I never liked kids very much.  Even when I was one of them I didn’t like myself, I’m not convinced I had any friends to like, and I certainly didn’t like the kids that picked on me. 

I’m not a fan of the kids who keep me from sleeping on the red-eye, or from listening to my iPod in peace on the metro, the ones who run down the sidewalking pedestrians with their scooters, the ones who zip by me down the ski slope, or the ones who talk on their cell phones at the movies.  I’m not fond of the ones who insist on being the center of attention or of the parents who insist on making their kids the center of every conversation.   

When I moved to France over five years ago to runaway from my life, not unlike a child, I learned that my dislike is not limited to only American kids but to those of all nationalities.  It’s not a child’s culture that gives me pause, it’s its age. 

Unsurprisingly, creating or having a kid is not part of my plan.  To begin with, babies scare me.  Parents assume that everyone wants to hold their pide and joy in their arms.  I don’t.  It’s frowned upon to refuse to hold a baby, unless ill, so when my inevitable turn comes little do parents know that I panic.  It’s like when I help friends move – I avoid carrying valuable fragiles like a flat screen television not because I am lazy, but for fear of breaking it.  Imagine breaking their baby.  Once lodged into my settling arms, a baby can smell my fear and naturally starts to cry, loudly and with enthusiasm.  I get it. 

The whole talking like a baby thing doesn’t come naturally to me either.  I know it should, I used to be a baby, but for some reason I feel silly talking like one around other adults.  It’s like acting which I’m not good at either.  The other adults know that I am not a baby, so why would I try to sound like one? 

French baby speak has taken this problem global.  “Dou dou” (pronounced “doo doo”) in French is a term of endearment often used with children, it is not bodily waste.  I can’t bring myself to say it though, or other silly sounding French syllables.  Adult waiters bring me coffee when I order water, so how can I expect a 5-year-old to understand my thick accent?  To avoid frightening kids with my funny way of speaking, I usually just say “bonjour” and step aside to let Luc, my French domestic partner, work his charm.  Unlike me, he is a natural with all ages. 

I’m pretty sure that my unease with children stems from a babysitting incident when I was 15.  They were two boys, ages one and three, names unknown (or blacked out).  Early in the evening, the 3-year-old pooped in his diaper.  I had never changed a diaper before, and the parents did not leave behind instructions.  Luckily  for him, the kid was able to talk me through it.  Later that night I was bored and there was nothing good to watch on TV.  I hadn’t yet met the 1-year-old because he had been sleeping since the time I arrived.  So I decided to wake him up.  Two hours later he was still crying.  When he finished by throwing up on me, I could not blame him. 

Ever since that night, I associate babies with crap, crying and vomit.

And then came Emmett, the son of my sister Lynn and her husband Chris, who has been inspiring my quiet evolution towards tolerance.  We have established a mutual respect; I am not afraid of breaking him, and he has yet to puke on me.  Blood, it turns out, changes everything.  I do not have any ties with a newborn baby; he is nothing to me, in theory.  In practice, Emmett became the closest thing that I will ever have to my own child. 

I first met Emmett at Thanksgiving-time in 2007 when he was two months old.  One has to often pretend that babies are cute, precious and/or sweet, but with Emmett there was thankfully no need to fake it; he was, and still is, perfectly all of the above.  I volunteered to babysit one evening knowing that it would be a treat for Lynn and Chris to get out of their apartment without having to pay someone.  While I was trepidatious to be left alone with someone so petit, I would not let my experience with “what’s their names” scare me.   I did, however, insist that Lynn give me a step-by-step demonstration on how to change a diaper.  At two months, I knew Emmett would not be able to guide me.  All in all, I was alone with an infant for nearly 90 minutes and nothing scary happened.  Yes, Emmett cried, but not because I woke him.  And he stopped.  Yes, he pooped, but I changed his diaper in stride.  Alone with my nephew that night, I forgot that I wasn’t suppose to like kids.  And I’m pretty sure I fell in love with one.  

I am natural with Emmett.  I can hold him with ease, sing to him, say silly things, make stupid faces, comfort him when he cries, ignore him when he whines, tolerate his drool in spite of my saliva phobia and I am ok with it.  

