As a younger teen I often bragged that I would never get married and certainly never have children. Mostly, I got a kick out of making controversial statements. I also considered myself a feminist (still do) and naively felt that this was at odds with pursuing family life. But mainly, I saw marriages suffering all around me, with children caught in the middle, and it scared the hell out of me.
It was safer to make the joke and scandalise friends and family than to admit that wanted to be a wife and mother – as well as a writer, speaker and advocate, in whatever forms those roles would take.
But while my assertion was a more of a joke that ended up falling on me when I got engaged at 22, I know a number of women who actually do not want children. One told me that she’s sure she’d mess things up, having had a traumatic relationship with her own mother. Others have simply decided that it’s not what they want for their lives. Whether that’s because they doesn’t want to lose independence or freedom or for some other reason, I don’t know.
I’ve always had a certain admiration for women who choose childlessness. Even if they don’t stick with it further down the line, it’s a decision to be honest with themselves and the world about their lives.
And I think it’s a bit unfair to dismiss their views with: “You’re young. You’ll change your mind.” Surely this goes both ways – except that women who choose to have children can’t change their minds.
Still, I found myself saying exactly this to a friend who admitted again the other day that she didn’t want children. I said it off-hand, without much thought, as we passed the cake around. In fact, I’ve found myself saying it in a few conversations with friends who view things this way. It’s surprised me even as I’ve said it.
It’s almost as if I’ve developed some pregnant woman syndrome that makes me want to see others join me. It’s like a Jane Austen thing where married women are compelled to match-make others.
I realise it could just mean that I am happy and want to see my friends happy. But when did my idea of happiness shrink? To say that motherhood is what truly fulfils a woman is insulting not only to women who choose childlessness but to those who cannot have children. It’s also a pitiably small view of what “woman” is.
I’ve wondered too if I’ve said “You’ll change your mind” just because I want company. At 24, I’m the first in my circle of friends to be pregnant. I’m stepping out into the unknown and maybe I just want someone else to step out with me.
But even so, I know I’ll meet other women in my situation and I’m confident enough in my current friendships to believe that my friends see my having a baby as an experience they’re participating in too.
What I don’t think is going on is me suddenly imposing some ill-defined sense of morality on the situation. I don’t think that women “should” or “should not” have children. I don’t think maternal instinct is innate. I’m not even sure what it is.