A few months ago, I took my friends’ children to the cinema to watch The Little Mermaid. I’d been planning the outing for two weeks, coordinating with both sets of parents for a day that worked, securing the tickets, and getting the kids all excited for the movie. They sang in the car on the way to the cinema amid chitchat about all the fun they were going to have. We got there, queued for popcorn, found our seats in the dark theatre, and impatiently sat through trailers until Little Mermaid finally came on. But we left before we even heard Ariel’s first song. The girls, aged 6 and 5, found the movie too scary so we walked out after just 10 minutes.
This threw a spanner in the works. I didn’t care much for the movie myself but I had counted on Ariel to help out with the babysitting. Now I bore the full weight of responsibility and had to figure out an alternative way to keep two disappointed little girls entertained for a few hours. They had no intention of going home just yet. Luckily, Sarit Centre has more than movie theatres. We spent the rest of the morning in a play park where they jumped on trampolines, dived into ball-pits and scaled obstacle courses to their hearts’ content.
Lunch time was fraught with negotiations and bribes (from my end) and the threat of tears (from their end) but we finally settled on pizza. We then spent another 20 minutes picking toppings via the process of elimination until everyone was happy with their choice and we could place an order. Except that when the pizza came, one rejected hers because it had mushrooms, which she had not anticipated, and would not eat it until I picked the offending fungi and put it aside – far away from the plate so it wouldn’t touch the rest of her food. The other one would only eat her pizza if I folded each piece into a taco for her. And on it went.
On the drive home they bickered over one imitating the other, which led to the imitater crying in utter heartbreak over this very unfair characterisation.
“I don’t want to talk to anyone anymore,” she said, choking back sobs.
“Not even me? I haven’t done anything wrong,” I said.
“Nobody in this car is allowed to talk until we get home,” she declared.
By the time we got home, I had thawed them out with a game of “I spy with my little eye” and they were best friends again. I delivered them to their parents, happy and healthy, and wiped a thin sweat from my forehead. That was a lot of work to do on Saturday morning with a hangover from a Friday of too much wine.
I don’t have children but I spend a lot of time around them because most of my friends are parents. I find that if you want to continue a friendship with people with children, then you have to learn how to enjoy the company of children because more often than not, children will be the loud, chaotic, messy third wheels to your hangouts. That’s how friendships work. The best ones change and evolve and adapt to circumstances. They demand generosity and grace, which they give back in equal measure. And they allow you to experience things that you would never otherwise experience, like being tasked with entertaining two little girls on a Saturday morning.
I don’t have children because I don’t want children. There is no big, profound reason behind this, except that I simply do not want to be anyone’s parent. I never have. Even as a child playing kalongolongo in the village, I’d let the other girls fight it out for the coveted role of “mother” while I was content to be the child or maybe a teacher.
In high school, when adolescence hit with the force of bricks, I fantasised about prince charming rescuing me from the mundane and whisking me away into a life of travel and adventure, never a marriage and kids. It feels like less of a choice and more like a fact of life. Like how some people can function without a full eight hours of sleep. Odd, but they exist among us. I exist.
My twenties and thirties have made my child free existence concrete in the way that words give form to the ambiguous; because the question often comes up and I have had to verbalise the answer; to my (ever hopeful) family, to friends, to romantic partners.
“You really don’t want children?”
“Right now you mean?”
“As opposed to when? Anyway, it’s unlikely I will even in the future.”
“Not even with the right person?”
“Not even with God himself.”
My not wanting children, however, does not mean that I live a child-free existence. It’s not what I want, and it’s not something that life could give me anyway, because this world is a shared space. Children are part of it..
But adults love to complain about children and call them badly behaved. I have been guilty of this. We feel oppressed if we are sat sit next to a fussy child in public transport, or if we are at a restaurant having lunch at the same time as a family whose child is throwing a tantrum probably because their chicken is touching their vegetables and they don’t like that.
We’re a low tolerance people who struggle to see children as people who experience the full range of human emotion, from joy and excitement to anger and frustration. If sometimes these emotions are overwhelming to an adult with a fully developed brain, how much more intense must they be for a child who is still growing, still very much a stranger to the world, still trying to figure out what it is that they are even feeling?
This has gone beyond the realm of personal irritation to influencing national policy. South Korea, for instance, is famous for its “no kid zones”. The country now has the lowest birth-rate in the world despite the government’s efforts to provide incentives to stem the declining fertility rates because who wants to give birth if the messaging is that your children are not welcome in society? Another example is Corendon Airlines in Turkey which recently joined several others to introduce an adult only zone on one of its flights.
Closer home, we may not have enacted anything, but we cannot say with confidence that we are fans of children being children. Look at the way many of us were raised. Our parents prioritised our physical needs but ran roughshod over our feelings, opinions, and thoughts. Remember the Saturdays you spent crying in agony at the salon as you got your hair blow-dried (or worse, hot-combed) because your mother simply would not let you cut your hair no matter how much you begged? Only in adulthood did we learn that going to the salon could be pleasurable.
I admire how my generation is parenting these days. I see so much more gentleness, patience and consideration with how my friends approach parenting. One recently took her daughter to the dentist to get her loose milk toothed pulled out with minimal pain, because she couldn’t bear repeating her own traumatic childhood experience of getting it yanked out with no warning, the sharp pain rendering her too shocked to even cry, her mouth slowly filling with blood. Gentle parenting is producing some incredible kids, the kind with the confidence to say: “Auntie Jacqui, I don’t like this movie. I am scared. Let’s leave.”
A big shout out to the accommodating adults sitting in our row in the movie theatre that day who helped me usher the scared girls out of the dark cinema, lighting their phone torches so the girls could see where they were going and holding their hands to keep them from tripping over their feet. That you didn’t shush us or complain about us disrupting your movie experience means a lot to this inexperienced auntie who just wanted to spend a nice morning with her nieces but ended up picking the wrong movie.