Baby Hating: On Misopedia and Generation X

“I just don’t see myself with a screaming baby,” observed a friend of mine concerning her decision to opt out of child bearing. I had not asked her why. Hers is not a choice I question. After all, she is a thoughtful and incredibly hard-working citizen of the world whose considerable ambitions are simply leading her elsewhere. Moreover, although I have a child of my own who is incontrovertibly the joy of my existence, I am grateful to be a part the first generation whose women can choose not to be mothers without inviting much, if any, consternation.

And yet her comment left me wondering: But why does she reduce babies to screaming? Babies do a lot of non-screaming stuff: They poop in odd pastels. They drool. They urinate unselfconsciously–sometimes on you. They eat and sleep, giggle and coo, and are soft and splendid. Most of all, they don’t remain babies for long enough to avoid them just because of that…

There have always been kid haters. Historically, they are crotchety old neighbors overly concerned with children trespassing in their yards. In some way, it is no different today, save that the yard is now the realm of extended adolescence, to which children pose an existential threat.

The vanguard of our parent’s generation vowed never to trust anyone over thirty. Well over thirty now themselves, they have enriched industries which console them with the promise that they will, at least, never have to look a day over thirty. The vanguard of our generation, never a group to be outdone, has simply vowed never to turn thirty in the first place, at least in style. From the animated videos of MGMT or Gorillaz; to our Pippi Longstockings, metal lunch box aesthetic; to the ubiquity of theme and costume parties for hip, old fogeys; to the wild popularity of adult cartoon shows like South Park and The Family Guy—the will to juvenile transgression dominates our personal expression. It’s as if we, instead of interpreting adult fun anew, have forced all of our grandparent’s rules into born-again virginity so that we can deflower the land over which our parents have already tread (in their actual youth.) My generation’s rebellion, sadly, is sloppy seconds. It is also mostly unfocussed and self-indulgent. We are perhaps the first generation whose urban, thirty-something men dress up for Halloween and whose grown women celebrate themselves in unicorns and cupcakes. There is nothing inherently wrong with this save that, meanwhile, our prepubescent daughters have taken the adult helm. While we are cavorting in oversized sweaters and ripped stockings, they are learning from The Bratz and The Winx Club how to dress like Lebanese club girls…at the age of four.

As much as I love a good party, we do the long-term truth of ourselves no favors when we flinch at the fact of sexual maturity, much less at being reminded of our own overripe reality. To not appreciate all of our phases in their newness, to try to force them to conform to the pleasures of our youths past, strikes me as potentially limiting. I recall discussing a new paramour with one ex boyfriend–a progressive, liberal-minded man:

“She sounds like a great woman,” I told him, thinking to flatter.

“Don’t call her that” he replied, disgust evident.

“What?” I countered, mystified.

“A ‘woman’….she’s…my girlfriend.”

“She’s twenty-eight; she hasn’t been a girl for awhile now.” I responded. And hung up.

But this is the truth of certain, influential segments of our generation. The formerly autonomous realms of childhood and adulthood are now shipwrecked, their detritus intertwined. Whether it is good or bad, I cannot say. But that it is more interesting and strange than we acknowledge is undeniable.

The friend I mentioned at the outset of this unspooling thought is not child-averse in general. However, distaste for children is evident among many in my cohort, who characterize them as grating, dirty, irritating, and intrusive. In other words, using terms not so different than the middle and upper classes used to characterize the poor immigrants of yore with whom they must have realized they would ultimately have to compete. I suspect that the parallel might extend even beyond terminology. Consider people like my friend Peter, a thirty-four year old Brooklynite who dressed as a Rubik’s cube last year for Halloween. By his own account he is easily ruffled by actual children: ‘I was at a bar and some kid grabbed my beer off the table, like that was funny.’ he complained to me, not long ago.

Or ‘I was at the grocery store, and some mom was blocking the aisle with her stroller. Couldn’t she see that there wasn’t enough room for it in there? Couldn’t she come back some other time?’ (I explained to him the technical challenge of holding a baby while shopping for groceries and that, often, no, there is no other time when you are toting around a small human.) Pete is far from alone though. Check the New York Times comment section when it comes to issues of children in public. You will find reams of letters about how barely tolerable the readership finds your squirming offspring in their space.

One gets the feeling from him and others like him that our generation has colonized childhood whimsy and now seeks to exclude actual children. Why should that be? I can posit a number of reasons, beyond the suggestion that children are messy and loud. (After all, half the hipsters I know are certifiably the same.) For instance, children remind us that we are grownups. No, worse still: that we are suddenly OLD, by any historical standard other than our own, approaching infertility even. More terrible than that, children require us to be grownups. Unlike our indulgent, freewheeling, baby boomer parents, children do need something from us other than to be perfect snowflakes of individuality. In fact, children need us to not be individuals at all. They need us to be boring, responsible, emotionally stable, accessible and consistent in our behavior. They are not interested in reading our stream of consciousness narrative elaborating our sexual dysfunction.

