The Splat Life

Who remembers that wonderful scene from The Wrong Trousers, where poor Gromit finds himself chasing an evil penguin atop a runaway model train? The train is whizzing out of control, and he can't get off, slow down, or change course. In desperation, Gromit snatches a box of spare tracks and frantically lays them on the floor ahead, just split seconds before the train he's on thunders over them. (If you can't see the video, click here.)

This is more or less what it's like to raise a child. Yes, you have to work frantically to stay ahead of that train; but no, you're not exactly in control.

It's terrifying, and distressing, and agonizing -- and also somewhat liberating, if liberation is what we choose. When we realize how little control we have over our children's lives, we have the choice of either pretending we can control them (which will ruin their lives and ours), or we can let the burden of control be lifted from us, and realize that it's our job to try as hard as we can -- not necessarily our job to succeed.

And it's certainly not our right to have things turn out the way we want. This is true when we're talking about raising kids, and when we're talking about life in general. This lesson, Jayne Corwell, the mother of three boys and a girl, appears not to have learned. 

She says that she was disappointed when she first gave birth to a boy, because she had wanted a girl, and then "sobbed with disappointment" when the ultrasounds revealed that her second and third children were also boys.

Lady, I feel for you. Eight girls here. I never sobbed or even wanted to, but I have felt a shadow of disappointment when the ultrasound tech says "girl" one more time.  It's been hard, the last few times, to come home and tell the kids that the little brother they wanted to badly didn't materialize. It's not a bad thing to hope for something, and it's only human to be unhappy when we don't get what we want. Our next move, after we hear "girl," is always to start thinking about pretty girl names, and start reminiscing about how much fun it is to have another little lovely tyrant queen kitten baby in the house. And before you know it, we're all happily looking forward to welcoming the girl that our baby has always been.

But that initial disappointment? Yeah, I understand that.

But what Cornwill did next is harder to excuse. After she learned that her third child was a boy, her "gender disappointment" became so "crippling," that, she says, "My desire for a daughter caused me to spiral into depression and left me virtually housebound. Every time I went out, toddlers in pink seemed to taunt me." She says, "It's hard to explain the heartbreak of 'gender disappointment' and how it can consume you. Every gift - every blue babygrow and toy car - was a reminder of the fact my life wasn't going the way I planned."

This would have been the time to seek therapy, to find a counselor who could take her hand and guide her through this emotional tangle that was preventing her from enjoying her family and her life -- preventing her from learning to live with the fact that no one's life goes as planned.

Instead, she says, she and her husband

travelled from our home in Mount Barker, South Australia, to California to have gender-selection treatment  ... The process involves harvesting a woman's eggs, injecting each one individually with sperm, then growing the embryo from a single cell to around 130 cells, at which point it's possible to tell whether the chromosomes are XX or XY. Only embryos of the desired sex are transferred to the uterus.

In other words, she and her husband allowed a laboratory to create a bunch of children for them, threw out the males, inserted the females into womb, and then waited for one to stick. It was, she argues with a logic consistent with the age, just another facet of "reproductive freedom."

There are ten thousand ugly and disturbing things about this story, so it's hard to know where to start.

I hate the idea of this woman's sons reading of her anguish at learning that they were male.
I hate the idea of this woman's daughter knowing that she had damn well better enjoy wearing pink and ruffles to fulfill her mother's lifelong desires, or else she'll be just as much of a life-ruiner as her brothers were.
I hate the idea of how many embryonic sons became medical waste when their poor little chromosomes were weighed and found wanting.
And I hate the idea that doctors were willing to take her money to indulge her desire, rather than explaining that "gender disappointment" is something that lots of people experience -- but that when it becomes a crippling obsession, it should be considered a disorder to be treated, not a legitimate demand for relief.

There are so many things that someone should have told this woman:

Someone should have told her that children are people, and that no person exists merely to satisfy the needs of someone else.

Someone should have told her that one of our main functions as parents is to make sure kids know that it is good that they are here, and that it is good that they are who they are.

And someone should have told her nobody really gets to control how their lives turn out. Nobody.

We can lay that track as fast as we can, but eventually, everyone runs out of space and goes splat against a wall. In the Wallace and Gromit cartoon, it all works out neatly after the splat: the evil penguin lands tidily in a milk bottle, so he can be transported to a penal zoo where he belongs. All is well again.

But in real life? We will go splat, we have two choices: we can keep on shelling out money, keep on twisting our families into knots, keep on fighting for what we imagine we deserve, keep on wounding the people around us as we ignore who they are in favor of who we wish they could be. If this is the course we choose, we will keep on being disappointed, because when we chase our desires, we always lose in the end. Always.

Or, we can let that splat clear our heads. We can sit up, look around, and realize that the Splat Life is actually pretty good -- full of things we didn't want, but also full of things we never realized we wanted, and full of things we never realized we needed. This is true for disappointed parents, but just as true for everybody. The splat life is where we are. What we learn from the splat is up to us.