On Children and Animals
Ever since she was a little girl, Emma always wanted a big family. She gave me plenty of warning. We were at primary school together, after all, though we didn’t start dating until our twenties. By the time we got married, I knew she had plans to go beyond the national average when it came to having kids.
I took the view that three girls were quite enough. Emma countered that we needed a boy and on that basis pushed it to four. I don’t like to think what would’ve happened had we produced another child ready-made for pink hand-me-downs. Privately, my joy at the birth of a son was also fueled by a massive sense of relief. At last, my job was done. I also knew just who to turn to in order to retire on a permanent basis.
Our doctor divided opinion. Some considered him to be a medical pioneer. Others marked him down as a psychotic self-harmer. When I learned that he had been the first man to perform a vasectomy on himself, I just crossed my legs and expressed disbelief. Why anyone would want to go there was beyond me. I figured it must’ve taken a heroically steady pair of hands or a huge intake of drugs. Either way, he had gone on to become evangelical in providing a walk-in-hobble-out service from his office. Had anyone conducted a straw poll in the neighborhood, I doubt they would’ve found a father of 2.4 children capable of producing any more. I had only escaped the doctor’s clutches because Emma went to great lengths to shield me from him. For quite a while, I wasn’t allowed to be ill. If I’d needed antibiotics, I reckon Emma would’ve faked the symptoms herself in order to get me the treatment. As far as she was concerned, I was not going to be another statistic in the doctor’s fertility cleansing program. But as soon as he was assigned to our son’s first antenatal home visit, something Emma hadn’t foreseen, I think even she knew the game was up.
Within weeks of Frank’s arrival, I prepared to be put out to pasture. Leaving Emma in the waiting room, unusually subdued as she leafed through a magazine recipe for plums past their prime, I took steps to do the right thing. Our doctor needed Emma’s written consent for this, which she provided without a word. Even so, before the swelling had subsided, it became clear to me that, in her view, such a simple procedure would have far-reaching consequences. She didn’t make me feel guilty. Far from it. I received tender, loving care and cups of tea while I recovered. I just knew from the look in her eyes that it was a loss she suffered more than me. Having known Emma from an early age, I knew that her need for a sizable brood stemmed from her experience of growing up. Her childhood home was not a happy one, and much of this was down to her father. A closed individual with a difficult upbringing, he was a man who found it hard to connect with those who looked to him for love. His wife and two daughters saw the good in him, but he just did not know how to show it unreservedly. Instead, he escaped into a solitary drinking habit that would come to overshadow his life. Emma’s mother did her best to cover for him, but their relationship took its toll on her health. Her slide into a fog of medication, along with periods of absence as work became her means of escape, left Emma and her younger sister to spend their formative years with front-door keys around their necks.
I remember being envious of her independence. Emma could pretty much do whatever she pleased. In my eyes, unaware of the bigger picture, she was the true definition of a free spirit. It was only later that I realized she viewed my kind of background as something she would have liked to experience for herself.
Emma’s most vivid childhood memory is of screaming in the street, age five, because she had woken up one morning to find that her parents were nowhere to be found. I, on the other hand, can barely recall a moment when I was home alone. My mother worked for the National Health Service as a part-time physiotherapist, fitting her hours into a school day. It meant she was always there for my little brother, sister, and me, while my dad was a BBC engineer and the kind of greenbelt commuter who would come home to find supper on the table. Naturally, I didn’t fully appreciate the stability at the time. Nor did I seize the opportunity to use it as a springboard into the world. I was a bit of a worrier when it came to taking on new challenges, while Emma was forthright and unafraid to stand up for herself. In a way, we were drawn together by what each of us lacked in ourselves. It had worked well over the years, and despite my wife’s instinct to keep building the family she’d missed out on as a girl, she did agree finally that going to five was, well, insane.
“I can’t help how I feel,” she reasoned, “but I’m sure I can channel it into something other than more babies.”
In short, with the offspring ticked off the list it was time to take on some animals. There was only one obstacle to this newfound need. As we were crammed into a three-bedroom terrace in London’s East End, one of which I used as an office, we had no room for anything other than ourselves. For a time we kept a couple of goldfish. Unfortunately, we rarely saw them. Despite my best efforts, the walls of the tank became increasingly caked in a stubborn film of algae. Every now and then, one would swim close enough to the glass for us to be reminded of their existence. Eventually, they came up for air and never went down again.
In some ways the fate of the fish came close to mirroring our financial situation. Several years earlier Emma had given up a good career to return to full-time motherhood. I kept the roof over our heads and put food on the table by writing books for children and taking what freelance journalism I could find. But with the increase in the number of mouths to feed, I began to struggle. We were OK: happy, but totally cash-strapped. So, when Emma was offered the chance to reignite her career on a parttime basis, the decision was largely driven by a bid to avoid living out of Dumpsters. That the job was outside London proved another draw. Here was our chance to raise our children in a rural county, but one that was not so far away from the capital that they’d be freaked out by things like neon signs and elevators. One final thing persuaded me it was time to move on. I discovered that the youths who frequently parked their cars outside our house and opened up silver foil wraps on their laps weren’t, as I thought, eating sandwiches. As Emma informed me when I made the observation, in front of her mother and toddler group, they were in fact dealing crack cocaine. With her job offer on the table, it didn’t take long for us to agree that it was our chance to relocate to the countryside.
“If we sell this house we can just about find something with a yard,” suggested Emma. “The kids could even keep a rabbit outside.”
I wasn’t resistant to the idea at all. As I worked for myself, it meant I could juggle my hours between writing and being a house husband. Privately, I knew we could do a bit better than a bunny. From my childhood experience of looking after one, I just remembered rabbits to be high on maintenance and low on reward. By the time we left the city behind, I had set my sights on something more robust.
© 2011 Matt Whyman