Chapter 1. The Dilemma
She has come straight from work, eager to talk to me about the topic of not having children. Not yet for her, she says--maybe later; potentially, never at all. How to decide? How to know what will give true fulfilment in life? How to realize what is meant to be?
I pour tea and let her catch her breath, but she is on a roll.
“A friend of mine has never wanted children, nor has her partner. When they say this out loud in our group of friends, they are met with an icy silence. Those who are trying for children turn away, singles raise their eyebrows, people who just had a baby look offended, and no one really knows how to start the conversation again. Yet I feel some envy, for they seem to have this clear-cut idea of their future. I waver in view of the momentous decision whether or not to have children, because it will colour my life forever.”
She takes a small sip and frowns whilst I remain silent, allowing her to think her own thoughts, marvelling at how we can’t predict what will arise in another person.
“I think I would love to have the experience of being pregnant,” she says eventually, “but with so much to do and to discover, this doesn’t really rank high on my priority list. Also, of course, after nine months of pregnancy, there is a lifetime of worry and care about another human being.”
She shudders involuntarily, and I am not sure if she notices this physical reaction to her own words, before she continues.
“I wonder if, later in life, I will regret not having children. I also question if I am even capable of having a child and a partner and a job. I don’t know how people do it. Can we have it all? I don’t think so, to be honest. Yet, wouldn’t it be great if we could?”
Having put her cards on the table, she looks at me questioningly, this young woman. Clearly, she wants to hear how I who have no children look back on my life, now that children of my friends start to have children of their own.
“I do not envy my friends who become grandparents one bit,” I can truthfully say to her. “I just see the whole child circus start over again, and whilst I note my friends’ deep pride and joy and begrudge them none of it, not one little smidgen, I am delighted to be able to go my own way, unhampered by granny days.”
I pour more tea, always more tea--pu-erh this evening, cultivated high in the mountains of Taiwan, pressed into compact tablets, brought down on muleback, shipped all over the globe, sold in a small shop here in Amsterdam, now fragrant in our cups. I think of the tea farmers and their daughters and sons, who may not have the wide array of choices that the young woman across from me at the kitchen table and I have. They may be destined to marry someone who is willing to toil the land of their forebears and procreate so there will be new hands to pick the leaves.
Across the globe, the freedom to choose what will define our lives is vastly different. We who have many options open to us often suffer from stress, because this freedom brings with it a responsibility of being a good judge of what fits us best. We cannot blame our parents or the system for forcing our hand. The choice about how we lead our lives is up to us, so we had better get it right. At least, this is how it seems.
Another angle is that we do not lead our life, but follow it. Lately, I have been working with the image of an inner film reel. In the old days, when films were not shot digitally but truly on film, they would come in large round tins and be projected at the back of the movie theatre by an operator. In the 1960s, when my young father showed his home movies to us, all ready for bed in our pajamas, the small projector would make a purring sound as the pins passed through the perforations moving the reel along. That was until one got stuck, and before our eyes, the material would melt, and my father would quickly stop the machine, take the film out, cut the damaged piece out and, with lips pursed, glue the two ends together with a special little device. We would sit still, not utter a word, lest he lose his concentration and we our evening entertainment and late bedtime.
Being of that age, I still picture the inner film reel as a band of celluloid with the essential ingredients for our life on it. We bring the images to life when we let the light of our heart shine through like the warm lamp of the projector. The more we are able to open our hearts, the brighter the light can shine and the more colour we are able to bring to our own lives and that of others.
The film reel, however, has a certain width. It is my job to stay within the projected bandwidth. This width defines the scope of who I am meant to be and what I am meant to do. Whenever I stray outside of the projection, I move into the dark. I become irritable, then unhappy, as I grope my way outside the path lit by the lamp of my heart. I don’t feel good in my own skin. My energy becomes heavy because I need to manufacture it all myself, now that I am disconnected from the source of my being, the universal life force. I need to get back to centre somehow, back to where the light shines through life as it is meant for me to live.