“Do you have children?”
All the way down the Americas the question comes, about three minutes into any conversation, in large cities or small villages, from young or old, male or female. It’s about as predictable as “Where do you come from?” and “Where are you going?”
Where, exactly, do people suppose any children I might have would be, at this point in time? Hiding in the back of the Big Dummy? Left behind, while I cycle down the Americas – for twenty months? Or – and, frighteningly, in this culture this might be the most likely explanation – do they imagine my children are actually old enough to be independent?
“No” I say. Full stop. End of sentence and subject.
Apparently not. A pause, a quizzical look. More is expected, an explanation required. I am clearly of child-bearing age, and am travelling with my husband, so…
Because there are too many people in the world already and I don’t believe my own gene pool is so special that it needs to be perpetuated.
Because this dying planet isn’t much of a world to bring children into, or to pass onto them.
Because having children is actually neither necessary nor compulsory and I happen to like my life as it is.
Because I’m not sure I even like people enough to want to make more of them.
Because committing the rest of your life to someone you haven’t even met yet is insanely terrifying – or perhaps just plain insane.
Because I don’t want to take on an incredibly demanding, difficult and important job that I will inevitably stuff up.
Because people with children are always telling the rest of us how tired and busy they are and how much they have had to give up.
Because I can do so many other things with my life if I’m not busy raising children.
Because children are irritating, expensive and time consuming.
Because I cherish a simple life and people with children have so much STUFF in their homes.
Because I have never looked at friends with children and envied them their lifestyle.
Because…. Actually, how is this any of your business?
I’m not going into any of this, not with a stranger, and certainly not in Spanish (I couldn’t, even if I wanted to).
“I like adventures” I say, plumping for the flippant, light-hearted explanation that applies to my current circumstances. “It would be very difficult to do this trip with children.” I indicate the loaded bikes, the steep, rough road. (Difficult, not impossible – but it would, inevitably, be quite a different trip).
One old woman in Peru remains unsatisfied. She is in my face, persistent. “Who’s going to look after you when you’re old?” she demands. An explanation of social welfare and superannuation funds is definitely beyond my capacity. “I have nieces and nephews” I respond. (Would they look after me, really? Do people honestly have children just as an insurance against old age?)
Not infrequently an evil monkey tempts me to turn the question on its head and ask “Why DO you have children?” But I can’t – that would be considered incredibly rude, and socially inappropriate. So how come it’s OK to call upon people who are childless (or perhaps I should say child free) to give an account of themselves? Why do people without children have to justify themselves, whereas people with children never do? Another evil monkey would like to try bursting into tears and pretending my questioner has hit upon a raw nerve because, in fact, I desperately want children and have been trying for years but am unable to have them…. Well, how would she know that this is not the case? What right has a complete stranger to ask such a personal question?
I’ve recently had two male friends, both deliberately child-free, complain to me that they are frequently questioned and hassled about this choice by family and friends. “But you’d make such a good father!” the naggers point out. Sure. In both cases, this is undoubtedly true. But – I’d probably make a good street sweeper…. this doesn’t mean I ought to be one, if I don’t want to be! I am grateful that I myself am fortunate enough to have family and friends who have never nagged on the subject. Having children, like most other things in life, is an adventure you either choose to have – or don’t. If you are even lucky enough to be granted the choice. But I don’t see that either situation entitles one to a feeling of superiority.
Recently another friend – a father – said to me “There are two types of people in the world: those with children, and those without”. I suppose this is probably true on some level, but in my current position of no-man’s-land somewhere between the two, the statement grates on me. I don’t want to stand on either side of an “us and them” divide, or to feel that I’m in some way switching teams. I have friends with children, and friends without – surely it is the nature of friendship that we choose to remain interested and involved in one another’s lives whatever the differences in our situations. Over the years I’ve remained close to many friends after the addition of children, and I hope that in future my child-free friends will still be willing to have adventures with me, albeit of a different scale and pace.
“Do you have children?” Perth, mid-December, a friend of a friend who I’ve just met. All the way through my UK/Jordan trip I’ve stuck with the simple “no” – but it no longer feels honest, or fair to the one I’m constantly with. To my own very great surprise, I find myself answering – for the first time and with one hand on my belly, “Just this one”.