One morning my husband and I are having breakfast in a booth at the coffee shop of the Radisson Hotel in downtown Prince George. I’m nursing our three-month-old baby daughter. Little Jessie has what you might call healthy survival instincts, but not necessarily the daintiest of table manners. I’m trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, but the slurping and sucking sounds coming from our area are like, as my husband likes to say, a couple of wild dingoes devouring a gazelle.
A woman with a blue cardigan sweater, one half of the elderly couple sitting two booths away from us, is clearly appalled by this public display of what she obviously believes should be a private observance. In order to get a better view, the woman cranes her head above the screens separating the booths and favours us with a very disapproving scowl. As they exit the restaurant a few minutes later, she gives me a prim shake of a head and makes a “tch tch” sound. Head bent, her husband follows silently in tow. Shoulders trembling with suppressed laughter, we wait until they’ve left the room before lapsing into hysterics.
Sometimes I think one of the great hidden facts of North American life is that, as a society, we don’t actually like children. We might not mind seeing them dressed up in angel costumes for the Church’s Christmas pageant and that sort of thing — and we like living vicariously through them when they’re collecting scholarships and soccer trophies, but on the whole, we’re a bit put off by their alarming energy levels and their potential for embarrassing unpredictability. When they’re infants, as the above anecdote illustrates, they’re forever calling our attention to the unmentionable facts of food entering into and leaving digestive tracts. Later on, they’re always eating ice cream cones too slowly, so that their hands are perpetually sticky. And they too frequently ask us awkward questions, particularly in public.
Evidence of their existence is found in the most awkward of places. If they’re artwork could be confined to one or two things on the front of the fridge, for instance, it wouldn’t be so bad, but they tend to invade and take over our carefully arranged living spaces, dangerously upsetting our Martha Stewart-inspired Feng Shui. Socially irresponsible parents bring them to restaurants, public parks, libraries, you name it — disruptive agents of aggravation running wild in all the places that we would like to grab a few minutes of peace and quiet away from our busy and oh-so-serious adult pursuits.
I have often wondered what this disdain for children, this hangover from the Victorian children should be seen but not heard ethos says about our culture and civilization. The conclusion that I have come to is that we try to contain and curb the natural traits of children, such as their imagination, tendency to tell the truth, and capacity for spontaneous joy, because we are a bit ashamed of our own lack of these qualities. We, too, were once able to form spontaneous friendships without having to project some sort of carefully constructed image of ourselves. We were capable of laughing and crying without humiliation, of living fully and completely in the moment, and some of us perhaps just don’t want to be reminded of everything that we’ve lost.