‘I used to worry that I was missing out on all the things happening in the world,’ she said. ‘I worry about that, too.’ ‘But nothing is happening in the world. Don’t worry,’ she told me. ‘You’re not missing out on anything.’ — Motherhood, Sheila Heti
In my late teens, an age where I would have been as proficient a dad as a cocktail umbrella is protecting a home from a storm, I yearned to start a family. The yearning lasted a year: sudden, consuming, there to plaster over the worries of life rather than fix them.
Nearly twenty years later, when I was getting divorced, I worried that I wouldn’t have children with a finality that the decision made would last. This yearning was potent as the possibility of starting a family ended not through my biological make-up but that of the women I’m attracted to; my age or older. The pain which some people go through in their decision not to have children is full of compromise and explanation: to themselves and other people. I’ve been lucky that such pain visited, but didn’t stay.
As I read Sheila Heti’s wonderful autofiction novel Motherhood, I underlined section after section in the confirmations, a unified confirmation of a long-formed realisation, that not having children was the right decision for me. Some of the reasons for not having them run concurrently with desire: the overriding desires of romantic connection, platonic relationships, art, solitude. This was expressed wonderfully by Heti near the beginning of the book:
“When I was younger, thinking about whether I wanted children, I always came back to this formula: if no one had told me anything about the world, I would have invented boyfriends. I would have invented sex, friendships, art. I would not have invented child-rearing.”
A bit like Ian Dury’s Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3, I have a huge list of reasons to wake up in the morning (I would advise you make one too for times when you don’t feel like it). Children, are not on that list. It’s a question of taste, a taste that I’ve been lucky enough to choose. A taste which includes Martin Scorsese, Elena Ferrante, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Harold Pinter, pancakes, Andre Dubus, atheism, Guinness, a cigar on a Saturday morning, sex in the afternoon, Jimi Hendrix, Jackson Pollock, Alice Munro, Stanley Kubrick, Leonard Cohen, John Coltrane, Philip Roth, Ian McShane at the beginning of Slave To The Rhythm, the ending of Sarah Kane’s Crave, the start of Frances Ha and much more.
I’m not saying you can’t indulge in any of these tastes if you choose child rearing, but rather having a child was not in the repertoire of how I want to spend my days.
Further on, there is the unique expression of worry of what a child, and the lack of one, represents in a person’s life: meaning. Heti compares having a child as being “…a city with a mountain in the middle…Everyone in the city is proud of the mountain.” Further to this unique and powerful metaphor, is the pronouncement, “In a life in which there is no child, no one knows anything about your life’s meaning.” Throughout the book Heti searches for meaning: spirituality, relationships and, the most potent meaning of all, art which in Heti’s case, and my own, is writing.
In the last third of the book, a strong demand for the reader to assess their own life comes from a dream Heti has:
“If you want to know what your life is, destroy everything and move away and see what builds up again. If what builds up a second time is much the same as the first, then your life is pretty much as it could be. Things couldn’t be much different from that.” When I got divorced I moved countries, lost friends I had from before, suffered familial bereavements and came through: with writing, with old and new friends, in a relationship which both nurtures and frees, and without, after a long-ago few months, the desire for a child. More important than happiness, I am at peace with how this chapter of my life turned out.