I’ve written before about a married acquaintance who was so desperate to conceive in her late thirties that she sobbed when she told me about a childless older couple who walked their dogs in her neighborhood:
they’re lovely and everything but I just don’t want to BE them!
Their life made her weep in public. She actually wanted a baby (I think), but I believe she mostly wanted to be ‘normal’. And to eradicate forever her terror of missing out. Childless after 40: that alternative life horrified her.
I felt insulted then for that couple, and doubly insulted now. But I know it says more about her than it does about them. She eventually had her hard-won child, her marriage broke up straight after and kid pics started to appear on her Facebook page, a thing she’d always bemoaned. Did she finally feel like a fully-realised, acceptable woman, I wonder? Now she is a mother, does that couple still horrify her?
What does all this mean?
I know that this fear of childlessness still prevails, despite the fact that there are more non-parents over 40 than ever, and that swathes of the planet might soon be mostly uninhabitable, and that all the teenagers are on anti-depressants. It’s why I can’t abandon this blog, despite feeling that being a non-parent isn’t a significant issue for me any more.
It’s that depressing rabbit hole of now or never that women fall into in their late 30s that brings me back here – I wish it were different, easier to feel comfortable with the decision not to pursue parenthood if you feel ambivalent about it, or if it involves fertility treatment that you really don’t want.
I’m reading “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Children“, and it strikes me that most of these largely ambivalent or decidedly childfree writers got The Fear in their 30s too. There are hints of this everywhere: “At one point, in my late thirties, I thought for a bit about having a child on my own“; ” I felt forty approaching fast…“; “By her late thirties, however, she had misgivings. Friends were having children, and she felt left out“….
It takes courage and resilience to weather this period, with the literal egg-timer hanging over you and everyone around you ‘settling down’. BUT:
- You might come to be proud of being an outlier. The now-or-never window can be a nightmare for someone who naturally tends towards conformity. Everyone around you is doing the same thing – they’ve either had babies or are having last-minute babies. They don’t care that you’re in existential turmoil, or facing IVF: they’re too busy. I really wanted to want to have a child because it would have made things much simpler, in a way. We would have been like everyone else, frazzled with the drudgery of parenting but normal. I would never need to worry that I was missing out on something profound and amazing (the famous JOY), and I would have all the requisite smalltalk about the little ones for drinks with my workmates.
- Today I feel that there’s something admirable about being different. At those work drinks when I’m trapped with six colleagues all talking about their children, I think: Jesus Christ, what would you do if you didn’t have your bloody kids to talk about? God forbid actually making an EFFORT. The Fear at 35 caught me unawares: in reality I had always been a non-conformist, gravitating towards the eccentric. I had ferociously never wanted children. Suddenly I was on the brink of middle age and terrified of the future. Now I feel I have reclaimed my early non-conformity. It’s brave, being different to the vast majority. Many think it’s braver to be slogging away trying to keep the next generation off Prozac. There’ll always be at least two camps thinking different things. At 39 the inappropriate comments from tactless parents under the infertility articles might kill you (“I can’t imagine not having my children, my life was nothing before I had them” etc). They just bemuse me now.
- Which brings me to my next point. There’s no point trying to get parents and non-parents to fully empathise with each other’s lifestyles and feelings and so on. They just won’t, or can’t. I try to avoid comparison (it’s the thief of joy, remember) or starting sentences with ‘at least you have….’. Now I’m over 40, I’m fairly sure that none of my family or old friends gives a rat’s whether I’m upset or otherwise about not having kids. As I see it now, the only option is to try to own it, or be miserable. People not caring and never asking can also empower you to control how much you want to hear about their kids, too. There is always the fantastic online CNBC community: someone out there will understand everything you say.
- If you are an outlier, you’ll probably attract fellow outliers. You probably won’t attract people like a boss I once had, who immediately asked new colleagues whether they had children and looked blank when they say no. We have to be more imaginative, and our parent-friends are too. It’s no coincidence that they are usually the less-conventional types, the ones who get anxious hanging out with the other parents at kids’ birthday parties and are a bit ambivalent toward the whole child-rearing deal.
- At 38 I had out-of-control cold sweats about the fact that I had a dull, mediocre job AND was unlikely to have children. What had I achieved? What did the future hold? It was a yawning black hole: nothing stood between now and death. Just thousands more meaningless days at work. What was it all for? I have the same unimpressive career now, but the existential angst disappeared a few years ago. Nearly everyone I talk to hates their job, wants to work less and do nicer things, more often. Having kids would not have made the grind any easier for me.
