Thinking about children

There have been a few articles floating around for a while, most recently one by Clem Bastow, on choosing not to have children. This choice seems to offend many people and they feel moved to tell any woman brave enough to speak of a future without children that she will never know unconditional love, that she isn’t a real or whole woman, that she should just go ahead and have a child because then surely she will change her mind. Articles written in response talk about how the lives of those who had children were changed for the better, how they didn’t know what they were missing before they had children. I also didn’t know what I was missing before I have children.

Yes there has been wonder, unconditional love for my children – which while different to what I have felt before I still think I have felt before – and some things which no one seems to talk about.

I never realised how angry, how consumed by anger I could become. During ante-natal classes they warned us that we would have times of frustration with babies who wouldn’t or couldn’t settle and to be aware of how hard we patted their bottoms while trying to settle them. But they never mentioned how angry it was possible to become with a recalcitrant toddler or mouthy children. I’m not suggesting that every parent feels this. But I have. I have had times when I could clearly understand how parents, hunched over and hiding from the cameras as they were taken away from or into court on charges that hurt any parents heart, got to that point. This is where I run not walk away and hide myself and my shame away until I feel able to parent again. When the kids were little this was usually when they came crying after me and I pushed the anger down to that place where I keep it until it is safe to let out at an inanimate object or unsuspecting husband. Now I hide in my room with the door locked until the little sods come with their chopstick to pop the lock and climb into bed with me for cuddles.

It never occurred to me how exhausted I could be from simply being a parent. Some days I just want to hide and not be anything to anyone. But right now that isn’t an option.

There are other things I’m not going to go into because I don’t want to lay myself that bare. No children were hurt in the making of those things.

I admire anyone who knows themselves well enough to know that child rearing is not for them. Even if they do change their mind, or circumstances change and they find themselves step-parenting. Friends who have known me for a while will think this ironic because I used to be one of those annoying people, wrapped up in my baby, who just knew that everyone wanted to be as smitten as I was. I don’t do that anymore. I’m really sorry if I was a smug arsehole to you. I’ve grown up.

It really annoys me when people try to sell parenting as this amazing experience with no drawbacks, that you have to convince everyone to join. The very least we could do as parents is to admit that parenting has its shitty days as well as the good, the amazing and the forever memories ones and respect that while other people might like kids it doesn’t mean that they are remotely interested in having their own and their reasons are as many and varied as your reasons for choosing to have children. I think understand this better now having had my own children and deciding that two was my limit. I will always wonder what it would have been like if there had been more, but in the same wistful way I wonder what life would have been like if I’d married or partnered someone else – an interesting daydream but not something that I mourn for or have a particular desire to change.

A note on inability to have children: I spent some years wondering what my life would be like if I never managed to have children. Obviously this isn’t a path my life took, but I certainly spent a lot of time at those crossroads. While I can empathise but not ever know what it is like, I don’t think this is a good reason for other people to have children – which is an argument I have seen elsewhere – that women choosing not to have children are selfish because other people who desperately want children can’t have them. It reduces women to something between an incubator for children for adoption or children themselves unable to know their own minds.

Categories: Culture, gender & feminism, Life, parenting, relationships

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24 replies

  1. Wow, thanks for writing this post. There’s so much bound up in parenthood that it really is difficult to unpack, and anybody who pushes only the joys/triumphs or only the pains/sacrifices simply isn’t doing the whole adventure justice.

  2. I’m always a little bemused by the reactions people get when they say they don’t want kids, I have no trouble at all imagining how one might not want them, what amazes me is that there are so many of us who have more than one! (I jest, a little bit.)

  3. I know this is a little off topic, but I’m always frustrated by the idea that parental or maternal love is automatically unconditional. I do the vast majority of my activist work in queer and trans* student spaces, and I can state categorically that for a (thankfully small) number of the people I have worked with, their parents’ love was totally conditional.

  4. thank you for this and for the link to the clem bastow piece. (the comments not so much.) i am about to celebrate the first anniversary of having my tubes tied. both of this is very exciting for me! but unlike women who choose to have children, no one got me a card or present for making my choice. even though i was ecstatic over it and it was a profound and meaningful experience for me, it doesn’t count as significant.

