It’s Friday last week and I’m accompanying my mother on one of those annual visits to the doctor. I’m thinking about how it used to be the other way round when I was younger - accompaniment was a grown-up enterprise entirely, and the idea of going anywhere at all by myself would mean tumbling into the jaws of the world of strangers and their lairs for lost children. Emerging from my thoughts, I check my wristwatch: we have been sitting in the waiting room for just over an hour, and I, all too rapidly, seem to be running out of patience.
It’s not that I’m not used to waiting, or that there’s some environmental quality to the beige-grey waiting room that makes me physically uncomfortable; rather, I have never been in the presence of so many pregnant women all at once. Bellies bulging like those of malnourished children – nature has a mind of its own – the women have more than simply the obvious in common. On their faces blooms a stifling range of expressions from desperation to rage to queasiness to severe annoyance, and the more I watch them, the build up of carbon dioxide in the room becomes all the more apparent. Some waiting together with whom I assume are their husbands, others nodding off in solitude, the mothers-to-be make up the majority of the waiting room population. My mother appears older to me than ever before, and suddenly my stomach mocks me with a ghost’s kick.
Last month I finished Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. Despite the mixed reviews the novel received, I found it an enjoyable read, and sitting in the waiting room my mind goes to the protagonist. Fiona the perimenopausal judge who never had the time to procreate grapples with marital hiccups (her andropausal husband declares he is going to have an affair with a younger woman because he is unsatisfied with their sex life), and later proselytises a young cancer patient who momentarily sees the light. McEwan fashions a literary universe out of adult themes such as religion, childlessness, medicine and the law, and propriety as presented through Fiona’s perspective. He brings moral obligation in conflict with impulse, with the inner child, and analysing the unyielding presence of the inner child is the keystone to understanding the project of the novel.
As I think back to the book, watching my kinswomen as they gently stroke their own (literal) inner children, I’m struck by the craziness of the whole thing – time, adulthood, aging, childrearing… It is at this point that I realise that some things are truly, uniquely in the eye of the beholder. The individual who undergoes change is often totally unaware of what is going on; time is lost to the one who looks into the mirror each day. Yet, every inch of growth is shockingly apparent to aunts and uncles visited twice a year, though the extra unit of height has essentially no effect in terms of expanding vision. I have this theory that growing up entails a dulling of the senses – diminishing returns to sensation, perhaps. The more you age, stronger tastes like wine, black coffee and spicy food are necessary to make you feel something. I think about the amount of times others have told me: “you’re not a child anymore,” and then my mind wanders to my grandmother, who at 73 tells me her wrinkles are from laughter: her inner child is as animate as they come. She is one of the happiest people I have ever met, and the most important attribute to her personality, more sun-like than sunny, is that she actively creates her own happiness.
The point is not that maturity is affectation. We’re susceptible to biochemistry as much as we’re affected by weather phenomena, and to an extent childhood is, like all good things, impermanent. Still, childhood is a temporal landmark that has permeable boundaries, and how much we are willing to let go of it entirely is an individual decision. In other words, how much we sour depends on how incompatible we think innocent humour is with the quasi-serious business of life. At 20, I don’t seem to feel very different to how I did a few years ago, and it's peculiar to think that my grandma had her first child at 19. How did she manage to hold onto her son's hand with her left and walk, gripping onto the hand of her own childhood with her right? It's strange to be at this artificial gateway, and waiting for my mother’s physician with the prophetic women, I feel closer to them than I do to my childhood. A threatening moment of clarity.
And then I giggle because this entire collection of musings is ineffectual and weird.