I have just returned from the land of many babies, where I heard so many childless “bingos,” I need a new card. “Bingos,” if you haven’t heard, are the clueless comments people make about childlessness. If you’d like a good list of the typical ones, visit https://bingobaker.com/view/496736, where you will find a full bingo card of remarks such as “Don’t you like kids?” “Who will take care of you when you’re old?” and “Children are a woman’s greatest achievement.” We have heard a few of those, right?
Last weekend, I was in San Jose, California, for the Dia de Portugal festival, the first one since the pandemic began. I was there to see friends and family and sell books. It was incredibly hot, noisy, and crowded. The most popular booths were the ones selling beer and water.
At my table in the Portuguese authors section, I spread out my books: two on Portuguese Americans, two books of poetry, and my two books about childlessness, Childless by Marriage and Love or Children: When You Can’t Have Both.
People walked by. Some paused to flip through the pages of my Portuguese books, then walked on. Some bought copies. Some said, “Oh, I have that book. It’s good.”
We traded a few words in my limited Portuguese. “Bom dia” (Good day), “Obrigada” (Thank you), “Faz calor.” (It’s hot). A parade circled the plaza at the History Park San Jose where the festival was held. Singers sang, and folkloric dancers in red, green and yellow costumes danced. People passed by wearing the Portuguese flag design on shirts, scarves, hats, and even Covid masks. I said hello to Portuguese people I hadn’t seen in years.
Here’s the thing. I knew it was a Portuguese festival and most interest would be in the Portuguese books, but I didn’t expect some of the reactions I got to my childless books. Most who looked at them didn’t understand the concept of being childless by marriage. When I tried to explain, a woman early on responded, “Well, that’s no problem. You just adopt.”
“It’s not that easy,” I began, but she was gone.
A couple of the men snickered at my Love or Children title. “I choose love,” said one well into his beer ration. “Children?” He made a disgusted face.
The younger women all seemed to have children and/or be pregnant. The woman sharing my table, Higina da Guia, a nice writer originally from the Portuguese island of Madeira, was selling children’s books. Most of the books were bilingual, in Portuguese and English, intended for parents wanting to teach their little ones whichever language they didn’t know. Swell. But time after time, a woman would be looking at my books, and then her husband or friend would nudge her to look at the children’s books. They totally forgot about my grownup books.
I should note they showed no interest in my poetry either. Oh well. When I try to sell my Portuguese books in Oregon, people pass right by them. It’s all about context.
Higina’s daughter and granddaughter joined her. I watched as Higina wrapped the little girl in a red, white and black costume from Madeira. She was so excited to see the little girl in the skirt and vest passed through the generations of her family. “She will remember this forever,” she told me as the child posed for pictures. It was sweet, but it made me sad. I will never get to do that.
My brother came with his daughter and granddaughter, my niece and great-niece. I was so glad to see them and to have the validation of family sitting with me for a while. I love being Aunt Sue. It’s not the same as being a mom, but it helps. I don’t see them often enough. I shed a few tears when they left.
Helping me in my booth was my sister-friend Pat, a mother and grandmother whose claims to anything Portuguese are that she grew up in Massachusetts with lots of Portuguese people and that she once dated a Portuguese guy. She had a great time talking to everyone and people-watching. I noticed she reacts to children the way I react to dogs, as if they are magic and she has a special connection with them. It’s one of many things I love about her.
But I learned a lesson. When I take my childlessness and my childless books out into the world, I can expect many bingos, especially in an old-country culture where not having children does not seem to be a “thing.”
Living in a retirement community where I don’t see many kids, I forget how it might be for you where you live, especially if you’re at an age where your friends and family are busy with babies and growing children.
Where do you hear the most bingos? Is there a situation where it’s especially hard to not have children? Let’s talk about it. I welcome your comments.