So I caught up with an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs yesterday. I have to say I don’t normally listen to it but I wish I did. It seems like a thoroughly pleasant way to spend a bit of time. Kirsty Young’s voice is very soothing and the show has such an air of gentleness about it. For anyone who’s not familiar with the show, Kirsty invites a well-known person to choose eight songs they’d take with them if they were a castaway on a desert island. Interspersed with the guest’s chosen tracks is some gentle probing of the castaway’s private and public life.
With this site and blog in mind, a friend suggested I listen to the episode featuring the designer and queen of floral prints Cath Kidston from April 24. You can listen to the broadcast on the show’s archive. I was particularly interested in and moved by Cath Kidston’s comments about never having children and what that meant to her. She describes how, after getting treatment for breast cancer in her mid-30s, she was told by doctors that having children soon afterwards would be high risk. She decided, with her partner, not to take that risk. Later on, she saw another specialist who said it was a shame she hadn’t had children as it reduces the breast cancer risk. “It’s very difficult … really hard decisions,” she says. While she describes how wonderful it has been to help bring up a stepdaughter, who is now 18, she talks with sadness about never having given birth. Here’s an extract from the interview:
“I never imagined I wouldn’t have children so it’s very hard if I think about it, but I would never, I’m sure, have had my business if I’d have brought up children. In a way my business has been a bit like a replacement child. I’ve had to do that to fill that gap and it served me that way. And I’m sure, if you said to me now what would you have rather done, I’d of course, as a woman, I think, said I’d have rather had children. I don’t know the experience of what I’m missing out on luckily and anybody I talk to who’s had children will say they wouldn’t exchange it for anything, but I think I’ve been able to fill that gap by running a business and having this sort of, in a sense, extended family within the business.”
I don’t know why I was surprised by what she said. Maybe I wasn’t prepared for quite so much honesty. I think I’d been expecting her to say that she didn’t regret not having children, that her business was enough. I’m not sure why I thought she was going to say that as I know I would feel exactly the same way if I ended up with a hugely successful, global business empire but without any children. I’d exchange the business, the success, the achievement, the renown, whatever it was, for a child of my own in a flash. As I’ve written before, particularly in my Just As I Am blog post ‘The Baby Gap‘, I know some women who have happily chosen not to have children and have no regrets. But I know many more who are struggling to get pregnant and going through a really tough time or who are processing their grief around the fact they never did have children.
Cath Kidston went on to say: “It’s very primitive, isn’t it, underneath? We think we’re really sophisticated and are off buying all these fine things and doing this or that but at the end of the day we’re animals, I think.”
I agree, for many women, it is primitive. It may sound like a cliché but many of us do feel a biological urge and if it isn’t satisfied, there is bound to be grief that needs processing – not for all, of course, but for many.
However, I can’t help feeling the whole baby thing is a huge conundrum, particularly for women today. On top of the urge to give birth, many women (and men too of course but I’m sticking to what I know for today!) also have huge passion and drive to accomplish things, to be known, to use their skills and talents for a good purpose, to be a catalyst for change, to nurture, to create, to help and support others. And today, so many women have the opportunities to do all this and more. No wonder we’re so busy! But when do we take a break from all the accomplishing, achieving and pursuing our passions (our professional and creative passions rather than our romantic ones) to have a baby?
Some women are lucky enough to have had children and been able to pursue their professional dreams, by doing so in a particular order or managing to do both at the same time. But for others, things haven’t worked out like that, for various reasons. Maybe we focused too much on our careers, maybe we kept repeating unhealthy relationship patterns or maybe we were stuck in some addictive behaviour or other.
Even if we were pretty much sorted, we can’t just stop at 35 or 38 and say, right, I think it’s time for a baby now if the right guy isn’t around, unless we’re brave enough to go it alone, as indeed many women are. But what if we don’t want to be a single Mum and we’re 35 or 37 or 40? Well, we just have to wait, hope and pray, I guess.
