So, my day was off to a decent start. I was getting my teeth cleaned, so it wasn’t the best start I could have asked for, but it could have been worse, and then it did become worse. In the middle of my cleaning, a dental technician wandered over and asked me something that no one has ever asked me before.
“Are those your kids in the waiting room?” she said casually.
My left eye twitched a little, since my mouth was already wide open.
“Ungg-ggg…” I said. When my mouth was free of hands for an instant I rasped, “They’re not my kids.”
“Oh,” she said. I waited for her to smile sheepishly and apologize for assuming that I had children, because now that she saw me up close I was clearly too young for that. But all I got was “anyway, they’re very well behaved.”
When she turned away I immediately scrutinized my outfit to see if there was anything about it that might possibly suggest that I was a parent. I was wearing battered sneakers and an old t-shirt and had unbrushed hair. I have looked like that since I first learned to walk. True, I was back for my six-month cleaning, which denoted a certain sense of maturity; usually I get my teeth cleaned every three years, when it is more of an archaeological excavation than anything else. But nothing else about me, as far as I knew, screamed “I have given birth. I now care for young.”
Still, I have been out of college for five years. Apparently it is within the realm of possibility for me to have had children. To many, it is no longer a weird assumption to make. This is utterly terrifying.
As a matter of fact…I had seen those kids in the waiting room. They were at least eight years old. For the first time since high school (when it was for different reasons), I began to wonder how old I looked. I have always assumed that I appear as juvenile and unprepared to for life as I feel and act, but guess I could be wrong. I began to panic. When I get carded at the liquor store, I wondered, are the clerks actually joking? Or worse, are they trying to make me feel better about myself by asking for ID? Do they snicker behind my back when I leave the store with my crow’s-feet and my cheap jug of wine?
The problem is that right now, I feel less prepared than ever to have children. Perhaps this is because I have had more time to consider the idea, and to reflect on how difficult parenting has to be. I have ruminated over my own childhood, recalling in great detail the aggravating phases I put my parents through. A decade of excruciating shyness. Harrowing middle-of-the-night asthma attacks. The years when I would wear only stretch-pants, eat only peanut-butter sandwiches, and leave squashed Kleenex all over the house during allergy season. The endless fights between my younger sister and I when we breathed in each other’s faces after eating sour cream & onion potato chips and argued inanely over the top bunk.
The older I get, and the more impossible the idea of having children seems to me, the less patience I have with the ones I do come across. Those very children in the waiting room had kind of irritated me—and they were apparently well-behaved.
When the comparatively minimal responsibilities which come with pet ownership became a drag, I knew I was going to be in trouble if I ever had a child. I whine about having to go home to let the dog out after leaving him alone in the house for nine hours. I roll my eyes whenever it is my turn to feed him, even though it takes thirty seconds and two simple arm motions, and if he doesn’t want to eat, fine. You have to teach a dog to sit, but not to spell, or relate to others, or dress itself. It might jump up on a stranger, but it will never ask them why they are fat in a sweet, piercing voice.
It has occurred to me that my growing annoyance with other people’s children might be the work of some instinctive self-protection—a way to keep me from actually having any children of my own before I am ready, but I soon dismissed this idea. I figure that if my body really wanted to protect me from having children, the smart thing to do would be to make me increasingly irritated with men. Which, come to think of it, it has. Maybe I am safe after all.