I have three musically gifted children. At least, that’s what I told the lady sitting behind me at an orchestra performance I recently attended. I went with my friend and her 3-year-old, and we were bopping along to the music in our seats. After a series of pointed huffs and sighs, a stern-looking woman tapped me on my shoulder. “Is that any way to teach a child how to behave at the symphony?” she said.
“It’s a family concert,” I replied.
“Well I have two children …” she started to lecture.
“I have three, and they all play the cello,” I countered.
That shut her up.
As it turns out, I don’t have any kids at all. I used to explain my reasons. “I like children,” I’d say, “but I like sleeping in more.” Now I just lie. In certain situations, being a 36-year-old women with kids is a lot easier for some people to comprehend than my actual life.
Especially when I’m overseas, which is where this lie was born. I was in Indonesia, where asking about someone’s kids is standard small talk, like mentioning the weather. But if you say you don’t have any — well, one cabdriver acted like I’d just told him I had terminal cancer.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, his forehead creasing with concern.
“No, no it’s fine,” I said, trying to comfort him. “Look how much I get to travel.”
The next person to ask was a man in a market.
“I have a daughter,” I said. “She’s 8.”
“And you left her at home?”
He looked worried, and rightfully so. There I was, gallivanting around Asia while my little girl is a half a world away, scared and alone.
“She’s with her grandparents,” I said defensively. “She loves staying with them.”
Since even pretend moms face the judgement of random strangers, I decided that my daughter should be a bit older.
“I just dropped her off at Smith College,” I told another cabdriver, naming the school where I went because I couldn’t think of any others on the fly. “We’re so proud of her. She’s all grown up,” I added, tearing up a little.
“Just one daughter?” he said. “No sons?”
He was right. It was time to expand my family. For the rest of the trip, I had three kids, though their ages and genders varied. I borrowed names and details from my friends’ progeny. Emma, 7, loves to swim and thinks she is a mermaid. Ethan, 12, is having trouble paying attention in school.
“They want to put him on Ritalin, but I think he just has a lot of energy,” I said. “Kids need to get outside and play, you know?” The man checking us out of the hotel nodded in agreement.
My boyfriend, characteristically silent during these exchanges, finally attempted to rein me in.
“It’s time for you to settle down,” he said, as we drove to the airport. “Pick a family and stick with it.”
Back in America, I don’t get to trot out my pretend children as often. But when I find myself at an elementary school talent show, for instance, they come in handy.
“Brent is such a good school, don’t you think,” said the woman next to me.
“The teachers here are wonderful,” I added, as if I had any idea.
I understand why people mistake me for a mom. I’m the right age, often in the right places, and my clothes are frequently covered in food stains. It helps that, having been to many baby showers, I’ve picked up the language.
“Sleep training is so hard,” I told a new mother at a Christmas party last weekend.
“The baby Bjorn gives you more support, but the Ergo is so much easier to use,” I later advised an expectant mom.
You may think being a pretend parent is the easy way out, but let me tell you, it’s not. Between all the cello recitals and unicorn-riding lessons, I hardly know which way is up. Don’t get me wrong, though. I wouldn’t trade my imaginary children for anything in the world. Especially real ones.
This story first ran in the Washington Post’s Solo-ish column.