'THERE ARE TWO types of people in the world, aren't there, Aunty Tone?' asks Bella, who is five going on thirty-five. It is the first week of 2011, and I'm babysitting my niece and nephew while my sister and her husband take a long-overdue holiday. I open one eye a smidge. She is standing in her princess pyjamas, hair a nest of auburn sleep curls, by my side of the bed. In one hand she holds a pink plastic horse by its silken tail. By the light coming through the window, it might be 4.30 or 5. In the morning.
'Is that right, Belle?' I say. See how my mouth moves, even though the best part of my brain is still asleep?
'Yes.' She is full of confidence, as always. She rocks backwards and forwards on her bare feet. I wonder if I can tempt her into bed with me, for a cuddle that may just turn into a quick nap. 'There's fast wakers and slow wakers,' she says. 'I'm a fast waker. So's Mummy and Daddy. Will is a slow waker. Like you.'
'Uh-huh,' I say into the pillow.
'Aunty Tone,' she says. 'When are you going to wake up?'
NOW THAT I am self-employed, I can indulge my passion for slow waking whenever I like. After all, if I work 10 to 6, or even 11 to 7, by myself, in my study, in my tracksuit, no one would know or care. All right: to be completely honest, often it's 12 to 8. Sure, some days I teach classes, but those days are the exception and a novelty; it's almost fun to get up, shower, dress and walk to the train pretending to be a proper productive member of society. For nineteen years I worked full-time in business hours, and now I can't imagine how I ever made it to the office or the lab at a reasonable time every day. (My former colleagues might argue that I did not.) The up-teeth-shower-dress routine seemed like the curse of Sisyphus. When I worked as a university research assistant, I felt like crying every morning when the alarm went off. It was all I could do not to scream to the heavens: 'I did this yesterday, for God's sake! Will it never end?'
Now all I have to do in the morning is look after myself, and feed the dog. I don't even have to make breakfast if I don't want to. I have no one else to look after.
No one disturbs my sleep. Sleep is my Olympic event. When not babysitting, I fall quickly and wake almost precisely eight hours later, head on the same spot on the pillow, curled to the right in the same position. When I wake, I have no one else to look after. No one else to dress, or feed (aside from the dog), or get off to school. In the mornings, it's all me, me, me. And still I can barely manage. When am I going to wake up?
I'M NOT VERY good at answering questions. Sometimes, at writers' festivals, I don't know what to say when I'm asked a question, so I stand there, my fraudulent self, next to people more accomplished and erudite. Like most other writers I know, I have no answer to 'Where do you get your ideas from?' I can only say, in all honesty, that if I knew, I'd get them more often. Not all the questions I am asked are about writing. Once I was asked my opinion of the primary school curriculum. I have no opinion on this whatsoever. Sometimes people ask, 'Do you have children?' And when I say no, occasionally they ask another question. They ask, 'Why not?'
I've been asked 'Why not?' in libraries and at dinner parties, by strangers and casual acquaintances and the partners of people I barely know. Once I was asked 'Why not?' by a sales assistant I was idly chatting to while trying on winter coats. For the life of me, I do not know what to say, so invariably I stand, mouth open, while they smile politely back at me with their eyebrows raised quizzically, like they were asking if I knew the way to the loo.
Sometimes, if it's been a long day and I'm tired, I'm tempted to be terse. 'If I knew you were so interested in my ovaries I'd have brought my gynaecologist,' springs to mind, but I've never said it. Other times, I think I should be flippant. 'Sex is against my religion,' would be okay at a pinch. Or: 'If I wait a little bit longer, I'll be able to clone myself.' Or: 'I'm not sure. I love kids, but I couldn't eat a whole one'? 'I would, but I can't get enough of that back-door loving'?
THE PEOPLE WHO ask me why I don't have children don't mean any harm, yet it staggers me. It makes me feel like I've been slapped, every time, but it's done without any malice – it just points out that my position of married childlessness is considered an oddity.
If they follow up the question with a smug 'Well, you've still got time,' well, that's when I feel totally enraged. Adding stupidity to insensitivity is a bridge too far – are they blind? Or just incredibly arrogant? Do they think this state they have, this childed piece of heaven, is worth me dragging my middle-aged body through some kind of scientific or social experiment? Because clearly, to them, my life as it sits now can't be worth living. I should be prepared to pay anything, risk anything, to achieve what they have. My teens and twenties and thirties – they were wasted, really. The then-me was just seat warming for the future-me, the mother-me, for this role I was destined to play, for this only real contribution to the world that I could possibly make.
SOMETIMES I THINK Bella is right. The world is divided into two types of people. Not those who believe that the world can be divided into two types of people, and those who do not. People who have children, and those who do not.
At noon one Sunday I was in Barkley Street, waiting for the bus after my yoga class. On Sundays, noon is early in St Kilda. People are still wobbling from nightclubs, shoes in hand. It was autumn, so the light was feeble, which made it seem even earlier. After yoga, I stand straight and think clearer. My breathing is slow and even.
