Over and Out

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids - Meghan Daum 2016

Over and Out


Geoff Dyer

I’VE HAD ONLY two ambitions in life: to put on weight (it’s not going to happen) and never to have children (which, so far, I’ve achieved). It’s not just that I’ve never wanted to have children. I’ve always wanted to not have them. Actually, even that doesn’t go far enough. In a park, looking at smiling mothers and fathers strolling along with their adorable toddlers, I react like the pope confronted with a couple of gay men walking hand in hand: Where does it come from, this unnatural desire (to have children)? It comes, I suppose, from wanting to have sex. During the early 1970s, when I first became theoretically interested in sex, there was a considerable body of evidence to suggest that unless you were extremely careful, having sex could lead to unwanted pregnancy. Teen pregnancy was a bad thing, to be avoided through various “precautions” (a word that seemed deliberately chosen for its anti-aphrodisiac qualities). Maybe those early sex-education classes worked on me more powerfully than I realized: I’m fifty-six now and am still convinced that if I fathered a child it would be a belated instance of teen pregnancy.

I may be immune to but I am not unaware of—how could I be?—the immense, unrelenting, and all-pervasive pressure to have children. To be middle-aged and childless is to elicit one of two responses. The first: pity because you are unable to have kids. This is fine by me. I’m always on the lookout for pity, will accept it from anyone or, if no one’s around, from myself. I crave pity the way other men crave admiration or respect. So if my wife and I are asked if we have kids, one of us will reply, “No, we’ve not been blessed with children.” We do it totally deadpan, shaking our heads wistfully, looking as forlorn as a couple of empty beer glasses. One day I might even squeeze out a tear as I say it, but I haven’t had the nerve yet. It’s a touchy subject. People are surprisingly sensitive about these things.

The second: horror because by choosing not to have children, you are declining full membership in the human race. By a wicked paradox, an absolute lack of interest in children attracts the opprobrium normally reserved for pedophiles. Man, you should have seen what happened a couple of years ago when a friend and I were playing tennis in Highbury Fields, London, next to the children’s area where kids were cavorting around under the happily watchful eyes of their mums. It’s quite a large area, but it is, needless to say, not big enough. A number of children kept coming over to the tennis courts, rattling on the gate, and trying to get in. The watching middle-class mums did nothing to restrain them. Eventually my friend yelled, “Go AWAY!” Whereupon the watching mums did do something. A mob of them descended on us as though my friend had exposed himself. Suddenly we were in the midst of a maternal zombie film. It was the nearest I’ve ever come to getting lynched—they were after my friend rather than me and though, strictly speaking, I was his opponent, I was a tacit accomplice—and a clear demonstration that the rights of parents and their children to do whatever they please have priority over everyone else’s. “A child is the very devil,” wrote Virginia Woolf in a letter, “calling out, as I believe, all the worst and least explicable passions of the parents.” Certainly at that moment, the threatened love these mums felt for their children seemed ferocious and vile, either a kind of insanity or, at the very least, a form of deeply antisocial behavior. I stress this because it’s often claimed that having kids makes people more conscious of the kind of world they’re creating or leaving for their offspring. That would be why, in London, a city with excellent public transportation, parents have to make sure they have cars. Many of these cars come speeding along my street on their way to the extremely expensive private school on the corner. You can see, from the looks on these mums’ faces as they drop off their kids at this little nest of privilege, that the larger world—as represented by me, some loser on his bike—doesn’t exist, is no more than an impediment to finding a parking space. Parenthood, far from enlarging one’s worldview, results in an appalling form of myopia. Hence André Gide’s verdict on families, “those misers of love.”

There’s something particularly abhorrent, by the way, about that little school on my street. As I was walking past one day—i.e., skulking by like a fucking nonce—I saw an almost unbelievable sight: members of staff holding open the doors of cars for these kids so that at the age of seven they could start developing the sense of being visiting dignitaries. Another time I offered a shopping bag full of used tennis balls to a kid on his way there; he declined as though he were the aristocratic offspring of John McEnroe. To be presented with anything other than an unopened tube of tournament-standard Slazengers was clearly a polluting experience for this little English Brahmin. In the interest of fairness, I’m happy to report that they were gratefully received by the teachers and kids at one of the state schools around the corner.

