When I was thirteen, the approaching millennium was an exciting thing, some distant and magical future. We would talk about where we’d be, who we’d be, what we’d be doing. I don’t remember every laying down any specifics, other than the unemotional assumption that I’d be married – to a man – and have children. I had no idea how this would feel, whether I even wanted it, I just thought that was what a woman’s life would be when she was twenty-seven.
When I was twenty-seven, I was living temporarily in the suburbs of Bilbao, teaching English at a private school there. One day, I was having a coffee with a colleague and her boyfriend, a local man who was a few years younger than the both of us. We were sitting outside, and the chat turned to having children. I don’t know why. I remember saying that I didn’t want children. “Of course you do,” was the response. From both of them. “No, I don’t,” I replied, faltering slightly. I was fairly sure I felt this way. “I never have.” The boyfriend looked at me, with sympathy, with a shake of the head. “You’ll change your mind,” he said emphatically. This was not the first conversation I’d had like this. It wouldn’t be the last.
When I was thirty-nine, I’d been in a relationship with a man for a long time. The relationship had broken down, and we knew it was over. It was for the best, neither of us had been happy for a while, we should have done something about it years before. But, it was still sad, it still hurt, a lot. We were sleeping in separate rooms. One morning he’d come through to the spare room and we lay in the bed together, half crying, chatting about things: regrets, apologies, good times, bad times, the old future; before wrapping them all up and putting them away. I remember saying, my voice shaking, “maybe I should have had children.” We’d never actually talked about it. Imagine! In all that time – well maybe, in the early days, there were brief mentions. But no serious conversations. Time just … passed, and we hadn’t done those things that everyone else had been doing. We’d talked about marriage, but only in the context of neither of us believing in it. And it kind of felt like we’d talked about not having children. But I’m fairly sure we hadn’t.
Here’s the thing though. I have nieces and nephews and I love them so much, each of them is beautiful and funny and precious and I want the absolute best for them, I am fiercely protective of them. I went through my sisters’ pregnancies with them, I held all of them as tiny babies, I have watched them grow into wonderful humans. I happily devote a lot of time and energy to them. I’ve also worked with children and young people, and I’ve found it inspiring and heart-breaking and fun. I like children. But I have never wanted them. So there wasn’t really a conversation to be had. There was no big discussion to be thrashed out. It wasn’t like I had some amazing luxurious lifestyle that I didn’t want to disrupt. I’ve never had a career to speak of, or any ambition to have one, or any money or assets that I didn’t want to compromise. So it wasn’t a matter of weighing it up, of making a choice. It just wasn’t something I wanted. I do believe there are enough people in the world, and I solidly believe that my reproductive status is none of your fucking business, (and Rebecca Solnit says more and better things on this than I could ever dream) and by remaining childfree and unmarried, I am making a feminist, environmental statement. Which I’m happy to do, but those are by-products of simply not wanting to do something.
I have thought about it, of course. A lot. I have felt the pressure of society to conform in so many ways, this included. I have felt my ‘childless’ status – along with ageing, not marrying, gaining a tiny bit of weight, becoming (outwardly) queerer – contribute to my increasing invisibility. I’ve wondered what would have happened if, despite my fastidiousness with contraception, I’d got accidentally knocked up. I’ve wondered if there’s something wrong with me, if it would have been different if I’d been with someone else, if I’d ever had any money, if two of my sisters hadn’t done it first, if, if, if.
People have made assumptions (‘when you have your own…’), people have expressed sympathy or concern (‘but you’d make such a good mum’, ‘aw, you just need to find the right man,’ etc), people have told me that I’m making a mistake (‘you’ll regret it.’). And yes, at times they have made me doubt myself. But I’m now forty-three and I still get asked about it, and I’m sick of it. (Incidentally, mugging your shock at how ‘old’ I actually am doesn’t make the conversation any less annoying or your intrusive comments any more flattering.) This is not something that occupies my thoughts. It’s something other people are much more interested in than I am.
But for the record, I know that I have never wanted children. Never. And I very strongly believe that if you are going to have children, you should really, really want them. And really, that’s all there is to it for me.