Emmett was born 9 years after my mother died.  Her death left a gaping, black hole in our family, something that my father, brother, sister and I still mourn in our own, mostly unspoken ways.  With all four of our grandparents gone, as well as a series of great aunts and uncles, Emmett represents for me and my siblings our first experience with life being given rather than taken.  He serves as both a symbol of our mom’s influence on us and a glaring reminder of her absence.  It is cruel that she is missing out on him, and even more unfortunate that he will not get to know her.  Knowing Lynn, she will find a way to make our mom a continual presence in Emmett’s life, and in turn, all of our lives.   For that, he had me at “goo”. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not cured from my dislike of children.  However, there are an ever increasingly number of them that I’ve come to tolerate, if not like.  I’ve gotten much better at holding babies, carrying on inane conversations with toddlers, and tolerating screaming kids in public places.  I’ve even gone so far as to feel pity for the embarrassed parents.  I handled it well when one youngster recently called me “nipple head” because of a few unsightly moles on my nearly-bald head.  When another hysterically cried because Luc and I bought her a gray coat rather than a pink one for her birthday, I would have previously sworn off ever buying her another gift.  But we did the next year, just one without color.  My colleagues have even brought their children to the office and they were suprisingly well-behaved, and rather efficient at filing contracts.  Kids, I learned, can be handy when treated as slave labor and put to good use.  

About a dozen years ago, I was standing on a street corner outside of a hospital waiting for the light to change when a couple walked up beside me holding what was clearly their brand newborn baby.  I couldn’t help but stare in awe and feel terrified for them.  I realized that I had never actually seen people leave a hospital for the very first time with their baby.  I imagined that this couple — standing there now with their unsmiling, apathetic gazes directed at at the traffic signal — had spent their whole lives fantasizing about marriage and family,  for this very moment. With their lives having been in perpetual prep-mode, what the hell do they do now?  What happens when they go home, alone with an infant?  Their entire existence just changed in a massive, yet entirely common way.  It was a concept that I had a hard time grasping, especially because I was simply going home, alone with take-out and a dvd. 

That intangible and unsettling sensation of “now what?” has stuck with me ever since.   

When I was an unsuspecting teen, I always planned on having 3 kids because I was a third child.  But that was before I became an adult, embraced my homosexuality, and the idea of being a parent fled my mind.  But then gay-friendly adoption laws in the U.S. changed all of that, and friends started asking if Luc and I thought about having children.  The easy answer is that it’s not legal in France, but people roll their eyes as if the French are being silly and will change their backward laws any second now.    

Besides not liking kids enough to want one, I like my freedom even more.  I view children as a handicap that prevent adults from going out and having fun.  I want to go to the movies without it being complicated, go out to dinner when I’m hungry, and go on vacation wherever I can afford to travel.  Also, Luc and I bought a 1-bedroom apartment and we didn’t have the money for a walk-in closet that could later be converted into a nursery.  I’m a city person, so moving to the Parisian suburbs is not an option.  So, on top of all ideological reasoning, there’s simply no place to put a kid.  And as someone who lives paycheck to paycheck, there’s not much money to feed one either.  Baguettes and butter, I am told, would not be an infant-appropriate diet.   

The most self-convincing reason why I once considered having a kid was so that there would be someone to take care of me in my old age.  This is an inevitable necessity I fear is coming.  When I picture old age, I picture loneliness and illness.  Not to mention that I’m living in a country where just a few years ago 13,000 old people died because of a little heat, and being left alone in it.  I’m confident that any child of mine would know to provide me with air conditioning. However, this one egotistical reason to have a child does not outweigh my other selfish reasons to not.   

While I could be tempted to be nice to Emmett just to get air conditioning when old, my kindness towards him is not self-serving; my adulation is sincere.  I have uncharacteristically corny visions of him visiting me in Paris, taking him to Euro Disney, going to his school plays and graduations, taking him to the theater, skiing together, and listening to him talk about the cute boy or girl he has a crush on at school.  When Luc and I fantasize about winning the lottery (every Wednesday at 8:40pm), we agree that we will put aside money for Emmett’s college education, just after buying Lynn and Chris a bigger apartment in Manhattan so they can make more Emmetts — and have a permanent guest room reserved just for us.   

Luc often mentions how he has stipulated in his will that all of his money is to be left to his “neveux”, so that I won’t be surprised when I’m left with nothing.  This French word for nephew, when plural, doesn’t have to refer to only boys; it can mean a nephew combined with a niece, both of which Luc has through one of his brothers.  So it took months for me to understand that he also considered Emmett as one of his heir apparent “neveux”.  I was utterly surprised and impressed because Luc has only met Emmett on two occasions.  He is a better person than I am because of his generosity and would be an extraordinary father if I, and the French governement, would let him. 