Waiting at the bus stop with me was a woman and, I guess, her son. She was in dark jeans, black boots and a jacket. She wore a lapis-lazuli pendant, the stone iridescent peacock blue. The boy was eight or nine, fine-boned and pale-skinned, with fair hair that was either adorably tousled or filled with product – I could not tell which. He was bored with waiting for the bus and was climbing over the seat like a monkey, then running along the footpath, then swinging his Razor scooter in the air by the handle.
I watched him careen the scooter across the pavement, then he dropped it, climbed up the back of the seat and then jumped off. His mother said, 'Oh, stop. No, Lachie. Don't,' and she giggled and touched his chest with her hand. She reminded me of Mr Humphries. Ooh, you are awful.
After a while Lachie grew tired of the climbing and jumping, and his mother grew tired of the flirty admonishing. She started texting, and he stood on the seat and began yelling at passing cars, at the top of his small voice on this quiet Sunday. At first it was HAPPY NEW YEAR (for what reason I'm not sure), then MERRY CHRISTMAS (likewise). Then, I'M GOING TO DIE SOON.
Passers-by jerked their heads and stared. His mother looked up from her phone and giggled. 'Don't say that, Lachie. That's not very nice,' she said, so Lachie yelled again, to a different set of startled passers-by: NO, I'M NOT.
When he tired of that he decided to see if the bus was finally coming, at first from the footpath. Then he ventured into the bike lane and, when this proved too easy, he stood in the middle of the road and looked up at the sky, his fragile arms outstretched, skin almost translucent against the dark grey of the road. One car swerved, another tooted, yet still he stood there.
From the seat at the bus stop, his mother gave him a quick glance, then went back to her texting. 'You're being careful, aren't you, Lachie?' she cooed.
THE REASON PEOPLE want to know why I don't have children is, perhaps, to decide whether I am merely unfortunate or wilfully evil. (Or perhaps there is a third option. To paraphrase Mr Wilde: to have only one child might be may be regarded as a misfortune; to have none looks like carelessness.)
Back in 2007, Senator Bill Heffernan said that Julia Gillard shouldn't lead the ALP because 'anyone who chooses to remain deliberately barren...they've got no idea what life's about.' And this year, Mark Latham said, 'anyone who chooses a life without children, as Gillard has, cannot have much love in them.' Perhaps people ask the difficult question of why I don't have children so they can find out if I am 'deliberately'childless. So they can find out: Do I know what life's about? And: Do I have much love in me?
This is a brilliant idea, I think. It sometimes takes months or years or decades to understand someone's heart and character, and even then, no matter how certain we are, we can find to our great sorrow that we are mistaken. How astonishingly helpful to know these things straight up, from one little question, right from the first time you meet someone.
A FEW YEARS ago I was chatting to an older couple I know well, about this and that, work and weather, politics and movies. The conversation turned to another couple I knew only slightly, friends of these people.
'Oh,' said the wife. 'It's terrible what happened. Terrible.'
'They've split up,' said the husband. 'He left her.'
'Out of the blue,' the wife said.
'Because she was barren,' the husband said.
Other than in political debate about the worthiness or otherwise of female politicians, the word 'barren' is rarely used these days in polite society. In the Bible, everyone who was anyone was barren: it was the olden-day equivalent of having a blog. Sarah and Rebekah, Rachel and the unnamed mother of Samson; Hannah, Michal and Elizabeth. All of these, except for Michal, conceived at a very late stage, a blessing from God.
If all these women, and their husbands and communities, were so convinced there would be no baby, they must have been post-menopausal when God gave them this miracle. I think of these biblical women, living a harsh life in a Middle Eastern desert: scraping for food, bent down by work and dust and heat. I see them at fifty-five with a toddler, or at almost seventy with a teenager. I wonder what these women thought about their blessing at 4.30 in the morning.
AT FLINDERS STREET Station, I passed a young man and woman sitting at a table in the food court, holding a baby. They were a handsome couple, with glossy black hair and striking features. The baby was eight or ten months old. It sat on the man's lap while the woman fed it with a spoon. As I passed, I saw that in her other hand she held a meat pie. She was carefully digging out the filling and blowing on it, and feeding it to the baby. This seemed strange to me, and the image has stuck in my mind: the baby, the woman and the pie. But it might be normal parenting behaviour. I just don't know.
I am an educated person of sound mind and body in a first-world country, which makes me one of the luckiest people who has ever lived. Still, sometimes I feel apart from much of our national conversation. When shop assistants wish me a happy Mother's Day, how should I respond? The weekend papers, with acres of parenting columns and advice and kid's activities and ads for toys, seem like anthropological evidence from a distant civilisation. Politicians never speak to me. I will never be a Working Family.
The job of an aunt is nothing to sneeze at. There are birthdays to remember and babysitting to do and long chats to have over the phone. My two nieces and nephew live in regional Queensland, so there will also, I hope, be first tickets to the ballet and the AFL, visits to markets and the snow.
My sister and I talk on the phone often. Sometimes she rings me in the morning, to talk about my mother or my grandmother or just to say hello. It's early for me, but not for her. When she hears my drowsy voice she apologises. 'I always forget,' she says wistfully, 'that you can sleep in as long as you like.' I never forget that she cannot.