Sunday 22 October 2017

'Strangers should mind their own business about my child-free status'

Tanya Sweeney
Tanya Sweeney

Tanya Sweeney

It was supposed to be an innocent, throwaway half-hour in the hairdresser’s chair. But when does a pre-wedding blow-dry become the Spanish inquisition? When babies, or lack thereof, are mentioned.

Now, I love a chatty hairstylist as much as the next barnet, but perhaps the rudiments of polite client chat should be covered in training along with the basics of foil highlights. Because things can get boring — and sexist — pretty quickly.

Initially, we talk about the wedding that I am due to attend, and what kind of wedding I might like myself.

“The non-existent kind,” I reply, breezily.

This does not go down well.

“What about babies?” asks the stylist, herself a young mother.

I relay that I don’t have any of those either, and that in my advancing years, I’m not really likely to. I leave out the part about not being overly fond of unpaid labour. Who am I to judge anyone that does decide to have kids, after all?

Well. This revelation goes down about as well as a dog farting constantly in the middle of the room. Saying that you’re choosing not to have children, or even that having children isn’t top of your to-do list, is not really the done thing.

In a 35-minute session, I will hear “each to their own”, “different strokes for different folks” and “well, as long as you’re happy” about a dozen times each. An older aunt of the stylist who made a similar decision — “and she’s grand!” — also gets an honourable mention.

It’s very likely that the hairdresser in question was completely oblivious to the fact that she was making a judgement on my life every time she opened her mouth. That sort of seemingly innocent remark has a loaded subtext: “I am doing things the right way, and you’re not.”

And no matter how many strides we make in modern society, being a mother will always trump the alternative for women. Opting out entirely is… well, a bit suspicious. We are all Poor Jen. Not loved, and if we are in a relationship, not loved enough by someone for them to make a commitment. We are rarely the agents in our own destinies on this one.

Childlessness is always something that has ‘happened’ to us, no matter how many times you say ‘each to their own’.

A small part of me flared in indignation, and wanted to carp on about a bounty of lie-ins, personal freedom, more disposable income, travel. But why bother? It’s not a race. Not a competition.

Pitting a type of life against another doesn’t make one good and the other better. Most people are playing the hand they’re dealt. Why the need to give approval, or otherwise? Why the need to place them in a pecking order?

And, yet, it seems that everyone likes to have their say when it comes to the choices of women. The child-free aren’t the only ones to get a rough ride either. Newly married women (rarely men) have gotten used to the “anything stirrin’?” line of enquiry since they cut their own wedding cake. These people are clearly under the illusion that having children is as easy as having a cup of tea.

And even those with kids end up facing scrutiny: “People who have kids get it too,” noted one friend. “People ask if I have any and when I say yes, they ask how many. Then when I say one, they ask if I’m having anymore and when I say no — they either say you still have time to have more or tell me I’m cruel for having just one. I actually had one woman tell me I should have another one just in case one of my kids dies so that don’t end up childless.”

Another added: “I have three and I’ve heard ‘Jesus, you know what’s causing those pregnancies don’t you’, more than once!”

No matter what, we can’t do right for wrong.

I think my main problem is that it’s somehow acceptable for strangers to ask women about their relationship and maternity status. It highlights a general assumption that marriage and family life are seen as the rightful occupation of ‘good’ women.

And so it goes: the age-old idea that mothers are selfless, beatific beings, while non-mothers are selfish and slightly questionable figures. This tenet has dogged the child-free for years: that our vanity, our desire to let the good times keep rolling and our inability to grow up and toe the line, is what’s stopped us from procreating. And even if you are ‘good’ enough to toe the line and procreate, having more than two or three children is irresponsible; careless even.

With any luck, we’re moving away from this. We’ve started to cotton onto the idea that peering over the fence into another person’s life, curtains a-twitching, doesn’t reflect too well on anyone. It’s safe to say that anyone who is peering too closely at other people’s business find their own lots in life lacking.

Maybe one day, things really will be ‘each to their own’ without us having to say it, over and over, by way of compensation.

In the meantime, another friend has some advice: “I just tell everyone I’m barren,” she declares. “That manages to shut them up.”

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