Bringing Up Me

New York Times Magazine/September 26, 2004
By Tim Guest


Six months ago, my girlfriend and I decided to look for a house. As expeditions go, this was an arduous, some would say crazy, undertaking, since over the last 10 years London real estate, already among the world's most expensive, has tripled in value. Still, because we're both writers, dreamers by definition, we pooled our resources and entered the scrabbling mud fight. Two months ago, miraculously, we found a Victorian terraced house in the run-down borough of Hackney, with a garden and three bedrooms, looking out over a greensward the locals call a conservation area. We fought tooth and nail against another buyer, until our offer was accepted. Then, last week, two weeks before we would own it, there was a hitch. Over a cup of Earl Grey tea, my girlfriend sweetly told me that she wanted kids.

We've been together five years. My girlfriend, who comes from a large family, has wanted children the whole time. When she has raised the issue, my answer has always been the same. I carefully put my tea down and reminded her of my position. ''I'm not ready. I can't say when I will feel ready.'' This time, though, she pressed the point. She's five years older than me, approaching the age when childbearing might become difficult. In fact, she said, if we weren't going to have kids in the next year, she didn't want to buy the house at all.

''I can't have kids until I feel ready,'' I said. In my mind, it was simply a careful weighing of the commitment it takes.

''What is your worst fear?'' she asked.

''That they will feel unwanted,'' I said. Then, unexpectedly, I broke down in tears.

When I was 4, my mother became a disciple of the notorious Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. She took a Sanskrit name, dyed her clothes orange and began to do loud meditations in our living room. Soon she left me with my father -- they already lived apart -- and flew off to the guru's ashram in India. She replied to my shaky letters with variations on the same answer: ''I'll be home soon.'' When she claimed me back from my dad, she dyed my clothes orange too. For the next seven years, I bounced around the world behind her, living in Bhagwan's communes in India, England, Germany and Oregon. Bhagwan invented radically new ''dynamic'' meditations and therapies; he took nitrous oxide and spoke from a dentist's chair; he encouraged his disciples to surrender totally to him and to live their lives to the extreme. For my mother, on a rocket-ship rebellion from her strict Catholic girlhood, Bhagwan offered everything she had long hoped for: the path to enlightenment but with free love, drugs and rock 'n' roll thrown in.

For the children -- at least, for me -- Bhagwan's communes were a different proposition. As each adult struggled to prove himself or herself the most egoless, we competed to show who had the best break-dance moves. As they abandoned the consumerist dream, we fought over Legos and ''E.T.'' toys. Intent on building spiritual togetherness as a model for the world, my mother and her friends ignored some of the more practical needs of the children under their feet -- forgetting, for example, to take us to the dentist or to clip our fingernails.

While we lived in communes, my father went to live in California. Even our guru, Bhagwan, was present only in his absence: in six-foot-tall photos on the walls or in the lockets around our necks. At age 10, having had enough of feeling lonely in a house full of people, I asked to go back to my father. I left the English commune where I had ended up and boarded a plane alone; my mother was staying in a commune in Germany by then. Over time, my family's abandonments accrued into a sorrow that I struggled with for years after.

When I was born, my mother swore she would never let her child suffer the way she had: she felt that her Catholic childhood had crushed her.

She gave me what she had longed for. She let me run free. At some point, I made a similar vow to not inflict the particular agony I knew -- of abandonment and absence -- on my children. Even if that meant not having kids at all.

I wrote a book about the commune to claim my own inheritance of sorrow.

Now, having found some forgiveness for my parents, I thought I had moved on. But my calm refusal to have children was more than just a sensible reticence. It wasn't that I didn't want children; I just didn't want my children to suffer.

We're going ahead with the house. I've told my girlfriend that I'm still uncertain. But I'm beginning to feel that maybe it's time to leave my own childhood behind. The longing not to hurt my children now feels a bit like the longing to stay young myself, to remain a child until I can fix what went wrong. Maybe it's time to let go of my grievances, to grow up, to give some new little person a chance to be young. Plus, if I let a house like this slip through my fingers, my kids would never forgive me.

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