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"...it 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!)