When I ask my ten-year-old daughter if she might want to have children one day, the answer is swift and uncompromising.
‘No way. It’s completely disgusting and babies are really annoying.’
Fair enough. I have only recently told her about the facts of life and let’s face it, the biological aspects can be pretty jaw-dropping and a tad chucklesome.
I tried to keep it together when the book explained that testicles are often called ‘nuts’ and ‘balls’ due to their approximation in size to walnuts and er, balls during a boy’s development but ended up snorting with uncontrollable laughter. My daughter gave me the Paddington bear stare for which she is known in our family and said, ‘It’s okay, Mum. Just take a moment if you need it.’ Yup, I clocked the role reversal there too.
My point is though, that the question of motherhood hangs over a girl’s head from a very young age. It is jokingly posed through youth but then, when a girl becomes a woman, it’s as if the hourglass of expectation (an expectant expectation you might say) has been turned. The question is now serious. When and if not when, why not?
This was a theme I wanted to explore when I wrote ‘Life or Something Like It.’ My main character, Cat Nightingale has a successful career in PR. She loves her five-star life and is happily single. Above all, she doesn’t want to have children and is unapologetic about this fact. And why shouldn’t she be? It’s her life, her choice and therefore no-one’s business but hers, right?
I think you see where this is going.
At every turn, her life decisions are questioned or worse, an assumption is made. She smiles at a baby on a train and the child’s mother asks her about her children. Her business partner’s wife is incredulous when she asserts that she never wants children. Her brother assumes she is single and childless because her horizons are too narrow. None of these people is unkind, none of them is being mean. They just make assumptions because that’s what people do.
When I was researching the book, I did a straw poll among a cross section of women in their twenties and thirties. I was a little shocked because I always thought that the questions about impending parenthood started mid-thirties; that good old ‘biological clock’ poser – a favourite of elderly relatives who use old age as a handy excuse to be a bit rude. But no, apparently women in their twenties, who are young enough to be my daughter, are being asked the question on an almost weekly basis.
I find this extraordinary. When did we all become so obsessed about the need to reproduce? I mean, I know it’s a basic instinct (and not in a Sharon Stone, no-pants way). I know the human race needs to keep a good supply of humans to avoid extinction but 7 billion and counting? I think we’re fine for now.
I read an interesting article by Rosamund Urwin (see link below) about the cult of parenthood and it made me a little ashamed. I’m a parent but I have never told anyone that they’ll, ‘change their mind’ about having children but then I am in the majority. Have I unwittingly made people feel bad because they didn’t have children? I sincerely hope not and if I did, I am truly sorry. I can only suspect that if parents make the child- and care-free feel bad, it’s mainly because they’re jealous.
In her article, she cited the story of Joel Andresier, who had put a buggy for sale on ebay calling it, ‘the green monster’ because it, ‘signifies everything that ended my happy, care-free, low-cost, child-free life.’ I get this. I absolutely do. When I first had my daughter, I couldn’t quite believe that my old life had gone; the enormity of this fact hit me square in the chops like a well-placed right hook.
And yet no-one admitted it. None of the other parents I knew would talk about it. No-one would say, ‘this is actually a bit boring’ or ‘I’m not sure if I like this’. You’re not allowed to admit it. You are blessed and frankly, you had your twenty minutes (or hour if you’re lying) of fun at the conception. This baby needs you. Get on with it.
So get on with it we do and honestly? The first year of both babies’ lives was intense and hellish, for the first because I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and for the second because I had a baby and a toddler and still no idea what I was doing.
But now? It’s good. It’s really good. I do feel blessed and lucky. My kids make me laugh and cry and shout. Other people do this too. I just don’t love them as much. But this is my world and this is what makes me happy. Parenthood isn’t for everyone and we need to stop pretending it is.
When Cat has to step down from her job for a while and her brother asks her to look after his two children, she is thrown into a world of which she has little or no knowledge. She initially approaches it with her efficient, controlled, PR hat on. Unsurprisingly, it’s not long before the hat slips.
But this isn’t about a woman discovering untapped maternal longing. It’s about both sides and what they can learn from one another. Cat Nightingale is unapologetic about her child-free existence and I am unapologetic about choosing motherhood.
Surely the most important thing is to respect each other’s point of view and keep your nose out.