Last night, I spoke to my father on the telephone. There were a number of matters we discussed, some heavy, some lighthearted, however one thing he said particularly stuck in my mind. He stated that a chapter in my life was ending, another was soon to begin. He finished off the conversation by reminding me that both he and my mother would see me soon.
It is odd how time can condense so starkly. I was awarded my doctorate in January, and formal graduation is now just a little over two weeks away. When I received my certificate in the post on a cold February day, that ceremony seemed very far off into the future. My parents’ arrival from New York was difficult to envisage. Yet so much has happened, so much life has been pushed into a tiny space that it seems a period in excess of five months has vanished in the blinking of an eye.
My father had other reasons for stating that the “chapter is ending”. In addition to my doctorate, my first novel will be released literally any day now. The task now sits with the printer rather than the publisher, and once they are ready, the pre-ordered copies will flow out of Amazon and Waterstones. A book launch is being arranged, as is a signing session. While these will be modest affairs, a humble beginning is nevertheless a start. It is a foundation upon which I can build my future writing endeavours. One day this may lead to the attainment of greater reknown, but that can wait; what was once burning ambition has cooled into soft glowing embers for the moment.
I also can be satisfied with my work. For one thing, in an era of high unemployment, I am glad to have a job at all. While it is not quite the destiny I had planned, nevertheless it has its compensations. I was recently rewarded with the confidence of my colleagues by being granted a more active and prominent role in the local chapter of my trade union. All in all, in terms of achievement and security, there is much to celebrate. My parents are taking my sister and myself to Paris after graduation; I suspect that I’ll have a moment of total peace when I look at the Seine and think, “I’ve made it”.
But again I return to my father’s words, a “chapter is ending”. Unless one is at the very end, that implies another segment is yet to begin. Herein lies a dilemma. Next month is also my birthday; I will be 38 years old. I look in the mirror each morning and see more grey hairs in my beard, fewer hairs on the top of my head. Time is condensing the range of possibilities which are open to me: while there is still a chance, I ask the man in the mirror, do I want to have a family?
I am planning to move by the end of the year. I have carefully looked at a number of areas within commuting distance of my university. However, that single leading question does lead to a modification in my criteria. A man without children may be attracted to the bohemian and seek out good restaurants and cultural venues. A family man must consider schools, must be more cognisant of crime statistics, must think about future prospects. It also has an impact on the type of house one considers: were I to go down the childless route, a two bedroom property would be perfectly adequate. With a family, nothing less than three bedrooms will do. Without children, I look at properties and think about shelf space for my books and getting a builder in to do an estimate. With children, those estimates still apply, but what about a loft extension? An extra bathroom? Should there be apple trees and a patio in the back garden?
Beyond practicalities, there are more emotive questions. Would I be a good father (and husband for that matter)? I have been reassured even by those who know the full measure of my iniquities and failings that I would be. Am I ready for the responsibility? I believe so; but I also have to smile at the thought of how many fathers arrive at that question after their partner gets pregnant.
Do I have the patience? Last week, I took a train to London which featured the Noisiest Child in Britain. He was a blonde haired boy, I estimate about two years old, and he wore a red Thomas the Tank Engine t-shirt. Any fluctuation in mood, from happiness, to sadness, to frustration was punctuated with incoherent screaming. The boy’s mother did her best to try and hold the squirming child to her, but his energies obviously couldn’t find the appropriate outlet; I wondered if sugar was to blame. Would I have the composure to deal with that? Yes and no. No, I couldn’t stop myself from being annoyed. Yes, I wouldn’t let it affect my parenting: though I might be a bit more apologetic to my fellow passengers.
But that was someone else’s child. I’ve considered how challenging a child of my own might be; what is likely to become the kernel of my next novel begins with a scene in which a five year old girl asks her father for a “bailout” of a “trillion yo-yos”. She claims to be in charge of a bank and that her prized stuffed animal is a “puppet who loaned money to muppets”. I do have a wild imagination, but there is something almost biological which enabled me to write that snippet: it’s as if I know my future progeny, and she (in this case) will be a something of a terror.
Finally, there are environmental questions to be addressed. It has been estimated by the United Nations that the world’s population will reach 9.3 billion by 2050. The carbon footprint of the average UK citizen in 2004 was 9.19 metric tons. Given the constraints on the planet’s resources, having children may seem an indulgence too far; my personal fulfilment may have negative consequences for the Earth.
Or perhaps not. One of the most attractive ideas about being a father is thinking about the potential that may lay within one’s child. I can foresee a future in which I hear the cry at 3 AM, and I proceed stumbling in the darkness to the crib and gently pick up my son or daughter. I rest him or her on my shoulder in a gesture of warmth and comfort. A pungent scent alerts me to the reason as to why the baby is crying. With a sigh, I proceed to the changing table, do what’s necessary and dispose of the old diaper into a rubbish bin. The baby is not quite asleep; I switch on a radio which is tuned to BBC Radio 3; “Through the Night” is playing Mozart. I sit on a rocking chair with my child in my arms, supine, resting his or her head on my shoulder, which I’ve draped with a small white towel. As I rock back and forth, looking at the moonlight shining through my window, I know that I’ll be dead tired in the morning. I know that there is work to do and bills to pay. I know that I have to stick money away every month so this one has a chance to go to university like I did. I know that there will be bad behaviour and lost items and terrible decisions to come out of that tiny sleeping form. But in that shape lay all the potential in the world too, to do well and to do good. Perhaps he or she will be the engineer to bring the trans-Atlantic train to fruition. Perhaps he or she will discover a cure for AIDS. Perhaps he or she will be an influential politician who will lead the country into a more enlightened age. Scientifically it may not be possible to quantify a justification for that child being there, and normally one should weigh a doubt against a certainty. But certain things lay beyond logic. It is with that in mind that I say wholeheartedly: if the next chapter of my life does contain the question, “to breed or not to breed”, I’d have to come down in favour of the former.