I often read articles written by women who are devastated because they don’t have children. Despairing and maudlin, these stories focus on “the love I’ll never know”, the “heartbreak” of infertility or the feeling of being “less of a woman”. Once in a blue moon a childless woman will admit to feeling absolutely fine about not having children – and her words will unleash a volley of disapproval. Remember the criticism of Lucy “I’ve been educated out of the natural reproductive function” Worsley.
Although I can’t claim to have been educated out of my reproductive function (I left school at 17), I couldn’t help but admire Worsley’s courage. After all, there are so few women who are willing to speak positively about not having children. I am childless – and, at 52, that’s the way it will stay whether I like it or not, which I do. I don’t regret not having children any more than I regret my hair colour or shoe size. Nature made the decision for me, and I’m happy with it.
Contrary to the received wisdom on the matter, that childless women live a life of bitter regret, all the women of 40-plus I know who do not have children have no regrets at all. As childless women, we are in the minority – but it is a growing minority. Today one in five women in Britain will never have children (or, as one tabloid newspaper put it, barren britain: 19 per cent of women are childless at menopause). Childlessness is on the rise – yet society is no closer to embracing it. Our perception of women without children is archaic, a dusty relic still wreathed in drama and despair.
Even today single or childless women are routinely portrayed as sad and desperate curios. In film and television it is generally implied that they must be neurotic and hapless (Bridget Jones), mournful and lonely (Jennifer Aniston) or cold and career-focused (Lucy Worsley).
As one of the “barren 19 per cent”, I can confirm I am none of these things. Nor am I bleak, broken, empty – or any of the attributes so often ascribed to the childless. But the brainwashing is relentless, and the worst part is that we women buy into it. Sometimes I have to forcibly close my ears to the regretful outpourings of other childless women – it would be so easy to catch their despair.
There are, of course, many reasons a woman might find herself childless. Some women desperately want to have children but are unable; others are missing the maternal “gene”. For some, it’s a case of bad timing: they never met the right man or they prioritised other things in their childbearing years.
My situation is a mixture of all these things, but mostly born of ambivalence. I never thought very much about motherhood when I was younger, except vaguely to assume I would probably experience it and that if I found myself pregnant by accident I would go through with it.
I only had one pregnancy “scare”. (Never mind “scare” – I was weak with terror.) In my late twenties I missed several periods, and, with heavy hearts, my then-husband and I decided we would “go through with it”. But the missed periods turned out to be an aberration. (Like many young women, I pursued strange eating habits, and lived mainly on Müllerlight yogurts. It was probably this that caused my periods to stop for months at a time.)
As I grew older, children began to feel more and more like something that happened to other people. At 28, I divorced and after that they became even less of a priority. The years ticked by, and little changed. My ambivalence remained the same.
Most of the time my childless status barely registers. Because many of my friends and colleagues are childless, I feel quite normal, even though I am in the minority. Then occasionally I’ll be reminded that my situation runs counter to cultural norms.
Recently I attended a course with 10 other women my age and we started the day with a series of bonding exercises, including one where the instructor would ask a question and we were told to step forward if we could answer “yes”. The questions were fun, innocuous – but then the instructor asked who had children, and everyone stepped forward but me. Yikes!
Sometimes, too, I’m asked why I don’t have children. Many childless women complain of tactless comments, but I sometimes wonder if they’re being oversensitive. The enquiries I receive are always polite, and to me seem more like curiosity than criticism. But it’s at times like these that I do feel a bit of an oddity, and it’s easy to see how this feeling – of being out of sync, excluded – could slip into self-pity. We live in a child-centric society, one filled with Mumsnet and mumpreneurs, where motherhood has become shorthand for fulfilment.
It’s hardly surprising that women who are unable to have children worry that they’ve missed out on life’s meaning. Even the redoubtably cheery Ann Widdecombe confessed recently that her greatest regret was not having children.
I’m not so sure. For many women having children is a joy, but it’s no guarantee of happiness. Perhaps my life would have been immeasurably enriched by a family. Then again, perhaps not. I think that I probably would have been a hopelessly distracted mother. I’ve always been single-minded, either locked away writing books or doing voluntary work, and any child would have had to pick up the crumbs of whatever time was left. As it is, I have filled my life with other things – friends, career.
Even now, children are largely absent from my life. Many childless women wax lyrical about nephews, nieces and godchildren and how much money and time they lavish upon them. I can’t relate. To be honest, unless my friends’ children were attached to their parents I probably wouldn’t recognise them in a police line-up.
It’s a cliché, I know, but all my maternal instincts have been redirected towards my three rescue dogs. I spend hours preparing dishes for them – from organic salmon to freshly cooked vegetables – while my boyfriend must make do with a tin of something or other. In a way, I can sympathise with mothers who put their offspring before their partners. It’s reassuring to feel in step with the Mumsnet generation on something.
Besides, sometimes I wonder how honest we are about motherhood. The internet is awash with angry and disappointed women. A thread on one site titled “I hate being a mother” recently attracted 2,000 comments, with contributors describing the unending misery of their put-upon, exhausted lives. “I am so unhappy. No one tells you how awful it is to be a mother; I fantasise about running away from it all. It’s too much!!! If I had to do it all over, I wouldn’t have any children,” read one, typical, comment. Closer to home, a friend of mine emails me despairingly about the stress of dealing with her bullying teenage son and his endless demands for money.
Of course, I’m not immune to self-doubt, and there have been moments when I’ve questioned my choices. Late last year, overcome by a wave of fiftysomething nostalgia, I began looking up old college friends. All of them have had children. They are very nice about it – there is absolutely no “poor you” – but I am aware that there is a vast maternal hinterland that I cannot share.
It’s at times like these that I wonder whether I’ll regret being childless in the future. I’m content right now, living with my fiancé and our three dogs. But how will I feel in 20, 30 years’ time? Will I long for a larger family? Recently I attended the 90th birthday of a child-free friend’s father. It was a fabulous occasion and he spent the day surrounded by scores of loving family members. But afterwards my friend and I ruminated that it was unlikely there would be such a huge turnout at our own respective 90ths.
Still, it seems ludicrous to worry about something that might not be a problem in 30 years’ time. Most of my friends don’t have children, so we will just have to create a different kind of family. (Anyway, having children is no guarantee they will visit you – according to a survey by Age UK, only one in five over-65s see their children at least once a fortnight.) Besides, what’s the point in regretting something you can’t change?
I recently read Virginia Nicholson’s book Singled Out, which documents the lives of the so-called “surplus women” of the 1920s, who were left widowed and with no opportunity to have children after millions of young British men were killed in the First World War. The book was a revelation – a perfect antidote to any creeping regrets. The women in it were portrayed not as figures of pity, but as heroines to be admired. They refused to be marginalised, and without husbands or children they were forced – or perhaps free – to pursue careers, forge strong friendships and find professional and personal fulfilment.
I would never be arrogant or smug enough to assert that being child-free is better or more laudable than having children. Too often women are pitted against each other for making different choices. We’re all different, and what works for me wouldn’t suit everyone. Anyway, circumstances are no guarantee of happiness. No one has everything in life and contentment is about making peace with the choices we have made. But, for me, that means taking my cues from a generation of “surplus women”, not self-pitying magazine stories.