I always knew I didn’t want kids.
It wasn’t a conscious decision, but rather a lingering feeling encamped in the back of my mind that never really changed.
In my early twenties, I hoped it would. That by the time I celebrated my 30th a magical switch would turn on and suddenly I would want nothing more than to tuck mischievous little kids to bed every night, or get woken up by tiny cold feet under the duvet blanket in the mornings. But that never happened.
As I became more comfortable with my decision, people around me started to feel uneasy whenever the topic was brought up. At times I’d find myself in the most bizarre situations discussing my reproductive plans with distant colleagues or friends’ friends between drinks. It’s as though everyone was trying to figure out what needed fixing.
Did I hate kids? Was I a lunatic for not wanting something so fundamental?
“It surprises me still that society hasn’t really moved all that far on what constitutes a family”
It surprised me then, and surprises me still, that society hasn’t really moved all that far on what constitutes a family. The traditional unit is still the norm and anything that sits outside of that validates phrases like “Are you sure…?” followed by surprised eyebrows, head tilt and a few hand gestures to finish off the sentence and remind me that I’m not what they consider normal. Yes, I am sure, thank you very much.
Through this process of self-discovery, I never considered how my future choices would affect the people closest to me. Perhaps I was too young, but I was still unsure of the implications it would have on me, let alone someone else.
Recently, however, I have started to feel guilty.
The guilt was brought on by a rather uneventful weekend away. While visiting my dad and his partner, the topic of children came up. For the first time – perhaps ever – I noticed a hint of sadness on my dad’s face when I yet again announced my reasons to remain childless. The Quorn bolognese I had convinced him to eat that night laid untouched on the plate, his fork no longer searching for a piece of bacon to magically appear in the sauce. He silently crossed his arms, elbows resting softly on the table, and let out an almost inaudible sigh. It was obvious he needed to sit in this for a few seconds, let thoughts take him to places he might never experience, before returning to what must’ve seemed like a cold reality.
It’s something I’ve never considered before, and something I know I shouldn’t, but it struck me that the choice my boyfriend and I have made ultimately affects a lot of people. In that moment, at that dinner table, I was faced with the consequences of a decision that was mine, always had been mine, yet had an impact on everyone around me.
“In that moment, at that dinner table, I was faced with the consequences of a decision that was mine, always had been mine, yet had an impact on everyone around me”
Maybe it’s because I turned thirty-two this year, or that most of my childhood friends are starting families and I see people my dad’s age turning into grandparents. Whatever it may be, the fact still remains I feel guilty.
Of course, this isn’t a reason to change my mind. But grandchildren are meant to be a person’s second chance at childhood in the golden years. It is a sorrow my dad is entitled to feel – losing the experience and the joys of becoming a granddad is a legitimate reason to be sad.
Though I can’t help wondering if my feelings of guilt are based on my relationship with my family or part of a bigger societal construct.
Feeling guilty can be uncomfortable. Tightly linked to empathy, it is an experience that occurs when one feels responsible for someone else’s misfortune or negative state. It is not uncommon that guilt makes people obsess over a particular event or a person.
“Women, simply, seem to be walking around with a constant feeling of guilt in their stomach.”
Tons of research has been done on the topic of guilt and empathy. According to a 2009 study by The University of the Basque Country, women feel guilty more often than men. Women feel guilty about eating too much, eating too little, working or not working, exercising too much or not exercising at all. They feel guilty about not spending enough time with their partners or spending too much time with them and neglecting their friends. They (like me) feel guilty for choosing a path in life that still raises questions and concerns. Women, simply, seem to be walking around with a constant feeling of guilt in their stomach.
This is what you would call a societal construct, where from a young age we’re taught to prioritise the needs of others over our own. On the plus side, a stronger sense of empathy is developed but on the downside there’s a constant weight on your shoulders. And it’s this nugget of insight that has become somewhat of an obsession for me: I know that my feelings are not necessarily a representation of my relationship with my family, but it’s not an easy cycle to break.
My everyday life is full of hints and reminders to trigger the guilt. When I go for my usual weekend activity of dog spotting in the nearby park, I am surrounded by grandparents wiping sticky ice cream off their wailing grandchildren’s faces. I see nans lovingly treat them to another one “because what else are we here for?”. When I visit my local bookstore café, they are there reading a section from Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls to wide-eyed youngsters curled up with heads resting on their chests. At brunch, in the apartment next door, on social media, wherever I am, I can be triggered with the overwhelming emotion of guilt. It’s exhausting.
The path of domesticity most of us take is not the only option – though it’s one of the few laid out before us at large. I know my guilt is a manifestation of my own thoughts of inadequacy in a world where a woman’s worth is still very much measured by her reproductive abilities.
But I am very lucky to be surrounded by a family who would never push me in a direction I wouldn’t want to go. They wouldn’t want me to build a life based on other people’s wants. In return, I’ve realised that I too have to come to terms with their feelings about my decision.
Madelaine Gnewski is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @maddignewski
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