Friday, July 09, 2004

Motherhood On The Bargaining Table

Recently, I stumbled across a timely article in The Guardian that tackles and explodes the assumption that having children is a) a natural step/stage in life and b) one of the pre-requisites for having a whole and happy life.

Apparently, the link between children and happiness is one of the unspoken cultural myths of our time:

A major new survey last week into parents' attitudes towards their offspring came to a rather awkward conclusion: it showed that, far from children being little bundles of joy, having them does not necessarily bring happiness.

Instead, according to the 1,500 Britons aged between 20 and 40 who were questioned, adults are finding the courage to admit that parenthood is not all it is cracked up to be.

About one third of women and 5 per cent of the men questioned in the Lever Fabergé Family Report 2003 admitted that having children has not made them any happier.

A steady flow of surveys in the past few years has shown that, torn between quality of life and success in the workplace, adults are delaying parenthood, sometimes forgoing it altogether. But what has remained taboo, however, is the admission by those who do start a family that children are not a constant source of unadulterated delight.

The link between children and happiness has, as a result, remained relatively unexplored. It is only now that we are getting whispers of the often equivocal relationship parents have with their children.

Parents are becoming increasingly able to admit that children can erode as well as increase their quality of life, despite all attempts to prepare for their impact by stockpiling wealth and precision-planning their careers.

I had always thought that my mother's insistence that a life without kids would be an empty life--in response to the declaration of my intent re not to have kids--was a bit off-kilter (and I still do). I mean, despite the fact that my sister and I were the ultimate sprogs from Hell while we were growing up, she still advocates having kids.

Well, right now--i.e. after we've all left home--she does.

At this stage of her life, she wouldn't admit that she wanted to kill us many times over. And she nearly did kill us many times over with all those increasingly violent whipping-with-a-cane sessions she gave us over many a transgression. Imagined or otherwise. This was usually followed by threats to walk out on us (which she never did) and groundings ("No pocket money for six weeks!!") to putting us in "cold storage" (aka, not talking to us and ignoring us) to shutting us out of the house to sleep outside for the night because we failed our exams.

Then there's all the verbal invective that she would never own up to now. All the name-calling ("You are a stupid fat pig with a bird brain!" was one favourite when I was an obese teenager whom she couldn't get to go to the gym regularly to lose weight) and guilt trips ("How can you do this to me when, not only were you two weeks overdue and had to be induced but I also had to endure having my pelvic bone cracked while giving birth to you???!!!").

My mother, as you can see, is not the most patient of mothers. She was, I think, a disappointed mother in a world where mothers compete to have the most accomplished children. I mean, when you have one overachieving but obese and ill-tempered daughter (me) and one kleptomaniac, underachieving tomboy daughter (my sister) while your friends--and sisters--have slim and pretty daughters who play the piano perfectly, score straight A's, do not fight with their siblings and automatically do the housework, it must be a terribly difficult pill to swallow.

She was an unhappy I-Could've-Been-A-Contender middle-class mother. Machiavellian to the point of brutality, she managed to produce one Rhodes scholar out of her three children but still, I hear the disappointment in her voice when she talks about the other two who haven't done so well (in comparison, of course, to friends' kids who are all doing well as professionals.

It's enough to give anyone a complex. In fact, it has given my siblings and I more than our fair share of it. So much so that sometimes, I wish I could've had the privilege and opportunity to ask her (and my dad, early on):

Calvin and Parenthood.JPG

But now, it's like she's suddenly developed a state of selective amnesia that softens and tints memories with a faint rosy hue. I think it's something to do with wanting grandkids now that my aunts--her sisters and my father's sisters--are already starting to have grandkids.

Like I said: Keeping up with the Joneses is a big thing for my mother. Though, to be fair, this competitive parenting mentality is part of the culture I come from.

My father is more equivocal about it all. He loves kids but he also admits that if my siblings and I hadn't come along, he and my mother would have been able to carry on living the high life: new car every year, designer togs, annual renovations and redecoration of the house etc etc.