Moving to Paris permanently at 30 offered a surprising stability I had never known before.  Enter Luc, a career I didn’t know I wanted but now love, an apartment I never thought it possible to own and voilà, everything fell into place.  For so many years I was treading water in NY and then LA wanting to one day become a film producer, never knowing which city I preferred to settle in, and scoping out love wherever it was not to be found.  Straight out of school I started my career at the bottom of the ladder but continued to inch my way upwards, millimeter by millimeter.  I was in the right place to keep the dream alive until I realized that it wasn’t the right dream for me, and I had no idea what was.  Until another dream fought its way to the surface and so I needed, for once in my life, to take a risk.  I had always wanted to move to Paris but never had the courage to do so.  At the height of my indecision about all of this, my shrink asked, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if you go online tomorrow and buy a one-way ticket?”  3 months notice and over 5 years later, the only downside to speak of has been distance. 

It’s sad that there is all of a sudden this one human being with whom I have such a unique bond and I only get to see him a few times a year.  Living so far away from friends and family has always been difficult; Emmett has made my homesickness chronic.  Because Luc is French, we do not have the choice to establish a life for ourselves closer to our nephew.  I’m not looking to destroy anyone’s holy matrimony, I just want the right to live in my own country. 

For the first couple of years of his life, I was distraught at the idea of Emmett not remembering me.  Each time I returned home it felt like he was just meeting me for the first time.  While I have been collecting memories of our times together, he has not.  He does not remember the walks along the Hudson in the rain, the outlet shopping at Passover, playing on the swings in Washington Square Park, the gambling in Atlantic City, the way he giggles while lying on a deflating air mattress,   asks “What’s that?” about everything, or regretfully exclaims “Uh oh!” when he drops a ball under the couch.  But, now that he’s over two I think he understands who I am.  According to Lynn, he saw an airplane and mentioned “unc regg” because he knows that’s how I get home.  He also remembers my fondness for pork fried rice.   

Lynn and Chris have named Luc and me as Emmett’s guardians (though apparently not yet in writing).  Should something happen to them, we get to keep him (barring any unseemly lawsuits).  This is an honor that touches and perplexes because my dislike of kids is no secret, so apparently Lynn and Chris believe my gradual transformation to be real.  Plus, I’ve got Luc on my team to pick up the slack.  Like the vice president who is one heart beat away from the presidency, we are now two heartbeats away from parenthood.   

Obviously, I don’t want that to have to happen, but the idea of being a parent to Emmett is an extraordinary sensation, one of a calming warmth,  fulfilling goodness, and numbing terror. Plus, he’d be such a good deal.  Since he’s over two, the sleepless nights are nearly over. Daycare is cheaper here as are the babysitters, though they get more vacation time.  Health and dental insurance is no concern at all, despite the communist death panels.  And education in France is dirt cheap; Luc just got a master’s degree for the cost of an expensive dinner in Manhattan, without the champagne.  The only thing that may anger Chris is that Emmett risks being a soccer (er, football) fan rather than a baseball one.  “Let’s go Mets!” will morph into “Allez les bleus!”. 

Does the existence of Emmett inspire me to want to have my own 2.0 version?  Probably. But then I try to imagine Luc and I waiting for the light to change as we hold a newborn on a street corner.  I still can’t picture our “now what?”. 

That is why it’s much easier to not like kids for now than to parent any.  Being an uncle to one is close enough.  

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GREGORY MESSINA graduated with a degree in business from Washington University in St. Louis, quickly forgot everything he learned, and now works in publishing.

20 responses to “The Uncle Evolution”

  1. Becky says:

    It’s an age thing, too.

    My sister had my niece and nephew when I still very young–like 18, 20. At the time, I regularly said I wanted kids, but deep down, I couldn’t imagine myself with kids, didn’t consider myself competent to have kids, and didn’t relish the least in the idea of being “tied down” to another person like that. My attitude wasn’t changed, that is, by the fact that I was related to these particular kids.

    This attitude, along with the lies about my true feelings, persisted until 3 or so years ago (I am now 32). Some of my friends started having kids, one batch of them twins with which that particular friend regularly needed help. I powered through the discomfort for her sake and got to know the babies. My aversion softened. But it wasn’t just the getting to know them.

