Saturday 2 July 2011
A shorter version of this article was published in the
Few of the elderly patients I see in the Stroke Unit are accompanied by a healthy person of their own age. Generally, a much younger person - son or daughter, I presume – is keeping them company. One old lady comes in with her local priest. There are some who are completely alone, and I don’t know if it’s just my imagination, but they seem more frail and miserable than the others.
Since the initial assessment suggests that my grandfather case is not super-serious, our whole family hasn’t descended on St. Georges. There have been endless phone calls though, and my mother literally has to beg relatives not to come. Indeed, mum herself, normally one to drop everything for family even if there isn’t a crisis, is persuaded by me to go to the last day of a course she’s doing, which will be invalidated if she misses any part of it.
So I am the one, by a mixture of chance and choice, sitting with Papaji as he waits to have different tests, and I can’t help but wonder who might do the same for me in the future. I have no children, and have spent my early thirties waiting for the maternal urge to seize me. I expected it might arrive like a revelation, as religious conviction does for some, and propel me to conceive. But apart from mild and temporary spikes of interest each time I cuddled someone else’s toddler, or witnessed the special friendship possible between parent and child, there had been nothing – until the panicked yearning that suddenly overtakes me as I keep my grandfather company in various hospital waiting rooms.
My partner is older than me by twelve years - though he’s younger in every other way. Still, you can’t argue with numbers. As I wait in the hospital, I calculate that if there are no freak accidents, and we follow average life expectancy trends, it’s likely that he’ll… I’ll start again: I calculate that if there are no freak accidents, and we follow average life expectancy trends, it’s likely that I’ll be alone for a period at the end of my life. To be old and alone in good health might be manageable. But the idea of being old and alone and ill frightens me. This is why people have kids, I think. It suddenly feels like the most compelling reason.
Later, I will share my feelings with friends. One writes back: “growing old alone is a little scary but definitely not the best reason to have one child. If that’s the reason, have two or three, at least they’ll be able to take shifts!” Another says: “Of course, we rely on children to save us from desperation in our old age, and that is also absolutely legitimate--as part of the overall package and it works in both directions. I can't tell you how grateful I am to have been around my Dad when he was dying. Of seeing him, last of all of us, of praising his fortitude and letting him go. I think that as a single, short-term experience, it's one of the most important things I've done. Only people really close to us can do this.”
Perhaps there hasn’t been an urge to have kids partly because my partner and I feel so happy within our little family of two. Of course, sometimes, the idea of extending the circle of love - of extending ourselves and our love - through children, is beautiful and tempting. But these urges have never lasted long enough for us to act on them. My writing life, too, fulfils me so profoundly that I don’t crave a substitute. And then there is my temperament: curious, hyper-sensitive and with a tendency to be very controlling. This combination gets me so involved and het up about the lives of people I hardly know, and can be debilitating with regard to those I love. I dread to think how this would play out with children of my own. I can’t imagine it would be good for them – even with the balancing influence of my more stable and reasonable partner.
Recently though, my mother said something which made me consider that there may be another influence on my choice not to have kids. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, ‘that I have made you take on the role of your brother’s mother. I think that’s what put you off having kids.’ I immediately felt the truth in her words.
My parents split up when my brother was four. My father was pretty much absent after that, while my mother succumbed to a terrible depression for some years. She’s worked hard to get over it, and has become amazingly resilient, but still suffers relapses from time to time. In the midst of all this, my brother grew up loved and over-indulged by everyone, but neglected in certain essential ways by the two people who are most decisive in every child’s life.
Early on, I began stepping in to do things that my mother was unable to manage. I was about 18, 12 years older than my brother when I began stepping in to do things my mother couldn't manage. And not only small things: I got him into a different house when he was bullied at boarding school, and helped him to study for exams. As a result, there's a greater sense of responsibility in the love I feel for him than might be usual for a sibling. Perhaps if everything had gone smoothly, and my brother had only thrived under the little extra attention I could give him, I’d have a different feeling about the whole experience. But growing up has been difficult for him, and so it’s been painful and disappointing for me. I know that what I go through on his account is but a fraction of what our mother experiences. Nevertheless, I've had a taste of the parental matrix of emotion: a boundless desire to give, coupled with a sense of expectation that is crushed when not met.
