Friday, March 23, 2012

Barren in Books: Freedom, until you die in a terrible car wreck

There have been lots of non-fiction books about childlessness by choice, but Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is the first novel I've read that features a character, Lalitha, who is childless by choice.  She shows up about halfway through the book, a twenty-something assistant in an environmental organization that finds its raison d’etre in lobbying to slow population growth.  Her fervor for the cause shows up in her proclamation that she does not want to have children, and the literary GINK (Green Inclinations, No Kids) was born.  Here she is with the book's protagonist, Walter, discussing the topic with his old friend, Richard Katz.  Walter starts:

"...We just want to make having babies more of an embarrassment.  Like smoking's an embarrassment.  Like being obese is an embarrassment.  Like driving an Escalade would be an embarrassment if it weren't for the kiddie argument.  Like living in a four-thousand-square foot house on a two-acre lot should be an embarrassment."

"'Do it if you have to,'" Lalitha said, "'but don't expect to be congratulated anymore.'  That's the message we need to spread."

Katz looked into her crackpot eyes.  "You don't want kids yourself."

"No," she said, holding his gaze.

"You're, what, twenty-five?"


"You might feel differently in five years.  The oven timer goes off around age thirty.  At least that's been my experience with women."

"It won't be mine," she said and widened, for emphasis, her already very round eyes.

The GINK is not a type I relate to much.  My own decision not to have children was nowhere near as principled, although at the time I longed for some kind of principle on which to offload the responsibility of that choice.  A deep-seeded belief system was attractive in the face of my amorphous ambivalence, and I guess this is why I am mildly suspicious of GINKs.  At the risk of being normative, I don’t trust that such a personal decision can be adequately addressed via any variety of dogma.

In Freedom we never get to find out if Lalitha’s childless stance lasts beyond her twenties.  Franzen dashes her into the side of a West Virginia mountain, killing her off before she gets interesting.   Prior to that Franzen doesn’t do much to enhance the reputation of the childless by choice either.  Lalitha is likable, but she also seduces her married boss, Walter, while living under the same roof with him and his wife.  Between the environmental causes and the childless stance and the affair, it wouldn't take much for a Fox News commentator to spin her into the sort of leftie home wrecker that right wing America loves to hate.  Maybe next time Franzen can make up the slight by offering us a more believable childless character.  I am thinking a DINK.  After all, money is the ultimate socially acceptable principle.

Other Barren in Books posts:
On Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love and Committed
On Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman

Monday, March 19, 2012

"Which underwear should I wear to the gynecologist?" and other ladies' etiquette questions

My decision not to have children means I have little use for an OB/GYN, except of course for that bi-yearly ritual of getting a pap smear.  Women of all child-orientations can bond over this singular delight.  So in the spirit of inclusiveness on this blog I thought I would write a little something about it, inspired by my experience this very morning.

I have never excelled in the medical patient arena.  I have been known to faint when visiting people in the hospital, require grand distractions while having blood drawn, and am enormously grateful that George Clooney now has a career outside of ER, which for me was unwatchable television.  I say all this to explain, at least in part, why I felt so apprehensive as I got ready this morning for my 9AM doctor's appointment, pap smear included. 

The anxiety started in the shower when the thought crossed my mind I should do a little neatening up around the area of soon-to-be-focus.  I am staunchly opposed to the practice of waxing back to an infantile state that is in evidence on so many magazine covers these days, but a little tidying seemed in order.  It was, I reasoned, no different than brushing, flossing, and gargling before visiting the dentist: a general courtesy. Then I remembered I ate Taco Bell for lunch before my last dentist appointment and felt a little bad.  (Sorry, Dr. Shaibani!)  My concentration must have slipped thinking about the whole Taco Bell incident because next thing I know I had nicked the highest altitudes of my inner thigh.  Now I was going to have dried blood on my leg which would make the doctor think at creepy best I shaved just for him (did I mention the doctor was a him?) or, at worst, I have hygiene issues.

With one arm wrapped around my thigh to try and staunch the blood with a clot of wet toilet paper, I started thinking about the next challenge: which underwear to wear?  A thong was definitely out.  Boy cut seemed suitably modest until I noticed one pair had hearts on it, the other polka dots -- way too frivolous for the business at hand.  I settled on a pair of navy blue briefs that, despite lace edging, seemed to send an appropriate signal of modesty.  Next up was what outfit to choose.  It had to be something I could maneuver in and out of easily, so I chose a loose dress.  Unfortunately it went with a pair of espadrilles that were just an inch too high to look sensible, but by this point I was running late and had no time to change.  As I left the house my husband asked why I was dressed so posh, which was the second time I felt creepy that morning.

