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.
10 thoughts on “To be or not to be – a mother”
This is wonderful! And yes, I am one of those in my twenties getting THAT question a lot more frequently than I would like. Jenny Crusie books deal with this idea really well: ‘One man calls you a fallen angel, and the other says you’d be a natural mother- which one do you pick?’ Almost each of her female characters are really good with kids, and likes kids, but people freak out when they say they don’t want them. Such an interesting and necessary point to be made! Can’t wait to read the new book! xx
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Thank you, lovely – it’s a fascinating subject & we definitely need to give each other a break. xx
What a great blog! Unlike your daughter I always knew I’d want children. But I know plenty of people who chose not to have any, and even took steps (sterilisation, hysterectomy) in their twenties to ensure they wouldn’t by accident. A brave thing to do given the expectations of society.
On the other hand, I also know someone whom everyone assumed had made the no-children decision, who had her first baby at the age of 49 and is over the moon with him. You’re right we shouldn’t make assumptions and should respect everyone’s choices, always.
Thanks Kath – you’re absolutely right. I think we’re a bit too ready with our opinions and judgements these days (partly thanks to social media) and it doesn’t do, given that only the person in that situation knows what they’re going through. ‘Live and let live’, really is a good mantra!
I love it when a blog has me laughing out loud one minute and then the next, has me thinking about real life issues.
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Thank you Ruth – I’m really glad you liked it and I’m glad I made you chuckle too!
What a great, grown up blog post on the subject of motherhood. Two of my best friends who have chosen not to have children, appear to have endless patience when around my teenage sons. Then again, I have another friend who chose to start a family whilst well into her forties. No right or wrong. Would be incredibly boring if everyone followed the same pattern in life!
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Absolutely – each to their own, say I! Thanks for your comment and the share – really glad you liked it.
I was lucky in that my parents never expected me to reproduce (I didn’t), perhaps because Mum wasn’t all that sure she wanted to, either, but in the 1950s, if you were married, you just DID. I think she quite envied my sister’s and my childfree lives.
I met a couple at a party a few years back who had one five year old and were telling me that, although they loved him dearly and they were a happy family, they both wished they hadn’t done it. I applauded such honesty, particularly from the mother! I remember when I worked in a driving school about 20 years ago, one day sitting with 2 of the male driving instructors in the office, and we got talking about this sort of thing. They both said that if they had their time again they’d have chosen not to have the responsibility; they could never tell their wives this but of course it was safe to say it to me!!
You’re so right about it being a choice that should be respected. As for the idiots who describe the childfree as ‘selfish’ – well, I’d rather be ‘selfish’ than ignorant and smug!!!!
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You’re so right and actually, there are a lot more people out there who wish they’d done things differently than you might expect – you’re just not really supposed to say it out loud! Each to their own, say I and respect the right to choose.