When I was at college, I always hung around with a group of five or six guys. We were punk rockers, and all swore we’d never have kids.
“What kind of a world is this to bring a child into?” we asked.
Additionally, we all agreed: No way were we going to be tied down to wailing brats when we could be out there doing whatever.
Twenty years later, weekly Facebook messages alert me that these same guys have just uploaded another 50 pictures of their amazing, incredible, wonderful children—children without whom, they convey in certain photo captions, they couldn’t see the point of living. In the end, I realize, they may not have wanted kids, but it wasn’t up to them—they were guys, and their girlfriends and wives knew better. In the end, it was just a question of time.
As the only girl, however, I had the choice. It was my call.
And I said no.
In 1976, Ann Landers famously conducted an anonymous survey of couples with children, asking them if they could live their lives over again, whether they would have had children. To her surprise, 70 percent of respondents wished they’d said no (like me). This was obviously not an objective exercise, but it does confirm a few of my assumptions. I was going to say it confirmed my “decision” not to have children, but the truth is, I never actually made a decision; it’s always been my default position. Unlike most women, perhaps, I’ve never had strong maternal cravings; I never played with dolls as a child, only toy animals. So when I fell in love with a man 23 years older who already had two grown children of his own, I wasn’t worried about the age difference. In fact, I couldn’t have imagined a better match.
I am now 44, and if I wanted to have kids, this year would probably be my very last chance. The truth is, I’ve never been less interested.
“When I hold my child,” my friend Anita—a new mother—tells me, “I love her with an unimaginable passion. There’s no experience like it. When you have a child, your life is completely transformed.”
But why transform a life that’s perfectly fine as is? Plus, let’s face it: Babies grow up, and fast. As a psychoanalyst, I can testify firsthand that parent-child relationships (which, by the way, never end) are responsible for more heartbreak, neurosis, misery and disappointment than any other relationship in the human repertoire.
“But what will happen when you’re old and alone?” asks Anita. My response is: I’ll certainly have more freedom and peace than those older folk I know whose relationships with their adult children continue to cause them nothing but suffering. (And with my partner’s 40-year-old son currently sleeping on our couch, I’m wondering if I’ll ever actually get to be old and alone. Bring it on!)
Even when a child is young and (hopefully, though not necessarily) adorable, there’s still all that messy food, constant cleaning, laundry, all the bad smells, horrible noise and stuff all over the floor, not to mention the stream of interruptions and demands for attention. “But don’t you want a little creature to love and care for?” asks Anita. In fact, I already have one. My partner and I do not have children together, but we happen to be the proud owners of a small French bulldog, Grisby, about whom I am writing a woman-and-her-dog memoir.
Let me be clear: My dog is not my baby. I wanted a dog not in place of a child, but in preference to a child. My dog is not a child, thank God. I don’t have to worry whether he’ll get into a good preschool, or how I’ll pay for his college education. He’s not going to get a girl pregnant or get hooked on drugs. He’s not going to borrow my clothes, steal my credit card, crash my car or throw a party in my home while I’m away. He certainly won’t be sleeping on my couch when he’s 40, though I’d be perfectly happy if he were.
I don’t believe my relationship with my dog is a substitute for a relationship with a child, nor do I see it as a cover for something darker and more disturbing. Yet for some reason there’s always a suspicion that people “retreat into the world of dogs” because they can’t deal with human relationships, with all their problems and complexities. Anyone too attached to a dog—especially a lady of a certain age—is seen as a little bit ridiculous, a figure of fun. Such women are often seen as so emotionally “entrapped” by their dogs that they lose interest in other people, and there’s no more incentive for them to go out and make friends or seek help. In my experience, however, Grisby has expanded, rather than narrowed, my social world. He’s led me to take up jogging and rollerblading, too, so we can exercise together outside.
Still, I must admit, as far as Grisby is concerned, I’ve turned out to be a pretty bad parent. I’ve done everything you shouldn’t. Grisby is allowed to run off the leash, jump on the furniture, eat from my plate, sleep in my bed, and lick my face. I kiss him on the mouth and feed him anything he wants—hot dogs, pudding, ice cream, cake, even chocolate. If he were a child, such a terrible upbringing would probably turn him into some kind of delinquent, or worse. Yet the sad truth is, a child doesn’t even have to have a bad upbringing for such a thing to happen. Read A Father’s Story, by Jeffrey Dahmer’s father Lionel, and you’ll learn that a parent can do everything right, and their child may still grow up to be a cannibalistic serial killer. The worst thing Grisby’s ever done to me is to take a dump on the bathroom floor.