    I mean, the idea of that infinite future into which we can keep putting things off starts to fade as we age. The old cliche of the biological clock, the reality that there is a point at which it is no longer possible (for women) or no longer advisable or responsible (for men) to have kids. An aspect of existence and mortality whose reality crystallizes as we age.

    Or at least that’s how it was for me. That and the realization that almost no one, even those who already have kids, are ever “ready” for a child. I mean, you can be more ready or less ready, maybe, but my friends have all assured me that the visions of total preparedness I’ve had are basically delusional.

  2. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    I knew when I was 12 that I didn’t want to have children. For YEARS, I endured the “you’ll change your mind” comments, from women typically. I didn’t change my mind. I have no regrets.

    But I adore little children! I will gladly hold babies and entertain toddlers. Kids really do say the darndest (and funniest) things, which is why I’ll even engage in conversation.

    As Emmett gets older, his memory will start to hold you more firmly. I’ll bet he’ll think it’s pretty cool that his uncle has had such an interesting life.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      I’m the same way. Nothing annoys me more than the cheery nudge, the knowing wink, the slight superiority of ‘Ho ho ho, you’ll change your mind! You’ll want kids!’ from people who have their as-yet-unborn infants’s lives all mapped out.

      My response now is ‘What if the kid gets to six months, and you change your mind too?’

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        My most trying you’ll-change-your-mind experiences involved women who already had children.

        I often respond, “I was born without a biological clock.”

        And yeah, what happens when someone has a baby and realizes oh no this is NOT what I wanted……?

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Well congratulations, Gregory,

    I just read this at Barnes and Nobel with my latte surrounded by other coffee addicts. I was alternately laughing and crying as I read this. All the people around me are looking very nervous now, hoping I don’t have an ax in my enormous backpack.

    I’m glad you joined the family, Gregory. You’ll like it here at TNB. We’re mostly pretty much fun.

    (I’ll write it out phonetically so you can get water, just sound it out and memorize it:
    Okay, wait. There’s nothing in English that sounds like “un” in French, so we’re going to start by leaving off the first word, just mumble at the beginning and they won’t know.
    Carraffe dough, sea vou, (like you,) play.
    Okay? Practice and memorize. You’ll have to learn the “un” there, there just isn’t anything English that sounds like it.
    No, wait. You know when you are trying to think of something and you say “uh?” It’s kinda like that.
    Okay, let’s start again:

    uh carraffe dough, sea vou play.

    There. Try it. I bet next time you get water.
    Let me know.

  4. Judy Prince says:

    Gregory, what a wonderful passage to read: “Moving to Paris permanently at 30 offered a surprising stability I had never known before. Enter Luc, a career I didn’t know I wanted but now love, an apartment I never thought it possible to own and voilà, everything fell into place.” A beautifully positive spin on “Life’s what happens when you’re doing other things.”

  5. Mary Richert says:

    I am SO with you, and I wish more people would give more serious thought to why they want to have children. If they’re doing it just because kids are a cute accessory, they’re gonna have a heck of a time … This reminds me of my feelings about my brother’s kids. People act like if you’re a straight married couple in the states with a house and a stable income the next thing on your list should be kids. Well, kids aren’t on my list at all right now, but I ADORE my brother’s children. They’re such amazing little people. And I didn’t like kids before, either, I swear. But these guys have been such good little ambassadors for kid-kind that I find myself warming up to children in a more general sense… as long as they’re not my own.

  6. The first babies I ever held were my own. I didn’t know anything about kids at the time. I still don’t. Now they are 20 and 18. Young men. Great musicians.

    I see other people’s kids and they sometimes annoy me. Other times they remind me of my kids when they were little and all the good times we shared. So I smile, or laugh.

    I don’t focus on baby vomit or diaper poop. All that is washed away by a flood of memories of our relationship. Like, you probably don’t focus on a time your friend was sick. Yet, we all get sick. We don’t sit around saying, “You, know that last time you had a cold you were pretty snotty.” When I think of friends I think of good times in the past, present and those to come.

    And so that’s how it is with me and my kids.

    Doesn’t mean they never annoyed me though.

    Great post. Made me think about my own life and my kids. And reflection is good.

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    “I view children as a handicap that prevent adults from going out and having fun.”