Children, he tells me, are expensive and not necessarily worth the hassle.

I'm sure he loves me. My mother says that I'm his little princess. But I also appreciate his being candid about his equivocal attitude towards having kids. The way he puts it, it's a trade-off and one he's made willingly and with his eyes wide open. And he'd rather bring up a highly educated, independent daughter who doesn't want kids than one who goes straight into marriage after high school/college and becomes a baby-making machine.

Well, I guess he's got his wish.

My mom got her wish too: she wanted me to have an independent life with a flourishing career above all else and before I settled down with somebody at some point. Though with her occasional lecture about why I should accept that having kids (eventually) is a great thing smacks of a peculiar maternal schizophrenia. Ironically, having one of her wishes fulfilled re my progress in life has just about cancelled out her other wish.

What's weird is that all my friends--especially the men--tell me that I'll make a great mom simply because they've seen what they call my "mothering instinct" in action: taking care of my singing group members by making sure they have dinner and a good night's sleep before performances; nagging my (ex) boyfriends to eat their dinner, tidy their rooms and take showers; baby-talking the cat; talking to friends who have kids while dandling the babies on my lap with ease; being at ease around little kids; babysitting for cash etc.

So I like kids. I fully admit that.

But I would also like, at the end of the day, to be able to give the kids back to their parents, thank you very much.

And I do not appreciate the Young-Parents-With-Babies Brigade who lord over the sidewalk and bus spaces with their pushchairs like they and only they have the right of way and you, as a single person/non-parenting figure, should make way for them. Apparently, membership to this brigade includes the right to be as rude as need be to secure your--and your baby's--rightful claim to the entire sidewalk or the entire row of four seats.

All the hail the young chic parents with Baby Gap-wearing sprogs!

This irritating smug self-entitlement attitude of parents on this side of the world, combined by the Competitive Parenting Syndrome I bore the brunt of while growing up on the other side of the world, just combines to tell me to not have kids because having kids seems to bring out the worst in people instead of, as popular belief would have it, tapping into the best in our natures.

Having kids seems to draw out our tendencies towards tyranny ("children should be seen, not heard"), bad manners to others (see above re the Young-Parents-With-Babies Brigade) and cruelty (mental and/or physical depending on what sort of punishment your parents tend towards).

Of course, there are those, like my Second Aunt and her husband, who do have the oodles of patience; a genuine fondness for kids; a clear idea that discipline is meant to educate and not terrify; and the realisation that children can think for themselves. I'm not saying that they are perfect, but they did know how to raise their kids--and their nieces and nephews whom they looked after for about 3 months of the year during school holidays--without giving them a complex or hang ups.

I was--and still am--lucky to have my mother's parenting histrionics balanced out by my Second Aunt's sensible approach. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

In some ways, I think that my decision not to have kids (at least, for the foreseeable future) has, childhood experiences and growing pains aside, also been affected by the way parenthood is treated over here in the West.

In eastern cultures such as the one I come from, children--especially sons--are much treasured although child-rearing methods, as evident in my mother's mothering style, can be brutal. Children are taken as a matter-of-fact in both public and private life. In fact, my ease with children and with socialising at family-based events that include children (which terrifies or bores so many of my peers), can be said to be a result of such a family-based culture.

Sure, people make a big deal out of how many grandchildren--especially grandsons--they have and young parents do show off their state of parenthood, but there is rarely any excuse for being rude and getting your way just because you're a parent with a stroller stocked with babies. Maybe it's because people do automatically give way to parents with kids with ease. It's a part of the culture to the point where it is natural to do so. Everyone does it out of habit. And it is also part of a culture where "saving face" and "giving face" is all and thus manners and ritual can rule with an almost iron grip although etiquette is much relaxed now.

Over there in the West, however, children seem to be a status symbol in a different way because less and less people are choosing to have kids or rather, if people do have kids, they have less of them. It's almost as if just having a kid entitles you to swanning around in front of everyone else in your age group who doesn't have kids. Even more insufferable are those who are married and have kids. It's like you've made the Valedictorian grade-level in the School of Life and so are entitled to being the Queen Bee of your social group just because you've demonstrated that a) you can get a man and b) your ovaries are functioning.

