I’m at an editorial meeting in a cool London cafe, though I am being decidedly uncool – I’ve got a bad case of “infrequently let-out mum” syndrome and I’m afraid it’s showing. “OOH!” I keep exclaiming, “look at all this lovely exposed brick!” And “don’t lots of men have beards now?” And “the last time I drank a latte without a child trying to knock it from my hands, Obama was president!”
My colleague is being very good-natured in the face of all this. “Do you have kids?” I ask her. “Um, no,” she replies, carefully. “I mean, I like children – I just don’t really want any of my own.” “Ah yes,” I tell her, before I can stop myself. “I didn’t used to want kids, either.”
There’s a slightly awkward silence. As we lock eyes (hers twitching slightly), I realise two very different things are happening here. From my side, I’m trying to put my colleague at ease. Hey, man, I want to say. I get it. Being childfree is a totally valid life choice, and also, people don’t have kids for lots of reasons that are absolutely none of my business! No judgment here! You do you! And so on.
But from my colleague’s point of view, I think what she heard is: I too was once like you. But I have evolved, and now I know better. And, really, who wants to hear that? Who wants their life choices patronised by someone who ditched those very same choices herself?
Because I did ditch them – quite dramatically. Ever since my own childhood, I knew I didn’t want children. I never really entertained dreams of getting married, either. In fact, the prospect of stuffing myself into a frou-frou dress and being the centre of attention filled me with creeping dread. I genuinely began to worry something was wrong with me.
I enjoyed the company of babies and children, but the closest feeling I ever experienced to “broodiness” was when I met a puppy or a kitten (once, a friend’s Labrador puppy fell asleep on my shoulder and I almost died).
Year after year, the maternal urge failed to strike – and I accepted that. I would, I decided, become a happy spinster living in some ivy-strewn turret, churning out mystery novels. I met a man who didn’t want kids either, and we enjoyed a 10-year relationship, full of lie-ins, financial solvency and brilliant holidays where we didn’t have to change a single nappy or stay anywhere within spitting distance of a playground.
But when that relationship ended, something shifted in me. I went to a family gathering with the man who is now my husband, and that’s when the urge hit. As he frolicked in the embrace of his parents, cousins, aunts – and, yes, children – I realised (much to my surprise) that this was what I wanted. Not babies, per se, but a family.
My own family is sparse – no grandparents, father long-dead, a mother who is both terminally ill and estranged – and I was yearning for a whole big mess of people I could belong to. Suddenly having a few little ones of my own knocking about didn’t seem such a bad idea.
Now, instead of being a spinster, I’m a married mum of two and I live in the suburbs. Here, I’ve met mums here who – bafflingly – think that anyone who doesn’t have kids is “weird”. I also know a few childfree people who call parents “breeders” and blame them for the imminent collapse of society.
And, the thing is, both sides are wrong (and a bit right). Some people who don’t have kids are weird (as are some parents). And some kids will probably go on to damage the environment (while others may take steps towards saving it).
All of which is a lovely, magnanimous point of view for me to take, of course, but you don’t actually score “life points” by being open-minded.
There are lots of ways for me to empathise with people who don’t have and/or don’t want children. I could just listen to them or talk to them as people or be clear about how I support their choices. But by saying “I used not to want kids either” I’m lending less support, not more, to the notion that being childfree is a perfectly natural and normal way to be. So I’ve stopped saying it.
Because I’m not childfree and their story is no longer mine.