Thursday, 10 April 2014

A question of choice...

There is one subject out there which seems guaranteed to foster all manner of snidey comments, one-upmanship, bitchiness. What, you may ask? Well I'll tell you - it's the question of choice around having children, or not. I know, hard to believe isn't it, but read on...

I knew from when I was quite young that I didn't want children of my own. Until I was in my mid 20's I always assumed that "eventually" the maternal genes would kick in, but the older I got, the more I realised that I wasn't feeling any differently about it. When I  met MrEH, as soon as we realised that things were serious I did the "decent thing" and told him how I felt - his response was that he'd always assumed he'd have children, but only because he'd always assumed he'd marry a woman who would want them, not because he actually wanted them himself. Phew! So, we got married. And before all that long, the "nudges" started, the "probing" questions...yes, you know the ones! It's funny isn't it, the personal questions that people feel it's perfectly fair game to ask?

People seem to be entirely unthinking (maybe even uncaring?) how how much they wound the feelings of others sometimes. I've been called selfish, cold, even "unnatural". I've been told that I'm cruel, and that I was being unfair to MrEH, and even to my Mum, for goodness sake. All this from people who have NO idea of what those around me feel about the subject.  On one occasion on board a ferry I was asked (very loudly) to move so that a woman who'd got on at the very last minute with three children could sit where I was - why? "Because the children would like to be able to see out" - oddly enough, I would have liked to have seen out as well, and I'd actually managed to arrive in good enough time to ensure that I could! When MrEH and I went to Dublin we were advised to buy a "Family Ticket" to travel on the public transport system, as it was far cheaper than buying individual day tickets. When we went to buy them I checked with the lady on the ticket desk that we'd be OK to use the tickets as we hadn't got children with us. "Of course!" she said "Why ever would you not?" I had to explain that in England, "Family" in this context only applies to those with children. She was astonished, and hastened to assure me that there was "none of that sort of discrimination here". (Halleluiah! Can I move in?!) That was the first time I really recognised it as discrimination too.

Often it comes in a more subtle form - people assume that if you don't have children of your own and are prepared to be honest and admit that you've chosen that path, you must actively dislike them. In fact I adore spending time with our young niece and nephew, and they love me too, funny, considering that children are supposed to know those who don't like them, and shy away from those people?  The classically dismissive "Oh of course you wouldn't understand, not having children" crops up fairly regularly, a close friend of "You can't possibly understand real love, like a mother feels for her children" (No, because I and those like me are emotional wastelands, clearly?). The conversation turned to the topic of films in the office recently, and a colleague (Mother of two) turned to me and casually said "Of course watching that was far worse for me because there were children involved" - my jaw literally dropped. Then there is the offhand assumption that the lives of those of us without children are so simple - with no constraints, nothing to stop us doing whatever we choose, at the drop of a hat (apart from a mortgage and bills to be paid of course, jobs to be held down, and very likely other family committments) and how often are we told "Oh well of course life's a lot more complicated when you have children" may well be, but  if it's enough of a problem to be worthy of (constant) mention you should perhaps have thought about it before pregnancy featured in the equation?

What many people seem to forget is that having children is a lifestyle choice just as much as choosing not to have them. When you choose to have children, it shouldn't come with a teflon coating of superiority - you're no better than anyone else, you simply have another person in your home & life. Why would that make you feel that you are somehow better than someone who has taken the decision not to take that path? Do you also feel superior to people who are unable to have children? (I fear that in many cases the answer to that might be a smug "Yes, actually!") A friend who found herself unable to have children decided that explaining this was simply too intensely painful - she began telling people she'd decided against having kids, but stopped equally fast, astonished at the spite this unleashed in her direction. She eventually opted for the bald facts - the embarrassment people felt on hearing her response was preferable, apparently to the judgmental contempt she'd felt when using the "we decided against having them" line.