What these episodes make clear is that my feelings about kids are inseparable from deep-rooted class antagonism. I sometimes wonder if my aversion to having kids is because if I did have one he or she would be middle-class, with all the attendant expectations: the kind of child on whose behalf I’d make calls to friends at The Guardian or Faber and Faber about a possible internship after he or she had graduated from Oxford or Cambridge. It’s actually rather vile, the nice part of London where I live. You can see the batons of privilege, entitlement, and power being passed smoothly on from one generation to the next.

For many people, having and raising a child is the most fulfilling thing in their lives. Quite a few friends who’d been indifferent to having kids found that once the plunge had been taken, often accidentally, their lives had a meaning and purpose that they previously lacked. People realize that a life that had seemed enjoyable (travel, social life, romance) and fulfilling (work) was actually empty and meaningless. So they urge you to join the child-rearing party: they want you to share the riches, the pleasures, the joys. Or so they claim. I suspect that they just want to share and spread the misery. (The knowledge that someone is at liberty or has escaped makes the pain of incarceration doubly hard to bear.) Of all the arguments for having children, the suggestion that it gives life “meaning” is the one to which I am most hostile—apart from all the others. The assumption that life needs a meaning or purpose! I’m totally cool with the idea of life being utterly meaningless and devoid of purpose. It would be a lot less fun if it did have a purpose—then we would all be obliged (and foolish not) to pursue that purpose.

Okay, if you can’t handle the emptiness of life, fine: have kids, fill the void. But some of us are quite happy in the void, thank you, and have no desire to have it filled. Let’s be clear on this score. I’m not claiming that I don’t need to have kids because my so-called work is fulfilling and gives my life meaning. To be honest, I’m slightly suspicious of the idea of an anthology of writers writing about not having kids. Obviously any anthology of writing is, by definition, full of stuff by writers, but if this is a club whose members feel they have had to sacrifice the joys of family life for the higher vocation and fulfillment of writing, then I don’t want to be part of it. Any exultation of the writing life is as abhorrent to me as the exultation of family life. Writing just passes the time and, like any kind of work, brings in money. If you want to make sure I never read a line you’ve written, tell me about the sacrifices you’ve made in order to get those lines written. If we were able to go through history and eliminate every single instance of sacrifice, the world would be a significantly better place, with a consistently increased supply of lamb. Sacrifice is part of the parent’s vocabulary, as Isaac discovered when Abraham pressed the knife to his throat, though it usually works the other way around, with parents sacrificing themselves for the greater good of their children. I was about to start ranting on about this when I remembered that I’d ranted on about it years ago in my book Out of Sheer Rage, the writing of which involved sacrifice on such an epic psychological and financial scale that I hope I’ll be forgiven for quoting from it here:

Life for people with children is crammed with obligations and duties to be fulfilled. Nothing is done for pleasure. The child becomes a source of restrictive obligation. Even the desire to have children is expressed in terms of fulfilling a biological duty. The lies people lead!

The perfect life, the perfect lie … is one which prevents you from doing that which you would ideally have done (painted, say, or written unpublishable poetry) but which, in fact, you have no wish to do. People need to feel that they have been thwarted by circumstances from pursuing the life which, had they led it, they would not have wanted; whereas the life they really want is precisely a compound of all those thwarting circumstances. It is a very elaborate, extremely simple procedure, arranging this web of self-deceit: contriving to convince yourself that you were prevented from doing what you wanted. Most people don’t want what they want: people want to be prevented, restricted. The hamster not only loves his cage, he’d be lost without it. That’s why children are so convenient: you have children because you’re struggling to get by as an artist—which is actually what being an artist means—or failing to get on with your career. Then you can persuade yourself that your children prevented you from having this career that had never looked like working out. So it goes on: things are always forsaken in the name of an obligation to someone else, never as a failing, a falling short of yourself. Before you know it desire has atrophied to the degree that it can only make itself apparent by passing itself off as an obligation. After a couple of years of parenthood people become incapable of saying what they want to do in terms of what they want to do. Their preferences can only be articulated in terms of a hierarchy of obligations—even though it is by fulfilling these obligations (visiting in-laws, being forced to stay in and baby-sit) that they scale the summit of their desires.

