There are two sounds that disturb and rattle me to my core: drills (boring through concrete and metal) and bawling babies. Call me misanthropic but I hate babies. And I hate babies because they grow into people: cruel, petty, spiteful, ignorant, deceitful, rapacious, judgemental, complacent, two-faced (etc.). But mostly I hate babies because they are so loud they put the average car alarm to shame in raucously calling attention to the non-existent threat facing them.
A baby’s screams are an object of wonder in their melodramatic insistence. We begin life as screaming drama queens. We bawl with all the force our tiny lungs can muster: “Feed me, please me, don’t leave me!” No other infant animal is so hyperbolic (sic) or demanding. Puppies and kittens are adorable. Nature, pottering around in its white lab coat, wisely selected to make young animals so unthreatening (i.e. cute) that older animals might be disarmed, so to speak, and hesitate before killing them. In a remarkable instance of this, a leopard kills a monkey only to spare and adopt her newly orphaned baby (it soon dies from exposure).
I am not a father nor do I have any intention to be. Why would I want to pass on my suffering? I was briefly broody for a time but my moodiness prevailed and put an end to it. People may call me selfish or look at me as a freak of nature (true on both counts) but I do not regret not having children for a moment. I am free to fail at life on my own terms; it is a relief to know I won’t drag anyone else down with me. I won’t bequeath all my faults to some poor soul who never asked to be born and “add some extra” just for them (vem? nem?).
It astonishes me that there is such social pressure on people not only to knock out children but to outwardly gush that parenthood is the most thrilling and fulfilling experience in life. This is especially true for mothers. The unfairness of it makes my head spin. The stupidity of it makes my stomach churn. What century is this? What use is all this technological achievement when we remain so stubbornly backward? As ever, something else is at play here.
There is an unconscious ingenuity, surreptitiously beavering away for our collective survival, that romanticizes and idealizes that which most threatens to undermine the collective good. This changes according to the exigencies of the time. Heroism (a perennial favourite), chastity, self-sacrifice, frugality, self-possession, progressive thinking: many of these qualities seem like anachronisms today but they were once held aloft as examples to aspire to. Once-upon-a-time: they counterbalanced dangerous passions, they checked the accruement of debt, they maintained a façade of rationality.
This is an age of unbridled greed. We binge, we gorge, we indulge. We pamper our whims, we give ourselves fairy-tale weddings. We whip out our purses and wallets like they were shooters in the Wild West. Everyone is splurging, everyone is splashing out on themselves. People queue up all night for it, they snake round the block for it. No one really knows what it is but everyone is doing it and lovin’ it so it must be right. Babies, however, do not exactly fit snugly into this orgy of self-gratification.
The intense social pressure to be an amazing mother, continually beaming away at her little bundle of joy, is in part a compensatory reaction to the intense social pressure to fuck everything (metaphorically) and everyone (literally). Our economy is now largely contingent on sharply conflicting impulses and norms: raising a traditional family (with all the consumption that entails) or selfishly pursuing your own hopes and dreams (with all the consumption that entails). Nature, still busily pottering around in its white lab coat, is puzzled. It perplexedly scratches its leafy head. But then nature, ever more aware than us, delightedly throws its twiggy arms in the air. With an overall human population of 7.5 billion, nature can still have its cake and eat it!
I read a touching (and sadly defensive) article by a French author who is clearly outraged by the absurd vilification of any mother who breaks rank and cries foul. She writes: “These days, it’s impossible to express one’s experience of motherhood other than to say: “I am a blissful mother (or father), my children are my joy.” Taking pleasure in parenthood is compulsory. In my experience, the reality is very different: raising a child is 1% happiness and 99% worry.”
Historically, some cultures used to deem it socially advantageous to abandon unwanted babies at the foot of a hill or set them adrift downriver to die. Invading armies would bash babies’ brains out against stone walls. From that point of view, babies have never had it so good.
But it is about time mothers (and fathers) were able to speak freely about the immense difficulty of raising a baby: the exhaustion, the irritation, the shamefully exorbitant expense. We have not yet become the Global Collective Union of Permanently Happy Peoples. We are still fragilely, brittly human. The only difference between previous generations and ours is that a worryingly large brood of people seem to be screaming and bawling their way through life as though they were still babies.
As for me, I will proudly watch my chattels grow and flourish. I will coo as my chair graduates from one corner of the room to another. I will shake my head as my socks mischievously wander off. I will watch in wonder as my glass develops into a well-rounded receptacle for drinking.