Reasons I've heard from people with kids about their reasons for having them have included "well it's just what you do isn't it", "We'd hate to be all alone with no family when we're old" (yes, really!) "I couldn't deprive my Mum of having grandkids" (yes, but it's hardly like buying her a pair of slippers, is it!) to "well you're not really a family without children, are you?" (Err...yes, but even if not, that's a reason for having them how, exactly?)  - so you tell me - who's the selfish one now? The one statement I've now heard many, many times though, is "If I could wind the clock back, I'm not sure I'd have them....I mean I wouldn't be without them now, of course, but..." I wouldn't dream of turning to someone with kids and calling them a drain on the system for claiming their tax credits or whatever other benefits they're entitled to - so why do so many people feel that those of us without children are fair game to treat appallingly?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that every parent is like this, not even slightly. My Sister in Law, for example, is THE most down to earth, sensible woman you'd care to meet, and I have a good many friends in the same mould, thank goodness. There are many folk out there who wanted children for all the right reasons, have thought the whole process through and worked out that they can cope both mentally and financially. Sadly though for every one level-headed accepting individual who realises that having children is just, well, having children, there is another who thinks it gives her a right to treat those who are childless (for whatever reason) as second class citizens. Yes, I've quite deliberately used the word "her" there - because that's the saddest thing of all - each and everyone one of the spiteful, unpleasant or just plain unthinking comments I've mentioned above has come from another woman.

If it's on the tip of your tongue to judge another woman for the considered choices she's made about her life - no matter how subtle you intend to be about it, stop and think how you'd feel if someone judged YOU in the same way. We'd all be up in arms if a man dismissed a woman's choices in this way, after all!


ps - my usual rule on deletion of abusive comments and "naming and shaming" the individual stands firm on this one by the way, so please think before you type. (or "put brain into gear before engaging fingers" as I like to think of it!)


Scarlet said...

Me and J are viewed as odd because we have no desire for grandchildren.We bumped into some people I haven't seen for years a few weeks ago, and the question of grandchildren arose. They looked aghast when I said I was perfecctly happy with the grandkitty! K and A don't want children; a decision that was made long before they married last year. I will have to ask her when I see her next week if she is ever questioned about having children. I've had all kinds of questions and criticisms about my reproductive life, usually by other women.As soon as we were married I was asked when we'd be having children ( I was just 19 at the time!). Then I was blamed for miscarrying, by my MIL.After having K,I was asked when I would be having another. Then I was told I couldn't only have one child, that we were selfish for just having one, that she would be spoiled and lonely and poorly socialised!She was none of those things. When we did decide to have another I had an ectopic pregnancy, which I told very few people about, and it was agony to have people who didn't know about it telling me that I should ' have another baby' as K was an only child. When I conceived KL I was asked questions about whether I'd saved all my baby things, and whether I really wanted a large age gap! The woman was fishing to see if it was planned or not- clearly she thought that because there was going to be a 7 year age gap then it had to be a mistake! She got very short shrift from me. My cousin's wife told me I was mad for 'starting all over again', just because she had chosen to have 2 children close together.
I do sometimes wonder if those who are the most vocal and cruel about those who are childfree harbour regrets about their own choice to have children.

dreamer said...

A thought provoking post Robyn and interesting to read that it is women who make the judgemental comments. I believe it is a matter of personal choice and if you and your hubby are happy that's all that matters, it is your decision and you are the ones who have to live with the consequences, no one else so why should it concern them in any way.
There are plenty people out there who have children without any thought whatsoever who are totally unsuitable to be parents yet they don't get criticised for their choices on the whole.
We live in a world where women (and men) can make medical choices not to conceive children if they don't wish to, a choice that was not open to women historically - I'm sure there were countless women who would have loved to have had that freedom in the past.
I have four children, I love being a mother and knew from an early age I wanted children but it doesn't make me any better/more capable of emotion or more of anything than the next person. I enjoyed having my children but I also enjoyed seeing them grown up and independent making their own way in the world and giving freedom back to me in some ways. Yes having children can be wonderful but it is also time consuming, restricting, financially constraining, it alters your relationship with your partner, you have to compromise on lots of things in life and it is a very big life long personal commitment to make, like you say, you are not just buying a pair of slippers!. If you don't want to sign up for all of that then good for you for having the determination to follow your convictions and not fall in to societal conventions and expectations and shame on those women who see that choice as being an inferior one and not just a different one.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post Robyn. I agree that having or not having children is a lifestyle choice. I made my choice to have children and you made your choice not to. We both made the right choice. For us. Our choices are no one else's business. I wouldn't even think of commenting on someone else's choice regarding children.