A doctor asks Papaji about the family medical history. What did his parents die of? High blood pressure. How many siblings does he have? Nine. Do any of them suffer from high blood pressure? All, and two of them have died of it. I think of how my grandparents regularly tell me off for adding more salt to my food: 'You also want to end up with Pressure?' The family tree being sketched by the doctor, with crooked lines and wobbly circles, and the letters HP next to every individual, suddenly chills me more than any warning exhortations. Buried in my genes is a fate I have never considered. I start - reluctantly, uncomfortably - to imagine how my life might end. Strangely, it's not the details of disease that preoccupy me - but who will be there to help.
Even eating less salt, won’t stave off the loneliness of that final run if I don’t have kids. Not that kids are any guarantee, as one friend reminds me: “Having kids so that there'll be someone to ignore you in your old age is really a terrible reason.... I happen to love kids, so I'm glad I had them-- and amazingly we all like each other-- but one often has a better life without them: freedom to travel (or just go out for dinner), higher standard of living, beautiful fragile objects in one's house, etc.... I don't know why people think they have to have kids... Considering it's the only thing you can do in your life for which there is no escape (unlike spouses, jobs, etc) it seems a big mistake if you have doubts...”
Papaji submits to the instructions of medical staff with patience and gratitude. While he's being tested I head to the cafe. Inside, I browse through the chilled food, trying to pick something I know Papaji will like. Never before have I shopped for a sandwich with so much love. But who will scour the shelves searching for my favourite filling combinations decades hence, as my body is scanned and probed? My partner might not be there. My sister will be living in Australia. My friends will be too old. And my brother? My brother is not my son.
Studies have shown that it's cheaper to hire end-of-life care than to raise a child. But no study can measure what difference having, and giving, true loving support - the kind born of a long, deep connection, fed by moments shared and misunderstandings overcome – makes to the dying, and those who live on. “Only people really close to us can do this.” Only my child, my unborn child. My I-don’t-know-if-I-really-want-you-now-but-I-want-you-at-the-end-child.
Papaji receives the sandwich with a profundity that matches the sentiments with which it was bought, claiming it’s the freshest, most delicious he’s ever eaten.
‘No more fried food or sweets,’ he says. The blood tests have re-confirmed that his cholesterol is high. ‘Just this kind of light, healthy food for me now.’
The doctor thinks Papaji has had a mini-stroke, although his symptoms don't follow the typical pattern. He suspects that the timing of the attack may be significant. "Did you have a big lunch yesterday?" he asks. "No. Just my usual, one and a half chapatis," my grandfather replies. "Mumji said you had two," says my sister, who has arrived for the test results. She could have listed the exact ingredients and quantities on his plate, thanks to our grandma who seems to keep a daily tally of all that Papaji consumes.
All her life, Mumji has cooked in the hope that by controlling what he eats, she will have power over every other part of his being as well. "Yes, maybe. One and a half or two – it's the same," Papaji says. Not really. When you're old, it turns out, even slight over-indulgence can have consequences more serious than a bout of indigestion. Everyone's blood pressure tends to drop after a meal. For someone like Papaji, who has problems with high blood pressure, such fluctuations can be even more pronounced. The doctor imagines that the post-prandial drop was followed by a spike, and Papaji's heart is no longer strong enough to keep up and compensate. This probably caused the dizziness, and a shortage of oxygen to the brain for a tiny fraction of time, which led to his slurred speech, loss of leg movement and the tingling in his left arm
‘So basically he ate too much?’ Mumji says when we’re back home and have explained the doctor’s diagnosis. Her tone suggests she knew this from the beginning, and could have saved everyone a load of hassle if we’d bothered to pay attention to her.
‘You have to help Papaji eat better,’ my sister tells our grandmother. ‘Lighter meals and no snacks.’
‘And no more sweets,’ Papaji adds, like it’s up to Mumji and not him, which, in a way, is true.