Of course once I got to the doctor's office I realized all my fuss was for naught.  The nurse had me wearing nothing more than a sack of a robe with a gaping back by the time the doctor arrived.  His opening salvo was to inform me his female colleague was going to perform the pap smear portion of the exam.  I must have looked disappointed as he quickly followed with an explanation that 99% of his patients are male and he is much more familiar with prostates (turns out he is an internist, not an OB/GYN), which left me feeling somehow snubbed after all the work I had put in.  He did, however, give me a consolation prize of a breast exam.  And since I have just turned forty, he also set me my next challenge: choosing the right bra for a mammogram appointment.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Who Will Take Care of You When You're Old?

Flickr Creative Commons
The only scenario that has caused me real pause about my decision not to have children is thinking about old age and dying.  My husband is seven years older than me and this, as well as his gender, stack the odds in favor of me outliving him.  Chances are I will die alone.  (Yes, yes, I know we all die alone, but you know what I mean.) 

I usually don’t think about it much, but it’s hard not to when someone close to you dies as my grandmother did last December.  My mother spent much of the year traveling cross-country to her mother’s house to visit, attend doctor’s appointments and sort out financial matters.  I couldn’t help thinking there would be nobody to do the same for me. 

To cheer myself up I like to point out that having kids is no guarantee they will be there in the end.  Chances are decent they will blame you for ruining their lives, which is perhaps the least horrific of the potential outcomes -- overdose, cancer, eating disorders -- I’ve occasionally witnessed my parent-friends endure.  Overall, expectations for kids in today’s world are pretty low.  To paraphrase Chris Rock, his benchmark for doing a good job as a father is keeping his daughter “off the pole.”  Forget about expecting her to nurse him on his deathbed.

This is what I like to tell myself, although I’m not sure I really believe it.  But like all the other reasons to have kids – from missing out on an essential part of life/being a woman to reducing my chances of developing MS -- that I tried on over the several years I was pondering the decision, in the end it seemed like both a risky and drastic solution for a potential, future, or only perceived problem.  Instead, spurred on by my grandmother’s death, I had a will, trust, health care proxy, and power of attorney drawn up so that, even though there is unlikely to be family, whoever is there will know my wishes.  I also intend to take financial planning around my later years into serious consideration while I am still young enough to do something about it.  I figure with the help of the Internet and books and ideally the identification of a good caregiver, by the time I reach old age it ought to be a little less lonely.

For the last few years of her life, my grandmother was lucky enough to have, in addition to my mother, a caregiver who served as nurse, chauffeur, cook, and cleaner.  Juanita allowed my grandmother the privileges of retaining a social life, ferrying her around to assorted women’s’ clubs, and remaining in her own home until she died.  Juanita also enforced a regimen of eating and bathing my domineering grandmother would have never allowed her own daughter, my mother, to dictate.  My grandmother, a generous but emotionally cold woman with a not insignificant stubborn streak, occasionally used Juanita as a pawn to antagonize my mother.  On her deathbed my grandmother beckoned my mother with the plea she needed to tell her something important.  When my mother got close, my grandmother informed her she was not going to tell her what she had to say, but that she would tell Juanita.  The point of all this is that at the end of your life there is not only no guarantee about how your children will behave, there is also no guarantee about how you will behave.  I will concern myself with the latter.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Return of the Breeders

Last Saturday night something remarkable happened.  My husband and I had dinner with our friends who are parents.  Not the kind of dinner that is dominated by the kids -- either in the form of a tantrum, or a mini pageant in which you are expected to fawn over the child’s talent at spelling or card tricks or song, or, worst, the parents taking ceaselessly about the kids -- but an honest to goodness adult dinner.  The children, now nine and eleven, were holed up in the living room watching what seemed to be an entirely age-inappropriate movie while the grown-ups held court in the dining room.  We talked about work and books and life in general.  The only time the children came up at all is when they appeared to take a helping of dinner and return to the couch.

I remember vividly the fading and then total disappearance of this particular pair of friends.  It started with the birth of their first child, an event they were adamant would not change their lives.  It was evident this wasn’t the case when several months later we all went out to dinner, baby in tow.  Sometime after we ordered and before the appetizers I realized any attempt at conversation was futile.  The need of the nervous new parents to evaluate their infant’s well-being at thirty second intervals precluded the ability to maintain either the interest in or the linearity of a dialogue.  This was followed by a second child and a second memorable attempt at dinner, this time at their house.  We spent several hours watching their two toddlers run around the house naked, screaming at the top of their lungs, and overturning dinner plates.  The mother looked despondent.  The father looked mad at the mother.  We looked at our watches. 