One thing that annoys me, since I have children, is the fact that people assume that the reason I don't want anymore is because I was "lucky enough" to have a boy and a girl!! No, I only wanted 2 children. The gender of said children had nothing to do with it. After losing my first baby I consider myself extremely lucky I had ANY children at all.

I am sorry you felt that you had to write this post. That you felt that you had to "explain" yourself. We all have a right to choose, to live our lives the way we want to. People need to realise this and move on.

I'll stop rambling now :(

Robyn said...

Ladies, thank you SO much, I really appreciate such heartfelt and above all honest responses.
Scarlet - it's amazing how many people seem to feel that it's fair game to question people about such things - and indeed to tell them what they should, and shouldn't do! I also think you might have a point in your final paragraph - thinking through, the people who most often make the sort of comments I've referred to are also those who I've heard the "I sometimes wish..." remark from.
Dreamer - absolutely right about the choices that were available to women historically, we really should be celebrating and enjoying those rights now, shouldn't we!
N - I've never thought about the possibility of those sort of sweeping judgements being made about those who actually have kids - the assumption that you stopped when you got "one of each" as it were - so thank you for that. And you're not rambling at all my lovely - eloquently put, I'd say. xx

gillibob said...

Always best to be honest. A few of my relatives made the same decision-no one thinks anything of it at all! My eldest has just had a child, they uhmmed and ahhd for ages-it was their decision and they have been married for nearly 9 years ( married at 18)Everyone assumed it was because she was pregnant-again very insulting.We are over the moon our grand daughter is here-as she is a joy like everyone i consider it a blessing but not a guarantee that i would ever have one ( if that makes sense) She keeps saying to me you will only get one grandchild off me-and i am happy as i keep pointing out to her i never pressurized her to have any and don't want to do so in the future. I suspect there is a lot of pressure from his side. I also got asked when i was going to be a grandma loads of times-i told them we were happy with grand dogs( the grand cat bit on a larger scale :) ).It is and always has been no one else's decision but the couple/person in question.

Robyn said...

Bob, another beautifully worded reply. Thank you. Yes, we've all overheard one of those conversations when people jump to the conclusion that a young couple have "had" to get married, haven't we. Odd how you don't hear a subsequent conversation some months later when it becomes quite obvious that wasn't the case at all!

Caroline said...

Well said. I'm another child-free by choice and while I've been fortunate in that I've never been given too much hassle about it from the general public, the medical profession has been a different matter! I started asking my GP for a referral for a sterilisation when I was 23 and engaged to be married. It took five years, two doctors, two gynaecologists and a compulsory referral to a psychologist, who attempted to hypnotise me to 'cure' me before they'd do it - and don't get me started on the GP who made me book a joint appointment with my then husband to check I had his 'permission'!!!! The argument that finally got them to grudgingly sign me off was along the lines of, 'Look, I understand that you're worried about me making a life-changing decision that's very difficult to reverse at a relatively young age (I was 28 at this point) and I appreciate your concern. But if I was a 15 year old who'd decided to get pregnant, well, that's also a life-changing decision at a very young age, but she wouldn't have had to have seen two GPs, two gynaecologists and a psychiatrist to do it!'

That operation still ranks as one of the best decisions I made and at 38 I still haven't had anything remotely resembling a maternal urge. As my mother said, when I broke the news to her that she wouldn't be getting any grandchildren from me, 'I'm actually rather glad, darling. I don't think motherhood is what you're here to do, you'd be terrible at it.' She knows me so well ;o)

Robyn said...