- In her Guardian piece “I feel grief and relief that I’ve never had children. Other women must share this“, Katherine Baldwin writes at age 48 that most of the time she feels at peace, content to grow old with her fiancé without the stresses of parenthood. But then suddenly she is “hit by a wave of grief and loss that’s so huge it leaves me gulping for air”. To date, the absence of children has never made me feel like this: it’s something I rarely think about. It’s the thought of losing my husband; it’s the distress I feel when I think I’m getting too distant from my family. It’s the worry that I don’t have enough friends. Children are not even a ghostly presence in any emotional jags I might have. They just don’t exist for me, and getting upset over that, rather than trying to round up what resources I have and make the best of things, kind of horrifies me at this stage. It feels pointless.
- At 47, whenever I feel lonely, it’s the company of friends and family I am missing – it’s never offspring. Children of my own are far too fraught with emotional complications and conditions to feature in my reveries: they dissolve into nothing when I try to imagine having them, or they glare resentfully at me. Maybe because of the problematic parent-child relationships I’ve lived, and the several I’ve witnessed. Maybe I need a psychiatrist or maybe we should just accept that having kids is not for everyone. Either way, I don’t miss having kids. I have never looked at the elderly parents of adult offspring that I know and thought they’re so lucky, how will I cope without that? My 87-year old grandmother, who gave birth to six children, has talked about being so lonely she wants to die.
- Which brings me to my last point: I think we urgently need to seriously consider better communal living and house-sharing for the elderly widowed or single. It’s daily company and human contact that humans need, and in most cases your kids won’t give you that in your old age.
That’s my summation of my present situation in the scary twilight zone of the late 40s-woman without children. I’m sure people have a moment of curiosity when they hear I don’t have kids: I’m still unusual in the society I live in. I don’t know what parents my age really think of my life: either they wouldn’t tell me to my face, or they’d act affronted that I think they give a toss about whether someone has kids or not.
I never really think about what I’d be doing, right here right now, in a parallel universe where I have my own children, small ones or grown ones … I’m happy having a nice read and a cup of coffee, or planning my next trip, or thinking about ways to be at work less.
I worry about the mundane practical things of life, but there is no child-shaped void here.
I’ll end with this from an old article (“I’m 51, have no children and am feeling depressed and lonely“) where Mariella Frostrup gives dodgy older-mum-advice to a childless woman who is going through a midlife crisis.
The comments are the bast part of it. I like this one from childless reader dontlikeit
I too am involuntarily childless and entirely empathise with the lady’s pain. I like Mariella, but I think she has fallen into the obvious error of trying to fill the baby-shaped hole in this lady’s life with a baby: get fertility treatment! Adopt! Mariella often writes of the great joy she takes in her own family, and I am delighted for her and her obvious happiness, but I think there’s a risk that she cannot imagine that there might be another way.
There is another way. It’s not easy, but it has done wonders for me. After being tired and, frankly, bored with my grief-stricken self, I thought long and very, very hard about the things that give me pleasure in life, and decided to do more of them. The great gift that the childless are given is time. Use it. I worked out that the things that give me pleasure are, in no particular order:
* work. As long as it’s interesting and reasonably remunerative. If it’s not, find another job, which leads me onto:
* study. One of the blessings of our age is the amount of online learning that’s available from top providers, at reasonable cost. Learn something that will help your career, or learn something for fun. I did an online creative writing course which was tremendous for opening doors in my mind, and also helping with self-expression of the deepest feelings.
* eat. If you don’t already, explore to its very limits the wonderful world of gastronomy. It’s such a basic thing to life, a universal and yet an enormous pleasure. Devote some quality time (and don’t forget, the blessing the involuntarily childless enjoy is time) to cooking magnificent feasts for you and your husband once in a while.
* garden. Or knit. Or make quilts, or coffee tables, or airfix models. Create, create, create. See above also re creative writing and cooking.
* be selfish. Spend half a day shopping only for lipsticks, or go for a bra fitting, or eat a box of Milk Tray while watching trash TV. Make sure you have regular time slots put aside where it’s all about Me Me Me.
* be giving. You have time and energy to be both selfish and giving. When you’re ready, yes do think about voluntary work. I have just started and I am reaping rich rewards.
Apologies for swearing, but even if one doesn’t have progeny it remains a big and fucking amazing world out there. You’ve grieved enough: get out there and enjoy it.