paranoid.) I used the parental defence – do you have children, angry man? Do you? And if you do, do you drug them to stop them asking people how tall they are? (Thank god the nephew didn’t take out his tape measure, and actually start measuring him, which he sometimes does.) The man didn’t answer, so I will answer for him. He does not have children. If he did, he would understand.
“I look for threats. Do not burn baby. Do not freeze baby. Do not iron baby. Do not let fox – or dragon – eat baby”
Our relationship with our children is changing. Until the Seventies, we married young and bred young, almost without thinking; marry the first man you fancy and sprout a child. Childcare was different. You could lock them in a cage (playpen), hit them without being arrested and take pharmaceuticals to dull the pain of constant questions, which as an adult you have given up trying to answer. Or you could pay other people to look after them and not need to take out a mortgage, or give them to the grandparents.
But today’s grandparents are baby boomers and they won’t take the children like their parents did. They have holidays to enjoy and houses to redecorate. Now we have Baby Mozart and baby yoga; there is now an entire child-rearing industry, with a central principle that the child is listened to, not beaten, not locked in a cage (playpen) and not reared by a semi-drugged mother. All this I support; but it does make it harder to be a mother.
Motherhood now is all consuming, almost a profession. Read The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, a brilliant novel about what happens when a stranger slaps a child. It shows you how the world has changed. I always thought I wanted to be a mother. It was one of the things that waited for me, like osteoporosis. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be a mother eventually, even though I am now 37, and if you believe certain newspapers, my fertility is declining by 50% every day. I see motherhood as both destiny and an aid to giving up smoking. But 37 is a poor age physically to have a child; how will I lift the child to the ceiling, because that is what they like? And how will I backpedal on 37 years of absolute selfishness, and accept that I am no longer the most needy person in the room?
I have moped around about my childlessness for years, even while going to the cinema five times a week. But how will I sleep? How will I write, with little people coming up to the computer and smelting Weetabix onto my face? My sister says I should not worry, because the love is all consuming, and these agonies are just a sign that I am ready to spawn – because if not now, when?