‘Normal’ doesn’t exist anymore for a man deciding to start, or not start, a family in the 21st century.
It’s Saturday morning and the five of us are bobbing up and down on the waves without really trying to catch any, what the locals call ‘tea-bagging’. Michael waits for a lull in the conversation, then tells us he and Michelle are trying for kids. The way he says it it’s obviously meant as big news and I dutifully pull on my excited face. To tell the truth, though, I vaguely assume any straight couple who’ve been married a few years are probably trying. Or at least no longer not trying. A few days later, writing this, I realise this assumption is contradictory to all my other views on how much people want kids. The reason it’s taken that long to sink in is because on Saturday, out on the waves, I learned other, far more surprising things.
‘Kids?” says Tom, his English accent squeaking. “Why do you want kids?”
Michael frowns at him. “You know I want kids. I’ve always wanted them.’
‘Yeah, but why?’
Michael pulls a face like Tom the Pom’s just asked him why we’re out surfing.
“Everyone wants kids” says Andrew, letting his board drift between them. “Makes you a man. Head of a family, father of the house all that.”
Only a Mediterranean can say things like “makes you a man” and not have the rest of us laughing in his handsome face. I point out to Andrew that he doesn’t even live with his kids.
“I would if I could’ he says sulkily. ‘Best time of my week that is, when I’m with the boys.”
“And that’s a lot of time” says Tom. “You spend half your weekends running them from one place to another. What’s it today? Soccer and touch-footie?”
“And then karate and tennis” says Andrew. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Tom looks past him at Michael. “And you’re looking forward to that? For the next eighteen years?”
But Michael’s spotted a wave coming in, maybe he’d planned on a different reaction, and he paddles fast towards the shore. We watch him struggle and catch-it at the last minute, only his dark mop visible as he jumps up and it rolls in behind him.
“Why don’t you have kids?”
I look back from Michael and am surprised to find Andrew and Tom waiting for me to answer. Lauchie’s out there with us too and, hearing the question, he paddles closer to hear my response, sitting up at the last minute to push his long hair from his face.
“The senior partner and I do talk about it” I say. “Most nights actually. We sit on a sofa each, enjoying the peace and loving the fact we don’t have anyone disturbing us. We have a similar converation most mornings. Oh, and every time we go out.”
“But you’re great with kids.” Andrew’s buttering me up, he wants me to babysit next weekend. “It’s easy enough for gays now isn’t it?”
Actually, it really isn’t, not in Australia. I’ve had friends move back to the UK to adopt. But that’s not the point.
“You know,” I say “if it was as a result of love-making, and if the current Mr Gillmore and I could produce a child that was half him and half me, then maybe in our thirties I might have been tempted. But the more friends I have with kids, the more I realise how much work it is.”
“And expensive!” says Lauchie, pulling his hair from his mouth. “I want kids but I reckon I”d have to earn three times as much before I could seriously think about having any.”
I can see Michael paddling back out and I’m glad he’s not here to hear this. Lauchie probably earns more than he ever will, not to mention what he’s set to inherit. Mind you, Lauchie’s idea of how much kids cost probably includes the fees of the best schools in the country.
“You want kids, Lauchie?” Even Andrew’s surprised by this. “You?”
Lauchie sits up on his board, defensive with his chest puffed out, and nearly topples off it as the next set starts coming through. “Course I do. It’s natural, isn’t it, the urge to procreate? And I’m great with kids, you’ve never seen me. I like them.”
“But not for the full hour?” I suggest.
Everyone laughs apart from Lauchie, so Andrew asks him if he’s ever looked after a child for more than an hour. Or even been alone with one for that long? Before Lauchie can answer Michael is back, paddling up pleased with himself.
“Did you see that? I nailed it. Did you see?”
I did see it and I’m jealous. I tell the guys another reason I don’t want a kid is because I’d hate it when the little sod got to ten and was a better surfer than me. Andrew catches Tom’s eye.
“It wouldn’t take that long” he says.
“Yeah, try five” says Lauchie, keen for revenge.
It’s true. We’re all pretty bad surfers but I’m by far the worse.
“Just think though” says Michael. “I’m going to have a kid and I can bring him or her out here, and teach him or her to surf… awesome.”
