I’m somewhere in between childfree-by-choice and childless-by-circumstance. I hate the rhetoric of ‘breeders’ versus ‘non-breeders’, so I don’t see myself in the militantly childfree camp. Nor do I easily identify with a lot of the culture surrounding the involuntarily childless. I was very ambivalent about having kids until I caught The Fear at 36 and tried to have them but couldn’t.
There the fun starts. It’s common parlance amongst the unsure to shrug and say ‘we’ll try, but if it doesn’t happen naturally we’ll just leave it’. Cue hollow laughter as I recall my own words from circa 2008, just before finding myself in front of a despotic baby farmer holding up flashcards of fallopian tubes.
Even during and after the complex horror of the fertility clinics, the whole milieu of pregnancy, birth, floppy babies, breastfeeding, child-snot, sharing my toilet time, chats at the school gates etc remained a queasy turn-off for me. I didn’t even know if I would be able to like my own child (complicated back story). So what the hell was the deal with having fertility treatment then?
I hardly know the answer myself. I had to pose the question on a childfree forum and I found out it’s a common phenomenon – there are often threads called something like ‘On the Fence’, where anonymous women confess to having lots of IVF despite their ambivalence about having kids (I think it boils down to cold sweats about Dying Alone). I saw a rubbish counsellor, who said ‘I certainly don’t know where I would be without my daughters!’. Hundreds of women at work were pregnant. I was in a public sector institution where serial maternity leaves were almost compulsory. My so-called career had flopped. An empty life suddenly yawned ahead of me like a black hole: without children, it seemed free of any meaningful landmark events, any fresh chapters, anything significant to punctuate it at all – and I felt ancient and lonely; finished. I was abroad and isolated. I was approaching the age at which my mum had died and it was doing awful things to my mental state: I felt death fluttering nearby, I needed newness.
I still felt squeamish about floppy babies, though. I confess I used to call them slugs.
The childfree vs parents debate attracts such frothing-at-the-mouth invective that I’m imagining the reaction to this as I write – thank God that one didn’t reproduce. But we all know that the majority of people don’t have kids purely out of disinterested selflessness. In most cases, however, they are never asked to mull over the ethics of why they are reproducing. But the whys and wherefores do become an issue for public and private debate when infertility raises its head, and there is much accompanying bile. It was a quagmire I was loath to get into, and I was always hyper-aware of the vitriol it can engender.
I just wanted to stumble into having kids without over-thinking why I was doing it, like normal ambivalent people.
‘We’ll try, but if it doesn’t happen naturally we’ll just leave it’ sometimes mysteriously turns into ‘we’ll do IVF once, and if it doesn’t work we’ll just leave it’. Of course I wish I’d had the bollocks to say fuck it at the start, when I was told I had stage four endometriosis and the ovarian reserve of an old lady. I was the Daily Mail’s favourite thing, a female of 37 who’d left it too late – a cautionary tale, a warning for your daughters; a klaxon-call about trying to have it all, except in my case the career part was best not mentioned. It’s a shameful, confusing, sometimes hysterical place to be and you only entrust the details to one or two people. You don’t feel at home with the purveyors of ‘baby dust’ who swap miracle prayers to St Jude and recipes for fertility bread on the childless websites (I’m in that kind of country), and the mummy blogs fill you with homicidal tendencies.
You have a few years of perpetual angst when you consider and discount all the other options for various good reasons (adoption, you say? Well thank you kindly: I hadn’t previously been aware of its existence), and then you settle into some kind of new-but-old normal.
The waters have closed over it, the people you told have lost interest and moved on. It’s over: welcome to the strange land of the married but permanently childfree / childless couple. Don’t trip over the tumbleweed.
What I am sometimes left with, at 44 years old, is an abstract feeling that I might be missing out on something profound. A creeping appreciation of how nice it must be to have adult children (if they can stand you, of course). A sickly dread when people post those comments about the incomparable joy that kids bring and the higher emotions that only a parent can know. A murderous irritation when obsessive grannies say that their grandchildren are ‘the light of my life’, and ‘what else is there in your 60s and 70s?’. A realization that I will always be peripheral in my family: the aunt or the sibling that they can go weeks (years maybe!) without thinking about, whilst I have all the time in the world for navel-gazing and waiting for texts. A spiraling fear of no one being there when I’m old, because the other half has left or expired.
I know first-hand about parental estrangement, early death and family dysfunction. I’m aware of how self-indulgent all this must sound to a single woman of my age. Yet I still can’t shake the power of those filtered, idealized images, the irrational terror of loneliness, and the insidious feeling of being deficient in some way. The sensation that my life just might not turn out as good.
What I question again and again is where this comes from,
and what the truth of it is,
and whether it can ever be known.