“Mum, how tall’s a Hobbit?” my eldest wants to know. Good question. She puts the book down and examines me in an Attenborough-kind-of-way; coffee cup in hand, baby on my hip, trying to pick up a slinky with my left foot. “I…ummm…” I falter. Aha! Got the slinky. “I would guess about 3 feet.” With a shrug, she disappears behind her book again, and I go back to my argument with the baby. “No, I am going to put you down. Just for a moment. The kettle is boiling hot and you’re such a little graaaab – ahhhhh!” In comes the middle one. “Mum, when’s breakfast?” I am kneeling on the floor, trying to extract my hair from his brother’s tiny fist. He doesn’t wait for a reply. “Do you know where dad keeps the batteries?” is his next question, this time inserting his remote control car into the tent of hair so that I can see the trouble at close range. “Try the second drawer.” Okay, I’m up. Toast, coffee, marmalade, and porridge for the baby. I stub my toe on the way over to the fridge, but it hardly matters. I’m on a roll now. I might, if I’m very lucky, even get to finish that article about the moral irresponsibility of having children. I like to stay topical.
Every morning – don’t ask me why I do this to myself – I attempt to read an article over breakfast. The routine goes something like this… 1) I suddenly get the urge to buy the weekend paper and we pull over sharply on the way back from some kind of family gadabout, usually involving squashed sandwiches and a backseat bristling with stick-based weapons. 2) Teenwolf looks at me wearily and explains that, during the Coronavirus, we have to wear a mask when we enter a shop. The masks are at home. 3) I force him to remove his t-shirt and wrap it tightly to cover my nose and mouth; we both look deranged. This would be a good time to bump into the headteacher of the local school. 4) Newspaper and Smarties obtained, it is now time to play the long game of wading through the content, whilst absorbing the constant stream of consciousness emanating from all three children. My current average is one article per day. 5) Within a fortnight, have the sudden realisation that the paper is so out of date that even the magazine longreads have lost their context, and tell Teenwolf to pull over again. Shit, still no mask. Honey? You know what to do.
Today’s article is about the rise of climate activists choosing not to have children. Apparently, ‘having one fewer child prevents 58.6 tonnes of carbon emissions every year’ (Cain, 2020). Mmmm, interesting. I butter the baby’s toast. “Mum?” “Yes?” “Where do Orcs go on holiday?” I ponder this one and am on the verge of a reply, when I have an out-of-body experience. With a muscle reflex I didn’t know I was capable of, I sort of catapult off the bench and snatch the remote control car in mid air, steadying a tall glass of milk with the other hand and bracing my knee against the baby who – of course – point blank refuses the indignity of his high chair. “Not on the breakfast table, okay?” I say smoothly, handing the car back to middle son. “But well done for changing the batteries.” On with the article. Antinatalists, I am told, argue that ‘bringing sentient life into the world is inherently cruel’ – oh dear – ‘and some make headlines for suing their parents over their own existence’ (Cain, 2020). Shit, really? I glance warily at the baby from the corner of my eye. He is applying a peanut butter face mask, it would seem. So far, so good. But I don’t think this article is for me. I shuffle through for something more uplifting. Holidays; brill. “Muuuum?” “Uh-huh?” “You still haven’t answered my question about Orcs.” “Cornwall,” I say, without hesitation.
But the holiday read doesn’t fill me with joy, either. This time, I am following an ‘aspirational woman’ on a solo trip to Paris where, after ‘noodling in and out of patisseries’, she plans on ‘making charged eye contact with strangers over a glass of wine and a book at some adorable bistro’ (Helsey, 2020). I love her already. This was most definitely me about 15 years ago. I straighten the page with a purposeful snap. But then, THUNK! “What the…?” Mopping milk from my t-shirt with a slightly peanut butter-y wet wipe, I address the errant baby again. “Can we refrain from throwing strawberries into drinks, at least until you’re 18, when that will make an excellent party trick?” He crushes a second strawberry mutinously in his fist. “Plosh!” he replies. My daughter is helpful here. “Mum,” she says, rather sternly. “Those wipes are awful for the planet. You should go and get a flannel instead.” I stalk over to the cupboard, magazine in hand, and grab a flannel to appease eco-warrior child, when I hear a the zip of something fast crossing the table, followed by a dull crash. “Nobody move!” I say, edging round the broken jar of peanut butter. “Seriously, kiddo, what did I say about cars on the table?” Paris will have to wait.
And I wonder, of course, why I put myself through this every morning. Do I want to feel young again? Am I hoping that the whiff of hedonism and ideological freedom and glamorous opinion will simply waft my way, if I leave the page open in front of me while answering questions about Middle Earth? That’s certainly part of it. But what strikes me every time – I suppose what keeps me searching – is the palpable absence of real children and real families in mainstream media. Where have they gone? Adulthood, it would appear, is presented almost entirely through the lens of single, successful, artfully self-conscious urbanite. Even when an article is about children or, say, the journalist has a couple of their own, I notice the children themselves are nowhere to be found. It’s all adult-centric escapism right now. Places to visit before you’re 40. Reasons to pop into your local thrift-shop on a cosy Sunday afternoon. How to make a mural from condom wrappers. Even headline features on children focus on the negative impact childcare has on women’s careers, or the impossibility of practicing social distancing in schools. Darn these kids! They’re getting in our way. And don’t get me started on the presentation of parenthood – especially motherhood – on the rare occasions it actually does crop up. Who knew the virgin/whore dichotomy was still alive and well in the 21st century? Either you’re Mary Poppins, or a career bitch, or a wino. You can’t have it all, mama, and if you can, we don’t want to hear about it. The baby pipes up again and breaks my reverie. “Plosh!” he yells, triumphantly. I really am going to have to change this t-shirt.