But now that our parent-friends are in their forties and early fifties, it appears they are resurfacing.  The last decade was tough.  First we felt excluded.  Our old friends now only seemed to hang out with the parents of their kids’ friends.  On occasion we were invited along to such social engagements, which seemed to be a way for parents to be around other adults without any expectation of having to talk to each other since everybody was busy tending to their own kids.  This was lonely business for a non-parent.  Both the parents and we recognized this, and soon either they stopped asking or we stopped accepting such invitations.  Then we found a coping mechanism; for the past five years or so our primary friendships have been with gay men.  I had happily assumed this would be the way from here on out, but I suspect as we all get older we will regain some face-time with the parent faction.  Welcome back.  I understand why you had to be away, but I missed you while you were gone.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Barren in Books: Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman, the quiz

Available on Amazon July 17, 2012.
On now
One of the funniest books I read last year was Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman. I liked it long before I got to the whole chapter toward the end on Why You Shouldn't Have Children. (Caitlin Moran does have kids, and the previous chapter is called Why You Should Have Kids.) Part of the former chapter goes like this:

“If you want to know what's in motherhood for you, as a woman, then - in truth - it's nothing you couldn't get from, say, reading the 100 greatest books in human history; learning a foreign language well enough to argue in it; climbing hills; loving recklessly; sitting quietly, alone, in the dawn; drinking whisky with revolutionaries; learning to do close-hand magic; swimming in a river in winter; growing foxgloves, peas and roses; calling your mum; singing while you walk; being polite; and always, always helping strangers. No one has ever claimed for a moment that childless men have missed out on a vital aspect of their existence, and were the poorer, and crippled by it.”

Being hopelessly, pathetically competitive, I used this as a quiz to find out how much I, a childless woman, know about motherhood.  Here's how I did:

1. 100 greatest books in human history. Wikipedia has such a list and, as I feared, Proust was on it.  I may not ever read the 100 greatest, but I do read a lot so I still give myself 2 out of 3.

2. Learning a foreign language well enough to argue in it. Massive fail. After four years of Latin, several attempts at French, two years each of Spanish and Italian, and an aborted semester of Mandarin, I only know how to order food and curse in three languages, including English. Va fanculo.

3. Climbing hills. 3 out of 3. I lived in the Cotswolds for two years (wold means hill for any non-Brits reading this).  Before that it was Notting Hill adjacent -- which I think counts -- and now it's Beacon Hill.

4. Loving recklessly. 3 out of 3. Have you met my husband? There are other adverbs I can think of, but recklessly will do.

5. Sitting quietly, alone, in the dawn. 2 out of 3. I did a lot 5:00AM zazen back in my Los Angeles days, admittedly with other people.

6. Drinking whisky with revolutionaries. 2 out of 3 because I once drank whisky with some gay friends to celebrate Burns night. As they are gay and members of the conservative party I figure that metaphorically speaking they could be considered revolutionaries.

7. Learning to do close-hand magic. 2 out of 3. Not sure what close-hand magic is, but I did used to put on magic shows when I was little, forcing my older sister to dress up in an old ballet costume and be my assistant.

8. Swimming in a river in winter. 3 out of 3 because I think swimming in the Pacific in any season counts.

9. Growing foxgloves, peas, and roses. 1 out of 3. I tried roses once. They didn't work out so well.

10. Calling your mum. 3 out of 3. I even let her text me.

11. Singing while you walk. 1 out of 3, but not for lack of trying. Husband always shuts me up when I do, something about being tone deaf...

12. Being polite. 2 out of 3. Inadequate customer service people always bring out the worst in me.

13. Always, always helping strangers. 1 out of 3. Must try harder.

If this was a Cosmo quiz I think my score of 64% would have been accompanied by a description that went something like this: thank fuck you didn't breed.

The bottom line here is I don't know what I'm missing by not being a mother.  But the important thing is Ms. Moran isn't saying I need to do any of this to be a real woman. It's just a set of helpful guidelines in case I am ever curious. I was curious enough to take the quiz, but that is the limit of my endeavors; her prescribed motherhood-equivalency-degree sounds awfully hard.

C'mon admit it, you took the quiz too. How'd you do? (Remember, I warned you I was hopelessly, pathetically competitive.)

Other Barren in Books posts:
On Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love and Committed
On Jonathan Franzen's Freedom