I was talking with a 9-year-old the other day about the most riveting of topics – school. In about a year she'll be ready for secondary and she seemed pretty pleased about this, having recently been promoted from primary 4 to 6. She said she would be going to a boarding school. I asked if she liked this and she said, in this odd, adult-sounding way that kids sometimes have, ‘I don’t like it but my mummy said I’m going.’
I went to a boarding school. Did I enjoy it? Well, for the first three years I cried each time I had to go back after a holiday. I remember my mum asking once if I was being abused. So no, I didn’t enjoy boarding school, but I learnt how to do boarding school. In many ways I’m glad for the experience. It has inspired many of the things I write.
A couple of years ago I said to a friend that all my children would attend boarding secondary schools. What he said next was utterly simple, yet it was something I’d for some reason never thought about: ‘why would you want to do that,’ he asked, ‘when you yourself didn’t like boarding school?’ After a moment of stunned silence I finally admitted, somewhat shamefaced, that I’d never looked at it that way. I come from a family of boarding schoolers; it’s my normal. It’s like taking the same route home every day; you never really think about it until you have to. Years before, I’d had a similar conversation with a different friend, saying that boarding schools made children independent. He’d said not necessarily. He didn’t like the idea of boarding schools, said he wouldn’t want his kids living away from home at that age. We agreed to disagree; what did he know about boarding schools, he hadn’t attended one. Me, I knew about boarding schools. I’d attended the same one the whole of my six years in secondary school, and so had all my sisters. We turned out great!
Anyway, all of this got me thinking about the decisions we tend to make with our minds set to Default: big decisions like the careers we get into, the people we marry and when, having children and how we raise them. Sometimes a simple conversation is all it’ll take to cause a shift. Other times we’ll spend years of our lives trying to do the opposite of our normal when we realize that wait, I actually do not have to do life this way.
Having and raising children is one life-altering decision that too many people make by default. For a lot of people it’s not even an active decision: it’s just what people do *shrug*. Having a child means being responsible for a life. Why the enormity of this undertaking doesn’t seem to astound more people is a mystery to me. I know that the thought of raising a child makes me lightheaded with anxiety about the various and spectacular ways I could mess up and scar my offspring for life, the many ways I could fall short as a parent. Maybe the answer is a simple one, that these other people just have more courage than I do. Or more faith? More love?
These days when I think about having or raising children, there are no automatic answers anymore. And I say ‘if’, not ‘when’. Because I asked myself if I really truly wanted to have children, and the answer was not Default-yes.