There’s a dirty word often thrown about in the ‘childless/childfree’ debate: selfishness. Although you rarely ever hear people saying that men who haven’t had children are selfish…
It’s an opinion that people feel free to voice, often unkindly and without a second thought. I recall being at my ex-father in law’s funeral. It was a perversely beautiful hot summer’s day for a funeral and my arms were bare as I stood, numb, with my then husband. I was surprised to feel a sharp pinch near my elbow and looked down into the rheumy eyes of a tiny old lady I’d never met before.
“You should be ashamed of yourself!” she said, fiercely, pinching me harder, “too busy with your career to have a baby! Your generation is so selfish!” And then she marched off.
Blindsided, I went outside to find a cool place in the shadows and wept hot, sharp tears. She wasn’t to know that my husband and I had been trying to have a baby for years. It was a tough day but she’d managed to make it worse.
For such a private matter, it’s astonishing how everybody feels they have a right not only to have an opinion, but also to let you know what it is. Much as complete strangers will stop to coo over someone’s baby, this old lady didn’t hesitate to let me feel the full force of her disgust at my ‘selfish decision’ not to have children.
“If you believe that every childfree married couple is selfish, then this means that you believe that every human being is cut out to be a parent. How could anyone agree that every human is cut out to be a parent? This would mean you think that everyone, alcoholics, rapists, even pedophiles should create offspring.”
And yet just as I found the old lady’s criticism of me hurtful and insensitive, this kind of logical pushback doesn’t help either – because the ‘argument’ isn’t a rational one, it’s an emotive, irrational, taboo-driven one – and pointing this out only seems to perpetuate the idea that childfree women are, deep down, slightly unhinged. That they didn’t have kids because something is ‘wrong’ with them. And that hurts too, and is insulting to all women without children.
In biological reality, the ‘selflessness’ (and self-sacrifice) of many mothers is an extraordinary thing; an unconditional love which sets a pattern for our adult longings and expectations of love. And, much as women without children (whether by choice or circumstance) can claim that we are ‘not selfish’ the evolutionary selflessness of motherhood is not something we’ll ever experience. A mother’s love for her child has a fierceness that we will never know – giving birth physically changes the structure of the brain and makes the survival of the child more important that self-protection. That doesn’t make us non-mothers monsters, but neither does it totally invalidate the notion that we are indeed perhaps more selfish than parents. But this is to use the word ‘selfish’ in an incredibly narrow way.
I believe the more important question is this: can I still be a good person even though I’m not a mother? And the answer to that is a resounding ‘yes’.
I spent 15 years of my life with a big part of me stuck on ‘pause’ because I thought I’d be a mother soon. I lost my ambition, my spunk. I made crap decisions about relationships, finances and my career. Everything was just temporary, until… the day that never came.
To be whole again, I’ve had to grieve for the life unlived. And on the other side of the grief I’ve found a life of meaning and purpose. It’s not always easy, having my mind free of children and childcare issues. I often have way too much time to think about myself which is rarely helpful.
A close friend told me that since she’d had children ‘she didn’t have to work out what her life was about anymore’. On top of all the other losses, women without children don’t get that existential ‘get out of jail free’ card either.
What we get instead is the chance to define our freedom, to create our meaning. To use our nurturing, wise, intelligent feminine energy to make the world a better place for other people’s children to inherit. To love our nephews and nieces, our stepchildren, our god-children (if we have them), and all the other people in the world who need loving as it’s not just children who need love! To watch our friends pass through the life we longed for without being bitter or resentful.
And yes, we have to make our own plans for when we’re old. We can’t just cross our fingers and hope that someone else is going to take care of us.