Why having kids or not is the hardest decision you’ll ever make.

I’m at that age [34] where some of my friends have teenagers, some have newborns and some haven’t arrived at the question: should I have kids?

And then everything in between – friends who are decidedly no, friends who tried to conceive but couldn’t [how can I tell you, tenderly, how sorry I am that there won’t be a piece of you, more of you in this world], friends who have lost infants and small children and friends who are in communication with their partner or a fertility clinic about how and when they’ll try to conceive.

It’s an age where many of us end up doing a lot of explaining our choices. I’ve seen one end of this in the subtle reactions to my friend Kat, who is 37 and visiting us with her youngest child, 15-year-old Luka.

Kat is graceful at introducing herself and alleviating the quick, curious glances between mother and daughter. “My son is nineteen,” she’ll explain, “one of the benefits of teen pregnancy is that my kids will both be out of home when I’m 40.”

Although I’m grateful that we live in an age when people in the western world mostly get to choose when to conceive [you can read my post about that here: Contraceptives: the real measure of inequality]  – or not to bear children at all, I also think that such a wide window leaves many people reeling.

Kat and I met a couple in their early thirties with no kids last week that I knew a little and she had never met before. After Kat had said her above introduction, the woman cast a pointed, sideways glance at her boyfriend and said firmly “I think 32 is the perfect age to have kids.”

When I asked her why she thought that, she answered that she has really good health insurance right now with her job.

So this is America, where people base when and whether to have kids on how good their health insurance is.

But this woman had a point – when it comes to a big life decision like having kids, the idea that we are making a reasonable, calculated choice is a facade because we can never know what it’s really like to be a parent until we are deep, deep into the swan dive.

So we cling to some vaguely pragmatic reason like “I’m 32” or “I have good health insurance.”

When I asked him later if he wanted kids, on a blue inflatable raft floating lazily down the Kootenai River, the woman’s boyfriend looked around him and said  “I’m not sure. My life is pretty good.”

Five years ago, I would have said something encouraging about having kids but lately I take pause in this conversation: I work hard at saying nothing. Because this guy and everyone who is looking at kids realistically deserves to be listened to: their message is clear.

Why would we have kids?

The next generation of fertile people in the USA is not stupid – according to figures from the CDC in 2017, birth rates have hit an all-time low of 62.0 births per 1000 women aged 15-44.

Americans already work so much, too much, and one thing you can say about having kids is it is work.

Our friend and housemate, Laura, has lived in our basement for the last two years. Laura moved in pretty certain she wanted kids one day, but has since has referred to living below two kids as “excellent birth control.”

Sometimes the contrast between our lives is comically different: while Laura uses her superpower of rolling out of bed five minutes before she has to be at work, I am up and working instantly: called to wipe a bum before I’ve made it to the bathroom myself.

I don’t say this with any bitterness or regret but have kids if you love to work from the minute you get up to the minute you fall asleep.

carry

Parenting work isn’t just the physical labor of hauling our children around and doing the housework and work to bring in money to look after them. It’s also the hundreds of tiny decisions we make about our children every day, which start well before our kids can ask these questions:

Can I watch a show? can I watch another show? can I sleep over with a friend? can I have an apple? can I have an ice cream?

Parents need to become excellent at delegating because a huge part of parenting is taking care of yourself so you can function, which means outsourcing childcare and housework as much as you can.

I’ve noticed there are two camps when it comes to advice about having kids – the 50-60-year-old women who tell you to “cherish every moment” and “relish the little angels” [how did they forget so fast??!] and the realists, of which Kat definitely is.

Kat, a parent herself for 12 years then, told me before I got pregnant: “having kids is like being the designated driver. Your kids are off their faces. You have to guide them across roads and make sure they don’t stop to look at shiny things for hours in the alley. When they throw up, you clean it up and make them food. Then you put them to bed while they cry.”

Asking people whether or not they plan to have kids, and if so, when, is one of those questions that falls into the category of it ain’t my business –  at times I’ve started my enquiries, genuinely interested and Haakon has melted away in a way that tells me “you are being nosy and overstepping the mark.”

I’m convinced asking people about their reproduction plans can be helpful – I want people to know that it is a choice, and they can get out of the riptide of societal expectation that children have to be part of the plan.

That it’s OK to not want to add work to an already full life.

