Are Children Necessary?


new internationalist
issue 164 - October 1986

Are children necessary?
They disturb your rest, cost a fortune, inhibit your sex-life and turn
you grey worrying about their own - why on earth do parents have
children? Wayne Ellwood has become a father twice over
in less than a year. This is how and why he did it.

I'm bolt upright in the half-light. Confused. The crazy herring-gulls are screaming in the park across the street, on their early morning detour from the shores of Lake Ontario.


But the gulls are not the only ones trying to raise the dead this morning. My son Robin has just released a high-pitched yelp, his version of reveille. No bugle needed. I lurch drunkenly past formless humps of furniture, sweep into his room and scoop him up before his protests reach our third floor lodger.

He is like a coiled spring in his urgency, hands grasping for the bottle. Fwap! - he's got it, the nipple is nestling in his perfect mouth. Instant bliss - for both of us.

Am I losing my mind? It's five o'clock in the morning. I'm looking into this six month-old baby's face. He's grinning like I'm the world's funniest stand-up comic and I'm lapping it up.

By now you've probably gathered that I'm a new father - I exhibit the identifying signs of the type. The bags under my eyes are a little blacker than normal. My shoulder is spotted with curds of cheesy baby puke. I bore my childless friends senseless with tales of my son's antics. Yet six months ago I was a normal 37-year-old male, not knowing that my days as half of a childless couple were numbered.

How did all this happen? My partner and I had been trying to have a kid for years. We went through the round of fertility investigations but realized after some years that the chances were slim that we would have our own baby. We still wanted to be parents. It's hard to say why. It was a kind of existential urge - it just felt right.

In the end we decided we would try to adopt. In Canada almost all adoptions are through quasi-state agencies. An exploratory phone call got us to the first hurdle. A group of nervous would-be mums and dads were called together for a talk with slides. All the babies you'd never want? Spina bifida, hydrocephalic, cleft-paIated, learning-impaired babies. Black, brown, male, female: these choices didn't matter. But neither of us were quite ready to take on the awesome responsibility of a severely handicapped child. And unlike natural parents we weren't obliged to run the risks of genetic roulette. One slight advantage, we thought, in being adoptive parents: couples who chose to adopt a handicapped baby would do so knowingly.

When we got over the application hurdle, we were assigned our social worker. That's when the hard part started. We actually had to think about why we wanted to be parents. None of this locking loins and letting nature take its course. We had to show we were serious and that we knew what we were getting into.

And it was hard work. Our social worker forced us to open our minds in a way we would never have done otherwise. We talked about our own childhood: how our parents had treated us and what our feelings were towards them. We talked about each other and our relationship. How would we describe our feelings for each other? What attracted us to each other in the first place? Why did we stay together? We talked about our domestic lives and our work lives. It helped that our social worker was a thoughtful human being and not a disengaged bureaucrat.

Was it a good thing? In retrospect I think it was. Natural parents have nine months to search and probe and come to terms with their coming parenthood - though how many of them actually do is another question. Although we were being exposed to strangers' scrutiny - an ordeal biological parents don't have to undergo - we couldn't feel resentful. The questions seemed to make sense.

In all we spent ten hours going over our family dynamics. Not to mention detailed responses to a six-page questionnaire, and supporting letters from three friends. They also checked our police record for any record of child molesting.

It was wearying and demanding, but worth it. We got the OK and joined the queue. All we had to do was wait. Six months, a year, five years - we didn't know. We just had to cool our heels. And wait.

I was counting the grey hairs in my moustache the other day thinking grand thoughts. You know, the kind Woody Allen makes films about big, deep serious ones.

I remembered what Marshall McLuhan called c-o-n-n-e-c-t-e-d-n-e-s-s. He was referring to the timeless echoes of history, the infinite chain of being that joins us to the past and future. To the Huron Indians who lived where I do 400 years ago, to the Buddhist empire that built the remarkable Borobodur temple in central Java 1000 years ago, to my Scots and English ancestors - rough peasants in sod huts whose penurious lives made mine possible.

This naked, powerful feeling of intimacy with the past was prompted by the arrival of my son. I actually feel connected. Long chains of parents having children who themselves become parents having children ... Ad infinitum, corkscrewing endlessly into the past and inexorably into the future. The world is a process; history is all around us. And I am an actor in it.

And so is my son. That he is not a product of my genes somehow doesn't matter. He is a little boy: totally helpless (so far) and totally dependent. He needs us. We are his link to life. It is that simple - and it is that primal. We care for him and by doing so immediately become part of Parents International. Parents and children are transcultural. The look in my son's eyes is a language understood in any country.

In fact our son is more an actor in the creation of human history than he knows. He's soon to have a sister: this time a biological one. Don't ask how. All we know is that something meshed less than a month after the adoption. Body chemistry moves in mysterious ways and our son seems to have been the catalyst for his sister's conception. Another spiritual link.

Connectedness... it may sound silly - a flight of fancy conjured out of the early morning mist. But it has been important to me, and it's an experience that came with becoming a parent

Wayne Ellwood is Canadian co-editor of the NI.

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