I’ve been a bit childish about wanting children, Paula Coston discovers
I’m working my way through a really helpful, intelligent and interesting book, Jody Day’s Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful Life Without Children. (She’s the founder of Gateway Women, the online community for the childless that I’ve recommended here before.) Six weeks in, six to go. And I’ve discovered that, even with 58 years behind me, it’s not too late for revelations about my attitudes to my childless condition.
Each chapter ends with an exercise. At the end of chapter 3, for instance, she sets the reader to writing on individual Post-it notes in one colour, without forethought, a word or phrase that springs to mind when you think of the word ‘mother’; and on another set of Post-its, in another shade, a word or phrase that occurs spontaneously in relation to the word ‘children’.
There’s more to do in this task; but it took only this portion of the work to bring me up short. On my notes about ‘mother’, I had written ‘hard-working’, ‘trapped’, ‘dutiful’, ‘conscientious’: words like that. When it came to ‘children’, my words and phrases included ‘fun’, ‘interesting’, ‘noisy’, ‘different’, and – most surprising of all – ‘storybook’. The two sets seemed to jar, to have been written by different people, almost.
It was the ‘children’ list that really arrested me. Instead of prompting me to dwell on the offspring I knew or yearned for, as you’d think it might, it took me unexpectedly back to my own childhood – specifically the phase, between the years of about seven and eleven, when I was quite a solitary girl. My sister and brother, younger than me, often played together, and I felt left to my own devices – or perhaps it was the other way round: maybe I found my own amusements, thus throwing them into an excluding twosome.
We lived in an idyllic place, or so I found it: a picture-book English cottage on the edge of fields, with different outdoor ‘rooms’ screened with hedges and scented rosebeds: swings and outbuildings and caged raspberry canes bordered with rustic trellis, and the green of feudal ridged terrain just beyond the wonky open fence, with hidden muds which oozed and sucked thrillingly at your Wellington boots, and a ditch stream with a log across it that I associated with pirates’ gangplanks, or the ‘pooh sticks’ game from Winnie-the-Pooh, or re-branded as gangways into a different world. Beyond the fields lay a lake that froze so hard in that fabled winter of 1966 that everyone went skating, pushing chairs ahead of them to keep themselves upright. My parents had a patio laid (such style for the time!) outside our playroom, with multi-coloured slabs that I imagined as islands, or a map of different lands, or pathways to them. I used to just stand and stare at them and imagine, I remember.
These fantasies were fed, even germinated, by my voracious reading habits, alone in my dim, sloping-floored cottage bedroom. Among the many books I loved were the prolific series featuring groups of adventurous children. Enid Blyton, of course; Swallows and Amazons; and my own more obscure favourite, the tales by one ‘M.E.Atkinson’ of outdoor fun on water and land, often involving bikes, horses and boats.
Little did I realise – till I did Jody’s exercise – how those children had seeped into my dreams of parenthood, romanticising them, limiting their realism. If I had children, at least part of my subconscious had clearly persuaded me, they’d be fit, energetic, intelligent, self-sufficient types with clearly distinctive personalities and – maybe most telling of all – they’d be out a lot, and therefore undemanding.
I think back to the character lists from those series, and also have to confess that the children I liked least – even, dare I say it, despised – were the domesticated types. In those days, all girls, of course. (Maybe this is another factor in my inclination towards a desire to mother boys.) In Swallows and Amazons, there was Susan Walker, ship’s mate, the cook and campsite organiser, conservative in nature, quiet and self-controlled. I may even have preferred the Secret Seven to the Famous Five, I now suspect, precisely because there wasn’t a personality like Anne in that gang, spoofed in the TV series ‘Five Go Mad in Dorset’, whose tedious ‘indoorsy’ role in the Famous Quintet involved planning, organising and preparing meals and keeping wherever they were staying – cave, tent, old hut – clean and tidy. Then there was Sugar in M.E. Atkinson’s Castaways series:
‘Sugar was the quiet, motherly sort…. Without Sugar… there would have been few buttons or tapes on anybody’s clothes….’
To blacken her further, just like me she found any kind of physical trials unappealing and scary. In shunning these types, I was developing as an escapist from myself: from my flaws and inhibitions, I wanted out.
As for the ‘mother’ side of my thinking exercise… My mother mothered me brilliantly; so I shiver with guilt now, perceiving how those precious texts of mine antagonised me to characters like her, and to her whole role as parent and housewife.
Looking at it as a confessedly hardly-grown-up child, isn’t ‘Five Go Mad in Dorset’ a teensy bit pernicious in making such fun of the lack of intelligence in her role? (But now I’m probably getting too po-faced about great comedy.)
Bottom line is, in coming to terms with my childlessness and my sense of bereavement from the role of mother, it turns out I’ve still got a lot of growing up to do.
This post is dedicated to my wonderful mother, with profuse apologies for my earlier childish prejudices.