Presenting “Single Ladies,” five days of essays about the ups and downs of being a woman, uncoupled.
I would rather talk with a bright 3-year-old for half an hour than just about any celebrity you could name. The conversation of young children can be a dizzying cocktail, combining what feels like a direct line to the unconscious with the privilege of witnessing a human mind assembling its sense of the world and itself. “Some houses,” I once explained to a close friend’s twins on an idle afternoon, “have a secret room that you can only get into by pressing a hidden switch in the furniture that looks like a knot in the wood.” The boy leapt up and began poking at his mother’s bookshelves. “No, no,” I said apologetically. “That won’t work. It’s mostly old houses that have secret rooms. This house is too new.” “Maybe,” his sister speculated, “when this house gets older, it can have one, too.”
And why not? People, when they get older, acquire bicycles, driver’s licenses, money of their own. Also: a drably unmetaphorical way of understanding their own experiences. A few years later, the same twins and I witnessed a windowless, doorless train rocket past a subway platform. “A ghost train,” I observed. “It only stops at bridges and tunnels,” said the girl, picking up on the theme like a jazz musician; we know each other well. I first met her and her brother when they were six hours old, and for a few years I would spell their exhausted parents for an evening every a week. “The ghosts on it are having a birthday party and eating cake,” her brother chimed in. “I don’t think ghosts can eat cake,” I said. “It’s the ghost of cake,” he amended. “Cake that somebody else has already eaten.” I realize that to anyone who’d prefer to talk about Beyoncé or the Southern state primaries, this exchange might sound too cute, an upsold version of the hokey Art Linkletter franchise “Kids Say the Darnedest Things,” but they would be wrong. Talking with children strips me of my tired frameworks. As a writer, you haven’t really tested the limits of your skills until you’ve tried to explain bones or air to someone unacquainted with either concept.
I love the company of children, yet I have no kids of my own, in addition to no partner, no pets — not even a houseplant. There’s a vocal contingent of the “child-free” who seem to pop up everywhere online, hotly defending themselves against the impositions and condescensions of the childed. But I’m not among them. I freely admit that I don’t have kids because I’m too lazy and too selfish. I am not nurturing. I don’t want to pick anyone up at school every afternoon, or find a way to pay for the school, or for a babysitter so I can formulate plans to see a movie an unspontaneous week in advance. I don’t want to speak to, address the needs of, or even acknowledge any other sentient being unless I feel like it. I want to shamble around my apartment in Old Navy pajama bottoms, lost in my own head for hours at a time until I’m good and ready to get dressed, step out the door, and smile. I believe that this is the only lifestyle that makes my company bearable when I do choose to interact with other human beings. I could never be a parent; I just don’t have the work ethic, or the character.
Yet whenever I choose to, I can reap absurd amounts of gratitude from friends who are parents. All I have to do is offer to spend a few hours with their kids while they run an overdue errand or snatch a few pathetic shreds of recreation. They behave as if I have agreed to shoulder a weighty burden, because to them, that’s what having children means. I’ve given up explaining to them that, for me, babysitting is ridiculously fun. I employ a child-management style adopted directly from my formative years as the eldest of five siblings. I call this style “ringleader.”
Hanging out with kids gives me a license to be irresponsible, to goof around with Legos, reread books I once adored but can barely remember, watch Pee-wee Herman videos and play iPad games. At last, I get to finalize the details of the car — made from a plastic laundry basket and rechargeable vacuum-cleaner batteries — that will one day be invented for me in a vast underground laboratory. (“Don’t worry,” I was assured by one of the engineers, “the car will come with an instruction book, and it will be laminated.”)
True, sometimes children are difficult. They may cry and fight and refuse to eat anything that is not beige. Worst of all, they will occasionally attempt to explain Pokeman, a discipline that, to the best of my knowledge, is even more daunting than quantum mechanics. But I know plenty of quarrelsome adults who bore or vex me with their weird diets and long, complicated accounts of workplace dramas. I would far rather listen to a kid talk of his plans to live on Saturn or build a railroad running from New York to Paris than have to nod sympathetically as an adult tells me of his ambition to become a professional DJ. Above all, children do not lecture you on social media.
Children will, however, introduce you to another face of loss; that, alas, is what waits inside the secret room. Adults without a significant connection to the very young can afford to deceive themselves that nothing has or will alter much in the foreseeable future. Kids, on the other hand, are change ninjas, people who can barely walk one day then, in a flash, go shooting off along the sidewalk faster than you can ever imagine running. When they talk about growing up to be pediatricians, zookeepers, scientists, or even (so flattering!) writers, you can’t help imagining them in college, getting married, having children of their own. Your own presence in that picture grays, then withers, then vanishes.
The Magnetic Fields’ song “It’s Only Time” (“Why would I stop loving you/a hundred years from now?/It’s only time”) once left me unmoved, just another mopey ode to heartbreak. But now it stops me cold. It always makes me think of the children in my life, how much I’ve vicariously savored their adventures and discoveries. They’ve given me the opportunity to relive a bit of my own childhood, and I want to see what they’ll do with adulthood once they get there, and maybe lend a helpful auntie’s hand now and then. But I’m going to miss most of it, no doubt. The world won’t be any the poorer for lack of my scribbling and my shambling, but to my everlasting surprise what stings most is the idea that I won’t be around to love them.