What would my path have looked like with children in it?
Sitting by the gate at Logan, held captive by the airline’s whim, watching a steady stream of half-dressed, or overdressed passengers walk, run, and toddle by, the place remains, somehow, stale and lifeless. Until a little princess, right out of a storybook, walks into the seating area of our gate.
Rarely do I question my decision to forgo becoming a vessel of reproduction. My goal in life was to become CEO of a wildly growing company, not wiping little beasties’ noses. I even left my husband when he wanted them. But as sometimes happens, this delightful girl seems to be showcasing my poor decision. She looks like what I imagine my little girl would have looked like had I not married my sandy-haired husband of 5’7” and 27-inch waistline, but Bob Redford.
Not to mention that I never did become the CEO of that wildly growing company, instead settling into an array of jobs of the wildly unsatisfying sort.
“Children are not a zoo of entertainingly exotic creatures, but an array of mirrors in which the human predicament leaps out at us.” ―John Updike
But at the gate, this princess casts a tiny spell on me. My book collapses into my lap. I’m drinking her sweetness in: a beautiful, clean-faced, bright-eyed little girl—a gene pool home run.
Regret washes over me. The princess stands on sea legs between her mother’s thighs, crunching Cape Cod potato chips with less than perfect execution, savoring what makes it into her mouth. She babbles, a form of self-engagement, and randomly feeds “Kit-Tee,” a wide-eyed cat peering out from a crate on the floor.
I bet she still has that baby smell thing going on, you know, like puppies.
I elbow Dennis. “If that sweetness were mine, I’d give her a hard cooked egg and fruit to eat, not crap food.”
He eyeballs the princess for a nanosecond, nods and returns his gaze to his handheld.
I think of the other things I’d feed her: Greek yogurt, kale crisps (much softer than potato chips), hummus, non-GMO whole grain crackers, organically grown vegetarian stuff.
And then, she begins to choke.
When adults get something caught in their throat, we place a napkin to our mouth, cough, grumble it away. If that doesn’t work? We set into panic. We choke like hell to obtain clear passage. We don’t care how much attention we draw doing it. We want to live and we fight like hell to continue doing so.
The princess has one hand on her mother’s knee, stabilizing her squat before Kit-Tee’s crate. She brings herself upright and faces me. Her blue eyes have begun to tear. No sound comes from her windpipe. The fragments of crap food are lodged in her throat. She is the little girl I never had and wish was mine and she can’t breathe.
Someone, do something.
The book slides off my lap and crashes to the floor, just as the girl’s mother scoops her up and lays her across her knees.
The little girl lies there flat as an ironing board.
Three deft pats on her back and Cape Cods chips in a variety of shapes project from her mouth. Saliva slips over her lips. Oxygen returns to her lungs. She cries.
The surrounding maternal patrons lean in, ask if the princess is okay? Her mother waves them off. “Yes, thank you,” she says.
My dream child is back on her feet; the waterworks have subsided. Her father strokes her cheeks dry. Her mood changes back to the state of pre-choking as if by a flick of a switch. She’s perfect again.
She asks for another chip.
In a Mickey Mouse sort of voice, I say onto the open pages of my book, “How ‘bout some yogurt?”
Dennis elbows me subtly, a prompt to behave.
When we’re settled into the plane, the princess appears in the aisle. She’s screaming like a banshee. Ear piercing stuff. I barely get a glimpse of her because she passes by so swiftly—her father carries her like a surfboard. This must be a common position for her—flat and rigid.
By the sounds of it, she has been strapped into a seat four or so rows behind us. Amid the chaos of the 737’s boarding, she has stopped crying and is sweetly introducing Kit-Tee to neighbors.
And again, I wish she were mine, mine, mine.
The cabin is packed. There’s tight clearance, cramming of luggage in overhead bins. Last minute phone calls are made. The air is stale. Actually there is no air. Emergency landing instructions are being given. A teenager across the way is licking the remnants of a BK cheeseburger from his thumbs. I hear the princess clear as a bell. She has dismissed her affections for Kit-Tee and is dead set against keeping her seatbelt fastened.
“No, no, no, Mama!”
The flight gets underway. The minute’s slip into hours, it’s horrendous. The princess keeps up a steady stream of “no!” followed by parental correction with an edge and curmudgeon-type shushing. My iPod is packed away in cargo below. ,I have no way of tuning out the racket, which would have kept the child I didn’t have magical to me. Instead, I watch the display that shows the plane’s elevation, speed, and the long ass Midwest state we’re hovering over. We’re practically standing still at 500 MPH.
Dennis types away on his laptop, the time flies by for him. I listen to the child carry on; She was so perfect before.
When descent at last begins from 40,000 feet, cabin air pressure intensifies. The princess begins wailing with a set of lungs worthy of crossing the English Channel.
I know this: if I stayed married, I couldn’t have had all the daring affairs with executives my father’s age. I wouldn’t have experienced the freedom of telling off Gloria Steinem and discovering the rugged beauty of the West, proving myself and doing “boys’ chores” where my leg “got broke.”
Not having children allows me to imagine I would have had the perfect child
So what’s the seduction of remorse, regret? Even if we are self-actualized, accomplished people who have had good lives, why do we actually sort of like that deep longing for what we could have had? And that’s when I discover something really genius about not doing things. It makes us heroes in our own minds. It buoys us up. We can’t do everything, there will always be paths we could have taken. And the brilliance of that is we get to imagine doing it all and being perfect at it. I know, I know we’re supposed to stay in the moment, but most of us don’t because the moment can be as boring as a…well, as a long plane ride. So, thinking of all those un-lived lives can be a way to boost self-confidence for one happy soaring moment.
If we’d written the novel, we would have written a bestseller. Not going to Hollywood to audition for all those bit parts and staying back east, we get to imagine our lives as movies stars. Not going to law school means we can tell ourselves we would have been kick-ass prosecutors, killing it in the courtroom. People tell us not to regret what could have been, but actually it’s sort of fun. Not becoming a mother is so much better than actually becoming a mother because I can imagine I would have had the perfect child. Never mind the choking, the quick-switch moods, the screaming like a banshee. I would have nourished my daughter perfectly, and she would have been absolutely flawless.
Land is drawing ever closer out the window. The pilot tells us the 737 is destined for the runway. We drop elevation in big chunks until at last the wheels skid us on the ground. Only minutes remain before we get off this tin bus and I will be childless again.
When the princess and her parents file out before us, I catch those beautiful aquamarines, her body is horizontal and at waist-height again. In my mind I make peace with her, thank her for giving me the chance to be a perfect mother to a perfect child.