Where babies come from

The Man Who Loved Children

The following is a selection from the diary of thirteen-year-old Louisa Pollit, one of the more central characters in Christina Stead’s beautiful and heart-breaking novel, The Man Who Loved Children. Her father, Sam, is reading her diary when he finds this observation:

ii. What a strange thing that when a minister or a clerk or a justice of the peace pronounces a few words over a man and a woman a cell begins to develop.”

This caused Sam much consternation and merriment when he finally understood it, though he had given Louie a book, and Henny had given her a talk about marriage, Louie now imagined that marriage was essential to conception and that, provided no powders were administered to the bride and groom (she had made cautious inquiries on this subject–did they eat anything special on their wedding day?), a miraculous or magical event took place during the marriage ceremony. This was confirmed by her reading of various sentimental stories in which, after a hasty wedding, the bridegroom departed leaving the bride at the altar, and yet some months later a baby appeared on the scene.

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children

I include this because this is exactly how I understood procreation when I was a kid. I remember playing with Ken and Barbie and forcing them through a marriage ceremony before they could share a bed and then give birth to a Beanie Baby. Or a My Little Pony, or whatever was on hand. I was positively disgusted when I found out what actually had to happen…

I’ve enjoyed this novel very much, however, as sad as it is. Stead writes with what appears to be terrifying accuracy and honesty. I found out, after doing a little sleuthing, that this novel, widely considered her best, was closely based on her own childhood. All of the characters–essentially just the Pollit family–are so riveting, complex, and pitiful. I haven’t finished the book yet, so I have no idea how it ends, but it’s a long and gripping testament of how deeply parents can screw up their kids. It’s very humbling to read, and it makes me unutterably thankful to have had such sincerely good parents.

One of the moments that caught me particularly this week was a scene in which Louie (Louisa), the eldest Pollit, screams at her father and tells him that he’s a liar and a fool. True observations, but Sam’s self-image is absolutely shattered. Do you remember that moment? That terrifying, maturing moment when you realized that you had the ability to hurt your parents’ feelings? That they weren’t these godlike beings who presided over your life unemotionally? I remember that moment. I think it hits us when we’re perhaps 10 or 11, maybe even younger now. It’s a sad turning point. Stead writes about it well, this pattern we learn of wounding other people.

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