When I reread A Handmaid’s Tale a few years ago, a couple things struck me. First, the scenes that stayed with me the second time I read the book were different from the ones that did so the first time around. When I read the book during grad school, I focused on the political and religious; when I read it the second time, I focused on the personal. Particularly, the scene that perhaps stood out for me most was when Offred sees her daughter in the distance and can’t rescue her. Second, Offred’s mother resonated much more: the feminist who’d had her only child late in life against the protests of her activist cohort.
Maybe because I’d reread the book after I’d begun wondering whether I should have children—rapidly approaching “advanced maternal age” made that a more urgent decision—the second reading made these things more resonant for me. A Handmaid’s Tale isn’t, I’m sure, the first book you’d think of to bring out pro-natalist feelings in a reader, but we read through whatever filters we have in place at the time.
Now, as I’m preparing for the arrival of my first child, I find that I’m reading with this very much in mind. Blame nesting, baby brain, the need to rearrange my world to accommodate this new and dependent life, and so on: but it’s been an interesting exercise in reading through the filter of expectant parenthood. Here are a few stories that have struck a chord with me in the past few months and years.
Is it fair to have children at all?
Overpopulation, environmental stress, climate change, a bad economy, personal situations, career goals, parental age: as I was tallying up the reasons for and against having a baby, I could find far more cons. There were relatively few pros. But the weight of those pros made their small number irrelevant. The desire to connect to and parent my own children—however they entered my life—outweighed the reasons against adding them to my family.
This desire for connection made, for me, more poignant a moment in Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” wherein Elma regrets her decision not to have children with her husband, Nathaniel. Elma explains:
“Nathaniel and I’d made the decision not to have children. They aren’t conducive to a life in space, you know? I mean there’s the radiation, and the weightlessness, but more it was that I was gone all the time. I couldn’t give up the stars… but I found myself wishing that we hadn’t made that decision. Part of it was wishing that I had some connection to the next generation. More of it was wanting someone to share the burden of decision with me.”
While this may at first look like the clichéd “you should have children in order to have someone to take care of you when you’re older” argument, it actually works against this idea. Rather than wanting a child to take care of ailing and aging Nathaniel—or, conversely, a child to be a mere dependent—Elma wants a two-way connection with a child. The connection, the sharing: that’s the significance here.
What do we do with children once we have them? What about our other obligations?
For those of us who don’t necessarily have to contend with the effects of “radiation and weightlessness” but who do have to answer such questions as “What do I do with the child when we’re I’m at work?” and “What if I’m not the best parent for this child?,” SF gives us yet more to think about.
The Nebula-nominated “Nanny’s Day” by Leah Cypess (in the March 2012 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, PDF available here), poses a question that complicates the parent/child/non-parental caregiver relationship, and what can go well and very amiss in the resulting triad. When everyone has the best intentions of the child at heart, who should legally and morally be the child’s primary caregiver?
The flip side of this question is explored in Debbie Urbanski’s “Re-Homing.” In this story, the birth parents seek out new primary caregivers for their flawed children. The narrator and her husband seek out another child from birth parents dissatisfied with the outcome of the genetic tinkering that created her after losing their last “remaindered child.” Rather than holding these children too closely, as in “Nanny’s Day,” the children in “Re-Homing” are held too loosely.
What happens when children grow up?
Parental worries extend far beyond the newborn phase: I’ve been on the receiving end of advice that says, essentially, “you’ll stop worrying about your child in n years” where n has been 18, 21, and “however many years it is until you’re incapable of rational thought.”
So I’ll end with one last story recommendation: Susan Palwick’s “Windows” from the September 2014 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. The possibility of generation ships means, for some parents, essentially losing children permanently, more or less, or at least their physical presence. Palwick’s story sets the daughter’s journey into space against the son’s imprisonment, leaving the mother to explore the different ways in which she has lost—temporarily and permanently—both her now-adult children.
And for now?
Go on any “preparing for baby” website, and you’ll probably find a detailed hospital packing list. In among the other necessities gleaned from these lists, I’ve packed an ebook reader filled with SF short stories and novels on my to-read list. Though realistically, I probably won’t have time or energy to read much, the stories will be there in case I do. And if all goes as planned, the first bedtime story I’ll read to my new baby will be one that looks to the future.