Maybe

Some conversations are like London buses: you don’t have them for ages, then suddenly they pop up three times in the same week. The only real difference these days is that with the conversations there’s no app to warn you that they’re about to appear; all you can do is frantically gather your scrambled thoughts and try to respond.

Her: Do you ever want to have kids?

Me: …

In fairness, it’s an easy, throwaway question to ask when you’re 23 (thanks Dawson!), and on that first occasion I was the one who raised the subject. I was telling Ella about my weekend plans, which involved visiting my best friend from university. He’s just become a father, and on Saturday morning I travelled to Birmingham to bear witness to his virility.

I don’t know what inspired me to do so, but on the train up from Euston, I made a mental list of the men my age who I’ve considered close friends over the years, from school right through to my first couple of serious jobs. It’s a small group – people generally have to work pretty hard to get close to me – but of the 10 guys in it, I realised that nine are (or have been) married, and eight have at least one child. The one chap who falls into neither category recently bought a house with his girlfriend, and I’d put good money on him ticking at least one of the two boxes in the next couple of years.

The same pattern broadly applies across my female peers. At 33 – and six weeks to the day from turning 34 – I stand, if not alone, then certainly out at the margins of my various friendship groups, simply by virtue of being unmarried and childless.

For the most part, I’m ok with that – I like being everyone’s surrogate uncle! As I told Ella – and the other two people who asked me about it recently – if fatherhood happens, it happens, but I’m not going to make having kids a priority. I struggle with the notion of a child as an abstract goal, and always have done; I instinctively connect it to a wider set of aspirations, though that’s undoubtedly rooted in my own fairly conventional upbringing.

The funny thing is that 10 years ago I was sure that I would have kids by my early 30s. I was born shortly after my Dad’s 28th birthday, and for years I viewed that as the ‘right’ point in life at which to start a family. At 23, I envisaged meeting someone, getting married, and having two – or maybe three – children together. I was far clearer about that than pretty much anything else in my life; even as I dithered about what sort of job to get, or whether to go travelling, or where to live, I could have told you with complete confidence that by 34 I definitely wanted to be a happy, settled, married father…because that was the happy, settled model I’d grown up with. My dad was 33 when his third child – my brother – was born, and for years I just sort of assumed that in that area, at least, my life would follow a similar trajectory.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when that changed (or evolved) but my previous certainty on the subject definitely makes my current situation feel just a little bittersweet. Maybe I’d been slightly softened up by the London bus-like questions, and by my Birmingham visit on Saturday, but when I saw this tweet from the lovely Malin James today, my heart sort of clenched and bruised and ached, all at the same time.

My sister is a Daddy’s girl. Or rather, she’s my Dad’s favourite. The one song guaranteed to make him cry just a little bit is ABBA’s ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ – though I suspect he’s not alone in that among fathers of his generation. He loves me and he loves my brother too (for all their horrendous fights), but my sister will always hold an extra-special place in his heart.

I look at their relationship sometimes and wonder what it would be like to have a daughter of my own. How I’d raise her, and what I’d teach her, and the fierce pride I’d feel in watching her grow up to be a strong, confident, independent woman. The (sex) advice I’d give her as a teenager.

The thing is though, it still feels like a fantasy, rather than something tangible or imminent; in some ways it’s even less clearly defined than it was 10 years ago, because at least then I had broad timings in mind. Now I sort of shrug my shoulders and say “yeah, maybe – or maybe not”. More than anything, it feels like my own time that’s slipping through my fingers. I feel guilty saying it, but I don’t want to be an ‘old Dad’ – unable to play football with my kids, or too tired to keep up with them in their active teenage years.

What very few people know is that it could have been different. It nearly was different, in fact, on a couple of occasions. Those are hard to write about, if I’m honest. Abortion isn’t easy on anyone involved, even when it’s clearly the right option for one or both of you. I’ll never forget the day my ex and I sobbed in each other’s arms in her kitchen, after making the decision to terminate our (unintended) pregnancy; nor the sombre silence in which we drove from Oxford to Reading a few days later; the numb, floaty, slightly surreal feeling when we walked out of the cinema that afternoon, after killing the time between appointments in a screening of the latest X-Men movie. I’ll never forget the sex afterwards either; sex we shouldn’t have had, but sex we needed to have, in the same bed where a few weeks earlier we’d set those painful events in motion.

