Did your childhood put you off motherhood?

A Cambodian girl with her dolls | Andy Gray | Photosensibility.comOne of the things about finding yourself somewhere either side of 40 and suprised to find that you’re not a mother, is that you probably spend a fair amount of time wondering how the hell you ended up here.

You mentally playback your life from that first boyfriend onwards and reconsider every decision you made, every relationship that didn’t feel right, every opportunity you walked away from, the pregnancies you terminated, the morning-after pills you took – all those those missed opportunities that just ‘didn’t work out’. Seen through this unpleasantly nauseous wrong-end-of-the-telescope viewfinder, you wonder how all of that led to, well, this…

And then, you start to consider that perhaps those female friends of yours that you secretly joked about as boring and unambitious… those ‘Doris Day’ throwbacks married before 30 and pregnant soon after… and suddenly you realise that the joke’s on you. It seems, from where you’re standing, that they were a lot more clued-up than you gave them credit for.

Why did they make motherhood a priority and you didn’t? Why did you think that having a family was somehow just going to ‘happen’ to you one day, like going to France? How come nobody warned you that if you didn’t get your act together and ‘settle down’ you’d wake up an old maid? And that once you hit your mid-thirties, suddenly the guys all seem to be going out with women five years younger than you…

How you laughed about the term ‘old maid’! Such an antique term, like something from a Jane Austen novel. Not so funny anymore, is it…

So, how did so a smart, intelligent, funny, good-looking, kind, decent, well-travelled, hard-working, well-educated, cultured, liberated woman like you end up this way? Why wasn’t your biological clock more of a Big Ben and less of a whisper? And why didn’t you clock all this sooner…

But let me ask you this… when you were a little girl, did you dream of becoming a mother?  

Mother and daughter and baby boy line drawing from cover of Ladies Home Journal, 1948Did you play with your dolls and change their nappies? When you first fell in love, did you immediately start imagining having his baby? Did you pick out baby names when you were in your early 20’s and write them in a special book? Did you buy and save baby clothes for ‘that day’? Did you love babies, and love being around your friend’s babies?

Well, I didn’t. I thought babies were dull. I told my husband before we got married that I didn’t want children, and I believed it at the time. They only became interesting when I wanted to have one, but only as a vague sort of concept. And even then, I didn’t find other people’s babies all that interesting. I love my nephews, neices and god-children, but I didn’t find them fascinating until they were about two-years old.

Fast-forward almost 18-years since I first started trying for a baby with my then-husband. We never conceived, and I’ve never had a child. Unexplained infertility, they called it.

But it’s only recently that my grief over that has eased enough for me to reflect on one of the reason why I was never baby-crazy in my teens and twenties: thinking about motherhood reminded me of my childhood.

And having narrowly escaped that by the skin of my teeth, somewhere inside me there is a template that says that’s what childhood is. And I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and I definitely wouldn’t wish it on my own child. My own mother’s childhood was pretty grim too, but her generation didn’t have easy access to contraception.

But it’s not just a tough childhood that might have contributed to a chary view of motherhood: for those who grew up in a ‘perfect’ family, chances are it was ‘perfect’ because your mother made it her life’s work. And if you were an ambitious, canny girl you might have looked at what her life entailed and thought… I’m not sure I could ever sacrifice myself the way she did. Sometimes perfection can be as much of a deterrent!

Contraception allows us to make conscious choices, to plan when we have our children. However, perhaps it also enables us to make unconscious choices that keep deeper fears at bay. I talked to a woman recently who is childfree by choice, and she said that she’d always known that she didn’t want kids. She told me that her mother was a single mum and that it had been a really hard struggle and that it wasn’t something she’d ever want to put her own children through.

She didn’t seem to notice the glaring contradition in her statement: she’s not her mother. She has other choices.

There are women who are adamant that they don’t want children, they never have and they never will. Fair enough you’d think – yet they seem to get a disproportionate amount of vile attacks for their choice. I’ve written about this more fully elsewhere, particularly ‘When the mittens come off: childfree bating online’, so I won’t go into it here. I just want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that you should ask them to reconsider their ‘why’ – frankly, it’s nobody’s business except theirs.

But your ‘why’? Ask yourself this… were there children in your Wendy House? And if not, why not? As Hanif Kureshi, one of my favourite writers said:

We are all recovering children.

Every single one of us.


Jody Day - Founder of Gateway Women - www.gateway-women.comJody Day is the Founder of Gateway Women(UK): an organization to support, inspire and empower childless & childfree women live fertile, passionate, meaningful lives. A qualified counsellor and training psychotherapist, Jody runs groups & workshops for Gateway Women, and also offers one-to-ones for women looking to explore issues around identity, maternity & fertility. If you would like Jody to speak at one of your events, or to write for your blog or magazine, please contact her on jody@gateway-women.com

15 Comments on Did your childhood put you off motherhood?

  1. I wouldn’t say that I imagined my children and their names, and I certainly didn’t play with dolls, but I always have loved children and I’ve always been very good with children. I do agree with the babies thing – kids are much more interesting once their personalities start to come out. I already miss my nieces’ and nephews’ much younger days.