Mumji purses her lips and shakes her head, as though someone is trying to convince her to go single-handedly and resume a battle that many thousands have already fought and lost. ‘He has to control himself.’ She begins filling a plate with food for him. It’s two thirty, after all, and no one has had lunch.
‘Not so much!’ Papaji says. ‘I had a sandwich two hours ago.’
She ignores him. My sister and I exchange a glance acknowledging that they’re never going to change. We must leave them to themselves, even if it is only to persist in their bad habits.
A few days later, when I call to see how they are, Mumji tells me they’ve just had 'muccdonal' for lunch.
‘McDonalds? That’s the worst thing for Papaji’s health!’
‘Not bought muccdonal – home made,’ she proudly clarifies. She goes on to describe how the meal of chicken 'buggers' with chips, was very healthy because she did not re-fry the oven chips, but grilled them in the microwave, and then tossed them into the pan where she had fried those chicken buggers. ‘Much better, and much cheaper than from the shop – you know a bugger meal for two is now ten pounds?’
I remember the joke about the woman who decides to passive smoke her husband to death, and wonder if Mumji is trying to feed Papaji to an early grave. Except that it wouldn’t be that early, and it’s not the worst way to die. I wouldn’t mind expiring in my mid-eighties, on a surfeit of good food…as long as there was someone with me.
But I, too, am in danger of reverting to my old ways. There is a slight hesitation each time I reach for the saltshaker, but then I sprinkle with the same old liberty. The sudden obsession about having a child is fading too. I can’t quite allow that the selfish reasoning prompted by Papaji’s health scare is justification enough. But maybe I should heed the words of another wise friend: “The ‘reason’ has tricked you onto the path! Stay on it! The thing is, you will not know the real intensity and sheer joy of it all until you have a child. You will know things that cannot be comprehended in any other way. Biological magic! A kind of mutual hormonal aesthetics. You and Matti would be fantastic parents. You have the right instincts. That kid will certainly be looking after you when it’s needed.”
I start to believe this, but then I read a new study by Richard Eibach and Steven Mock, psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Their findings show that parents create rosy pictures of parenthood to justify the huge investment and sacrifices that kids require. The researchers hypothesis comes out of cognitive-dissonance theory, which suggests that people are liable to justify, deny or rationalize to reduce the cognitive discomfort of holding conflicting ideas. Having kids is an economic and emotional drain, which should make those who have kids feel worse. However, parents glorify their lives, and make themselves believe that the benefits of having children are significantly higher than they truly are. The study indicates that when we have invested a lot in a choice that turns out to be poor, we're inept at admitting that it didn't make rational sense. Other research confirms this tendency, showing, for example, how we romanticize our relationships with spouses and partners significantly more when we believe we have sacrificed for them.
Eibach and Mock also give an interesting historical perspective to their findings. They point out that, in earlier times, kids started to work much younger and had an economic value for the family – as indeed they still do in parts of the world. Reforms – good and necessary ones - mean that this value has diminished, while the costs of raising and educating kids have escalated. As if to compensate for this, the belief that parenthood is emotionally rewarding has grown stronger. So, in a sense, the idea of parental joy may just be a myth, a modern psychological phenomenon.
I don’t know if I’m brave, or crazy, enough to go for it and find out for myself. I now also doubt I’ll ever arrive at a point of being sure one way or the other. I suspect that having kids is not a decision any thinking person arrives at with absolute certainty. Most of us are compelled by circumstance, timing or biology to take a hopeful leap, buoyed by our sense of all that is most profound and affirming in human relations.
It may well be the case that my books will be my only offspring. There are certainly parallels between these creations and their human counterparts. Both need love, care and thought to grow well – though at least books allow you more liberty as to when you give them this attention. Both come with their share of joy, complications and disappointments – especially when you have to let them go and make their own way in the world.
I am seducing myself with this analogy, but even I – lover of literature, believer in the supremacy of stories – can’t pretend that a book can always compensate for a human being. I must make a choice, as must we all, and I think that choice must be defined by the now – which is all we ever have – rather than some whimsical notion of how things might be in the future. And for now, I feel – with a slight wrench – that I don’t want kids.
© Priya Basil
Priya Basil’s novel, The Obscure Logic of the Heart, is now out in paperback.