Of course, this has the knock-on effect on the kids growing up here in the Western hemisphere. With parents setting such a bad example re manners as well as the laws against smacking or any reasonable disciplinary action* in legislation, so many kids here are growing up to be, as one man who is of my parents' generation said, "little monsters".

I mean, on one hand, I have the eternal dread of messing up someone else's life with my own failings (inevitable when you have kids since you are the person whom they learn from) and on the other hand, if I did have kids, I don't think I am currently living in a culture that is conducive to bringing up well-adjusted and useful members of society.

What right do I have to bring another life into this world and then mess it up for them from the get go with either too much expectation or too little discipline?

This is compounded by having a mother who always urged me to have my own career and life and not to waste my twenties because she always felt trapped as a young mother and homemaker and took out her frustration on me throughout my growing-up years and now witnessing the shitty behaviour of young parents.

Moreover, after taking into account the amount of money my parents spent on giving me what they call "a proper upbringing" which includes:

1. Eating well (i.e. nutritious food)
2. Dressing well
3. Going for nice holidays
4. Having all sorts of lessons including piano lessons, ballet lessons, gym memberships, painting lessons, swimming lessons, singing lessons, extra tuition lessons for my weaker academic subjects
5. Putting away enough money in an education trust fund so that I could go to university and come out without student debt.
6. Paying for medical bills
7. Any other incidental expenses

Well, I don't even know if I can afford to have kids even when I am more than halfway up the career ladder.

So the rising cost of living--even getting on the property ladder is almost impossible--and the fact that one needs to put more energy than ever into growing one's career, also puts in a mean argument for me permanently joining the ranks of the childless. As the article in The Guardian further elaborates:

When faced with the reality of sacrificing a hard-earned lifestyle, women without children in their thirties are revealing an ever more cautious attitude to motherhood.

One third of women in their twenties without children now admit fearing the impact that a child will have on their career, a fear that appears well founded when compared with the complaints of women who did choose to have children in their twenties, 25 per cent of whom cite missing out on their career or putting their working life on hold as a major regret.

But while such fears and complaints might once have been dismissed by their elders as the uninformed whim of those too young to know better, a growing list of studies shows that the older they become, the more today's young women question whether children are really worth having.

'I began stockpiling my income in my twenties so that having children in my thirties wouldn't make such a dent in my income,' said Marie Matt, a 33-year-old PR manager. 'But now I'm in my thirties, I realise I would have to make far bigger lifestyle sacrifices than when I was younger and less successful,' she added. 'I'm just not sure I'm prepared to do that yet.'

My sentiments exactly.

My mother would pooh-pooh the article. She always said that young couples have always coped with bringing up kids on less money than is ideal but then, she married my dad who was able to maintain the family on a comfortable middle-class lifestyle where we could have whatever we wanted or needed within reason.

And to be honest, I'd rather be called "selfish" and stay happy and solvent with enough energy left over to work with my favourite issues and causes and to spend time helping my friends, than to become a genuinely bitter person while wrecking someone else's life, all for the sake of having a picture-postcard "normal" life.

To me, that is the most selfish thing you could do.

If I do eventually have kids, I want to be able to look back on my life and say: "I did everything I wanted to accomplish in my life and more." and that I will have no regrets going on to the next stage in life. I want to have become comfortable in my own skin, confident in her own abilities and sure of who she is.

So all those who subscribe to the myth that parenthood (and/or marriage) guarantees happiness can go stuff it.

* I'm not saying that beating your kids is a good thing. Heaven knows how many times I've cursed and resented my parents after they've beaten me black and blue. But a well-timed and strategic smacking has hurt nobody, especially when you've told the kid why they shouldn't do something umpteen times and they just go ahead and do it anyway. Kids need boundaries and... God I am really starting to sound like my dad...

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