    But as usual, you raise a good point, Jody. I mean maybe there is a reason that I never obsessed over having to define myself by having a kid, you know?

    Thanks again for this site.:)

  2. My mother had me at 21 then divorced my father. My mother then remarried when I was 6 then had another child when I was 7, another when I was 9 and then twins when I was 11. My whole childhood felt like an overwhelming constant unending stream of diapers, throw up, fighting, needing, wanting… while I, the oldest child was always the last in the heap to have my needs met by my harried mother. While I acted as an aunt to them and while I am part of a large family I always felt like an only child due to the age difference, they are all extremely close to this day but I have always been the outlier. It sounds so impossible that in such a big family I would feel so lonely but I was and do now often feel excluded. Also growing up my step father contributed and encouraged the others to think of me only as a half sister while his side of the family heaped praise upon his kids I was the forgotten one.

    By being the first to go to college and the one to take off early (at18) to adventures around the world it only deepened the divide. My mother I feel pretty much killed and buried whatever mothering instinct I may have had. My whole childhood was one of rearing babies and I never want to do that again. While I love my family and my siblings and harbour no ill will I think that what my mother unwittingly put me through is the reason why I almost loathe children today.

  3. I’ve always known I didn’t want to have kids, for a variety of reasons. However, it is difficult being one of the few at my age without children but I wouldn’t change it at all. My partner doesn’t want children either, so that is good, as I have seen too many relationships end because someone changed their mind about having kids/not having them.

    Great article!

  4. Hello from France,
    This article made me think of my own childhood and the way my mother was. She got me when she was 38, 35 years ago. I’m a single child with much older cousins who lived in another part of the country. She always made her life before mariage sound glamourous (lots of travelling, different boyfriends…) and both her best friends remained happily childfree. I never was in contact with babies or younger children so I never felt comfortable around them. For a long time she would denigrate my childhood friends who would marry early and have children early. Now she is pressuring me to have children? And I feel she’s badly placed to have such an attitude… Mothers don’t realise the impact their words have on their daughters…

    • Hello in France

      Thank you so much for stopping by to comment. When you say “Mothers don’t realise the impact their words can have on their daughters,” I guess that’s true… although perhaps none of us can ever know the unintended consequences of our actions… !

      The question is, do YOU want to be a mother? It sounds like you have some happy childfree role models in your life, so you know that not being a mother isn’t the end of the world (even though no mother is allowed to have that opinion, which kind of puts them in a double-bind when it comes to having a voice on the subject!)

      What I see often is that women who have lives of ‘meaning’ (ie: following their dreams, whatever they are) don’t ‘crave’ motherhood in the same way as those who are ‘drifting’ in their late 30s and early 40s. When life’s gone all fuzzy, and perhaps a few of your dreams haven’t worked out, it can be easy to mistake a ‘baby’ for ‘meaning’. The fact is, creating a life of meaning takes work, but it’s upfront work. Having a baby creates a life of meaning – but the ‘work’ isn’t so obvious… but it’s lifelong and you can’t ‘change careers’.

      I’m not being callous, no… I longed for a baby for 15 years, although I began to twig after the age of 40 that there was MORE to my craving that just hormones… I just couldn’t quite work out what it was.

      These days, I have a life of meaning. It’s often exhausting and I don’t sleep much.

      But would I swap it for a baby, now, today? No, not today…

  5. I never really made this connection before, but maybe part of the reason I’m leaning towards not having kids is that I didn’t really enjoy being one myself. I grew up in a great home with awesome parents, but I hated being under someone else’s thumb and not being able to live my life the way I wanted. I love being an adult now, and being able to eat ice cream for dinner if I want or go to sleep without washing my face. So maybe part of it is that I don’t want to have to be the enforcer of these rules for 18-plus years for someone else.

  6. There’s a template inside me which says: “I will have a family with children and still keep working and lead my life the way i want it. Not like my mum who had to fight and question herself a lot for starting work again when we children grew older. I want it both and i’ll get it”.
    Well yeah, problem is, it was the “having children”-part that didn’t work out.
    So did that template put me off having children (waited too long, etc, blabla….) – even if they are a definite feature of that template???

    • Hi Mina,

      I guess the whole ‘you can have it all’ myth hasn’t worked out for quite a few women. Because often what it ‘have it all’ really means is ‘do it all’. There are very few women I know whose partners take an equal share of responsibility for children and the home…

      This is more of a cultural issue than is commonly realised, as in Scandinavian countries men are much more involved in all aspects of domestic / family life, state-sponsored childcare and early schooling is the norm and women who DON’T return to work are considered a bit odd or even dumb. There is no ‘Mummy-mania’, there are no ‘Yummy-Mummies’…

      Now, if that the culture in the UK/USA, don’t you think our ‘templates’ might have been a little different?

      Makes you think, doesn’t it…

      Thanks for commenting – great to hear from you, as always!

