Am I childless or childfree? Or am I neither? Am I somewhere in between?
I drafted this blog earlier this week but couldn’t finish it at the time. I’ve returned today to edit it and to share it with you ahead of World Childless Week next week, 10-16 September.
Gosh, this blog is going to a tough one to write. I wrote some of it in my head while running along the beach this morning and then while swimming in the sea, looking through my goggles at the shells on the seabed, diving down to pick one up that looked like a heart, running my fingers over its smooth surface, noticing the tiny crack at the top – the tiny crack in the heart.
The first thing that occurred to me as I ran is that I can have these wonderful, peaceful, solo mornings because I don’t have children. I can roll out of bed into my car and onto the beach. I can jog along the sand, allowing my thoughts and feelings to move through me with every stride. I can feel the cool water against my body as I swim.
What a gift. This life of mine really suits me.
But then I don’t know how it feels to be woken up by a child’s soft hand or flawless cheek brushing against mine. I don’t know how it feels to snuggle up to the warm body of a young soul I’ve created with somebody I love, or even on my own.
Of course, nor do I know how it feels to be woken up through the night by a screaming baby or a child who’s having nightmares – to feel like I haven’t slept for weeks, like I’m sleepwalking, like my brain has gone to jelly and my life is unravelling; to feel there’s a little person who depends on me but I’m barely holding it together myself.
Because parenthood is a mixed bag, so I imagine and so I’ve read. There are good days and there are days when you feel like you’re losing yourself, losing your mind.
Just as not having children is a mixed bag too – at least for me.
There are mornings when everything is absolutely perfect in my world, when I step onto the cool sand on an empty beach that feels entirely mine and my eyes prick with tears because I can’t believe how good this life feels.
Then there are days when I look at mums and dads with their children, laughing with them, playing with them, stroking their hair, bursting with pride, perhaps pinching themselves because they created this wonderful human being who will grow and mature and perhaps give them grandchildren. There are days when I show up to my Pilates class – which starts at 9:30 am after the mothers have finished the school run and rarely happens during school holidays – and feel so odd, so alien, because I can’t join in conversations about toddlers or teenagers. I can only stand, looking at my feet, adjusting my top, feeling separate.
There are days when I feel that the only things I ever have to shout about or celebrate are to do with my work – I got an article in a magazine, I got on the radio or on TV, I published my book. It feels like I’ve been doing this my entire life, celebrating work while everyone else celebrates a baby’s birth, her first steps or his first words. Fortunately, in recent years, I’ve had personal stuff to shout about too – a relationship, a home with my partner, an engagement. Hurrah. Finally, something to celebrate that isn’t work.
But these wonderful personal shifts sadly don’t stop me from gawping at other people’s lives and thinking they’ve got it right while I’ve got it wrong.
I do that often, you know. I stare at other people. I drink in their lives.
I examine how they look, how they’re dressed, the way they hold their partner’s hand, the way they chuckle with their kids, and I generally assume that they’re having a better experience – a better life – than me.
I feel sad to write this, and it’s so much better than it was, so much better, I promise you. I am so much more accepting of my life and able to believe that I am where I’m meant to be, thanks to years of personal development, mindfulness, therapy and the fruits of all that work: a lovely relationship; someone to cuddle on the beach; a job that I love. But it’s my truth. I’ve been staring at other people’s lives and assuming they’re happier than me for as long as I can remember, ever since I was a little girl. It’s a hard habit to break.
When I was small, I was absolutely convinced that other people – other children – were having a better experience than me. They had to be. It was obvious. I gazed at the lives of friends and strangers as though I was kneeling outside their windows in the dirt, looking in on some cosy, family scene straight out of Hollywood.
I observed unbroken homes, children who had mums and dads living under the same roof, apparently loving each other. I marvelled at kids who slept in the same bedroom throughout their school years and during university holidays – who didn’t move about to different homes or wonder where home was once they’d turned 18. I stared at these children for whom life seemed to stable and fair.
When we used to holiday in Abersoch in North Wales, I’d gaze at the people with their second homes by the sea and their bright white motor boats. My brother and I would crouch by the causeway, hugging our knees against our chests, gaping at the blonde-haired children who played in the back of the boats as their sun-kissed parents pulled them along in a Range Rover. It looked idyllic – and far removed from my experience.
I honestly never thought it could be any different for me. That’s the mindset I grew up around and developed for myself. A ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ mindset, as I wrote about in a previous blog. There were two camps and I would always be in mine. This was my lot and it would never change.
That’s what I thought about having kids too. I never dreamed that my experience of motherhood could be any different from my mum’s. I couldn’t imagine that it could ever be enjoyable, that I’d have a loyal and loving man to help who would stick around, that I’d have enough money to bring up kids without an almighty struggle, that it would be fun and rewarding rather than incredibly hard work, a ball and chain around your neck.
I thought I’d find it as difficult as my mum seemed to find it. I thought I’d feel trapped, imprisoned, caged, grounded, my wings clipped. And I so didn’t want that.
That feeling – that rejection of the life I’d seen my mum endure (she may not have endured it, of course, but that was how I saw it) – is, I think, a big reason why I don’t have kids. It’s taken me until now, until my 40s, until it’s too late, to understand that it didn’t have to be like that. That it could have looked very different for me.
