I was standing in the cereal aisle when I decided I probably shouldn’t have children.
I had, up until that moment, always assumed I wanted kids. I mothered my dollies as a child. In my teens, I decided abortion was not an option I’d ever favour. By my early twenties, I was oddly disappointed whenever a hastily purchased pregnancy test turned up negative and in the last few years, I’ve had a recurrent daydream about cuddling a beatific, compliant, mini-me of a daughter, my understanding of parenthood having been crudely and almost exclusively gleaned from re-runs of The Gilmore Girls. I wanted a girl, always a girl, and whenever I envisaged my future, my little daughter was always present; as a caring, charity-giving baker of cakes who considers puppies relatively pleasant, how could I consider not having children? How could I possibly not want them?
The answer, of course, lies back in the cereal aisle. I had been there for ten minutes by the time my revelation came to me, and I was fretting, pitting the boxes against each other in a nutritional fight to the death. The oaty holes had fewer calories than the honey nut crispy flakes, but their sugar content was at least double that of the shredded wheat dust. I was starting to sweat. As I scoured a box of corn husks for a breakdown of fat content, a voice in my head – a quiet voice, somewhat tentative – said, Stop. I knew I must listen. The voice is a familiar one to me; it is the same one that warns me not to skip meals, it is the one that reassures me that spreading butter on my toast won’t result in instant, irreversible obesity. This poor voice got drowned out entirely for the eighteen months in which my already disordered eating tipped over into anorexia, a condition so nefarious I remain unconvinced I had it, even as I write this sentence.
You don’t need to have a diagnosable eating disorder to suffer from disordered eating. I have been clear of anorexia for over a year now, but my diet is still disorganised, rigid and always at the forefront of my mind. Context is irrelevant; a post-hangover calorie binge with friends holds the same thrill and terror as eating ten grams of breakfast porridge over my fifty-gram allowance. My diet can be obnoxiously healthy, or laden with fat and sugar; whilst I’ll often eat when I’m hungry, sometimes I’ll eat when I’m not. I go through periods of eating nothing but pitta bread and hummus. There was a long spell of eating biscuits with every meal.
I am not alone in my obsession with food. You can’t turn on the TV without catching an episode from what must be the 307th series of Masterchef; over in Books, Ella Woodward’s Deliciously Ella, a paean to clean eating, achieved the highest first week sales for a cookbook – not in 2015, ever. And whilst shows like Masterchef admittedly celebrate food in all its quenelle-d, smoked, water-bathing glory, the unending attention they lavish upon it means that food is an inescapable staple of life, for all of us, all of the time.
At 28, I am fit, happy and healthy, and though my diet isn’t perfect (excessive chocolate and Diet Coke, and I have an alarming capacity for bread), I exercise and drink plenty of water, eat fruit and vegetables and opt to cook over eating processed food. In isolation, who cares if I eat too much corn syrup, or skip lunch? Apart from my mother, that is. Because that’s what a mother’s job is, isn’t it? To fret over their children’s diets and steer them into good habits? This is what hit me so suddenly, as I stood inert in the cereal aisle: if I can’t do it for myself, how the hell will I do it for a child?
It’s not uncertainty that governs my decision to spawn – it’s fear. To be precise, I am scared of having a daughter. Children are incredibly susceptible to their environment; they are little sponges, soaking up speech, behaviour and morality in order to replicate it themselves. Unfortunately, children are also prone to pick up all the neuroses that the adults around them unconsciously communicate. My own mother would be the first to admit she has a turbulent relationship with food. Growing up, I was passively aware that food was bound up with anxiety and somehow related to appearance. Yet how much my mother’s issues are related to my own is hard to say; perfectly healthy mothers have daughters who grow up to develop disorders, just as chaotic eaters raise daughters who show no sign of a complex themselves.
Arguably, then, the solution is not for me to avoid having children, but to sort out my food issues before I try. Opting for childlessness seems like an excessive over-reaction to a problem with a clean and simple solution…right?
Not to my clearly addled mind, no. Which means either I don’t want to sort out my eating, or, more worryingly, I can’t. If we accept that our eating habits are unconsciously garnered from our mothers, and theirs from their mothers before them, then I am fighting against a genetic inheritance that is too vast and too unknowable, that is too ingrained in my sense of self, to try to expunge. The idea that I might pass it on to my perfect fictional daughter weighs heavy on my mind – heavily enough that I am seriously considering not having children at all.
Today, when I picture my future, I try to do so without agenda. Deep down, I know I would like children, but can the love and care I’d give them negate the neuroses I might also pass on? Received wisdom is that there is no right time to have children and undoubtedly, I’m sure nobody ever feels totally prepared. But having a child is such a massive, important undertaking that whatever my circumstance, until I can walk into a supermarket and buy a box of cereal without fear, tears, or at least ten minutes to spare, I know that I need to keep waiting. For the sake of my future children, I’m happy to be patient.