Women without children aren’t selfish – we’re self aware

For years I’ve wondered why it’s acceptable for sexuality and gender to be on a spectrum, but not the proclivity to procreate

Louise Slyth
Saturday 08 April 2023 19:20 BST
Unmarried, childless women are happiest people of all, says expert

Maternal instinct is often thought of in black-and-white terms. Yet women are not a homogeneous group, so why are we treated like one? Not all women are equally programmed for, or effusive about, motherhood.

From a young age, I remember feeling ambivalent about motherhood. Open to it, but lacking that womb-skips-a-beat-when-a-toddler-trundles-by kind of maternal instinct. Throughout my twenties, I waited for it to kick in, as I was assured it would, but it never did.

When I got married at 30, the questions about babies started. By the time I was 35, it wasn’t uncommon for people to probe past the initial “no” and ask whether or not it was by choice.

I sometimes wonder whether people want to find out your story so they know where to file you in their minds. There are some who want to know whether to pity you or judge you. Even faced with that constant scrutiny, I couldn’t decide if motherhood was for me.

As the years went by, almost all my friends had children. By the time I was 38 I was in a pretty lonely place. I started to question myself and began to wonder if something was wrong with me. Why wouldn’t I want to share the love I had with my husband? Why would I let my biological line end with me? Why couldn’t I make a damned decision?

Being a woman without kids can be a very isolating experience. There are few public role models we can look to, and fewer still who are openly child free. Fortunately, that’s finally changing, thanks to authors like Ruby Warrington, whose new book Women Without Kids makes me feel seen and understood.

Just like me, Warrington is a woman in a long, happy relationship without kids, and she is fine with that.

Warrington shares her fear of being called selfish, and I can definitely relate to that. I sometimes worry there is a perception that us child-free women live a life of folly, skipping down the high street in our Jimmy Choos and washing down our contraceptive pills with a glass of champagne.

Rather than selfish, I’d like to think of these brave women as self-aware. From what I’ve seen, motherhood is no easy gig. I think of it more as a vocation than a biological or psychological imperative.

Yet there are many who still believe that a woman’s principal purpose is baby-making. They struggle to understand that a woman might choose something else for herself, or feel she isn’t in a position to make such a choice.

I suspect motherhood might have been a challenge for me. I have little patience, and my tolerance for noise, mess and sticky fingers is low. I’d rather not do it than do a bad job. In that respect I think I’m incredibly unselfish.

Women in the media who don’t have children are sometimes portrayed as sad, empty or unfulfilled. Either that or cruel heartless bitches. We are at best seen as defective, at worst, deviant. Why can’t a woman be happy in herself, just as she is?

There is a growing and significant minority of women who are embracing the rainbow of opportunities that not having children affords them. Birth rates in the western world are dropping dramatically, and with younger generations facing both a cost of living and a climate crisis, it’s no wonder many are pausing for thought rather than rushing to join the family bandwagon.

For years I’ve wondered why it’s acceptable for sexuality and gender to be on a spectrum, but the proclivity to procreate receives no such understanding.

I was never an affirmative yes or no, I was a maybe. It’s perhaps telling that I kept putting off the decision until it was no longer my decision to make. I was terrified of making an irreversible choice that I might regret. After all, it’s the one thing in life that you can’t take back. You can get divorced, quit your job, even have your tattoo removed, but there are no do-overs when it comes to motherhood.

There were people who urged me to go for it, telling me I’d feel differently when I had a child of my own, or that I’d regret not having one later in life, but to me that felt risky and reckless.

Warrington writes, “Every woman who challenges the conventions of motherhood is a force for change, both individual and collective. Not because of the things she does, but because of who she is.”

I notice this now with the younger women in my life. They look at me and see that there are other ways to live, other things to do, other ways to be a woman. Just by being me, I am demonstrating an alternative reality for them.

The fact that I can look back without self-judgement or regret, makes me think everything worked out just as it should. I know that some women can juggle it all – or appear to – but I’ve always known my limitations.

Over the last two years I’ve done a little therapy and a lot of introspection. I’m now blissfully certain that motherhood was never for me.

I think at some point you have to make peace with the guilt or the grief for the life you might have had. Otherwise, you’ll waste the rest of your life looking backwards.

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