  5. right now i am wishing it were possible to edit comments. *headdesk*
    @Li there’s also no guarantee that a child’s love is unconditional. a lot of people talk about having children so you’ll have someone to look after you when you’re old (and that’s not considered selfish?), but my experience of the situation of elderly people is that not many of them have children who bother.

  6. P.S. to my first comment (on rereading it now at indigestion o’clock) I realise that I failed to acknowledge the central point of how I entirely understand that some folks just don’t want to have children. It’s a huge commitment with an uncertain return, and it’s fine that some people have other preferences and priorities.

  7. I think too many people conveniently forget that it takes a village to raise a child, not just a Mum and Dad. Spinster aunts and bachelor uncles are also involved in the process, together with teachers, fellow schoolkids, etc.
    As a bachelor uncle myself, I feel no need to add to humanity’s overpopulation problem even if I had a partner. The human race isn’t so hard up that my genes are essential to its survival. Knowledge and experience, yes; genes, no.

  8. I don’t have children, and I’m not sure I’d want some, but I want to say this:
    Parenting cannot possibly be this hard, society must be doing something wrong. Like, I dunno, dumping all the childcare and child rearing on the shoulders of parents, while the rest of society goes along merrily making life as difficult for them as possible. (And then turning around and saying “your fault if your child is watching TV, or eating sugar; us brainwashing them since age 0 has nothing at all to do with it”).
    I totally understand parents’ frustration with children. I just think that more emphasis should be placed on how difficult this society has made things for them.

    • uniquerhys and Mary Tracy, I think you’re reading the same page from opposite ends 🙂
      The nuclear family model as advertised is generally a really sucky way to raise kids. You’ve got to have a network of caring people modelling different ways of getting along with other people and getting things done for a child to work out where hir talents, strengths and preferences lie and how that integrates with social responsibilities/obligations. Expecting just Mum and Dad to do all that on their own is just ridiculous, and yet that’s so often what is held up as the perfect “functional family”.

  9. Thank you for writing this piece. I am one who always knew I would not (and should not) have kids. What took me by surprise is that I do feel unconditional love for the kids in my life, I didn’t have to give birth to them to feel that. It’s a wonderful, amazing and sometimes head-bangingly-frustrating feeling.

  10. I am totally wrapped up in my child and fascinated by motherhood and how it’s changed me and changed the women I know, and how it interacts with the rest of society, impacted on my ideas around feminism.
    That said, for several years I thought I’d never have children, I can understand why other people never want to have them, and I wish we could all cut each other a bit more slack. I was very sure I wanted a child before trying to fall pregnant and I try to keep a fairly tight control on what happens with regards to my reproduction.
    I’ve lost so many friends with the arrival of first a fetus and then a baby in my life. It makes me sad not just for my own lost friendships but for the chance for my child to get to know adults outside his immediate family (whom I thought were fun people to be around), to see and experience different ways of living. I feel stupidly grateful to those who’ve stuck around, and are as fine with my talk of him as I am with their fascinating new job or sick cats. I wonder if there’s always been this divide, between the childed and the not(ever, yet, whatever) and if it’s been exacerbated by the way society has changed, in particular women in the workforce after getting married and/or having children at all levels of class & income, people feeling more permitted to publicly express the desire to never have children (my grandmother is particularly horrified and amazed by the friends I retain who never want to reproduce, for some reason)?

  11. I find the statements of “I never wanted kids either. Then I had one and it changed me, I fell so in love in a way I never knew etc. ” to be arrogant and condescending, (when used as a reason to justify pressuring another person to change their mind on whether or not they want to be parent) because every person is different. Every child is different. What if, that person DID change their mind, had a baby and found that they had no emotion for it at all? Or worse, resented and loathed it?
    Also I think it takes away from all other forms of love. I don’t value my children above my relationship with my husband, nor do I value my relationship with my husband above my children. They are all different relationships. (Even the relationship I have with each of my individual children are different because my kids are not a homogenous blob of child…they are unique.)
    Whilst those four relationships are my primary relationships, (I live with these people and I am fortunate enough that those four people also happen to be my very favourite people, so naturally, my love for them and my protectiveness towards them are greater than that of other relationships I have.) I still have very fulfilling relationships outside the definitions of wife and mother.
    To tell childless people that they are selfish and will never find the meaning of true love is just arrogant, cruel and wrong. Tell that to the children born each year to parents who don’t truly love them, parents who hurt them and mistreat them. They’ll tell you the definition of true love (and unconditional love) has nothing to do with the people who birthed you.
    If it’s unconditional love that makes one a real woman then all one needs do is get a dog or a cat. No reproduction necessary.

