Living

Modern times: A bundle of trouble

What do the news headlines, tabloids and our government have in common? They're fixated on babies. Kids, not so much. Here's why that spells danger

It’s supposed to be a happy ending. A woman desperate for a baby has three miscarriages in her child-bearing years. Eventually, a little older, she travels abroad for treatments and encounters unscrupulous doctors. Still no baby. By the time her finances allow her another try, she travels abroad again, is implanted with donor embryos and ends up with twin baby boys.

Clearly, there’s great pain in the soil of that journey; don’t you feel for her? Well, no, judging by the 700-plus posts on CBCnews.ca following the story of the 60-year-old Calgary resident Ranjit Hayer, the real-life protagonist of the un–fairy tale above. She’s denying her children a healthy, normal upbringing. When they graduate from high school, she’ll be nearly 80. She’s a leech on Canadian health care who “doesn’t even speak English.” (An SAT answer: Moth is to a flame as xenophobe is to a message board.)

And then a few people craft a defence: Don’t be ageist. She broke no laws (because there are no laws – only recommendations – about implantation). Those are wanted children. Isn’t choice a private matter? Older people raise children all the time; living with Grandma worked out okay for Barack.

I’m dizzy from going round and round on this. I write with the good fortune of never having experienced that profound, unmet yearning for children, and maybe that’s why I find myself instinctively appalled by Hayer’s hubris, her refusal to listen to the shouting of her body. But then another part of me is pleased to see a woman successfully push back against constraints, social and natural. And there’s no such thing as an ideal family, anyway. Round again, and I worry for those kids. Round again, and I’m put off by the 60-year-old father’s pronouncement: “I’m very happy. God has given me boys!” as if the true value of one’s offspring lies below the waist.

Why wouldn’t we end up here, in this confusing, otherworldly, sci-fi moment? It seems a logical extension of the baby mania clogging the culture. Now is a time of celebrity bump watching and Suri stalking; our (perhaps primal) baby lust fed by a multi-million-dollar industry of baby gear, classes and engineering.

“I always said there should be a baby. I had my heart set on it,” said Hayer in one interview. Years ago, as a volunteer sexual-health counsellor, I was taught that any conversation around pregnancy needed to include the line “Do you want to parent?” It was a powerful question posed to an often uncertain woman, meant to invoke the afterwards, immediately damping down the rush of pink, fluffy emotions that come bundled in the phrase “Do you want a baby?” A baby! The all-potential tabula rasa, soft and full of candy-smelling innocence – yes, please! I’ll take two! But the enduring, iconic image of mother and infant doesn’t have a sequel; no one wants to see a mother beatifically cradling her rebellious, acne-pocked 15-year-old son in oils.

While the baby fantasy has increased in volume, the more murmured reality is that our children are flailing. Last December, UNICEF released a report damning Canada for its lack of investment in kids. Out of 25 affluent countries surveyed, Canada tied with Ireland for last place, failing to meet nine out of 10 proposed standards aimed at ensuring children get the best start in life through education and support programs. The benchmarks include providing a year of parental leave at 50 percent or more of a salary, and spending more than one percent of its gross domestic product on early-childhood services. The only box Canada could check indicated that half of its early-childhood educators have post-secondary certification. The United States met three criteria.

Of course the comparison is among wealthy countries, and I would rather raise my kids in Canada than in most parts of the world, but why does it feel, on a day-to-day basis, like we live in a country that is increasingly contemptuous of our children?

Canada’s child-poverty rate has stalled at 11 percent for nearly 20 years. Alarmingly, 40 percent of children dealing with poverty live in families where at least one parent works full-time. The Conservative government has done almost nothing for working families since chucking the Liberals’ national daycare plan. Its solution, the (taxable) $100-a-month Universal Child Care Benefit, is a bad joke. My partner and I both work full-time, we have no family to help us out, and our two kids are in not-for-profit daycares in Toronto. Harper’s craptastic gift buys us about a day and a half of care. We pay almost $1,500 a month, and that’s low in our neighbourhood. According to a Nanos Research survey, almost twice as many Canadians would prefer a national, subsidized childcare plan to this piddling $100, which, in fact, ends at age six, when babies officially turn into kids and, apparently, pumpkins who don’t require after-school care.

Of course, the Hayer story seems positively tame compared with that of Nadya Suleman, the California single mom who gave birth to eight IVF babies in January, bringing her brood of under-eights to 14. Hayer and Suleman, who appears flat-out mentally ill, have infuriated the public. The so-called Octomom made a tactical error when she surgeried her lips to resemble Angelina Jolie: Modern motherhood can’t just look like Angelina Jolie, it has to be Angelina Jolie, replete with money and a man. But even Jolie isn’t immune to the baby fetish: Her older kids don’t get as much attention in the tabloids as her babies. The gossip-mag question about her and her stomach is always “Is she pregnant?” – not “Is she going to adopt a 10-year-old?”

The adoption question was, however, asked of Hayer. It’s true there are thousands of children in need of homes in Canada, but many languish in an archaic and troubled adoption system, with barriers to adoption increasing all the time. Yet I suspect that Hayer’s push toward biological mothering has to do with something besides logistics: Many adoptable kids are not – of course – babies.

I can feel my own kids’ currency shifting. The sweet smiles I would receive with my bright red stroller and my baby son are less frequent now that he is a galumphing, gorgeous five-year-old boy who never stops asking questions and takes up space in restaurants and on streetcars. We are inching from the celebration of his arrival toward a strange silence and, I fear, invisibility. Hayer’s kids may follow a babyhood of judgment with a childhood of indifference, lacking in resources and support. Like our kids, they are poised to grow up in a Canada that doesn’t understand that investing in kids is the best long-term economic-stimulus package there is. The difference is that Hayer’s children may not have a mother keeping watch for that elusive happy ending.