    I don’t think I’ll ever change my mind from this viewpoint.

    Welcome to TNB, Greg!

  8. Joe Daly says:

    Phew. I struggled for so long with the fear that maybe I don’t like kids. Embed this fear in a society where children are so often viewed as personal accomplishments, and a guy can get downright freaked. But I’ve come to see that with the exception of patently offensive and deliberately inconsiderate people, I can pretty much hang with anyone. Kids are great so long as their parents have an eye on them and are quick to jump in if/when the kids get a little rambunctious.

    I’m a perennial bachelor. I have an awesome niece and there is no shortage of kids on my street. I have two dogs. I’m good.

  9. Jessica Blau says:

    Great story. And lucky Emmet to have toi et Luc!

    I love that you abandoned the U.S. and just went for it. We all need to do something like that at some point–makes you feel new again. I’m jealous!

  10. I really like your line “a calming warmth, fulfilling goodness, and numbing terror” to describe the prospect of children. A current parent probably couldn’t have said it better.

    But I rang in on a lot of what you’re saying here, being in France myself with a French spouse and children of my own. I’m glad especially to see I’m not the only one who avoids “frightening children with my funny way of speaking.” Sometimes, as I’ve written about too, this can even apply to your own. My daughters now insist I only utter English and stop talking about their “dou dou.”

    So thanks for this piece and welcome, to this site and, belatedly, à ce pays.

  11. Marni Grossman says:

    My sister (who, coincidentally, graduated from WashU) and brother-in-law are trying to have a baby. I desperately want to be an aunt. All the fun parts of children with none of the responsibility. When they cry, you get to give them back.

    My father, however, seems less excited. He- like you- is not a fan of children. I don’t think he enjoyed my sister or I until we were old enough to hold adult conversations.

    I’m convinced, however, that- again, like you- he’ll be won over when it comes to his own flesh and blood.

    Welcome to TNB!

  12. Wendy says:

    What a wonderful article Greg, your nephew is gorgeous and i can totally see how he would have that effect 🙂

  13. Mark Luethi says:

    Incidentally, I once had a kid talk me through inserting a suppository. I assumed the word just meant “big-sized pill” and when his mother asked if I knew what to do with them, I said, “Duh.”

  14. Gloria says:

    I got to the part where you woke up the one year old and laughed and laughed and laughed. Oh you poor, kid. bwahahahahahahaha!

    And then when I got to the part about leaving the hospital with a newborn baby, I cried. It’s easy for me to forget that I once not only liked my ex-husband, but that we shared that experience – of leaving the hospital with our newborn twin boys, putting them in the car, and then driving home with them, worried every second that somebody was going to crash into our car. Me looking back at their car seats every ten seconds to just make sure they were still there, then looking at my exhusband who was driving, eyes forward, a daunted whatthefuckjusthappened look on his face. I will never have that experience with another person. You nailed it, Gregory.

    Kids do say the nastiest/funniest things sometimes, too. One of twins, who is now 8, told me the other day (while I was playing Tetris): “Wow, mom! You’re really good at Tetris! You’re like that old person who’s never done anything with their lives, but they’re still good at Tetris!” Little son of a bitch…

    Ah, and the distance. I left New Mexico to come to Portland eleven years ago. Mostly, I have no hurt feelings about leaving the majority of those people behind. But my sister and her sons could certainly move a lot closer and I’d be happy (and God knows I’m not joining them in Oklahoma.) It’s really tough. I get it. It’s a 24 hour drive from here to there. It might as well be Paris.

    I really love your writing, Gregory. I really loved reading this.

  15. Nancey says:

    Great writing! o.k. so here is this. I don’t like kids either. And my view of them is that they DO prevent you from going out and having fun, watching a movie you want to watch, enjoy some silence, some peace, read books and books and books. But then at 39 I found out I was having one! So I love her to pieces, she’s my whole life, but other kids? When I’m around them I just can’t wait to get away. I still get nervous holding other people’s newborns, or really babysitting them at all. With my own I just have an easy way with her, always had, a good comraderie, it just fits and works, with other kids? no thanks!

    go write that book, I really enjoy your stories.

    • Gregory Messina says:

      Nancey, I love that you went back to read my earlier (first) story! That’s a huge compliment.
      It sounds like we have a very similar relationship with kids. It’s wonderful that you have such a great relationship with your daughter. She’s very lucky.

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