Meet Charlie. Charlie is the baby of the household at just 3 and a half. He loves biscuits and hates washes. He cries when he’s distressed. He loves to snuggle up next to me when I’m watching TV. When he’s poorly, I sing to him. When Dave – my husband – comes home, he can sense his daddy before the key goes in the door.
Charlie isn’t a child, though. Charlie is the youngest of my six cats.
Am I using this as an example of the childless (or ‘childfree’ as is becoming a more accepted term) woman who has tried to find a substitute in furry friends? Absolutely not. I am childless by choice, a choice I made at 16 and have not wavered from in 17 years.
Let me lay a few common misconceptions to rest:
- I don’t hate children. I just couldn’t eat a whole one. (Just kidding…)
- I am not a lonely spinster destined to be eaten by my 32 cats upon my death
- My cats are not substitute children but they are my children, in that I have and will always make sacrifices to do what’s right for them, care for them when sick, comfort them when distressed, feed and provide for them, sing to them, cuddle them, love them.
- The phrases ‘Everyone says that…’, ‘You next…’, or ‘There’s time for you yet…’ aren’t sage words of wisdom that I’ll look back on and laugh when I have my three nippers. They’re just wrong.
I recently read the new release No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood, a collection of essays from women who have remained childless, some by choice, some not. I read the essays and I knew that to some they would probably sound blunt, acerbic, cynical, with perhaps a tad of the ‘protest-too-much’ about them. But I understood the message loud and clear: my life is not missing anything because I made my life whole.
According to 2010 US data, “the number of childless people age 40 to 44 is close to 20 percent — compared with 10 percent in 1979”. In fact, in “Australia, Germany, Italy and the US, the proportion of childlessness among women in their late 40s has doubled over the past three decades” (YaleGlobal Online) Nonetheless, being childless by choice can be viewed as incredibly selfish. NPR held an interesting discussion surrounding the implications of fewer Americans having children as a concern for the future, but also raised the interesting counter-question, ‘Is it more selfish to have children if your primary aim is to have a caregiver in your old age?’
In the 21st century, as a modern woman I have the right to vote, to work, to own property. Yet I often feel that by choosing not to have children, I am seen as somehow less of a person, less of a contributor. However, I fully acknowledge that I have been lucky that I did have a choice. Not all who are childless/childfree do. It’s presumptuous to assume that someone without children is selfish, hates children, isn’t caring, has callously chosen career over family etc. Wendy Squires coined it perfectly in The Age:
Not all women are awarded the same opportunities in life and not all women want or need them. Surely we can all agree on mutual respect and consideration of circumstance as a safe middle ground.
Whether a parent or not, we all have our reasons or circumstances behind our lifestyle. The family dynamic is changing every day. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ when it comes to family love: there is only doing the best for our loved ones.
In a recent excerpt shared on Huffington Post, Jen Kirkman, author of I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids, wrote about imagining having “the urge”:
Sometimes, Matt and I would sit around the living room on a Saturday night and do our version of telling ghost stories around the campfire. We’d try to imagine what life would be like if we got “the urge.”
I’ve had those musings myself at times. The truth is, I can’t picture it. I’m good with children so it isn’t a fear of dropping my child or leaving them on the bus. There just isn’t anything about that life that calls to me. My husband feels the same, though we’ve long since agreed that we will talk about it if anything changes. Between us, our siblings have almost reached double figures so there’s no shortage of grandchildren or youth in the family.
Even so, I don’t see us as a childless couple with cats. We’re a family. This house is full of love and warmth, photographs and lovely memories. We call them ‘our boys’ and refer to ourselves as ‘mummy and daddy’. Not in a creepy way but in a ‘Don’t chew mummy’s hair!’ way. We’re a family. Perhaps not in the eyes of the Oxford Dictionary (“a group consisting of two parents and their children living together as a unit”) but in all the ways that count.
In my 20s, I decided that if I hadn’t wanted a child by 30, I would live a childless life. Other factors also came into consideration but ultimately if I’d really wanted a child, I’m sure I’d have overcome my concerns. I hit 30 and nothing changed. In two months I’ll be 33. The biological clock never seemed to start ticking for me. I have never regretted that. More than that, I always knew it would be harder to live with the regret of having a child than not having a child – and that for me seemed the ultimate selfishness.
I think people who make comments to couples who don’t have children are just as rude as those who comment on large families. How is it anyone’s business? Sheesh.
And did you have to post that creepy picture of Frodo? LOL I’ll see cats peeking at me in my sleep tonight.
I’m 48 and haven’t yet gotten the urge, and as you say, it’s not that I don’t like kids (though the shrieking gives me a headache) I just have always felt like I can never get to all the things I want to do, and parenting would make it that much harder. I never could understand the selfish thing – it’s been said to me of course. It would seem more selfish to bring a child into the world that I didn’t wholeheartedly want, though I think I would be a good mother, the kind they would hate as children but appreciate as adults.
I didn’t make my childless decision quite as early as you. I met my husband in my early 30’s, maybe earlier in my life might have changed my decision, who knows? But now at age 52, I have never questioned my decision. People are surprised and sometimes skeptical when I say that. But it’s true. I completely enjoy the nieces and nephews in my life and believe that I can BE a better aunt to them because I don’t have children of my own.
And I have my own little furry family too. My husband and I vacation less than some of our friends with children because it’s expensive to find a dog sitter for 4 dogs. I keep saying we should go back to 2 or 3, and then when one dies, I feel compelled to fill that available space with another shelter dog.
My life is not lacking because I didn’t raise my own children, not at all.
Thank you for saying this so eloquently!
Early on I decided kids weren’t for me. For some reason, I just had a real aversion to baby dolls, and just never got all crazy for the kiddos. I’ve taught high school students, and always felt glad I didn’t have to take those kids home with me. I still look young enough that I get asked that question from time to time… but I usually just brush it off. To really explain the reasons I don’t have kids would take books and books worth of material. Rare is the person who tries not to pry into the whys upon hearing that nope I do no have children. I’m happy with my three fur-children, thank you very much :)
[…] Donna Brown talks about an unusual family dynamic – mom, dad and 6 cats – but says she isn't substituting furry friends. Instead, she's childless by choice. […]
I made up my mind around 19…and wondered one of my best friends who wanted children…when she and I were talking about dreams,wishes. We were around 24 yrs. old.
I haven’t regretted my decision. Am 54. It does help I think to be eldest of 6 and to witness the stress on my parents. My childhood didn’t really begin until I worked full time after university and earning some decent money.
I was looking after younger sibs. My parents were poor.
I made the decision not to have children in high school. With a few momentary ponderings, I stuck with it until I became a step-mom 8 years ago. I’m going to be 45 this year and my step-son is now 18. I had a hard time choosing to be a step mother, and I can say that I’m relieved he’s officially an adult and I can start the process of being a couple instead of a parent again. I’ve done my best for him and love him, want him to succeed, but I never wanted one of my own, and I still don’t. I never felt the baby urge. When other women run to snuggle babies brought in to work, I try to hide. I’m just not that enthralled. I, too, have six cats. They aren’t a weird replacement, although they are my kids. I just enjoy them immensely. They make the day complete. I think I find them to be more honest and less selfish than people.