I’ve been thinking that I’d address this issue one day in the future, but after a chat with my mum just now in which she asked me if I really am OK without children, I think that day is now.
Four years ago, after a string of unsuccessful relationships, and nowhere near my prescribed ideal of having a family, I decided that by the end of the year (my 38th) I would find the father of my two yet to be born children. I needed two, of course, as that was natural and pragmatic, and I needed to start soon because I was nearly forty. My friends gave me advice and support, excited for my imminent motherhood. In April, a lovely man who I met at a community theatre fundraiser – I did the flowers, he was one of the actors – asked me out. By June I was in love. We had the talk about a possible future together which was when we realised I wanted kids and he didn’t. We broke up, I cried for really many more weeks than I expected, and I tried to find the next possible father of my children.
Three lovely (but just not quite right for me) men and two years later, I turned 40. I took myself off to a beach for a week to have a serious look at the choices I’d made so far and the choices ahead of me. I got out a notebook and wrote pages and pages on what I was going to do about becoming a mother at such a late age and why it was so important to get this sorted.
And I discovered that the powerful maternal voice telling me I had to have children was not my own at all. It was made up of all the women, all the church leaders, all the films and books and friends and colleagues who expected it of me. My friends who struggled and yearned and prayed for pregnancies, my mum who had sprung forth a multitude of her own children, my sisters who wanted the best for me, and most powerfully of all, a very strong belief – instilled at a very young age – that my role on this planet was to produce more blessed children for God.
For the first time I identified what I wanted for me, once all the voices and expectations in my head were gone, and I was immensely relieved to realise I didn’t have a need for children, I just had a need to be accepted and approved by everyone around me, tangled up with a desire to fix my own broken childhood by creating a new happy childhood for someone else.
There’s no need to create a whole nother human (and a second one so the first won’t be lonely) just to salve some niggling unmet needs of my own complex broken neurology.
What a huge relief!
I got back from that trip and called up my ex-love and within a week we were back together.
Much as I absolutely loved him, I was worried that I’d been too quick with this sudden change of mind, but over the next three years I have only become more sure.
I know there is immense beauty and love in parenthood, but there is a different array of many more beauties and loves without it. I have time, patience, creativity and compassion for many more people and initiatives in my life than if my whole soul were consumed by two little humans. I am well slept nearly every day, which I am immensely grateful for, and I am not trapped in a lifetime of being held to monthly ransome by a stressful job that demands all my spare hours in exchange for a desperately needed income to support a houseful of dependants.
The biological and hormonal persuasions coursing through the body of a thirty-something year old woman may convince her she has no choice but succumb to the need for some small soft cuddly giggling humans, but it could be argued that there are other deeply manifested biological signals in our body that we consider with a degree of sensible wariness before we obey them. If an advert for insurance makes me cry (you know, that one with the dad dropping his daughter off at uni) then I consider where I am in my cycle, appreciate that around day 23 I’ll cry at anything, and I don’t take those tears seriously. Similarly, if holding my gorgeous little neice when she was a baby sends a surge of maternal longing through me, I can also choose to be fascinated by my body’s neurological programming and not to take a feeling of broodiness too seriously. I’m reading Sapiens right now, so I have a heightened appreciation of the evolutionarily developed tactics of our species to survive, as well as a shocked and ashamed awareness of just how destructive humans have become in our rampant desire to decimate the planet for our own greed.
The overpopulation crisis is unquestionable right now, and while it wasn’t a deciding factor when I let go of my need for kids three years ago, it is fiercely reinforcing my choice now. I saw an interesting diagram recently, which may be exaggerated, but shows the scale of the difference you make to the planet by remaining child-free.
One of the lovely older church ladies said to me recently, ‘Oh I was always so sad for you that you didn’t have a family.’
‘Really, why? I’m not!’
She didn’t believe me. But I did. How glorious to not have the stress, fear and exhaustion of a couple of toddlers right now, as well as the guilt free knowledge of my relatively small carbon footprint.
I understand the magical sheer insane love that mothers experience, I realise I don’t have what my sister has, I don’t know the euphoria of holding a newborn human made from myself and my love, and the daily miracle that is watching them grow, learn and become their unique magical selves, but I’m OK with that. What I also don’t have is a 24/7 responsibility and fear about the health, happiness, educational progress, social development or unbelievably uncertain future of any dependant small humans.
This is a year when I can imagine many people are quietly grateful for their childfreeness. Those who have been stuck in Lockdown with a houseful of youngsters may be reconsidering having another. Those who are beginning to understand the scale of devastation caused by our species on all the others may also be having a rethink. There are enough children, it is not anyone’s duty to add another hungry human to our immensely growing numbers.
So, yes, I really am happy not having children, and without wishing to be hurtful to those who dearly wish they could but remain bereft, I think being childless should be encouraged, celebrated and maybe even rewarded. For those of us that are happy about it anyway. There is no shortage of cultural reinforcement and celebration of pregnancy and childbirth (which I joyfully participate in, complete with the purchase of adorable tiny baby booties and pale blue cuddly toys) but perhaps there should be some similar recognition and reward for the rest of us. For every woman who makes it to forty without reproducing. For every petson making the choice to contribute to a better future for all the new humans still arriving on it, by not adding to their number.
The last point, highlighted this week, is the obvious question of legacy. My burning desire to write a book in the last couple of years can be seen as an substitute means of leaving something meaningful behind. The parallels between writing a book and having a child are obvious (although a nine month period off work to write a book doesn’t qualify you for the same benefits as maternity leave, no matter how much I tried to convince my previous boss that it should), which is why letting go of my need to write it has reminded me of my childlessness. And not because I feel bereft without it, but because there is a similar sort of relief.
It’s so lovely to believe that it’s OK if I don’t have to spend hours and hours every day working tirelessly to create something valuable to contribute to the world. I grew up believing desperately that my purpose was (in a specifically exhausting expensive Korean way) to save the world. Having left the church I grew up in, I had thought that fervent need to work towards having a powerful life-saving impact on all humanity should have dissipated somewhat, but I recognise there’s still bits of it in there, manifesting partly, predictably, in my need to write a book. Instead of saving the entire world, it would just be a single piece of work that would share what I’ve learned and serve as a message of hope and possibility for the handful of people facing similar traumas. But plenty of those books already exist, and while I will probably resume writing it at some point, the urgent pressure to get it done no longer holds such a powerful clutch on my heart, my time and my nerves, and I can breathe easier without it. Which is exactly what I felt about not having kids. There are plenty of children. There is also an abundance of books.
I don’t know what it’s like to have a child, or to desperately want one and not be able to. While I have watched my friends and siblings go through their family journeys, I haven’t directly felt the vast array of emotion and love that comes with it, and I accept that I may have triggered hurt or anger with these thoughts. It’s not my intention, and if I have, I am sorry.
But what I only just realised is that there are people who pity me, who think that because I don’t have the things they want that I must feel a sense of loss or unfulfilment. I really don’t. I’m really fine.
And if you don’t believe that then I’m sorry. But I tell you who I’m not sorry to: