It’s quite unusual to be out of earshot of children these days. Not that it’s a bad thing – the singsong chatter of a tableful of toddlers or the joyous hum from a school playground can be quite soothing – but as I jackknife into my forties, I find children almost everywhere I go. Now pubs and restaurants increasingly court the cashflow of the moneyed parent who needs a reminder of a non-Peppa Pig world, children are welcomed in places previously reserved for adults. This isn’t that noticeable in your twenties, when you’re frequenting sawdust-floored dives, garish cocktail bars, and sweating out the day’s calorie intake on the dancefloor. But as you age and switch exhilaration and shots of Jagermeister for comfort and a large glass of blush, you notice your fellow patrons usually come with baggage, in the shape of pudgy-fingered toddlers or opinionated, sighing tweenagers, all loaded with enough iPads to blow up the Death Star.
It’s an isolating experience at times, being in your early forties and without children. I don’t long for fatherhood and I certainly don’t dislike children, but it quickly becomes very obvious to you the world is designed for those who procreate and parent. Like viewers in Scotland who complain the national news and weather barely acknowledges them, you must make way for the “party of four that need your table” or watch “hardworking families” be all political parties pretend to be interested in, apart from migrants. Your friends raise their own families, and you watch their evolution with fascination, but you’re there, still you, emanating a kind of egocentrism or entitlement because you’re not particularly interested in handing over a hefty part of your brief flash of existence just to raise children.
I like being around children – well, ones I know, or whose parents I like or love. While as a gay man I’m loath to be labelled a “guncle”, which feels reductive and patronising, there’s something sentimental and comforting about seeing the traits you like – or don’t – in your friends develop in their offspring. If you’re lucky, the children like you back, and even if you’ve no urge to be a parent yourself, there’s a lot to be said for having a relationship with children. They keep you in check, grounded. Unless you’re an old curmudgeon determined to live out your days convinced your heyday can never be topped, they’re your escape route from irrelevance, a road into popular culture. There’s a common misconception that having an interest in the new – be it music, tech, or media – is the domain of the young, and while much of it is aimed at them, there’s nothing to say curiosity is suddenly switched off post-40. There’s a lot you can teach them too; not from lecturing or talking over them, but applying your own experiences and ideas to what’s happening on their lives. Then, once the cultural exchange is over for the day, you can scatter air kisses and shiny pound coins in their general direction, bundle into your Uber and haste away, back to your own house, free of glass smeared with fingerprints.
Strangers’ children, however terrify me. They’re an unknown, and they always seem much less well-behaved than the doe-eyed darlings who clamber over me at birthday parties. With your friends’ children, you’re an extension of their parents, and can laugh with them, chide them or ask them to stay in their seat in the pub. But you’re nothing to the swarms of random children at the next table; you have no currency with them. This is when you feel wretched and alone, powerless. It’s the gibe “You wouldn’t understand, you don’t have children” in human, multiple form. Nobody will ever love or hate you as much as these children will grow to do either or both to their parents. The wider world will ask you if you intend to have children right up until the minute you’re too old, whereupon the line of questioning switches to “Why didn’t you?” and their head will tilt to one side ready for the sob story. “I didn’t want them” will never be enough, there has to be more grit, more gore.
My get-out clause in days gone by was my sexuality, and I used it to my advantage, dodging awkward conversations. I’d explain the difficulties of becoming a parent if you were a gay man, and await the aforementioned head tilt and reassuring hand upon my arm. But the tides turned and suddenly parenting became a more accessible option – as this very blog can testify – and my excuses expired like milk left out on the counter overnight.
The true cost of equality? It exposed my selfishness, forcing me to admit the truth in polite company: “My life is mine, all mine, and I want it to stay that way”.
Let’s agree, as long as it’s not at someone else’s expense, to never apologise for how we choose to live. But if we must, we can always move tables. Be my guest.