Here is the disclaimer: I like my job. Really.
I like kids. I like being around them. Our days are a routine of comfortable chaos: we sing the Hello song, we play, we paint, we run around, we eat, we sleep, we go home. Someone always gets hurt. Someone always winds up crying. Someone always needs a diaper change at an inopportune moment. Someone isn’t sitting quietly with eyes on me when I look through my Good Choice Binoculars to see who’s ready to go outside. But there’s comfort, too, in these mishaps – they’re expected. They’re the norm.
I put hair in pigtails. I play The Monkees constantly and The Wiggles in strict moderation. I perform puppet shows replete with voices and plot twists. I tickle. I chase. I plan projects that involve smearing shaving cream everywhere and playing with pumpkin entrails, and my thirteen two-year-olds love me for it. When my feet hit the woodchips of the playground Monday mornings, I’m mobbed – Beatles-mobbed, with pure adulation. And yet every paycheck, I sack away a little money in the tubal ligation fund.
I wasn’t always so sure about not wanting kids. I came into this line of work, ten years ago, properly baby crazed, albeit with reservations: a chemical imbalance I don’t care to pass on, a waistline I’m shallow enough to want to preserve, an aversion to committing to anything for eighteen years.
What changed my mind for good against procreating is the need that assails me all day long. My children have an absolute right to their legion, constant needs; what makes a child a child is their dependence on the adults around them. But at five o’clock each day, I’m able to walk away from the onslaught, and I’m relieved. I can’t imagine not getting to go home from children.
For eight hours each day, my body is not my own. My children crave touch. It’s the best way for them to interact with the world before their verbal skills are fully intact. I’m constantly clung to, hugged, climbed, and sat upon. I balance at least one child on my hip for the bulk of the day, sometimes one on each. I wrap my arms and legs around tantrum-ers to keep them from bashing their heads against the floor. I’m a human Kleenex, and I’ve been peed and vomited on more times than I care to remember.
Meeting the physical needs of my children is a manageable, if occasionally nauseating, challenge. And meeting their intellectual needs doesn’t faze me much. I design my own curriculum and I’m not concerned with whether my children can rattle off a list of vowels or count in Mandarin. Instead, I plan our days to be as fun as possible, on the theory that the best thing I can teach a toddler isn’t how to identify quadrilaterals, but how to enjoy the process of learning and exploration, to associate school with excitement and engagement.
What is truly daunting is the task of meeting the children’s emotional and psychological needs. What’s hard is struggling to imbue each interaction with compassion and respect, to teach those traits by example. It’s the one-tiny-step-at-a time process of teaching empathy and emotional awareness so that these children will be able to cope with the world around them. It’s the way my kids look at me with a thirst for approval. The pressure to be the best version of myself as a teacher and a person for my kids is huge and scary, even as one of many in the cast of characters in each of their lives. The idea of being a mother and therefore The One, the axis on which a child’s world orbits, terrifies me.
And while my kids reflect the love and care they’re given in simple ways, a relationship with a child is not fully reciprocal. To give to kids all day long is often to throw love into a vacuum. As much as I believe in the importance of the work that I do, it often depletes me. I wince at the edge in my voice at the end of a particularly challenging day. How much sharper would it get if a child’s needs came at me twenty-four hours a day instead of thirty-odd hours a week? I don’t care to find out.
Perhaps it’s unfair to have come to this conclusion while working with toddlers. Perhaps it’s unfair to have come to this conclusion while working with toddlers. It’s certainly not as tiring to spend time with older kids; you are less bogged down in the minutiae of diapers and feedings and fits and more able to engage on a satisfying level. But while the onslaught of need may subside a bit, it never, ever stops, not completely. My mother still fields incessant phone calls, and I’m supposed to be all grown up.
The “they-won’t-be-this-hard-forever” argument is inevitably followed by the popular “they’ll-take-care-of-you-when-you’re-old” chestnut. That’s valid, but then again, choosing to have children so one will be taken care of in one’s old age isn’t any less selfish than choosing to remain childless in order to stay at the center of one’s own life.
A harried parent once said to me at drop-off, apropos of nothing, “So. You signed on to hang out with a bunch of two-year-olds. Voluntarily.” To raise a child is to be exhausted and, frequently, to look it. The parents I know all say it’s worth it, and that it’s just different with your own kids. I know that of course it would be different. I just don’t think it would be different enough.
I get all the good parts, the finger painting and the water table and the countless iterations of Eric Carle stories and the blanket-and-table forts and the cuddling. And best of all: when it gets hard and exhausting, and when patience wanes, as it invariably does, I know I get to go home.