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31 January 2024

My nephew has changed how I feel about children

I still don’t want kids of my own, but aspects of motherhood that once seemed repellent to me now look very different.

By Megan Nolan

In the beginning of January I went on a family holiday to celebrate my mother’s sixtieth birthday. It was the first trip me, my two brothers, my mother and my stepfather had ever been on all together, and part of me was nervous. For one thing, when we start bickering and I feel my adolescent defensive rage emerging at home at Christmas time, I can always bolt to see my friends, blow off some steam so things don’t go too far. All of us sharing one open plan apartment in a foreign country seemed like a more potentially volatile proposition. For another, my brother would be bringing his wife and son, and I feared (with an old, deep childhood shame of rejection) that it would be painfully obvious that I know my nephew least well of all of us. I was embarrassed to think that he would be strange with me, or scared, and that his aversion would say something damning about me as a person and as a member of the family. 

I’ve seen my nephew on maybe half a dozen visits since he was born two and a half years ago, some of them substantial, bonding weekends and others lasting just a few hours. In the interim he has naturally seen my mother, my eldest brother (his uncle) and my stepdad – who live in the same country as him – much more regularly. He has distinct dynamics with all of them and his love and affection for them is palpable. His parents try to get us all on video calls so that I can be more involved, but I feel dreadful when he doesn’t appear to remember me or (understandably) would rather engage with the actual people beside him than the picture of a woman he barely recalls on a phone. I find it embarrassing and it makes me feel guilty for not being more present in his life, and it grieves me on a different, more selfish, note to see all of my family together without me. 

On holiday, my fears were quickly allayed by realising that, now he is no longer a fragile infant, much can be achieved by swinging and throwing him around with as much exertion as possible without physical injury. In this way, we were soon friends – even more so when I learned that he likes to dance vigorously to some of the worst music ever recorded (just like his aunt). Quickly I too was receiving sloppy goodnight kisses and having handfuls of wet sand hurled at me, and even got to enjoy what is surely one of life’s great sensory pleasures, lying on the sofa with a little child in your arms who is slowly waking up but still mostly weighted by sleep clinging to you. 

Aside from my love for the boy himself, I am also fascinated by the way in which he sheds new light on each member of my family. One of the difficult things about families is that our roles and dynamics can become calcified, not malleable to different circumstances. Many of the arguments I’ve had with family members as an adult are clearly expressions of ancient reactive mechanisms from when I was too young to have any autonomy: when I receive criticism in my everyday life I may not like it, but I can generally accept it without a meltdown. At home, my inability to hear criticism is ludicrous and disproportionate, whether it’s about an unwashed mug or my life choices. My nephew’s presence, though, thwarts some of those fixed positions. Suddenly my wilfully taciturn stepfather is beaming and cooing on the floor, the position of authority shifts between older and younger brother, my mother is visibly softened by the sort of indulgent adoration she probably didn’t have the time or resources or inclination to throw at the three of us when she was a young single mother. 

What I am finding most interesting, for my own part, is how my nephew makes me feel about the concept of motherhood, something I have never been attracted to. I’ve always liked my sister-in-law very much, but seeing her become such a great mother has made me feel absolutely wild about her. I’ve never really known a baby up close before, never spent more than an hour or two with the children of friends, and seeing the kind of endless patience and kindness even a fairly calm, agreeable baby like my nephew requires has been humbling. My brother and sister-in-law are lucky insofar as they have lots of family eager to help when possible, and yet still the amount of time that is possible to salvage for one’s self is so negligible I can’t quite believe it. 

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The idea of having such a limited amount of time to think your own thoughts seems mostly horrifying to me, but occasionally it seems desirable. I’ve organised my life so that almost all of my time, both personal and professional, is spent largely inside my own head –  a great luxury, except when it’s not. In a recent period of ill mental health, when it began to seem less and less possible to remain inside of myself, I did think with some wistfulness about a life set up so that it was natural to think of and with others on a daily basis, as you must when you care for someone so intensively. Aspects of motherhood that once seemed repellent to me seem very different having seen them enacted in real time. I suppose mostly that is just specificity – it is completely impossible for me to feel drawn toward the abstract idea of having children, seeing as they tend to severely limit most of the things that currently give me pleasure and meaning (travel, late nights, impulsiveness, solo restaurant lunches). But real children are not abstract concepts, they are the very opposite; bizarre, unprecedented, visceral. 

All women who don’t want children have to occasionally hear that we will change our minds one day, an assertion I’ve found myself furiously arguing back against. I resent that I am forced to deny that changing my mind is possible to avoid pity and derision from the judgemental and the misogynist, when in fact one of my core beliefs is that everything changes, that it is possible for everything to change in ways we can’t imagine. So perhaps I will change my mind, which I still don’t think is a good enough reason to have a baby now. Maybe it will be too late by the time I change my mind, people say – and maybe it will be, and that will be another of life’s many sadnesses to bear. It is already too late for so much. We cannot have it all, by which I mean we can’t give every kind of life a trial go, and then decide which is empirically best. My nephew doesn’t make me want a baby, but he does make me understand better why people do, how they give up so much to do so. My nephew has opened up a new strand of empathy I didn’t have access to before he existed. In this way, he has already changed my life.

[See also: Sheila Heti’s book of life]

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State