Kids are a hot topic for the volunteers in Jalpan. My erstwhile brother and his wife—Trey and Janessa—are of an age to talk about it—30 and 29—and I’m here to talk with. Given that we’re in Mexico, it’s always a topic at hand. “Why don’t you already have a kid?” is as valid a question as how-do-you-do for any woman of marrying age, and “Why don’t you have a kid with one of ours?” is just as good for any strapping young foreign man.
Trey and Janessa take what I imagine is the typical line for Americans of their cohort. Children are part of the plan, after careers and travel and messing around until their fun has been had and they’re ready to settle into the waiting-for-retirement grind that seems to brand life after 35 for all of us aspiring young graduates. If you aren’t famous or otherwise important by then you might as well pop a couple out and see if that masks the hole inside of you.
My parents purportedly love me and they tell me they’re proud, and every once in awhile, including my sister’s budding career in nuclear boat engineering, I believe that the pair of us might warm their cockles. But I know the life my folks led before Katherine turned up in Pontiac and I in Nashville. They went camping, took interstate bike trips, boozed and traveled, mingled and shared with people that by my time they only knew through omnibus Christmas cards.
When my Dad’s best friend Bernie passed young, I’d seen him only once, part of a blurry memory of a rented Buick and a day trip to his west coast farm. I don’t think Dad had seen him much more than that since ’89, when my sister made her jaundiced and eerily silent debut. They told me they’d once planned to go out West to ski but discovered another flight was cheaper and jetted to Innsbruck to ski the Zugspitz and every other improbably remembered giant of the Alps.
I can’t remember any trip we’ve taken that arrived without meticulous planning, packing lists, and the slow-build pressure cooker of too-close living and familial bickering. My parents look like parents, but their old envelopes of Kodak prints, curiously never album’d, show a tanned young couple, fit and always smiling, backdropped by mountains and monuments and innumerable picturesque water features.
I’ve seen a lot of shows and read a lot of books and heard a lot of testimony about the deeper and more meaningful satisfaction that kids bring you. I hope to Heaven I’ve brought some of that to my folks, because from where I’m sitting, for most young parents I’ve known, that’s a crock. I’ve met a few women here who openly regret their marriages to over-macho, domineering men, women who lament how quickly they ended their independent lives. And they swear that if they could do everything over, these women say that they might drop the guy but they’d keep the kids. That smacks incongruous to me. Their kids are the highlight of a dark time, but also part and parcel of their captivity.
It leaves me unconvinced, seems like grasping for the meaning lost in the act of having children itself. You’ve surrendered the greater part of your remaining life to the endeavor and now you’ve got to justify it to yourself and broadcast it to the watching world: “See, I’m as happy as I thought I’d be, as happy as everyone who’d had kids had told me, just in a way that you’ll only understand once you too have trapped yourself.”
Here, though, apart from the aforementioned failed marriages, I think there might exist a better model for post-parenthood. It might be a Latin American thing or a Hispanic thing or another one of the non-white, WASPy world things I keep touching on in this blog. But when people have children here, they don’t become other people the way your friends do when they put the happy news on Facebook and cease to talk about anything else.
When I was studying in Spain with my oft-mentioned-here travelling partner Brian Baum, we happened to go to a Dominican bar during a trip to Segovia. I nominated the place because I wanted to send photos to a co-national ex that I was pining after at the time, and when we went in, it was lousy with children. Swarthy mothers and fathers were throwing back undrinkable Mahou right along with us and the couple of uncomfortable unwitting Spaniards who had bumbled in. At the time, I couldn’t come to grips with the chubby afro’d children crawling over and around my lap, but here it’s a matter of course.
Out here, every party is affair and vice-versa. The first baptismal celebration I went to had a keg, and I’ve never been to a kid’s birthday where I and everyone hasn’t gotten liquored up. This past weekend we went to a hot spring pool complex with the host family, and Trey and I pounded beers while we threw the kids around in the shallow end. When you have children you bring them along to whatever it is, and the happy village raises them.
Maybe part of what makes parents helicopter so determindedly in the States is that they can’t direct all that energy outside the family anymore and as a consequence their kids take the brunt. Maybe part of what creates that particular brittle happiness of Stateside parents is that nobody can live being focused on so few people for so long and that nobody can take the reciprocal attention. Likewise if all our parents had less opportunity to become as embittered and unhappy as they seem to be when forty rolls around, maybe they’d have less chance to fuck up their kids and each other.
All I do know is that when I went to watch the World Cup final in the city, I was insidiously sold on the concept of a ‘house party’ that turned out to be a married couple, two fiances, an unmarried couple, and a kid. And that while in the States I’d have been running, here it was fine. We played with the kid, watched the game, drank our beers. Because in Mexico, parents are people too.