My Children

Until last night, I’d never thought of what my child might have been like, had I fathered children. I’d never even thought about the “what if” before. Whether a daughter or a son, I’d never considered another human being carrying my DNA and the attendant physical and psychological characteristics. The thought stunned me. It didn’t cause me to wish I’d had children; it only struck me as a possibility I’d never before considered.

What would my son have looked like? What would my daughter’s personality have been like? What would I have looked like; as a father instead of a man without parental obligations? I’m surprised those thoughts had not heretofore entered my mind. At least I don’t think they had.

I don’t know what triggered those thoughts. They arose out of curiosity, not wistfulness. Whatever prompted me to think those thoughts also prompted me to imagine myself as father to an adult son. Would I be proud of him or would I be terribly disappointed that he became a misogynist who joined Proud Boys? If my son were a member, would I be as critical of that far-right neo-fascist organization that promotes political violence as I am now?

A few days ago, I watched a video that showed the mother of a young teenage boy arguing with police officers who had come to arrest him for threatening to shoot up a school. The mother insisted that her son was only playing; he was simply making outrageous statements the way boys sometimes do, she claimed. She could not understand why the police would arrest her perfect little boy. Would I believe my child could do no wrong? Would I defend his threats as simply a matter of “boys will be boys?” I’ll never know, of course. I suspect, though, that I would be fiercely angry with the boy while simultaneously frightened for him and his future.

I said I’d never thought what my children would have been like; and that’s true. But I have said that I think I would have been a bad father. I would have had no patience with a child being a child. That would have shaped my children in damaging ways. They would always be afraid they would not measure up to my standards. And that would crush their psyches in ways I can only imagine.  It’s probable that I would not have been willing to invest as much time with my children as they would have needed. I would have demanded solitude when they most needed a protective parental presence. I would have resented the children for snatching freedom away from me.

And what about my wife as a mother? I suspect she would have been a good one, though it’s possible she would have resented losing the freedom that childlessness affords. People like us should not have children. There’s nothing wrong with choosing to leave child-bearing and child-rearing to people who are better suited to the challenges and who want to have babies. In fact, that choice results in fewer children who suffer from parental neglect or, worse, parental abuse.

Still, it’s interesting to imagine my 35-year-old daughter, Maya, deciding to emigrate from the USA to New Zealand, where she plans to establish a sheep farm and, later, a textile mill that will produce custom wool fabrics for export. I’m proud of her! She has always been a bit of a rebel. And I’m watching Carson, my 33-year-old son who after attending college for two years opted to abandon the drudgery of a higher education in favor of learning a skilled trade. He learned welding and became extremely good at it. After a few years of working as a welder in high-rise building construction, he switched gears and turned his talents to art. Today, he creates elaborate metal sculpture and signage; all of his work is commissioned and he has a three-year wait list of clients who clamor for him.

In addition to Maya and Carson, there’s David, who just turned thirty. David went to college and, finally, finished with a degree in business. After amassing almost $80,000 in student loan debt, he discovered his bachelor’s degree in business was not much in demand. So, after two years of looking for a “suitable” job and one year in jail for stealing copper tubing from building sites, he finally went to work as an assistant manager of a rural RadioShack store in Missouri. When the company declared bankruptcy for the second time in 2017, his store was closed. He then went to work for Dunkers Radio and TV in Atwood, Kansas. He got the job because the store is an authorized RadioShack dealer. He’s not happy there, though. All he does, he says, is stock the shelves and deal with cranky, abusive customers. Despite his unhappiness, he isn’t willing to invest the time or energy necessary to find another job. When he’s not working, he sits in his apartment, drinking cheap vodka and playing video games. His apartment, in McCook, Nebraska, is an hour away from his job. It’s the closest he could find that he could afford. I’ve suggested he look for work in Denver. But he won’t listen to me. Ever since I called the police on his now former wife, a meth addict, he has given me the cold shoulder. He still has some growing up to do.

It’s a surprise that the children turned out as well as they did. We left the three of them at a gas station in Pie Town, New Mexico during a long, aimless road-trip vacation when they were youngsters, before Maya turned ten years old. It wasn’t intentional. We had stopped to get gas and some snacks. The kids got out of the car and ran around the way kids do, burning off energy that drives parents crazy during road-trips. When it came time to leave, we just got in the car and drove off, completely forgetting that the kids were with us. We didn’t realize what we’d done until three hours later, when we got to Winslow, Arizona.  When we realized that we’d left the kids at a gas station, we panicked. We hadn’t paid attention to the name of the town we had stopped in, much less the name of the gas station. Fortunately, it occurred to me that I had the receipt for the gas and the snacks in my wallet. We called the station and they told us the kids were in the custody of the Catron County Sheriff’s Department. Well, the Catron County Sheriff’s Department is not located in Pie Town. It’s in Reserve, New Mexico, a good hour and a half southwest of Pie Town. We called the Sheriff and explained what had happened and that we were on our way back to get the kids. It wasn’t as easy as just stopping and picking them up and leaving.

I tried to make light of the situation by saying to the Sheriff, “Silly us, we forgot we had children.”

The Sheriff was not amused and read us the riot act. Then we were reamed out by a woman from the Grant/South Catron County Children, Youth and Families Department. Two hours after we got to the Sheriff’s office, we left with the kids. They didn’t talk to us for two days after that.

And there you have it. What started as a real-world reflection on what might life might have been like had I fathered children turned into an absurd fantasy. Just like my life. It started out just fine but evolved into an absurd fantasy. I wonder whether I’m just a figment of someone else’s imagination, behaving as a puppet on a string and guided by my owner’s imagination. That’s an ugly thought; “my owner” sounds like a brutal and final pronouncement of a sentence. I’ll change my thought patterns. There, that’s better. I’m a little hungry now, so I’ll make some breakfast and reheat my cold cup of coffee.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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