For some reason, this subject has come up a lot in magazines and online discussions recently, and it always always turns into a nasty argument (look at the comments on this article for example - it's a bit one-sided to start with, but there are some really hurtful things being said by those who agree and disagree with it). Each “side” seems to expect judgement and abuse from the other, and tries to get it in first. All I can give is my own perspective, but given that I have been subject to aggressive and insensitive remarks about my childlessness, I have to assume that those with children sometimes, sadly, face similar unpleasantness from the childfree.
If you’re a reasonable person and don’t behave like this, you may not know what it’s like for 40+ women who don’t have children. I have people telling me I’m selfish for not wanting children. I hear that there is no point in me being on this earth if I am not going to reproduce. I am told that I will never experience love if I don’t have a child. I have NEVER felt any pressure from my partner, friends or family to have children. But the pressure from strangers, acquaintances and the media is immense.
At forty eight years old, I STILL have people telling me it’s “not too late”, that their aunt gave birth to a bouncing young cousin when she was fifty. That’s nice. But your aunt is (one presumes) a human being and so am I, and that means we are different.
That’s the problem, I think. I can’t speak for those with children, and the assumptions made about them - I’m sure there are many. But many people I meet start by assuming I am a parent, based on my age and gender. It’s irritating and insulting to me. I can’t imagine what it’s like for those who have lost a child or tried desperately for one for most of their reproductive lives. I can assure you the charity collector who greeted me on my own doorstep with “I bet the kids are driving you mad today” had the door firmly shut on her, and I sincerely hope that she thought twice about saying that to anyone else. There wasn’t much I could do about the JobCentre advisors who delayed my claim by (without my knowledge) registering me as having dependents. I had filled in the form correctly, but apparently my appearance and the law of averages overrode this.
I don’t know if this view of the childfree as oddities, anomalies has changed over time. I’d like to think we’re assumed to be less tragic than we once were. I have certainly felt the shift in the nation’s view of children since being a child myself in the 1970s, when children were expected to do what adults wanted. Now it seems that an adult’s life is governed by his or her children. Pity the generation that got the worst of both worlds, never being the important one in the family! I remember the shock I felt when I first heard children being asked their opinion on things, and the first time an adult apologised to me.
I believe you, today’s parents, when you say how rewarding and fulfilling parenting is, how it’s the best thing you’ve ever done and how much it’s taught you. But quite honestly, when I hear that, it sounds exactly the same as someone telling me how great it is to be a multi-millionaire. I’m really happy for you and I admire you enormously for getting there, but I don't have any reasonable way of putting myself in the same position.
I wanted a family, once. I wanted to make up for what I never had growing up. Then I learned how often neglected and abused children repeat these mistakes with the next generation. I learned how likely it was that any children would inherit my long-term illness. And, even if I’d felt I had the personal strength to overcome these issues, I didn’t meet my partner till I was 40. I call myself child-free by choice, but we don’t all have the same choices.
I have nothing but respect and admiration for parents. I agree it is the hardest job in the world. Those who are my friends know (I hope) that I find their children fascinating, engaging and adorable people, despite my not being terribly interested in babies per se. Parents who I don’t know personally, I hope that you know I’m not judging you for your choices. And in turn, I hope that you won’t judge me for mine.