My youngest is a three year-old, golden-haired cherub. She goes to a nursery near to where I live and from which I sometimes go with her dad to collect her at the end of the day, and where she and her little friends cluster round me and pull at my clerical collar. When she first sees me, there is that momentary quizzical, processing face which dissolves into a smile of unalloyed pleasure. Her parents are kind, intelligent and sociable people, both in good jobs, and she is their only child. She seems, to their eyes as well as mine, to be the happiest child in the entire world. Was she, pace Paul Simon, simply born at the right time?
Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time.
Listen here: Paul Simon - Born at the Right Time
Yet the timing of her birth, indeed the fact of it, was a matter of anxiety. She was conceived by IVF only after her mum had undergone what seemed like endless courses of intrusive investigation and treatment, and after a number of unsuccessful attempts. Even when conceived and returned to the womb, there were many weeks of uncertainty before it was clear that a child would indeed be born. When she arrived, she felt like both a miraculous gift and a reward to her parents for the months of stress and pain they had undergone.
And yet they are preparing to go through it all again. In their situation, I'm not at all sure I would have the strength. They've made the journey before and they know the road that lies ahead. They know it could be hard and may end in disappointment. Yet such is their desire, their need, for another child that they've already taken the first steps.
I'm not one of those who believes that having children is a human right. I've always understood that they are a gift from God which comes to some and not to others. I find myself wanting to say to tearful couples who cannot have children that this state is not the end of the world: because of their childlessness, other possibilites will present themselves, and other gifts will be given. I feel this to have been true in my own life. I would like to have had children - very much, actually - but I haven't; and God has found other uses for my time, energies and affections.
But I'm also aware that the desire to reproduce is primal and extremely powerful. I reflect that, like the sex-drive itself, it is not something that humanity has invented for itself: it, too, has been given to us, installed and instilled within us, and most of us cannot be deaf to its call. For that reason, I can understand those who go through so much to have children who do not arrive in the natural course of events. They are, to some extent, just responding to their programming. And that's profoundly human.
Photo courtesy of Paul McRae (Delta Niner)