He spots another wave and this time Lauchie sees it too, the two of them yelling and paddling away like crazy.
“Who’s he trying to convince?” says Tom.
“You don’t get it” says Andrew. “When your kid looks at you, there’s no feeling like it in the world. It’s like love times a million.”
“Yeah, but at what cost?” I say. “You have to give up your life, spend all your money, give up your freedom. I get the love thing but… it’s not worth it. I’ve decided to procreate but not rear.”
I hadn’t intended to say this, not to this audience. I look towards the horizon but there’s no well-timed wave on its way to save me. So I explain.
“It’s just, I think to be a father you have to be so committed, you can’t just turn up when you feel like it. It’s like a decision to sacrifice your own happiness for someone else’s every day for the rest of your life. And for me, that’s not natural. But, on the other hand, when I die I don’t want to be the end of my line on the family tree. So I have no interest at all in bringing up a kid, but I would like to create one. “
“That’s ironic,” says Andrew, “coming from you who’d enjoy the creation of it less than any of us. But you couldn’t have a kid like that. You’d take one look at that baby and you’d fall in love.”
“Rubbish” says Tom. “It hits everyone differently. I…”
“I don’t know” I say. “I’m not sure bringing up kids is the ‘normal’ default position anymore. In the old days
everyone had to do it so they did. And you didn’t have to be that well off to give them a nice life. These days it’s not so easy, especially if you live in a city. I know I’m spoiled, I know I’ve got it easy, but only because I don’t have kids. I reckon that’s why old civilisations died out. The economy grew the wrong way and soon there weren’t enough people who still wanted to have them.”
“Most people want kids” says Andrew confidently. “And everyone who’s ever had a kid has fallen in love with them.”
“Not true!” snaps Tom. “That’s not true. I…”
And he stops, his turn to look for a wave.
“You, what?” Andrew and I say at the same time.
Tom checks how far away Lauchie and Michael are, checks for a wave again, checks there aren’t any seagulls listening in.
“I’ve got a kid” he says. “He’s eighteen, in the UK.”
Now this is news.
“Don’t tell the others. He knows I’m here, he can look me up when he wants to. When he does, I’ll be there for him, but until then… I’m not that interested.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Andrew says after a while. He and Tom are pretty close, I can see he’s hurt. Tom shrugs.
“You know, everyone says kids will melt your heart, but it didn’t do a thing for me. Everyone always talks about how free we are these days, no labels, no pressure, but I knew you’d think less of me if I told you I had a kid I don’t really care about. You know, what with your mum and everything.”
Andrews mum, a long long story, will have to wait for another time. There’s an awkward silence, I feel like I’m intruding and at last that wave comes in. I paddle hard and miss it, in full view of Lauchie and Michael paddling back out. They take the piss for a bit, then tell me in contradictory detail how they both caught the wave of the day. The conversation on fatherhood is over.
Later, after we’ve all showered and changed, Andrew and I find we’re parked next to each other. I’d noticed him and Tom having a quiet chat across the carpark whilst Lauchie and I teased Michael about baby names. Jackie, Charlie, Chaka, they all sound great with the family name Chan. But when I’ve said goodbye to them and waved at Tom driving off, I find Andrew still loading his car. I ask him if he’s alright, about Tom’s news and that.
“Aw yeah” he says. “I mean Tom’s right. There are no pre-defined roles any more. It’s ok not to want kids.”
“Not if you’ve already had them, surely. What about the kid?”
He smiles. “That’s what I said. Turns out Tom sends out a contact message every month. ‘I’m here if you need me.’ Seems like it’s the kid who doesn’t care. And you know, I reckon as far as Tom’s concerned, that’s being a father enough. There’s lots of different ways of being a good dad.”
“As long as you don’t hurt anyone.”
“Or yourself.” He searches in his pocket for his key. “I can’t say if him being here is right for his kid or not. But it’s Tom I’m sorry for. He’s missing out on so much.”
“If he was you he would be,” I say. “But he’s not you, he’s him. And maybe fatherhood just wasn’t right for him?”
“Yeah, I suppose.” Andrew can’t get his head around the idea, but then suddenly, from nowhere, he pulls on a brighter face. “Hey, you still good for babysitting next Friday?”
“Sure,” I say. “But not for the full hour, right?”
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