Tuesday 21 August 2018

Why is it so hard to accept that I don't want to have children?

As a new book reignites the child-free debate, our journalist asks why we don't believe women who say they don't want kids

Vicki Notaro
Vicki Notaro
Just kidding: Naomi Watts in 'While We're Young' plays a married woman whose childlessness is giving her pause for thought
Vicki Notaro
Vicki Notaro

Vicki Notaro

I've never wanted to have children. Other women I know have wanted them since they were baby doll-toting toddlers, sure in their hearts and minds from childhood that they wanted babies of their own when they grew up.

I remember one acquaintance being terrified of visiting the gynaecologist when we were younger, in case they told her something was wrong and she wouldn't be able to reproduce.

She was crying at the mere thought of it, so strong was her desire to be a mother one day. I thought it was an extreme reaction at the time because as far as she knew, she was in perfect reproductive health and there was nothing to worry about.

But it sort of shook me, and made me realise how "different" I was. I kept largely schtum on the matter after that, quietly waiting for the desire to be a mother to strike me. After all, doesn't every woman want babies at some point?

Well, that's what I've been led to believe, by the media, by pop culture, by other people. That one day, possibly out of the blue, the longing to procreate will hit me like a ton of bricks.

But that's not true for everyone. This week, childless by choice women are making headlines. The publication of US data that revealed that more women are childless now than ever before coincided serendipitously with a new book edited by Megan Daub, artfully titled Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: 16 Writers On the Decision Not To Have Kids.

Featuring both men and women, it discusses how it is in fact a choice to have children or not, and why we shouldn't have to justify ourselves to others - our choice has no bearing on other people's, and nobody is taking aim at parenthood, just saying it's not for us, personally.

It's a timely publication; as it hit the bookstands, cinemagoers were laughing at Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts in While We're Young, a childless couple apparently doomed to an unfulfilling life of keeping up with their hipster neighbours.

Daub's book has reignited debate about the decision not to have children, and it's even been accused of promoting a child-free existence. But to me, that's not the case. It's simply aiming to de-stigmatise not wanting to have children on a personal level and promoting a level of acceptance and tolerance towards childless by choice couples.

At the same time as Daub's book was making headlines, online an essay by Sabine Heinlein went viral. Entitled The Answer Is Never, it's about her frustration at people simply not believing she never wants kids, and worrying about her life choices - as if they're not hers to make.

Look, it's human nature to judge others, even with concern. I worry about others who I think are with the wrong person, having kids for the wrong reasons, and allowing their job to eat them up inside, but it's not my place to tell them so unless I'm asked.

So why is an empty womb and child-free existence fair game? It's concern-trolling at the highest level.

Heinlein explores who birth rates are continuing to fall in the States, and the growing inclination of highly-educated women to opt out of reproduction altogether.

Almost half of US women - 47.6pc - between the ages of 15 and 44 are now childless, a steady year on year increase. The Pew Research Center found that 6pc of women in the 40-44 age bracket say they are childless by choice.

Closer to home, Irish women have the third-highest rate of childlessness in the developed world, at 18.4pc, according to a 2014 study by the OECD, but that also takes into account couples who do really want children but are struggling to have them - something which I irrationally feel guilty about.

My choices don't have anything to do with that, but it's horribly unfair that some people who want their own children very badly face difficulties.

Friends tell me that my biological clock is in there somewhere, just dormant. It will spring into action some day and my body will demand I have children, superseding my mind.

They don't understand why I find this a terrifying thought - that my hormones could override how I've felt my entire life, and insist that I either have babies or be left desolate and filled with regret.

Luckily, I don't believe in biological clocks. Yet I'm still the odd one out. I still have to justify my choices to others because wanting and having kids is the norm.

Because I'm still of child-bearing age, others smirk and tell me that I'll change my mind someday, often with a knowing smile that I find infuriating. I'm now 29, and I feel the exact same way about having children as I did when I was 7, 13, 19 and 25. I don't want any of my own.

I'm with the love of my life, which many expected to change my mind, but it hasn't. He feels the same way. This isn't just a phase, it's just how it is.

But it seems that not wanting to have kids is becoming more normal, and less something to be scrutinised and justified.

I found the fact that there's no US data for younger childless by choice women interesting, as if you can only be certain about such a thing once you've left your thirties.

The thing with fertility is that it's fleeting, and we only get so many child-bearing years. There's a sense of "get it now, before it's gone!" when it comes to motherhood, and people I know often surmise that it would be dreadful if I decided I wanted kids when it was too late. Actually, the implication there is that I'm so contrary, I'll only want kids when I can't have them anymore.

But that presumption is really insulting. As are the assumptions that I'm too into my career and lifestyle to have children, that I'm selfish and shallow. People think that I'm opting out to save myself hassle, and act like I'm somehow less of a woman, less warm, less feminine. But I'm not being awkward, rebelling or choosing not to conform. In fact, my life would be easier if I wanted kids - I'd certainly feel less guilty, and have to explain myself less.

It's time for general acceptance that kids aren't in some people's plans. Now 42, Heinlein says that she hasn't changed her mind, and doesn't have any regrets about being childless. For me, it's an important message and one that needs to be heard. Fear of regret is not a good enough reason to go against your gut, in any situation, but especially when it comes to being a parent.

Like me, Heinlein has heard that when she's old, she'll be sorry she doesn't have kids because who'll look after her? But I know that producing offspring isn't a cure for loneliness in old age, sadly. The only thing I feel bad about is depriving my parents of grandchildren, because they'd be fantastic.

They know how I've always felt, and don't try and make me feel any other way, but I know they'd love kids around in the future. I know there are many people close to me who, for whatever reason, hope I'll change my mind. But I think having children to satisfy other people's expectations is a recipe for disaster.

I enjoy the company of children more than I used to, and (gasp!) think some are adorable. Some take this as an indication that I'm suddenly coming over to their side, just because I'm not horrified by their offspring. But the fact is, I'm not maternal and that's okay. We're not all meant to be parents, especially if we don't actually want to be. In fact, I think really, really wanting kids should be a base requirement for having them.

None of us know what our future is going to look like. Life is unpredictable and can be cruel, and the best laid plans can go awry. The thoughts of a child-free life don't scare me at all.

But if I had a crystal ball and could imagine a child-free future, I would hope it would be filled with friends and family, travel, work and adventures. I want to write novels and screenplays, live in New York City for a while, and see the rest of the world.

One thing is for sure - the next 50 or so years of my life, if I'm lucky enough to live that long, will be filled with people I love, many, many canine companions - and hopefully a lot of fun.

Irish Independent

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