real life

"Childless and happy: We're out there."

I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to have kids.

It never occurred to me that maybe it wouldn’t happen, and that I would be child-free forever. But as I ease into my 30s with no partner, no plan and no desire to parent alone, I’ve had to revise my expectations.

Before my 30th birthday I was in a heightened state of panic. I could not stop thinking about what a failure I was. I googled relentlessly about fertility. I felt irrationally jealous when friends told me they were pregnant.  I decided to sign up for online dating sites, then spent a couple of days ghosting around on them and never ever following through.

All of this led me to the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t want kids as much as I always thought I had. If I did, wouldn’t I have tried harder? Gone on any date that came my way? Decided to parent solo?

I just wasn’t prepared to do any of those things. So instead I have spent the past couple of years getting my head around the frankly still a bit terrifying possibility that I might not ever have children.

I hadn’t really come to terms with it at all until last October, when on a holiday with my Dad. We stayed a few days in Italy with friends of his who were happily child-free, and for the first time I saw possibility, not closed doors and missed opportunities in my future.

One night I even told Dad about my fear that I would deprive him of grandchildren, and his reply surprised me.

“I don’t want grandchildren,” he said. “Well, I don’t NOT want grandchildren. I want you to be happy, and if you are always worrying that not having children will mean you disappoint me, well stop it.”

“If it happens,” my Dad said, “it happens.”

And so I began to consider my future differently. I stopped thinking about fertility and finding people to date, and I started asking myself what I wanted to do, and who I wanted to be.

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Childless and happy
My Dad and I.

It has taken me a while, but I am now pretty relaxed about possibly never having kids. I am way too young to rule them out, but I’m also old enough to know that I might one day be too old to keep that particular dream alive.

But this new mindset has brought with it some surprises. Before, when I was desperately pining for a fat bundle of responsibility in human form, I was “normal”.  Now, I’m shifting over into that unpleasant space occupied by women society doesn’t quite know what to do with.

I’m kinda-sorta-deliberately-barren.

And we don’t seem to like single, childless women very much. Having children is the goal, and the messages we are sold are designed to reinforce that.

In her marvellous 2013 essay for the Atlantic, How long can you wait to have a baby?, Jean Twenge looks at all the research into fertility and finds it is sorely lacking. In fact, she writes, a lot of the studies that tell women to get pregnant young or risk not getting pregnant at all are based on very old data.

Twenge argues that the data is past its used-by date, not your ovaries.

That essay was a bit of a lifesaver for me, age 30. It pulled me out of the spiral and allowed me to consider my future with a bit less anxiety attached.

Childless and happy
Julia Gillard and Julie Bishop have both been criticised for not having children.
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It feels like women today are wedged between our own expectations, and society’s. We are told we shouldn’t bank on “having it all“, while our male contemporaries take that for granted. We are told not to leave things too late, or we will regret our careers. We are told that women my age were sold a lie. That feminism has created a wave of desperately unhappy, single, childless women. And if we decide to be childless and ambitious we are told we are cold. Questions are asked about our capacity for compassion. But equally, don’t try and do a serious job while being a grandmother either.

This week, Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm launched an extraordinary attack on people with children. It was remarkable in its vitriol, but it was also remarkable because it was a passionate defence of childless people.

“Thank you for all you do for others. I am sorry that rather than receiving thanks, you are often ignored, pitied, considered strange, or even thought of as irresponsible,” he said in the controversial speech.

Watch the full speech here:

I don’t agree with a lot of what the Senator said. But I can’t think of the last time single, childless Australians got acknowledged as productive and valued members of our society. After all, the most famous thing Peter Costello ever said was a call to procreate.

Single, childless people work hard too. They bear the costs of life alone, without financial or emotional support from a partner or a child. These people are also part of a community. They have friends, parents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters and cousins.

I have been so lucky this year, to watch on as women I’ve known for years have babies for the first time. Each one of those children are special to me, and I revel in their perfectly pudgy little legs, wide eyes and tiny toes. I can’t wait to see them grow; read them stories, tell them tall tales, and share a joke with them at the expense of their parents.

Maybe that will be it for me, maybe it won’t. But I know that I won’t look back on my life and feel an absence of love. And that’s enough for me.

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