The hard part about parenting is that we don’t get to jump into it fresh every day- our kids may well be angels from heaven but we can’t treat them like that because we are so.damn.tired and emotionally wrung out.

I do see the moments of glee and love between the endless bowls of uneaten oatmeal and tiny decisions and barrages of guilt.

But when you have kids, at some point the exhaustion will catch up and your responsibilities will hit you like a speeding train. The train is coming whether you are 18, 28 or 38.

The train will change your plans, as it did for me last week when a quick dip in the creek on a hot day turned into a counselling session for Atticus, who is six and worried about moving to Australia next week.

As Atty shrieked and kicked the water and trains screeched over our heads in the pool under the railroad trestle, I tried to find a minute to dunk under the water and cool off as planned.

Kids don’t wait until you are in a good mind frame to break down – they do it when everyone is stressed and we have to step up and be there for them, which sometimes feels like the hardest thing in the world.

After three long days of random screaming and being irritable and argumentative, Atticus said to me as we were driving: “I’m just scared.”

“Of what?” I asked.

“I don’t know, just scared,” he replied.

Those three days were rough – thank goodness for Kat, who laughed at me gently while I cried, so confused as to why my kid seemed so angry.

As we work towards our big move back to my hometown [Bega,Australia] next week, we’re doing it with our kids –

Serious, scientific Atticus wants a book about Australian insects as soon as we arrive and Calllie is mildly worried we’ll fall out of the plane and narrates everything with song.

And Haakon, who I loved so much I wanted there to be more of us. I remember vividly telling Haak in bed in the dark that I was pregnant with Atticus and the words hanging in the silence for awhile.

While I waited for his response, I told myself I could do it by myself.

And I heard a slow smile spread across his face and he said “well, that’s exciting.”

Phewwwww.

I wanted to have kids so we could have those moments of exchanging glances because our kids are so cute/infuriating/amazing/hilarious.

We do get those moments, but I never knew how hard we’d work for them.

Maybe if I’d really known I would’ve opted for no kids and weekends in bed with frothy coffee followed by long hikes and hours of uninterrupted netflix.

But the decision is behind us and I’m so very glad because it’s one that humans have not yet been well equipped to make.

It’s just so big.

 

 

 

 

 

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We too

I admit I avoided participating in the #metoo movement which swept social media late last year. Oh, I knew then that I’ve been sexually threatened, but the whole thing seemed too murky – I say #metoo and everyone wonders: was she raped? whistled at? grabbed?

I assumed people would wonder about me, but I never asked any of the hundreds of women who hashtagged in my social media feeds: what happened? which experience do you think of when you hashtag #metoo? and are you OK?

I’ve come to realize that #metoo needs another step. We’re so accustomed to thinking of ourselves and other women as victims that the hashtag confessions hit us like a wave, washing over us the feeling of something we already knew.

Although there was liberation in confessing that we had been hurt without repercussions, the details of what happened to the women who hashtagged [and those, like me, who could have but didn’t] in a way don’t matter anymore.

Many of them couldn’t press charges, which is one of the bummers of sexual assault – washable evidence.

But the useful thing that can come out of the movement is for all victims of sexual violence to feel so enraged at being violated that they are compelled to report the crime, right now, immediately … while the evidence is still fresh.

Not as a hashtag confession months or years later.

When I was researching for a local newspaper article I wrote about sexual assault early this spring, I spoke to many women who had been assaulted. Every single one spoke about the period after the attack as being traumatic in some way – whether recalling the attack, confessing, testifying or having evidence collected.

One of the women I interviewed has crossed my thoughts so many times since we met. I first met Tracy at the elementary school she works at and she was warm and friendly – one of those people you just like instantly.

We met in a diner on an icy February day and sat in the back room, cradling thick white coffee mugs, and Tracy told me that she had been raped twice while serving in the military.

Tracy let me understand the process of re-victimization through evidence collection that I had known only as a theory before –

“When I reported the first rape, they took evidence. It was horrific, the two nurses were so cold” Tracy told me “they pulled hairs from my butt hole and the whole time I kept thinking: why aren’t they pulling hairs from HIS butt hole?”

As she was talking, Tracy was half laughing and half crying, and I was weeping too. How could anyone hurt the strong, wonderful woman I saw before me?

It is slowly dawning on the western world the burden that women carry everywhere they go – how much effort goes into selecting clothes, choosing routes, checking shadows, looking back, charging cell phones, communicating our whereabouts and wondering who we can trust.

