When I got my first letter from my new pen pal, I was charmed. When was the last time I’d received a good old-fashioned piece of paper (that wasn’t a bill) in the mail.?
I was delighted to answer her questions. Where do you work? she wanted to know. Are you married?
And then the next (entirely natural) question:
Do you have any kids?
A simple question. But I had to think carefully about how to answer.
The Younger, Hipper Adult Pen Pal
A colleague of mine had published several Facebook posts asking for volunteers to write to students at a local public school. She works for a nonprofit that serves retired people, and part of her job is to help them find meaningful volunteer opportunities. She didn’t seem to be getting many takers, so finally I asked if the pen pals had to be retired. Maybe I could help out.
I remembered, from my own school days, having a pen pal in Japan (second grade), and then, (in fourth grade) one who was a resident of the county nursing home just down the street from my school. I’d loved being her pen pal and learning about her life in the “olden days.” But then, at Christmas time, our teacher took us to the home to visit our senior pals, and I ended up being scared of mine. I hadn’t noticed I’d been nervously crinkling my plastic juice cup until she barked, “Stop doing that.”
I wrote letters from the time I could hold a pencil. I wrote to my grandfather in Florida until he died when I was in sixth grade, and continued writing to my grandmother, until she got a computer in her 80s and we switched over to emailing. I wrote letters to friends (if we had to be separated for, like, a whole week during summer vacations). And of course I wrote to crushes — even though I was writing under the guise of “just being a friend.”)
Eventually I stopped all of this when email and Facebook finally took over. As much as I love social media, I feel nostalgic for the process of letter-writing, the way I would plan ahead mentally about what I was going to say and how I’d say it. The way the whole thing had an intent that was something akin to a journal entry, a snapshot of life, maybe even a tiny little work of art. If you wanted to be funny, you had do it in a way that worked without the help of an emoticon or an LOL.
My first exchange with new pen pal
(find me on Instagram)
So I thought it was a cool idea to help encourage kids of today to be part of this fading tradition. And, okay, maybe a teeny part of me thought “All the other volunteers for this project are gonna be old people.”
The kid who got paired with me? She’d be excited that I’m young enough to ask questions about pop culture, like if she like Lady Gaga. She’d be impressed that I could even name-drop some favorite things from my own youth that still happen to be part of pop culture now, like My Little Ponies and The Smurfs.
When I wrote back to my new pen pal and addressed the basic questions she’d asked me, I gave her the written version of what I say to all the innocuous conversational questions I get from coworkers and others: I said that while no, my husband and I (who’ve only been married 2 years, despite being in our 30s) don’t have kids, we do have nephews, and that I love being their Auntie more than anything in the world. I talk about how important my nephews are to me, and leave it at that. It’s an honest answer, too.
And, as always, I hoped that this answer –and its subtext– sp0ke for itself.
After all, how do you tell a little kid — especially a little girl, who’s probably been given Disney Princess movies and baby dolls her whole life — that you don’t want any little kids?
Sure, I could have written the truth: “Actually, yes, I am married, but my husband and I don’t have kids because we purposefully choose not to.”
In a kids’ mind, that’s probably like hearing “We think Santa Claus doesn’t exist and that parents shouldn’t lie to their kids about the existence of a Tooth Fairy.”
Or maybe even more like “We believe the Tooth Fairy is evil and deserves to die.”
Aunties Are People, Too (Auntiez R Ppl 2), Right?
It’s not like my own friends and family — and even my little nephews — haven’t asked me if and when I’m going to have kids.
But it’s hard for me to answer. It’s something I’ve been coming to terms with for the past decade or more: that I’m basically happy with who I am, and don’t have an inner longing to give birth or to parent.
But it’s not like I don’t wrestle with it. I see it as thee biggest decision a human being faces in his or her lifetime, and it baffles me when others don’t seem to take it on with the same degree of heft.
Yet, as strongly as I feel that it’s just not my desire to procreate, I still think every day about what this means for my parents, for husband’s parents, for my husband and I in old age.
And even as I’ve finally come to the honest conclusion within myself, I’m still afraid to “out myself” to others, for fear of their judgments – (about my selfish character); their warnings (about my bleak future as a ward of the county nursing home, ending up just like my crabby old fourth- grade pen pal); their comments (about what a mistake I’m making).
So I try to politely skirt the issue as much as possible, and not draw attention to it (despite the fact that, uh, I’m blogging about it here.)
I didn’t think about the degree to which sixth graders read into subtext.
So you can imagine my reaction – something like a chuckle with a tone of resignation– when I got my new pal’s next letter.
boom: the question
“Dear Alison, how are you? …If you did have kids, what would you want to have, and what would you name them (for a girl, and a for a boy?”)
Anybody out there who can relate? Leave me a comment here or on Facebook! You can follow me on Facebook, too, or on Twitter or G+ or any damn place you please. Like, share, let me here ya out there!
Alison McGaughey was raised in Hancock County, IL, home of one single stoplight and one holy site known 'round the world (look it up). As a newspaper columnist, McGaughey interviewed C- and D-list celebrities, investigated the origin of the Rueben sandwich, and unintentionally set off a firestorm of hate mail from Phil Collins fans. Now a writing instructor and adult-literacy advocate, McGaughey lives and works in Iowa. Her work has been published in Creative Nonfiction, Midwestern Gothic, Hippocampus Magazine, and, most recently, in the international anthology What I Couldn't Tell My Mother. She gets super excited when readers send her mail at alison dot sixdegrees @gmail.com.