Quick quiz. I don’t have children. I thought I would. But my life is great without them.
Reading this, do you believe me? Or feel sorry for me?
It’s complicated, isn’t it? Because there are times when I’ve lied about how I feel about not having kids. I’ve played the ‘great life’ card, but in my heart have yearned for a child so hard it hurt. And there have been times when I’ve thought ‘thank god I didn’t’, and meant it with every fibre in me.
There are times when I’ve felt happy and fulfilled and I’ve wanted to scream with frustration at friends who have found it impossible to believe me, who’ve offered hopeful, sad nods that haven’t quite masked their pity at my childless, childfree, barren – call it what you will – state. And fair enough – there were times I was lying to them and they were lying right back.
But not every time.
Because there are times – and there are more and more of them these days – when I look at my life and think ‘how good is this?’
I started to think about all this again on the weekend, after reading Stephanie Wood’s beautifully complex piece in The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend. In it, she explores the treatment of women without children in 2016, the dashed expectations, the societal pressures, the sense of exclusion. It made me think. Hard.
If you missed it earlier, my story on life as a childless woman. Bloody tough to write. https://t.co/wtywxbJSRD
— Stephanie Wood (@StephanieAWood1) July 23, 2016
There’s a continuum for women around children. For women who have children, it’s finding the right person, falling pregnant, becoming a mum, perhaps combining work and motherhood, then watching the children leave home and relishing the relative freedom that brings. Then, she might well become become a grandma.
Mine looks different and it isn’t as much discussed. I didn’t even know it existed until I was my 40s, but here it is: a timeline of assumption and priorities and embarrassment and hope. And yes, of desperation.
Assumption that I’d have kids, because when I was growing up every woman had kids – unless they were that most regretable of female states, a spinster.
Priorities that put work and good times first. “She’s a smart one,” my aunt would say. “Why would she want to have kids? She’ll have money and travel and a good job. She won’t have to worry about men and dirty nappies.” And I did all those things and didn’t worry a bit.
Embarrassment as friends married and had babies, first in a dribble, then in a sudden late-20s rush, and I was the odd one out, feigning interest in the minutia of motherhood and feeling that whatever I’d been doing was somehow a bit ‘less’ than the important job of raising a child.
Comedian Jen Kirkman currently has her own hilarious Netflix stand up show about being 40 and child-free. Post continues after video.
I will never have children and, by default, I will never be a grandma.
And yet, I am happy. And for all its peaks and troughs, that’s how it’s been throughout the reproductive rollercoaster that is my personal timeline.
It’s hard to pinpoint what it is about my life now that makes it so good, and to know how much of that relates to not having children. It’s even harder to pinpoint why it’s so hard for people with children to believe me.
It isn’t the stuff everyone quotes – the sleep-ins, the travel, the money that would have been spent on a baby who quickly becomes a child and then a demanding teen. I mean all these things are great, but they hardly push you to the zenith of any life happiness scale, unless the scale you’re using happens to be a pop quiz in a teen mag.
And the research is divided.
Australia’s Wellbeing Index last year found the “golden triangle” of happiness was financial security, a sense of purpose in life, and good personal relationships. Women without children had the same levels of happiness as women with children.
“Parents are more likely to spend time with friends, get the news, be interested in politics, think people are honest, have faith in the economy, be trusting,” Herbst told The Atlantic. “We think that parents remain better attached to society, and we think the linchpin of that attachment is kids.” Post continues after gallery.
The thing is, parenthood isn’t a prequisite to any of those things. Maybe I’m happy because I tick all those boxes – I spend a lot of time with friends, I’m interested in what’s going on in the world and I’m optimistic about people and society.
Happy people are happy people – whether they are rich or poor, able or disabled, educated or not.
I hope that others can shift their thinking.
My friend Ruby Thomas is now 33, and can’t think of a time she wanted kids.
“I’ve become really fascinated by the fact that society tells us that the best thing we’ll ever be is a mother, it’s something that will fulfil us completely and be our greatest achievement, when in actuality that won’t be the case for everyone,” she said.
“There are women who have regretted having children – and that instantly turns them into a monster for even daring to have the thought.”
Others – both mums and women without children – felt judged for their choices, or that really, they hadn’t had a choice at all: motherhood was an expectation. One said she envied me for not having kids.
Shelly Horton talks about her choice to be childless on Mamamia OutLoud.
The saddest response I had was from a colleague and mum whose recently lost a friend to ovarian cancer. A lawyer who worked with cancer sufferers, her friend was 41.
“The first question everyone – and I mean literally everyone – asked was ‘Did she have kids?’
“It made me wonder was her death less sad because she only left behind sisters and brothers and nieces and nephews? Was she less of a person to them because she didn’t have kids? Why was it sadder? She didn’t want them, she was happy.
“You just want to say: why the fuck does that matter? She was important and kind and wonderful – let’s care about her.”
There is a yawning divide between the haves and have nots in any discussion about children. The disconnect is utter – a woman who has had children can never know what it’s like not to have them, by virtue of choice or circumstance or tragedy. And the woman who has never had a child might imagine the maternal state, but can’t experience it.
But for all that, the thoughtful discourse from articles like Stephanie Wood’s gives me hope.
“I want all women with kids to read this,” one comment said. “We can be exclusive and sometimes it can’t be helped, due to the fact that this is it reality, but from now on, I want to remember this article and help me to consider how women feel when faced with a crew of mums. I can now see how it would be daunting. I want to pin this article on my wall.”
Amen to that.
This is what I hope for every young woman: choice without judgement. Difference without condescension. Christmas without all those bloody questions.
And an acknowledgement that a great life comes in all kinds of guises. Sometimes there are kids. Sometimes there aren’t.
Either way, that’s okay.