      Jody x

  7. Like in the book Bridget Jones’s Diary, I had one of those mothers who said to me, “If I had to do it over again, I would have never had children.” Things like that have a tendency to stick. My mother was also single and struggling after my parents’ divorce, so that definitely made me cautious about the circumstances I’d be willing to breed in.

    I still thought I’d have them, though, or at least one. I had lots of other priorities, but I did pick out the baby names, and I have always been drawn to children. I’m having a hard time not looking back and wondering where I went wrong. thebitterbabe.wordpress.com

    • Hello Ranty

      I guess something that occurred to me after I’d written the article is that my Mother never talked to me about the children I would have when I grew up. She talked to me of the great life out in the world I could have. The subtext was always that staying at home and being a Mum was not a choice you’d make if you had an alternative. And, as you say, these things ‘stick’. I’m not blaming her – being a stay at home didn’t suit her much and she was having a wild-old time in swinging-sixties London till I turned up…

      Thanks for your comment. I’m loving your blog and if anyone here hasn’t started reading it yet – start now! http://www.thebitterbabe.wordpress.com

      Jody x

  8. Yes! When I was a girl, I didn’t play mommy and baby. Instead, I was the manager of an orphanage for all my dolls, which were all other kids’ cast-offs. I did end up being a kind of foster-aunt to some very deprived children, in this kind of role that I foresaw for myself as a little girl. I also had a childhood beset with neglect and indifference from my parents who had too many children, all in a row. That put me off having children. Why? Because I have already brought up a child – myself. I brought myself up. Now I can enjoy the freedoms that others had as children and a take pleasure in a life free of neglect. Only now as an adult. I am childfree by choice and enjoying my adult life a great deal. I love my freedoms, including the choice to get my tubes tied.

  9. Interesting post and thoughts! I am one of those childfree women you mention. I have to say that while I had a lovely childhood I saw that TO ME mothers had the boring lives and “job” whereas ALL of those without the care of children had the interesting times as adults and I always found adults more interesting. I also saw that anyone can “borrow” a child from within one’s family or circle of friends so who needed to have them except those who wanted them badly.

    • Hi there

      Yes – I agree that our mother’s lives often didn’t look a whole lot of fun. And also that my nieces have always had a different relationship with me as their GA (Glamorous Aunt) as I’m the only they’ve got who isn’t a mother. In a way, I think I bridge the gap between the grown-ups and their generation. Whilst this is flattering, sometimes it’s also a bit lonely – I neither fit with the community of mothers, nor am I ‘one of the kids’.

      Sometimes I get tired of being the ‘role model’, the ‘pioneer’and just want to ‘fit in’. But the feeling usually passes after a nap 🙂 x

      Thanks for stopping by and thanks for commenting. Really do appreciate your childfree-by-choice viewpoint.

      Jody x

      • I’m not sure it’s as deep as all that, the not having kids thing. I had an excellent childhood: my Mother worked two jobs (as did my Dad) but they were both always there for us. I sort of thought that life would involve getting married and having kids but it wasn’t the be all and end all. I went through a ‘broody’ stage in my 20s but realised in my 30s that this was just something normal and then one day read this quote, can’t remember from where, which said: what would make you more scared at this moment in time: being presented with a brand new baby or finding out you’ll never have one. That sort of helped, to be honest.
        Whilst I think we all have the propensity to be ‘good’ mothers blah blah, there are so many choices now, life takes on so many new curves all the time, we struggle to fit in what we want to do already, so is it that I wanted to have a baby or I thought that was something I ought to do?
        The other most important point, which I don’t think has been mentioned above, is that your boyfriend/husband has to want a child too. Neither my long term boyfriend or my husband wanted children and told me this when I met them and my husband hasn’t changed his opinion since. I understood this and I made my choice. To have a child with someone who doesn’t want one just isn’t an option. I love my life, I love my husband, a child is just not part of the equation.
        I am very fortunate, I realise, to have the most fantastic nephew in the whole world and we have such larks together (he’s five) but at the same time I wake up in cold sweats sometimes that something might happen to him and that is a phenominally frightening thought for me so goodness’ knows how a parent feels.
        My Mum died in 2007. She was the best mother in the whole world and so honest and giving and inspirational. She had me quite late on (she was 28 when I was born in 1970) and had married in order to leave home more or less, but made a good life for us and when she left my father, she continued to do so. She wasn’t a feminist or a radical or anything like that but she lived her life as she wanted to do and I think I can speak for my younger sister too when I say that our upbringing didn’t put us off having children or getting married; it just made us want to enjoy the world and enjoy our lives, whether this includes children or not is not essential or life changing.

        The only time I felt any sort of shock about realising I wasn’t ever going to have children was after a routine operation because of pre-menopause issues when I was fitted with a coil and suddenly thought, wow, I’m 41, it’s very unlikely now that I will have a child. I cried for a wee bit and then I don’t know, it felt kind of like that there’s so much else I can do and I shouldn’t blight my life by this one, admittedly half hearted, desire.

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