Saturday 19 October 2019

'Life without children can be rewarding' - Christina Patterson talks embracing life without kids on World Childless Week

Whether by choice or circumstance, childlessness is on the rise in Ireland. In World Childless Week, author Christina Patterson shares how she came to embrace life without kids

Fulfilled: Christina Patterson enjoys a full and rich life without kids
Fulfilled: Christina Patterson enjoys a full and rich life without kids

Christina Patterson

When my friend Lisa told me she was pregnant, I tried to smile, but what came out was a howl. I was mortified. Lisa is one of my dearest friends. I knew she wanted a baby and I was pleased for her. Or at least I wanted to be pleased for her. Instead I just slumped on the sofa and sobbed until I felt I had no tears left.

We were both 40 and aware of the ticking clock. As colleagues for five years, we had swapped tales of hope, heartbreak and whirlwind romances with handsome charmers who vanished as soon as they'd hooked us in. Sometimes, we cried with laughter as we tried, over Chilean chardonnay in the bar around the corner from the office, to trump each other's disastrous dates. There was, for example, the man with buck teeth who called me an expletive in front of the entire restaurant and left me to pay the bill. There was the man who told me, just after I'd cooked him boeuf bourguignon and chocolate mousse, that he hadn't had the "coup de foudre", and who I then had to drop off at the Tube.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

Lisa and I weren't just colleagues, we were sisters in arms in the battle to find that thing that seemed so easy to nearly all our friends, but which felt to me like climbing Everest: a man to love and be a father to my children. It was what I'd wanted since I was a teenager, the thing I thought would just happen, but which, as the years ticked by, was starting to feel about as likely as winning the Nobel Prize. Now Lisa was on her way to finding both. And I, yet again, was left behind.

Over the years, I'd had plenty of practice smiling when friends have told me that they've met someone wonderful, or got engaged, or are pregnant. I've smiled as I've held their babies and stroked their soft, plump cheeks. I've sometimes thought of that Gore Vidal quote that "whenever a friend succeeds a little, something in me dies". But I've smiled anyway. I was brought up to be polite and to believe that happiness isn't a zero sum game. The night Lisa told me she was pregnant I cracked because I'd had a tough year. Six weeks after starting a new job, and two months after splitting up with the latest short-lived boyfriend, I'd found a lump in my breast. Two operations and five weeks of radiotherapy later, I was fresh out of polite smiles.

It wasn't the cancer that stopped me having children. What stopped me having children was that I didn't meet a man in time. I was already starting to worry by my late 20s, when my few remaining single friends were beginning to pair off. I tried to make light of it. "Growing Panic at Grosvenor Park as Christina hits 30" I put on the invitation to my 30th birthday party and, underneath the words, I added a skull and crossbones. But as I went to yet more weddings alone, and brought yet more baby grows and fluffy rabbits to flushed friends in hospital beds, I began to feel that I was stuck on the other side of a giant chasm.

I never felt the burning biological urge that drove a couple of my friends into the arms and beds of deeply unpleasant men, in the hope of harvesting their sperm. I always had interesting work, a packed diary and a wide circle of friends. I didn't lie awake at night thinking that what I really wanted was to potty-train a toddler, trick a child into eating broccoli or yell at it to tidy its room. What I wanted was to feel normal. What I wanted was not to feel like a freak.

I was once thrown out of a café for being childless, or at least that's what it felt like at the time. I had spent a fiver on a coffee and a croissant. I thought it had bought me a good hour of reading the paper but, as soon as I'd gulped down the last flake of pastry, a man brought me the bill. When I said I wasn't quite ready to go, he told me that the table was "reserved". All around me were women with buggies. Two were glowering at me as they hovered at my table. On a better day, I would have smiled briskly and ordered another coffee, but on that day I marched out with my cheeks burning red.

On days like that, I felt a bit like an Anita Brookner heroine, pushed to the margins of other people's lives. That's sometimes how I felt at work, as colleagues who were parents bagged the prime holiday slots or dashed off to pick up their darlings as I snatched yet another dinner at my desk. It's how I sometimes felt when, after a packed week, I faced an empty weekend. If you're single and childless, you're the weekday evening entertainment. Weekends are for families. Christmases are for families. I've had an awful lot of Christmases sleeping in my childhood bed.

Society is structured around families. If you don't have one, politicians don't even want your vote. Policies are made to appeal to "hardworking families". And if you're a "hardworking" woman who has always paid her mortgage, her taxes and her dues to society? Well, then, you're either a sad mouse who can't catch a man or a ball-breaking "career girl" who's too selfish and power-crazed to do the thing she was born to do.

Even fame doesn't save you. Andrea Leadsom managed to combine both pity and superiority in that now infamous interview during the 2016 Tory leadership contest. While saying that she thought Theresa May would be "really sad" not to have children, she also implied that only she, as a mother, had "a very real stake" in the future of the country. Jon Hamm and Ricky Gervais are never described as "childless". It's only women who are defined by whether or not they have been able, or chosen, to procreate.

None of this helps, when you're caught in the limbo of not knowing which way your body and life will go. Uncertainty, as the whole country now knows, is very hard to deal with. But when your body tells you that the door has now closed, there's a pang of sadness and then a sense of liberation. Right. That's that, then. What next?

For me, the "what's next?" has been full of riches. At 55, I'm now in a very happy relationship. I do interesting work and have wonderful friends. Children, as I now know from seeing my friends' children grow up, are a blessing, but they're a mixed blessing. They bring joy and they bring pain. I'm sure some of my friends with children will have known the kind of joy I'll never know, but they'll never know the kind of joy my freedom has sometimes brought me.

One of the many good things about getting older is the sense of perspective time can bring. I wish I hadn't wasted so much of mine in worrying about the things I didn't have. I had a rich, full life then and I have a rich, full life now. About a fifth of us will never have children, and that figure is going up. World Childless Week, this week, raises awareness of people who are childless not through choice and which helps them find support and community. I've learnt that a life without children is not a lesser life. It would be nice if our society and media could grasp this, too.

Christina Patterson is the author of The Art of Not Falling Apart (Atlantic)

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life