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.