But we need more understanding and instruction so that when someone talks about sexual assault, whether that assault happened 40 years ago or ten minutes ago, we lean in and ask more – because it can compound the hurt and add shame if we don’t.

There have been two occasions I would say #metoo about – one was when I was 21 and traveling in Amsterdam and stayed with someone I had just met – a young man and his wife and baby.

This man, with no prior warning, tackled me while I was getting out of the shower in the morning and I ran out of the tiny apartment dripping wet, grabbing my huge backpack on the way to my train to Paris and leaving a soggy towel behind a bush in the front garden.

When I got to Paris, I told the woman I was staying with what had happened, and she berated me for trusting a stranger. She didn’t ask if I was OK. She just very squarely blamed me for staying with someone I didn’t know.

In contrast, my second experience, which happened in the same era of my life, had a happier ending.

I was hanging out and drinking with two guys I knew from high school, but neither very well. One started to pressure me for sex, and the other guy looked at him squarely and said “you’re being a dick. I think you should go outside and calm down.”

He did, and I went home and, being 20, never acknowledged either man’s actions again. I should probably write a thank you letter to my defender’s parents for raising a man who was full of matter-of-fact respect.

Years have passed since those incidents, and a few days ago, I realized how protected I am from daily dealings with strange men when I was approached while waiting in line at the King Scoopers in Arvada, Denver.

“You’re cute,” a 40 ish man with a ponytail told me “are you married?”

The words themselves – unthreatening. The whole interaction – scary as hell, especially given how unprepared I was, and how deep into reading about Harry and Meagan Markle’s home life.

Last month, a 22-year-old comedian named Eurydice Dixon was raped and killed in a popular Melbourne park. When I lived in Melbourne when I was 22, I walked and rode through a lot of parks at night.

The response to Dixon’s death shows that the mainstream narrative around violence against women in Australia is stretching, and may even be on the cusp of shattering the ways women are blamed for being attacked by men.

National newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece by Clementine Ford which criticized the police response to Dixon’s violent death.

Melbourne police issued statements encouraging calls to 000 [Australia’s version of 911] by anyone who didn’t feel safe. Local Superintendent David Clayton warned, “This is an area of high community activity… so just make sure you have situational awareness.”

Speaking about rape and murder as being part of community activity normalizes the way Dixon died, and neatly leaves out a call to perpetrator’s: if you feel violent, or worry that you may rape someone, please call 000 for help.

Ford writes in response:

“The language used towards women when we exercise caution is contradictory at best and disdainful and mocking at worst. Exercise caution, but stop being so paranoid. Be prepared for danger, but don’t treat individual men like they might be a threat to you. Don’t put yourselves in harm’s way, but quit acting hysterical about every little shadow that crosses your path. Be wary of strange men, but don’t you dare be wary of me.”

Police officers are often first responders for sexual assault and have a great responsibility to respond well. As part of my sexual assault article, I spoke to the chief of police in nearby Libby, Montana – Scott Kessel.

Scott was concerned that in his year in Libby, there had been no reports of sexual assault.

“It’s either positive or ominous,” he said, “and I suspect the latter.”

Our county health nurse, Riley Black, is working with Scott and the police force to make reporting sexual assault easier. As it stands, victims in our rural community have to travel two hours to Kalispell to be examined for evidence, but Riley will soon be opening a clinic in Libby specifically for sexual assault examination.

“I want it to be as comfortable as possible,” Riley told me “so it doesn’t feel like a punishment to be examined.”

Riley, who is herself a victim of sexual assault, was one of the only women I interviewed for the article who didn’t appear to blame herself for the attack. She never once said “I was so naive”, as the majority of women did.

This, as well as Riley’s warm and direct presence, make her the ideal person talk to about a sexual assault, someone who would lift you out of doubt and never ask “what were you doing/wearing/saying?” but instead ask “how could he?”

In a Denver supermarket last week, the ponytailed man responded to my confusion and back-off vibes correctly: he came up to me, eyes lowered and said gruffly “you have a great evening.”

Whew.

As  I left the store, I peered around the entrance, checking around the pallets of flowers and fruit for the man. In the blazing sun in the car park, with bags full of organic blueberries and bread for my kids, I checked over my shoulder.

I longed a little for my 21-year-old pre-Amsterdam self, who would have assumed all was well and drifted on.