  12. Thought best to clarify, my response was not to any one here, but a gut reaction to the societal pressure women (and to a much lesser extent men) face to spawn.

  13. I had my tubes tied six years ago.
    I would have done it much sooner, but my arrogant, paternalistic male gynae was all “You’re only 28, you’ll change your mind when you hit 29.. 30… 31…32…”
    even though I was 100% certain that I didn’t ever want kids, 28 years old, and had already tried and been unable to tolerate oral contraceptives, Implanon, and IUDs.
    That arrogant, ‘I know better than you’ gynaecologist told me to come back in six months, and we’d talk about sterilisation again then.
    In that six months, despite scrupulous care with contraception, I had a condom break, so I had to have an abortion.
    I did finally get my much-demanded sterilisation, but only after so much stress, financial cost, and physical pain that was completely avoidable if the damned gynaecologist had just booked me in for a sterilisation when I had first asked him to, rather than insisting “You will change your mind about kids when you turn 30.”
    I’m now 34.. no kids, and not regretting it in the slightest.
    I’ve learned not to answer honestly if coworkers or acquaintances ask me if I want kids, because they always say “I felt that way too when I was your age, you’ll change your mind…”
    It’s as if they feel threatened that I don’t want kids.
    I don’t know why, how does my decision about having children or not affect them?
    I’m not judging or criticising *their* choices in any way, I am just making the decision that is right for *me*.

  14. I feel very strongly about this as well. I’ve had nightmares (really terrifying nightmares) about pregnancy and childbirth ever since I hit puberty, and this coupled with my overall ambivalence toward children (and strong inclination toward a creative career) has convinced me never to do it myself.
    The comments that bother me the most on those articles are the “Since you care enough to write about it, you MUST be secretly conflicted! Ladiez don’t know their own uterusbrains too well do they? Lololol!” Ugh. Privilege blindness, it hurts.

  15. It’s very funny timing that you put this up when you did. I read it immediately after I had experienced one of those vast whooshes of fury. Then I thought to myself, “am I really angry with a three year old? A person who is pure id, who can’t possibly know any other way to be?”, and I realised I wasn’t angry with him, I was angry with having to have another one of those pointless, circular conversations where you have to keep hearing and saying the same thing over and over for minutes at a time. The distinction may be moot, but the point is that no one can be expected to live like that unchanged (after all, this is what they do to break political prisoners), so I don’t understand how anyone could have a problem with the idea that some people are willing to go through that for the benefits that accrue alongside it, and some people aren’t.

    • That’s the thing about certain benefits as incentives, isn’t it? They only incentivise some people, not all. We all have different cost-benefit calculations on this.

  16. Slight tangent.
    It always bothers me that people assume that if you don’t have children in a visible way, you never had them, or were never responsible for caring for one. Particularly if you are young. Why assume that a childless woman doesn’t have any experience with children? In a global context, its actually an immense privilege to reach 25 without experiencing child rearing in some way.
    I spent a few years of my adolescence playing a significant part in rearing my little brother. I wasn’t the sole breadwinner and I still went to school, but I did most of the waking up at night to console, dressing, disciplining, bathing, teeth brushing, sunscreen applying, cooking, feeding, cleaning, pulling things from the carpet out of mouth-ing, etc. I know how awful it can be. I know how frustrated and angry you can get with a child who seems for all the world like they’re enjoying taunting you. I know how you can resent them. I also know exactly what it feels like to love them with every thing you have, to feel heartbroken for the future when they wont remember then play/fun/love from their toddler years, to look at them when they are 16 and still remember them as tiny creatures that needed your protection.
    He’s imprinted on me, but because he isn’t holding my hand in public, no one takes that seriously. I can’t know about kids, I’m not a mother.
    And yet, I still don’t think I’ll have kids. I always wanted to until I met my partner, who is dead against it. It isn’t that I’ve given it up for him, its that I never properly considered my future without children before he challenged me – now that I have thought about it, I’m pretty sure I’ll be happy either way.
    People assume I’m too young to make a decision (although, interestingly, not too young to be getting the “hurry up” message). Of course, no one ever asks my male partner though, and if it comes up, no one cares.
    (It is generally painful to hear people say you can’t make a decision until you’ve done something, but that’s a separate thing for me.)
    @Orlando, “vast whooshes of fury” is definitely what I’ll be calling them from now on.