I thought about that day when I saw Malin’s tweet, and about the déjà vu I felt a couple of years later, sitting in a different clinic with a different partner, going through the same horrible process – for the same good, practical reasons.

It’s much easier for men to take a long-term view when it comes to parenthood. We’re less bound by either biology or social convention, and the physical implications of having a child – or not – are obviously much less serious, especially as we get older. Nevertheless, I wonder sometimes whether I’ll reach my 40s – my 50s – and regret not taking a different approach to the whole subject. I look at how happy my 8-out-of-10 friends are with their sons and daughters, or how wonderfully well the people I’ve met through Twitter and my blog combine parenthood with an active sex/kink life, and I worry that I’m missing out somehow. That I’m allowing my upbringing – and my instinctive caution when it comes to big life decisions – to rob me of an experience that I’ll find myself craving in later life, long after it’s passed me by.

I thought about Malin’s tweet later on today as well though, in the pub with my colleagues. One of them was talking about a university friend of hers, who made it almost six months into her pregnancy before realising that she was carrying a child. She had the news confirmed just a few days too late for her to have the abortion she would otherwise have wanted, and is now the mother of an eight-year-old daughter. “Yeah, but she must be so glad now that she went ahead with it,” someone ventured. The colleague telling the story paused for a few seconds, before starting to speak…and pausing again. “It’s been…difficult,” she said. And we moved swiftly on.

It’s easy to miss what you don’t have, especially when you see how happy it makes other people. The reality is that until it happens to you, you can’t know for sure the kind of impact it’ll have on your life. As I advance further into my 30s, the likelihood of fathering a child will slowly – but steadily – decrease. People will stop asking me the question, and I’ll stop equivocating when I answer. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe a part of me will always want kids, and maybe – just maybe – at some point it’ll happen.

Maybe…or maybe not.

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5 Responses to Maybe

  1. A beautiful and thoughtful post. Also very difficult to reply to without ending up writing as long as text as the original post.
    It’s funny how, when we are younger (and less experienced?), we often have this preset idea of how life is going to turn out. As if there were a certain age when you had to have done some things or else you would be a failure or a lost case. But then you live on and pass those milestones and other things become more important.
    It’s not too late, but it’s also ok to just decide not to have children. As long as you don’t end up regretting whatever decision you make.

  2. mariasibylla says:

    I think there will always be a little pang of regret no matter what you decide (or don’t decide). If you have children, there will be times when it is very hard and you long for your carefree single days. If you dont have them there will be times when you’ll feel you’ve missed out on a deeper love. (I solve for this by being close with my nieces and nephews and my friend’s kids – sort of the best of both worlds 😊)

    There are so many factors that have to fall into place for me to be comfortable having children. One is a partner I love deeply and have full confidence in (and he me). The other is some level of financial stability.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, as it has been on my mind a bit lately.

  3. vidabailey says:

    You’re not meant to say that you don’t regret a minute – you’re meant to say how glad you are, how blessed. It’s been difficult but you wouldn’t change everything. From the age of 14 I was consumed with a fierce need to have a baby – I thought I’d be a good mother. My first daughter came along at an extremely inopportune time and it’s so much more difficult than I ever anticipated. If I could go back and do it again, I wouldn’t.

    I think our population is so huge, and so … fucked… violence, abuse, poverty, mental illness – I strongly feel that only the most capable and dedicated and convinced should have children. That, or we need a village system of care rather than the nuclear model. Call me cynical, but, well… here I am in the midst of getting it so wrong and struggling. I so agree with the idea that you should never put words in the mouth of a parent who wasn’t/isn’t sure. Happy endings are slippery things.

    I think you’d be a sweet, conscientious dad, and a good one, but I also think you like your life to yourself and the bittersweet regret that may come later could be a worthwhile price to pay for the chance to hold on to that life. We just never know how things will go.

    • MariaSibylla says:

      Vida, that was a thoughtful, beautiful response. My sister always says (which I’m sure she read somewhere) that having children is like wearing your heart on the outside of your body. It’s terrifying and painful. It can be lovely too, but also difficult. It takes tolls on relationships and health etc. I think those of us that aren’t sure, need to be reminded of the difficulties as well as the positives because once you’re in, there’s not really any going back. I hope that your struggles will ease. As you say, we never know how things will go and I hope they turn around for you.

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