[28 July 2013]
Katrina Onstad’s Everybody Has Everything grapples with the touchy subject of childlessness. Her protagonists, Ana and James, are unable to bear children. After spending thousands of dollars on fertility specialists and consulting foreign adoption agencies, James loses his job in public television, effectively putting the matter on hold. Ana, a research lawyer, earns enough to support them.
James, deeply stung by his unexpected job loss, has only vague plans. He will write a book, perhaps a novel. Meanwhile, he wanders through Toronto, falling into a pattern of seeing friends Sarah and Marcus, where he plays with their toddler son, Finn.
James never tells Ana about these visits. Ana, a deeply inward, controlled woman, never asks what he does with his time. She’s afraid to know, and would prefer spending long hours at her desk, where she can burrow into difficult questions, surfacing with neat solutions. She likes returning to their quiet Victorian on an increasingly upscale street, to a house bought originally with children in mind, now carefully decorated with fragile objects in light colors, a house for two upwardly mobile adults.
Then disaster strikes. Marcus, Sarah, and Finn are in a catastrophic car accident that kills Marcus and leaves Sarah comatose, her recovery uncertain. Finn is unscathed. Long ago, Marcus and Sarah had asked James and Ana if they would be the executors of their estate and guardians of Finn. Marcus is estranged from his family; we never learn why. Sarah’s parents are dead; she is an only child. James and Ana, never suspecting the need would arise, agree. Now a two-year-old child has entered their lives, and it’s as if somebody has run through a restaurant, ripping the tablecloths from under the place settings.
Finn arrives with a social worker in tow, leaving the shell-shocked Ana feeling more intimately scrutinized than during any moment in the fertility clinic. She is repeatedly asked about her long working hours. The fact that James is available to care for Finn full-time doesn’t carry much weight, speaking both to the assumption that a “mother” is always better and the difficulties of balancing work and childcare.
Finn makes a surprisingly easy adjustment. A bright and genial child, he already has a strong bond with James that only strengthens as the two spend more time together. James, for his part, feels “fatherhood” has grounded him. Even as he mourns Marcus and worries about Sarah, his affection for Finn deepens into a love so fierce he cannot imagine the child leaving their home.
Ana’s reaction is viscerally different. Before the accident, she was close friends with Sarah. She was indifferent to Finn and often repulsed by her friend’s disordered, chaotic home. In a telling detail, Ana never took her shoes off at Sarah’s house. Finn’s arrival is nothing less than a bomb dropped into a neatly ordered life that had taken a couple of recent hits: James’s firing, the arrival of early middle age, when heads stop turning and invisibility becomes the norm. And now Finn—making a mess of their formerly tranquil, immaculate space, pulling James into a place where she cannot follow.
Ana lacks James’s intuitive ease with Finn. She doesn’t know how to soothe the child, what to feed him, that the weather now requires a coat. She’s angry, anxious, resentful. Settling Marcus’s affairs and dealing with social service agencies pulls her from work; her superiors are not pleased. Ana realizes that talk of her office being family-friendly is just that: talk. She is unwillingly tossed into a world of Filipina nannies and baby sitters.
James is aware of Ana’s rage, but has no idea how to deal with it. He, too, is trying to cope with the indignities of middle age, but the sight of his bald spot and pot belly drive him to behave badly. Finn’s presence cannot remedy this. James and Ana’s marriage does not wind itself around Finn: it unwinds. The mood at times is of ominous sadness, a cobbled-together family that isn’t working.
In Everybody Has Everything, parenting is not about desire, nurture, or even the primal drive to reproduce. It is a box to check off on a page headed “Successful Adult”, part of a list including a university education, a high-level job, a nice home, good food, fine wines, expensive garments, and a European car. All bespeak modern Western affluence and propriety; to be missing one—here, the child—is a mark of failure, setting the childless apart. James is able to find a way around this, but Ana cannot.
What is striking even now, as old mores crumble and we continue (hopefully) to open ourselves to alternative family structures, is that childbearing, or at least “having” a child, either biologically, via surrogacy, or adoption, remains inviolate. And even admitting to yourself that you don’t want a child, that your true interests reside elsewhere, fails, at least here, to ameliorate guilt.