“I love children, but I don’t want a whole one.”
Journalist and television presenter Shelly Horton stepped up to the podium at the Family Planning: The Next Generation Conference at Sheraton on the Park in Sydney yesterday.
“I’m 43 years old and child-free by choice,” she continued.
Horton was giving a talk on ‘Choosing not to have children’. She explained how being “child-free” is completely different to being “childless”.
Childless women, Horton says, are the women who would love to have children, are desperate to have children, but who are not in a position to do so. Maybe because of relationship issues or fertility problems. Being childless is very different to being child-free.
Being child-free is to have an “intentionally barren uterus”, as Horton put it. It’s about making the decision not to have children because, quite simply, you don’t want them.
It’s a choice that women should be free to make. A choice that is just as valid as the choice to have children. But it’s a choice, Horton says, that is too often met with judgement or suspicion or pity.
“When people ask me ‘Why don’t you have kids?’ I often turn it back on them and say ‘Well why do you have kids?’,” Horton said. “They often explain it was ‘just something they always knew they wanted to do’. I say the exact same thing: ‘Having kids was something I always knew I didn’t want to do’.”
Horton never felt maternal. She's not 'clucky', has never much enjoyed holding babies. She's known for a long time that she doesn't want kids, but confidence in this decision is something she's had to work hard to find. It did not come easily.
"I was convinced there was something wrong with me," Horton said. "I went to a counsellor asking 'Have I been sexually abused?' 'Do I have repressed memories that are stopping me wanting children?' He just looked at me, he was straight down the line, and said 'No, there is nothing wrong with you. You had an idyllic childhood. You don't have any repressed memories. You are fine'."
And that, right there, is the issue.
Choosing to live child-free is not a decision that is easily accepted. It's met with raised eyebrows from mothers in the park or long pauses from men around a dinner table. The pauses are there, waiting to be filled with an explanation, a reason. Because "there has to be a reason, right? You can't just not want children?"
"Before I 'came out' and told people I didn't want kids, I used to say 'I've got fertility issues'," Horton said. "It's easier because it makes everyone else feel better, more comfortable. It would lead to further questions though, and it just ended up being stressful."
"My decision did not sit well with me for a long time," she continued. "That's why I went to a counsellor. I had been questioning myself, challenging myself, for so long."
While she was challenging herself, others were also - and still are - challenging her.
Horton has been called selfish: "I have to reassure people I do have compassion. I tell them I do charity work, donate blood, mentor young journalists," Horton said. "My decision disappoints people and I don't like that."
She's been talked to about fulfilment: "But I love my life. My job is extremely fulfilling. I have a really loving husband. I've travelled to 50 different countries and I want to travel more."
She's been told that kids are the most important thing in life: "Having my own chat show is the most important thing in my life."
She's been looked at with pity. Told that she will change her mind. "If I went up to a woman who is eight months pregnant and told her 'Don't worry, you'll change your mind', how do you think she'd react? Why is it okay to tell me the same thing?"
She's been told she mustn't be a real woman. That all women want children. "That stung," Horton said.
Her husband doesn't receive the same hate. "The only person who's asked him about not having children is his mother and she accepted his answer straight away," Horton said. "It always weighs heavier on women."
Abuse and criticism and questions about her womanhood aside, choosing to live child-free does come with doubts, Horton admits. "Part of me is worried; what if I'm lonely when I'm older?"
But it's a choice she has carefully, extremely carefully, considered. "I've thought about it a lot more than many mothers of accidental pregnancies have thought about their decision. Both are life-long commitments."
And, most importantly, it's a choice Horton wants recognised. Not questioned or judged or met with a pause. Just accepted the same way as the choice to have children is accepted.
"There is a huge lack of understanding around the decision not to have children, and that is why we need to talk about it more," she said. "The more we talk about this, the less judgement there will be. We've got to be pro-choice, but pro everyone's choice. We need to celebrate all women and all women's decisions. There needs to be less judgement and a lot more love."