Of course, so many women have gone before me and have probably worked this all out. They’ve had careers and babies and have either lived happily ever after as a strong family unit, broken up with the child’s father or stayed with him in a less-than-satisfactory relationship. But, at 40, the whole thing seems like such a big conundrum. Could we have done things differently? Should we have done things differently? Do I think too much?!
I was chatting the other day to a lady I know who, I think, is in her late 20s. She was talking about going off travelling and following her heart, rather than sitting around waiting for her boyfriend of several years to commit. Excellent idea, I thought, especially if you’re not sure you’re with the right guy. And you have to follow your dreams and explore your passions, even if you are with the right guy. But I admit there were some other thoughts running through the back of my mind. Should I tell her not to wait too long or travel too far? Should I say follow your dreams and your passion but make sure you stop at some stage and make time for babies? Should I tell her that I’d travelled the world and lived abroad for ten years but was now 40 and wondering if I would have a baby of my own. I didn’t say anything because I know we can’t plan our lives like that. We can’t engineer the right guy to come along just at the exact time when we’re ready to have a baby. We just have to get out there and live.
So what’s my conclusion? I’m not sure I have one other than the fact that the whole thing is a conundrum and if I sit here trying to work it out, I’ll go nuts! I suppose my lessons to myself on this topic are to trust, trust that God will either bring the man and the baby or will give me the courage and wherewithal to be happy, content and fulfilled if things don’t pan out that way. The other advice I’d want to give to my younger self would be to try to end a relationship sooner if it looks like it’s not going in the right direction rather than hanging on in there out of fear; be proactive with dating or activities that get you out there meeting like-minded people; pursue your dreams but keep your eyes open along the way; get to know yourself better and learn to love and take care of yourself first (maybe even start with a plant or a cat!), and finally, to remember to do the footwork, but also to remember to surrender the results.
Any comments on this conundrum would be gratefully received – I know I’m not alone!
It is a conundrum whichever way round things happen. I didn’t want children, but also didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career, and dithered around until both became clear in my mid-30s. I then couldn’t do both at the same time, so left it up to God as to what came first, and it was a baby. However he was a baby who only lived 8 weeks after birth. Then it was hard to conceive, and I therefore didn’t have living children until I was 36 and then another at 40. But neither have I had a career, and now all those longings “to accomplish things, to be known, to use their skills and talents for a good purpose, to be a catalyst for change, to nurture, to create, to help and support others”, as you say so eloquently, are being felt very powerfully and yet my commitment to my children’s wellbeing means I can’t really see myself achieving the full-time career I might otherwise have envisaged, and that is a loss to process, too.
When my son died and it then took almost 2 years to conceive again, I felt and still feel strongly that I want to tell younger women not to leave it too long. Women assume that they will be fertile and that a positive pregnancy test means a live baby at the end, and those are very big assumptions which all too often do not come true. People can only make good decisions when they have full and accurate information to base them on, and if we who have been there do not pass on the information we have learned, how can other women make their decisions for the best?
I was also really moved by your comment and very sorry to hear about your experience of losing your first son. It is too easy to take our children for granted and not realise how precious the gift of life is.
I hope that you manage to find fulfilment and satisfaction in your professional life, and have every confidence that you will.
Thank you for sharing,
Thank you so much for your comment, for your honesty and your willingness to share your story. I was very moved by what you wrote. It really made me see how all our experiences are so different and that whatever our journey, there will always be difficulties and losses we will have to deal with. That’s why I also believe it’s so important to share our experiences with each other.
Your comment has also prompted me to appreciate what I have and where I am and not to judge other people by what I see on the outside. As a single woman without children, I can often look at women who do have children and think they have it all. My own desire to be a Mum sometimes stops me from pondering what losses they may have experienced or what they might have given up – despite knowing mothers who do feel a sense of loss around their professional lives.
