I adore babies — I have the classic human reaction to kinderschema, the term for what humans find cute: big eyes low in the face, bottom-heavy fat faces, big tummies and charming chubby feet. But just because I'm a full-on kinderschema addict, that doesn't mean I want children myself. Loving something and wanting it for your own are two very different things — but when it comes to women, children and the "biological clock", society finds it very hard to separate them out.
We seem to believe, as a culture, that there's a link between liking children and being an excellent mother, or between thinking babies are great and wanting ones of our own. Neither of these are realistic, and both minimize female desires and options for the future. Also, biologically speaking, it seems that we find babies unavoidably cute so that we have a deep, prevailing urge to take care of them (rather than leaving their fatness sitting in a cafe while we go get our hair done, for instance) — so finding a baby adorable is partially an evolutionary reaction, not a declaration of intent. But if a woman so much as casts a glance at a baby after her mid-20s, people start to throw diapers and double-wide strollers at her. Calm down, everybody.
Here's why liking babies and kids doesn't automatically lead to wanting one of my own. I'm baby-bivalent personally, but baby-approving generally. Why is that so hard to understand?
1. I Love Kids Because I'm Realistic About Them
I have a bevy of first cousins, all of whom are younger than I am. I spent holidays and Christmases as a child leading a horde of very tiny people around, entertaining them and watching blobby babies refuse to wear their sun-hats (and get burned ears as a result). All said blobby babies are now lanky teenagers and suave young adults, which is very weird and should be illegal (I saw you take your first steps, what do you mean you're studying medicine now??). But having that particular childhood experience means I know a lot about children. And let me tell you, they are not a picnic.
Children are irresponsible, in need of constant reassurance, frequently rude, batsh*t crazy, exhausting, terrible at lying, and completely without emotional barriers. They're also brilliant, make some wildly enjoyable noises, and can be entertained for hours by a joke about a butt. These positive and negative parts do not exist without one another. I've worked with children a lot as an adult (I volunteered as a teacher for refugee kids newly arrived in Sydney, and also at a children's museum), and it confirmed a lot of my thoughts. Parenthood means accepting the whole of these traits into your life and your cupboards — and frankly, I rather like my cupboards and don't want a small demon rummaging through them looking for a pan to wear as a hat.
2. I Can Find The Things I Love In Children Elsewhere, Too
My husband has frequently pointed out that my aesthetic, when it comes to finding things attractive, is either "gigantic and noble" or "fat and smushy". He, fortunately, fits into the first category, as did my childhood dogs (Akitas). But my current cat is a fluffy monster named Eglantine who sleeps on my head and has the rounded stomach of a Buddha. She adores me with uncomplicated glee and likes headbutting things when I come in the door. It's enough for me.
There is a lot of room for loving and nurturing in life. We focus a lot of attention on the love and nurturing we give to children, probably because it's likely the most difficult kind. But I can find chaos, tenderness, attention, and snuggles with other things, too: rescue animals, my partner, my friends and their possible eventual children. A child is not necessary for me to feel that sense of deep and cherishing love. I often feel it towards somebody who's let me cut in line at the supermarket.
3. I've Done My Mothering
If you've read many of my articles, you know I have my own particular brand of family nonsense, which I'm not going to go into here. But the relevant part is that, in addition to looking after my band of misfit cousins, I also spent large parts of my childhood mothering my own mother: mopping her up, keeping her stable and entertained, making sure she was all right and not going to fly off any handle in the vicinity. As you can imagine, that's left me exhausted about the entire idea of taking care of a kid, which is quite separate from my ideas about children in general. They're great. I've just had enough.
4. A Love For Something Does Not Guarantee A Talent For It
This is a separation we don't seem to often acknowledge in our ideas of motherhood. When we see a girl cooing over a baby and say "oh, you'll make such a good mother someday", what we are actually doing is confusing an affection for something with an actual talent for it. It's like looking at somebody admiring a violin and telling them they're clearly going to be the next Joshua Bell.
I do not believe all women are innately good mothers. Instinct does play its part when it comes to mothering, but there's a lot that can go wrong in the space beyond that automatic, mammalian element of parenthood. I have no idea whether I'd be a good mother, but the fact that I look at children and don't automatically see horrible little hellions shouldn't be the guarantee that I'd be good at it. It should be the minimum. Oh, you don't absolutely hate kids? Reasonable start for motherhood.
(And I do sometimes see them as horrible little hellions, like when I'm having a depressive day, or when a sticky seven-year-old is being really aggravating about arguing for more sweets in a cafe when I'm trying to work. This points to one quality that's far more important in motherhood than a love for children: a deep patience with them.)
5. Love In The Abstract Is Not Love In The Particular
If you present me with a baby, I will spend the remainder of the day kissing its head, meticulously changing its nappy, tickling its feet and booping its nose until its eyes cross. If you present me with a toddler, I will address it very seriously about what it likes and how it feels. If you present me with an elementary-school-aged kid, I will be ever-so-slightly mean to it in order to make it laugh. All these approaches work, and have been established with great practice. However, loving children in general does not mean that I would love my own children, and do right by them.
I like a world filled with children. They're hopeful and charming and have very defined opinions about their shoes, all traits I approve of. But zeroing in on the love for one child, and taking responsibility for it, and making sure it grows up to be sensible and loving and balanced and empathetic, is a different kettle of fish altogether.
So I'll be over here loving kids, spoiling them, being their favourite aunt, and not feeling any urge from that love to push one out for myself. Go forth and produce your kids; I hereby volunteer to babysit.
Images: Ian Schneider/Unsplash