Secondary to these problems is the fact that, no matter how childlike our costumes, we simply cannot affect the succulent weirdness that is so naturally theirs. That has got to sting. We are but broken down, diaphanous apparitions next to their sanguine sideshow. We can draw moustaches on our fingers or cut our hair in ironic mullets or acquire the accouterments of any counterculture we like, but we will never be as chaotically strange and impenetrable and naturally wild and free as a four year old again, no matter how many thrift shops we plunder. So maybe we resent kids, just a little, for having what, deep down, we know we have outgrown and can never get back.

Another friend, almost leaving his thirties without children of his own, posted not long ago on Facebook what a beautiful relief it had been to visit a museum during a party that was twenty-one and up. No exhausting, screaming children underfoot, he’d proclaimed, ringing victorious. Bear in mind, this is someone who unapologetically laments the bounty of human stupidity in the world. He doesn’t seem to realize that children in museums are the steep price we must pay to mitigate that very stupidity.

To be honest, given all the wailing and gnashing of teeth I hear over the travails of encountering children in public: wrecking dinners, ruining plane trips, disrupting museum outings and so forth, I myself cannot recall, in all of my copious dinners out and long haul flights (I won’t pretend I go to museums all the time, but I see some art now and again) one notable incident of my outing meeting with a tortured, child-related end. I am sure a child has kicked the back of my chair at some point; I only wish my life were so good that this were among the more memorable of its tragedies.

In reality, a noisy child disrupts my evening no more than a noisy adult or a barking dog, and certainly less than a motorcycle revving up. I find children clatter far, far less distracting than the engrossing, expletive laden sex talk you and your bff are having at the next table over. Or than the friend you brought to the movie who has seen it already and insists on telling you that, ‘ohoh, this is a good part!’ It is possible that I am strange, insofar as kids are just part of the background noise I reflexively tune out. I admit that there may be people who have a dog whistle-like response to children’s voices. And it’s not as if I am not easily annoyed in general. I go from zero to irate over slow walkers who crowd the sidewalk, crowds of tourists who block the Roman alleys, people who don’t give up their seats on buses for old ladies, or else who stand too close to me gabbing into their cell phones. I bristle at surly wait staff, and those people who rush to grab the outdoor table at the bar even though you were already standing there waiting when they walked up (as if they didn’t see you!)

In the end analysis, while children are sometimes clumsy and sometimes loud, in my experience these children tend to be disciplined and/or removed from the situation in due time. For the hostile and callous adults, I cannot say the same. So perhaps this is just a question of degrees: the degree to which one expects other humans, big or small, to conform to his or her fantasies of the ideal public space. I do not expect parents to keep children confined to backyards and parks, like pets. After all, pets do not have to grow up to feed into our social security system and prop us up economically and socially when we are old and can no longer carry our groceries and wipe our own bottoms. Also, Spot and Muffy will be long since buried in the backyard by the time it comes for our children to take their turn at bat. In the meantime, I think it unwise to start leaving children in the backyard, mostly because the neighbors will call CPS.

All of this leads me to conclude that the most disturbing thing I see in this latent hostility towards children is its act of forgetting–that these jittery, little individuals are not merely minor noise hiccups in our muzak-purring adult atmospheres, nor even dread reminders that our youth is past and our semblance of youth a half-baked one at best, but instead, these sticky, howling little agents of chaos are our posterity. They are here to replace us, true, but they mean us no harm. To the contrary, they are the reason that we must save the environment and end war and try to make the world a better place and so forth. I guarantee you that the ice sheets themselves do not care that they are melting and that, no matter how many baby doll dresses we pull over forty-year-old bodies, nor how tight we pull our jowls back with surgery, we’ll still be long dead before climbing temperatures devour the birthright we’ve been squandering. So, when we set out to save the world, either we are deluded about our mortality, or we are doing it for our smaller companions. Maybe because they will carry our story, or perhaps simply because they have the same right to revel in the beauty of this world that we have enjoyed. What we risk forgetting, in our child scorn, is that it requires something more than tolerance of us to make these inheritors of ours good people; that to make our generation’s children responsible adults indeed requires that they encounter in us, on the whole, a kind and generous example–one that wants them to learn and experience responsibly, and to be present in the institutions and for the rituals which they will inherit.

We cannot, in fairness, colonize childhood for ourselves and exclude children from it. And if we carry the will to save our species from itself, we must accept that this goal is not one that encompasses the little ones around us only as an afterthought, but rather that, in order for us to succeed, they must be at the heart of our efforts.

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