Your comment has also encouraged me in terms of this website. I wholeheartedly agree that it’s our responsibility to pass on our experiences so others have good information and can make informed, timely decisions. And this can also mean that our experiences, however painful, are not wasted. Thanks so much for sharing yours.
Best wishes, Katherine
Another great post and it really is such a conundrum. I see a lot of my friends spending years in relationships with men who just won’t commit to either marriage or having a baby, and they are in their mid 30s now. It really is so hard, because as you get older, there’s that feeling that if you split up with someone, you’ll have to find someone new, and start from scratch – and you don’t (usually!) want to be having a baby with someone you don’t really know. So you continue in the hope they change their mind, or give up on your hope of having a baby.
I also see it the other way round – my brother is in a relationship with a woman who is older than him (again mid 30s, he is 30) – she really wants children and to get married, but he doesn’t – at least not yet. I want to tell him to do the decent thing – either get on with it, or be honest and let her know so at least she has a chance of finding someone else who does.
I am really enjoying your posts (I am “only” 32 so have a lot to learn….)
You’ve pinpointed the difficulties so many of us go through. And yes, honesty in relationships is hugely important, particularly when so much is riding on it.
I’m tempted to say I envy you being “only” 32 but as I’m trying to practise self-acceptance, I stop myself – I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be today!
Best wishes, Katherine
Hi Katherine, I got married at 38 and was kind of hoping that I would have children, but looking back, I often unconsiously sabotaged my chances of doing so. Earlier in life I chose unsuitable partners that I didn’t want to have children with anyway and then soon after my wedding I left a well paid job to do a course in nutrition, so money was tight. The course taught us about the importance of excellent nutrition, giving up alcohol etc before even thinking about conceiving, so I told myself I would talk to my husband when I knew more and was leading a super healthy lifestyle. That never really happened and before I knew it, I was 40. Then my mum’s condition (she had Alzheimers) worsened and it didn’t seem right to have a baby when my father was struggling to care for her and in his eighties. After my mum died, I decided I wanted to move house and once again money was tight. My husband and I had ‘the conversation’ for the final time and I realised it was never going to happen. Now I am 48 and hopefully have finished grieving, and feeling that my life is somehow pointless without children to look after. I have come to realise that the sense of purpose I was looking for through having children can be achieved in other ways such as doing work that I enjoy and find fulfilling and helping others, especially my 90 year old father. So not so much freedom at the moment, but definitely a lot of acceptance that my life is happening as it should.
Thank you for your comment, Sally, and your honesty. I’m really touched by people’s willingness to share their stories here. It sounds like you’ve come to a place of peace around where you are today, which is the best and most loving thing we can do for ourselves, I think, whatever our circumstances. Finding fulfillment and enjoyment through work we love or helping people we love sounds like a great way forward.
Best wishes, Katherine
Hi Katherine, as 36 year old man who has never felt the paternal instinct I am quietly embarrassed. The conundrum I find is the natural isolation from my peer group, the majority of whom have or are having children. They love being parents and seeing true happiness in your friends is wonderful. Compared to the trauma of losing children or the absence of wanted ones it is utterly trivial. I still feel it though.
I am one of those men in their mid 30’s who wouldn’t commit can only apologise. It was a great 6 year relationship that had wonderful times. From the start I was open about my feelings on having children, something she (and possibly I) believed would be grown out of. In the end it was other character differences issues that ended it but I can’t help think it was always there.
As a number of my good friends are in a similar position my heart goes out to anyone wanting children and not being able.
Enjoyed finding your site and will return. Thankyou
Thanks for commenting, Johnny, and thanks for reading this blog. It’s great to have a male perspective and I’d love to hear more from you and other men on this site. It’s important to hear all sides! I’ve struggled with the whole commitment issue myself, despite wanting children, and am still working through it. I’ve also come across a lot of men who say they don’t feel the paternal instinct, but then there are also a lot of fathers out there. Maybe it’s a question of timing and being in the right relationship. Thanks for your honesty and I wish you all the best with your own conundrum.
Best wishes, Katherine