Another reason is that for years now, I’ve been learning to re-parent myself, to nurture, love and care for the little child within, after years of neglecting her, berating her, punishing her with too much work and stuffing her with food to shut her up. I was too busy mothering myself to countenance mothering anyone else.
Unlike many women who are childless, I never tried to have kids. For many years, I ran away from it and avoided it at all costs. Then for a few years, in my late 30s, and early 40s, I panicked. It seemed that’s all I could think about and write about. Of course, I wanted to be a mum. Didn’t every woman? Wasn’t it the most natural thing in the world?
And then I did even more work on myself and understood how deep my ambivalence about motherhood went and how my desire for a child was tied up with how empty and lost I felt on the inside, and how lonely I felt without anyone to share my life with. I came to understand that a child wouldn’t necessarily fill that emptiness or satisfy the internal hunger, at least not for the long-term.
And then I chose to have a relationship with a man who didn’t want children. I actively made that choice. I could have chosen to keep looking for a potential partner who wanted kids. I could have chosen to spend all my savings, borrow money or sell my flat to finance solo IVF. I could have looked into adoption on my own. I’m an intelligent, resourceful woman. I make things happen. I could have made motherhood happen – somehow – or at least I could have given it my best shot. I didn’t. I chose to be with my partner.
Of course, my journey is much more complex than that paragraph, which is why I’ve written a book and am writing another, but that sums up a lot of it.
So I made choices, subconscious and conscious ones based on my upbringing, my childhood experiences and the messages I picked up. And not just based on my upbringing, of course, but on my parents’ lives, and their parents’ experiences and so forth, because my journey is irrevocably tied to the lives of my ancestors.
Yes, I can change the course of my life, I can let go of old wounds, heal and move forwards – as I have done with my relationship – but all that takes time. It takes time to realise where we are and how we’ve got here, to understand what lies behind our faulty thinking. At least it took me a long time. I’m 47 and I’m only really seeing now that I could have had a different family life to my own – I could have been a happy mum.
Living here, in Poole, parenthood looks so different to how it looked in 1970s Liverpool. Not for everyone, of course. There’s plenty of hardship here. But I don’t see that so much. Instead, I focus on the families who are doing life very differently to how we did it back then. The mums and dads with their kids – two, three, four or five of them – who go on amazing holidays and have boats and beach huts; with wealth, with time, some with nannies; with careers and freedoms. And they’re having fun, or at least that’s how it looks. They’re enjoying playing with their kids. Their children seem to enrich their lives. That’s not how it looked in my home.
In fact, these mums and dads seem to enjoy more freedom than I do even without kids, and that’s because my faulty mindset extends beyond parenthood to life in general. Part of me still feels that there’s a ‘Them’ and an ‘Us’ and I’ll never arrive in the ‘Us’ camp. I have all the external trappings of having joined ‘Them’ – the top-notch education, the high-flying career, the home and so forth – but deep inside, I still have the mindset of a little girl from a single-parent family in Liverpool who felt ashamed about receiving free school meals, who felt different, wrong somehow, who didn’t feel like she deserved abundance, joy, ease and freedom.
I am still attached in some ways to my old story, to the idea that life has to be a struggle, that it has to be miserable. So I make things extra hard for myself. I don’t believe in myself enough. I shoot myself in the foot. I self-sabotage. I don’t write my next books or shout about my courses or invest in my business so that it brings abundant rather than just about adequate returns.
Again, I am changing. I am growing. Things are different to how they were, but I still have a way to go.
So back to the original question – childless or childfree?
I am childless, but not because I tried to have kids and it didn’t work out and not because I failed to find a partner in time to have kids, although that would be a simpler explanation. It’s because of who I am, how I was made, where I’ve come from, the baggage I’ve carried, the time it’s taken to unpack that baggage and become aware that things could have been different. And because of the choices I’ve made, subconsciously and consciously. If I’d have had different life experiences, I might have made different choices, but I didn’t. I did the best I could with the information I had at the time – as you did too.
Or maybe I was childless, because now, at 47 and soon to be married, I would like to embrace being childfree. If you gave me the choice of having a child today, I’d probably say no. I’ve only just learned to parent myself. I’ve only just fallen in love. I want to enjoy my relationship without the stresses and strains of parenthood and I want to continue my journey towards a fully free, abundant life that’s beyond my wildest dreams.
But perhaps I’m neither childless nor childfree – I am simply me.
I prefer that idea, which is why I like an initiative that’s been launched by two wonderful women – Cherry Williams and Stephanie Phillips for World Childless Week – encouraging us all to take photos of ourselves alongside three words that describe our uniqueness. This is my picture:
I am complex. I am unique. I am free.
I could add that I am always growing and learning. I am in love. Sometimes I’m in pain. I am on a journey. I am where I am meant to be.
You can read more about World Childless Week here and get involved if you’d like to, and read Cherry’s blog about the ‘I Am Me’ photos here. I won’t be around for World Childless Week, which is both a shame and a good thing – I’ll be on holiday with my fiancé, enjoying some of the freedoms of not having children.
How about you? Can you relate to this blog? Where are you on your journey? I’d love to hear.
Thanks for reading x
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