Caroline thanks so much for sharing that - although my jaw was literally dropping as I read! I can to a degree understand them wanting to be sure that you knew your mind, as it were, but as for "checking with your Husband" - grrrr! Your Mum sounds quite similar to mine!

Allegra said...

I am a parent, and very glad I am one (even though the experience has been, and still is, NOTHING like what I expected, largely due to the fact that my DD has autism), but I will still happily stand up and applaud your post. No one has any right to judge anyone else, unless they are detrimentally affected by their behaviour.

Wee Lass said...

Hey love
A great post. Now what I've got to add might be a bit odd or controversial given the fact that I'm a mum and proud of being a good un.

Did I ever want kids - no, not Until recently, having had my two and with a man I kve very much, sadly it wasn't to be. We left it too ate old bugger that we are :-)

So back to the 'what makes a family' - anyone does, it's about love not nappies and schools. You certainly have a pucker family lovely.

Would I have chosen to have them, no. Did. Have two, yes my ex husband was desperate for kids. And he talked a good talk. Well, he did before he left.

People often say well would you change thngs, um yup. I wodlnt have chosen to have two kids having being persuaded and then being left with them. Its not been an easy ride for any of us. The wold is huge,y overpopulated and the need for stuff grows.

I chose afterwards to keep them by then I was in hook lne and sinker, professed bad parent just juggling and managing but I'd made a commitment to them when I decided to say yes to the ex.

Choosing t have children or not is very personal. I've had a blade with mine, doesn't mean I retrospect I'd ever do it again. But I'd like the choice to make my own decisns and them to be respected.

I'll stop havering. Now.

Great post.

Wee Lass said...

Sorry so many iPad typos!

Hope you can decipher it.

Robyn said...

Allegra - thank you for commenting and your last sentence there - spot on and very well said!
WL - massive hugs for paragraph 2 - I so wish things could have been different for you both. As for "bad parent" - no, definitely not, I've met both J & H remember and you've raised two young people who will be a credit to you and the world around them - you did that. :-)

SUCH lovely comments from such a mix of people - parents, and not. Some have brought tears to my eyes with the stories. I value each and every one. Thank you.

Gill H said...

Brilliant post. As a single person, I never had to deal with those sort of comments, but heard them often, as my sister was married at 19 (and yes, when she got engaged at 17 everyone assumed she 'had to').she had a long engagement deliberately, and neither of them wanted children. I never really wanted children, and for me it wasn't a conscious decision, just something that happened, and no I wouldn't turn back the clock. Having said that, I've done a reasonable job of bringing J up, and there is no pressure from me to 'provide me with a grandchild'. My sister though, was constantly asked if they'd 'been for tests' or the strange "you're too busy enjoying yourself to have a. child" well, yes, and what's wrong with enjoying yourself. Then, when I had J, my sister and BIL realised that not all children were brats, and could adapt to your life, not the other way round, and decided that they'd quite like a baby, so started saving. Choices, and you can change your mind; if you choose.

Robyn said...

I'd say you've done a more than reasonable job there Gill - from everything I know about J, he's a thoughtful, considerate and hard working young man - which seems to tick all the boxes that confirm you've been successful!

You've also made a good point there in that it is possible to adapt to fit a child into your life, rather than having to alter your entire way of being to fit in a child. Surely the former must be a healthier way of doing things for all concerned?

lonestarsky said...

So glad you decided to write this post! I pretty much agree with every word written. The incident when the where 'the children could see out' is an absolute classic. It's as if we don't really exist if we don't have children, and can't possibly enjoy/participate in life.

I do like Scarlet's comment about how those who are vocal about child-free folk need to justify their own decision to have children, perhaps because there are times when they wish they haven't. It's a decision that many folk make lightly, if they even bother to think about it.

It's ridiculous that such a personal choice is so open to comment. Personally, I think having in excess of 2 children (4 at a push) is crazy but I would never feel I have the right to tell a parent they're crazy for doing it. It's their choice.

Robyn said...

I believe I need to thank you here also, as it was your post that made me brave enough to actually finish, and post, this. :-)