A decade and a half later, I don’t see any need to change this substantively, though I would perhaps change the tone to make it less forgiving, more vehement. Especially since I no longer mind missing out on the things that having kids might have prevented me from doing, like going to discotheques, which I used to enjoy enormously when I was sixteen, even though I pretty much hated every minute I spent in every disco I ever set foot in. All I really want to do these days is sit around feeling sorry for myself, and it’s not like having a kid would interfere with that, unless extreme tiredness is some kind of antidote to self-pity. Parents are always saying how tired they are, and I believe them; I’m sure they are, even though I find it hard to believe that anyone could feel as tired as I do. I’m tired all the time, absolutely exhausted, from the time I wake up to the time I flop into bed a couple of hours later for the first of the day’s reviving naps. Over the years these naps have lost their capacity to revitalize, in fact have lost their capacity to do anything except increase the need for more naps. There might be a moral here—there is in most things—but I’m too tired to work out what it is.

Going back to the missed-disco opportunities or forgone pleasures argument, this would be entirely valid if we were discussing the reasons I’ve never had a dog. Whereas it’s never even occurred to me to have a child, I would love to have a dog but am put off by the burden of responsibility involved. And while not having a child is a source of pleasure, not having a dog is a source of constant torment and endless anxiety for my wife and me. We keep wishing that we could arrange our lives in such a way that it was possible to have a dog, but we keep coming up empty-handed, empty-pawed.

Does this mean, as parents might claim, that I’m just too selfish? Now, there’s a red herring if ever there was one. Not having children is seen as supremely selfish, as though the people having children were selflessly sacrificing themselves in a valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated island of ours. People raise kids because they want to, but they always emphasize how hard it is. “You think it’s hard bringing up children?” asked the comedian David Cross. “No. Persuading your girlfriend to have her third consecutive abortion, that’s hard.” It was a joke greeted with shrieks of laughter and horror. “I call that joke the Divider,” he conceded once the howls had died down.

The other move put on you by the parenting lobby is that you should have kids because you might regret not doing so when you get older. This seems demented and irrelevant in equal measure since while life may not have a purpose, it certainly has consequences, one of which is the accumulation of a vast, coastal shelf of uncut, 100-percent-pure regret. And this will happen whether you have no kids, one kid, or a dozen. When it comes to regret, everyone’s a winner! It’s the jackpot you are guaranteed to win. I think I was about fourteen when I was obliged to swallow my first substantial helping of regret. I would like to claim that it was also my last, but it turned out to be the opening course of a never-ending feast. If I’ve never forgotten the taste, that is because under- or overcooked regret is the main dish—the very taste—of adulthood.

So if it was argued that the inability to take responsibility for a dog, together with a refusal to contemplate having children, was a symptom of severely arrested development, of unduly prolonged adolescence, I would agree—and disagree—wholeheartedly. Certainly I am yet to hear a convincing argument as to why I should spend more than about twelve hours a year, max, doing anything I don’t want to do. Is that adolescent? Maybe. But it’s a form of adolescence that is compatible with a highly developed, entirely un-adolescent sense of civic responsibility. I am a good citizen (look at the trouble I went to recycling those tennis balls) and a reliable, trustworthy friend. I just don’t ever want to hear someone address me as Daddy, don’t want to live in a house littered with brightly colored toys, don’t want to stand on the opposite side of a tennis net patting the ball to an eight-year-old and saying, “Great shot!” on those rare occasions that he manages to tap it back. Of course if I’d had a kid sixteen years ago and forked out thousands of pounds for him or her to have tennis lessons—like every other privileged brat in the neighborhood—I might now have a perfectly compatible homegrown tennis partner, might not be reduced to lurking around the courts on Saint Mark’s Road like a fucking nonce again, hoping somebody else might be cruising for a partner. Instead, I’m fifty-six and still living like I did when I was fourteen, without brothers and sisters, constantly on the lookout for someone to play tennis with.

It seems we’ve accidentally stumbled onto or into the heart of the matter. I’m sure that I would not be so averse to having children or so reluctant to take custody of a dog if I’d grown up with brothers and sisters or a pet. But it wasn’t like that; it was just the three of us, just me, my mum, and my dog-hating dad. And now there’s just me and my wife. If there’d been a moment when the urge to have a kid might have manifested itself, that would surely have been in 2011, when both of my parents died. The world reeled and yawed that year and eventually righted itself again. My wife is forty-seven. Her parents are still alive; her sister is forty-nine, single, and childless. So when we die, that’s it for both sides of the family. The immense and complicated lineage, stretching back however long, with all its struggles and setbacks, victories and defeats, joys and pains, births and deaths, quarrels and reconciliations—all of this will come to an end with us. Within thirty or forty years, that will be that. Over and out, forever. The end of history, in a way. If there is such a thing as oblivion, then I’ve got a perfect view of how it might look and feel.