  17. Thankyou Mindy, for a wonderful piece on this topic. Having read the Clem Bastow article and most of the comments, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to read so many thoughtful responses. (Which makes me wonder for the millionth time why I continue to inflict the MSM on myself.)
    Being a childless-by-choice woman currently in the age-group most favoured by the “you’re running out of time, you’ll regret it if you miss out” crowd, I revisit my decision regularly. Even though I go through all the same for and against arguments every time and always come to the same conclusion, I continue to think it through over and over again. This is partly a personality thing (not having the courage of my convictions; assuming I might be wrong about my feelings and others right about them etc), but I think it’s also indicative of the enormous societal pressure on women to reproduce. I only had to consider nursing as a career option once in order to reject it as an unsuitable choice for me, but motherhood I feel compelled to consider repeatedly. I am never told I’ll regret it for the rest of my life if I don’t drop everything, re-train in an entirely different field and have a twenty year career in a caring profession.
    Just the other day I had lunch with my 70-year old godmother, who never had children, and she said to me (not for the first time) that she has never regretted her decision not to reproduce. For the first time, she told me that she always thought she WOULD regret it. The message from society that if you don’t reproduce you’ll end up a sad old person is so strong it even affected my godmother, who is among the most strong-willed, self-assured, and contented people I know.

  18. I think what’s interesting, as well, is how much this story about HOW AWESOME MOTHERHOOD IS plays into the expectations that women experience if/when they do have kids. I know people who have felt very keenly the sense that they really ought to find motherhood wonderful, and just really haven’t; in some cases, it’s really exacerbated postnatal depression and other such emotional and mental health difficulties.
    And in turn, this narrative also kind of makes it difficult for me to imagine having kids, because I know it’s not all hunkydory, and yet there are so few spaces (in the mainstream, I mean) for ideas-sharing about how to make sure, for example, that your village hangs around when you are headed into kidletsville (so sorry to hear about your friends, Aphie…). I feel a bit like there’s some connection between the emphasis on the nuclear family (and thus the denial of support to parents and kids from outside) and the talking about how wonderful having children is: so wonderful that that wonder will be enough to sustain you despite a lack of support, maybe?
    @Magnetic Crow, a couple of reading suggestions for you?

  19. Thanks for the links and the article. I’m still amazed at how much heat their is around this issue. We don’t hear men angsting over this, do we?
    I like Penni’s comment (on my post) about both childfree and parenting lives being portrayed as polarised, while each are in fact nuanced. It’s not black and white but the media often pits women against each other on the issue. Forcing each camp into defending their “choice”.

  20. It’s not black and white but the media often pits women against each other on the issue. Forcing each camp into defending their “choice”.

    YES! Because as long as we are pitted against each other, we aren’t united against the patriarchy and all those other ‘archys’ and ‘isms’ that keep us bound.

  21. If I ever have children, they will be adopted. I feel no desire to procreate or carry on my genes or anything of that nature. Maybe that will change, but I don’t think it will. And I’m tired of being treated like my purpose in life is to have other humans come out of me, like I’m not human enough on my own. Fuck that.

  22. Thanks for writing this, Mindy. I too have no children and want none – never have. I haven’t the temperament to deal with all the frustration, exhaustion and anger it produces; I have also never been in a financial position to do it, or had a man in my life in a position to be a father. But more than that, central in fact – and heaven help you if you say this around the “But babiez are the real meaning of a woman’s life!” crowd – is that I don’t actually LIKE children.
    Babies don’t make me come over all clucky. My usual reaction is to hope they don’t puke or start screaming while I’m in the vicinity. I haven’t the slightest interest in children of any age. But of course if you say this you’re a Bad Nasty Woman. Hell, I’ve copped abuse simply for moving away from an icecream-wielding toddler on the tram, simply because I really didn’t want to have to get a nice jumper dry-cleaned if I could avoid it. Doting on kiddies is apparently the default and if one doesn’t, one is At Fault.
    Give me cats and dogs any day …

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