I was recently witness to a whispered confession forced out after a bottle of wine. A girlfriend of many years’ standing, writhing as if in pain and almost gagging, said ‘I shouldn’t have had them’. Them being her children. ‘If I could go back, I wouldn’t do it again’.
It was a physical effort to wrangle her feelings into words. She pushed them out of some unwilling place deep within her. It put me in mind, inappropriately, of birth.
I was familiar enough with her complaints about parenting – the mindless repetition, the isolation, the withering sense of self. What I hadn’t realised until then was that the compensations weren’t cutting it for her. Not even close. She acted out her morning routine for me. ‘Put your shoes on. Put your shoes on. I said put your shoes on. This is your last chance to put those damn shoes on.’ On and on until the futility and the inanity of it made her parody the sing-song voices of her children and punctuate the shoe request with expletives. ‘What fucking difference does it make?’ she sobbed. ‘No one is listening to me anyway.’
It’s no secret that parenting is hard. But there’s an implicit promise wrapped up with parenting: that the rewards will far outstretch the trials. We’re sold that we’ll be utterly captivated by our little one’s discovering that his fingers wriggle. That our vicarious discovery of the world through his eyes will compensate us for the one we lost. But what if this isn’t enough?
Judging from my girlfriend’s experience, you do this: you cork your rage, disappointment and regret, and welter in your own inadequacy because there is no space to speak it.
Our world is confessional in the extreme; our every inane biographical detail saturates blogs and reality TV and Facebook.
This is unspeakable. It is taboo even among one’s closest intimates.
And it could so easily have been me. I never felt anything like ‘maternal instinct’. I didn’t yearn for children or fear there would be a baby-shaped hole in my life. I experienced the few children in my life as I experienced the adults, with some delighting me and some irritating me. So when I fell pregnant a short way into a new relationship (having been assured that our chances of conceiving were remote) I had to face down a terrible fear: what if the instinct doesn’t kick in? What if – the ultimate terror – she arrives and I don’t want her?
From the second that plastic stick changed colour, everything changed. I stopped smoking, and wine became a rare, thimble-sized treat. I listened obsessively to my body, primed for that first pulse of maternal feeling. When my waters broke I was still waiting. At those first contractions I remember thinking, ‘Maybe the pain will connect me’. Perhaps birth itself is necessary: a shamanistic ritual that pushes you to your physical and psychic limits and through that mammoth investment creates love – that big, unconditional, heart-singeing love parenting is supposed to create.
If that’s true I will never know, because eleven hours into labour, with a birth canal that had barely sighed – let alone yawned – I had a non-elective caesarean. I felt cheated. I wanted the birth experience. I needed it.
In hindsight I needn’t have worried so much. My daughter has opened up an entire floor of my being I wasn’t aware was there. Every new sound she masters delights me. I’ve lost hours wrapped in her deliciousness. My parent goggles aren’t just rose tinted; they’ve rose frames, rose rivets and a rose design on the case. But I didn’t know that beforehand. What a gamble to take, hoping that the right feelings would materialise.
I got lucky, so I can’t feel anything but compassion for those rare, shame-filled glimpses of parenting’s ugly underbelly. ‘It took me a long time to like her, let alone love her’, one friend said of her little one after a very unexpected pregnancy. One girlfriend, whose singular experience of parenting could only be described as epic, told me quietly, swirling her red wine around the glass, ‘If I’d known, I would have terminated’. After each admission the speaker rushes to tell me what I already know – that they love their children, obsess about their safety and care desperately about their happiness.
Never, not once, have I seen parental regret, rage and self-recrimination canvassed on parenting websites or in general conversation.
Even literature, which I trust to tell me the truth when nothing else will, is curiously silent on this point. Oh sure, there’s positively a tradition of critiquing parents. They get short shrift in the Brontës and Dickens, who pass over them in favour of orphans. They are universally lampooned in Austen, whose children are always more mature and enlightened than the people who spawned them. There’s an entire oeuvre that dissects nuclear families, with all their idiosyncrasies and failings and ties that survive ‘in spite of’. Think Franzen, Lamb, Shields, Stead.
But I can think of precisely one book that squares up to the idea that we might not like our children (please note that I say ‘like’, not ‘love’. It’s an important distinction): Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin. There’s no wonder that book has something approaching cult status. But even then Shriver made her child almost satanic in order to make her point. From babyhood Kevin evinces an array of diabolical traits. He wears nappies until he is six, desecrates his mother’s lovingly prepared study, goads another child into self-mutilation and is implicated in his baby sister’s loss of an eye. All this before the coup de grace of a Columbine-style massacre. We can hardly condemn Eve, Kevin’s mother, for her ambivalent feelings about him.
But where is the novel about the garden-variety child, with their pedestrian child-like ways that drain the very lifeblood out of their mothers? Perhaps the pained confessions I’ve heard are simply a statistical anomaly. It seems more likely that there are many, many parents out there at war with themselves for not feeling what they think they ought every moment of every day.
If I’m right, why have we gagged them?
S.A. Jones is a novelist, essayist and reader. Her first novel, Red Dress Walking, was published by Allen and Unwin in 2008. Her second novel, Isabelle of the Moon and Stars, is currently being edited.