A few nights ago, I attended a Ping Pong night organised by my work colleagues. It's a really fun night and something that happens a couple of times a year. Everyone is organised into doubles teams and the evening consists of beer, good cheer and banter, as we all live through the highs and lows of winning and losing.
Except I choose not to play.
I like to go along and be part of the social event but I can't bear team sports or competitive situations. I'm much happier witnessing the progress of others with a glass of wine in my hand, capturing the action on social media.
An interesting thing happens each time I go along to one of these things. I'm routinely asked why I'm not playing, if I wished I was, if I regret my decision, if I feel I'm missing out. Usually the questions come from just one or two people who can't believe I've opted out and are desperate to make me part of the game. Nope, I say, I'm happy with my choice.
I'm childfree-by-choice, as it happens, and my life is often like that Ping Pong night, complete with a continous rolling sidebar of questions from friends and strangers, although they get less frequent as I get older and out of the baby-making zone.
I've always known I didn't want kids, even as a teenager, and although I have always been very clear on the decision, I have regularly 'checked in' with myself to make sure my head was still in agreement with my heart. There have been pressure points along the way - I had to have The Conversation with my husband-to-be about it in case he thought I'd change my mind. Then came the weddings-and-babies years of my thirties: "It's just what you do," friends said. I'd never want to 'just do' anything that everyone else is doing just for the sake of it.
One by one, my friends had their children. Many of them struggled to conceive and being childfree, they felt able to tell me about their problems. I was so grateful not to have the all-encompassing urge to get pregnant, that I could hear their stories and comfort them as much as I could. Some friends admitted to me that they didn't realise they'd had a choice about having children, and that they hadn't expected the 'drudgery' of their post-natal lives. But then they threw themselves into it, happily, and had one or two more children. In for a penny, I suppose...
I did have a couple of wobbles during those years - mainly because having babies was what everyone was doing. My opting out of it was like choosing not to go to university, have a husband, buy a house - like not ticking a box in the tick-box life. But my gut instinct was right.
There are possible underlying reasons why I don't want children, such as my parents dying early. I do feel very strongly about not willingly inflicting that experience on another person, especially as an older parent. But perhaps there is also some truth in the other statement sometimes lobbed at me: "you just haven't met the right man yet." The only time I've ever felt anything close to an urge to have a baby, it was because I had fallen deeply in love with a man. I think I must have a low-level 'water-table' of maternal hormones that were brought tantalisingly close to the surface during that time, but I'm grateful to my gut instinct, because that man turned out to be a colossal git.
Whenever I get the Sidebar of Questions, including the usual, "but you'd be a great mum!" I always say, "I'd make a great bus driver, but I'm not here to do that either." I just know I'm not here to be a mother. Other people are, and they're great at it. I love seeing my friends raising their beautiful children and I salute them.
Someone once said to me that freedom was obviously the most important thing to me. At the time it didn't quite register. I was still married at that point, but looking back, I was constantly making bids for freedom. I was staying out after work more and more and taking all-day shopping trips. On holidays, I longed to disappear off over the horizon on my own. In retrospect, it was all pretty clear.
Yes, freedom is incredibly important to me. I'm sure someone will tell me I'm being selfish but I will admit openly that I do not want to live my life through someone else's. The things I've achieved have come relatively late in life and they've been hard won. If being selfish is making a decision that improves my life and avoids a disappointing one for another human being, then I'm happy to live with that.