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.