I used to have a friend who was a very energetic adulterer. We never talked about it much, because I was too repressed to ask, but it seemed to me that he and his many partners, all of whom he met in ordinary social situations, were giving out signals that could only be detected by one another (ok, I have lots of stories that would reveal that my own social antennae are, well, deeply defective, but in my defence no-one else seemed to notice either).
I sometimes think that in a low-fertility society like ours something rather similar is going on among people who have children. Now, I should declare that I never doubted that I’d want children (only, for a very long time, that anyone would want to have them with me). But even I, away from children for most of my late-teens to late-twenties, as most childless adults are in these low-fertility times, was much more vividly aware of the downside of having children than of the upside. As Laura says:
Last week, we briefly talked about why people, especially Europeans, aren’t making babies like they used to. I’ve got a new theory. Childless people are having too much fun. They are congregating in urban areas and when they outgrow body shots and apple core bongs, they move on to nice restaurants, museums, and last minute trips to Anguila. The breeders get stuck going on the DisneyLand cruise and posing for pictures with Goofy. And why are the Europeans having even less kids than the US? Ibiza.
Kids really are fantastic, but you don’t really know it until you have one of your own. When you take the love for your kids out of the equation, all you have is a comparison between fun and no fun. And without the social pressure to procreate, many people choose no kids.
The upside isn’t just the love; there’s also the challenge of directing another person’s life for their rather than your own benefit and so that eventually they will be able to direct their own; the pleasure of their company; the joy of sharing aspects of yourself and of discovering aspects of them that are so unlike yourself; watching them grow…etc. But none of this is visible unless you are intimate with other families with children, something that few of us are in that in-between phase of life after leaving our childhood but before entering parenthood. In a society with higher fertility rates, by contrast, children would be unavoidable, and so would their parents, so the upside would be more visible to all. The downside—loss of the ability to do pretty much what you want when you want—is obvious. whatever the social arrangements. Of course, I have to admit that I’m nothing like Laura:
last night I wanted the kind of fun that involves staying up all night, smoking a pack of cigarettes without guilt, and doing body shots in a Mexican restaurant on West 3rd Street.
Yeah, yeah. You can’t maintain your party-hardy, couch slacking ways for long. I mean nobody wants to see a forty year old woman licking salt off a guy’s neck and coughing up big phlegm balls from the smokes.
I’ve never wanted, or had, that kind of fun, which may explain a great deal. In fact, and here’s the most shocking thing I tell my students in most of my classes…
I’ve never been drunk.
I discovered how shocking it was to say this by accident; I commented to a student that he looked really rough:
“Yeah, well, I’m really hungover, you know how it is”
“No, I don’t actually”
“You know, hungover, like you are after you’ve been really drunk” (suspecting, perhaps, that this is one of those disagreements between American English and English English)
“No, I don’t know. I’ve never been drunk”.
The whole class stared at me as if I had just told them that I was an unreconstructed Stalinist and eat babies. No, as if I’d told them something more bizarre than that. So now I always find an opportunity to tell my smaller classes, just so that they get to know that it is possible to get through life that way, and even have a laugh once in a while.