I am so sick of being asked if I regret not having children | Elmo Keep

For some women not having kids is a freely given, affirming choice. For others, it will be the most painful point in their entire lives

“Is there a part of you that regrets having children?” I had to ask this of a woman, older than me, who, like so many other buzzkills before her down the ages, thought that asking a single, child-free woman if she regrets not having children is an appropriate topic of dinner conversation.

“Yes, of course,” she said.

“Wow, that sounds like an awful internal conflict to have to live with,” I said. “I’m glad that’s not something I’ll ever have to reconcile.”

She bristled, somewhat taken aback at my response. But she had not been taken aback at casually asking me such a personal question in a public gathering, as some people seem to adopt a special penchant for during the festive season.

I was, I will admit, absolutely sick of hearing this question and politely answering it, so I resorted to rhetoric that some people might say was, well, childish.

The fascination some people have with other people’s private lives is, when you really ponder it, bizarre. It’s like caring about what a complete stranger on the other side of the world ate for dinner, as if their choice profoundly affects your very ability to live. Whether it’s sexual preferences, gender identity, marriage status, parenting styles or any other person’s deeply personal choice: it’s nothing to do with you, you giant busybody.

And yet, women choosing not to have children elicit the kinds of responses from some people – that as an independent, professional woman of almost 40, I have been on the unsolicited receiving end of almost too many times to count – which I can only describe as rage-filled.

As my personal choices have made so many other people viscerally angry with me, or willing to set aside all basic decency by asking personal questions of near-strangers, I’ve spent quite a lot of time pondering why that is. These are my theories:

I think that a woman who doesn’t want children is to some people on an unconscious level existentially threatening. I think this makes some people’s reptile brains conclude that the human race will end; if all women don’t produce children, it will be the end of us. If you become the avatar for this somewhat frightening scenario, some people will become quite angry with you! Just spitballing here, so take this or leave it.

Another reason, as the woman at the dinner party illustrated, is simple resentment, a perception that some women – those of us without kids – have evaded a responsibility that weighs so heavily on others.

I have no doubt that raising children is incredibly, incredibly hard. The impact on your intimate relationship(s); your lack of sleep; your financial burdens; the sheer number of children’s birthday parties you have to attend even when the actual children couldn’t care less if you were there or not; the fact that plastics have taken over your life. None of this sounds easy. In fact, it sounds like a hell I couldn’t survive.

I’m in awe of all my friends with kids, of the magnificent little weirdos they are raising, whose conversations I will never be tired of overhearing, (“Do you know that I have a baby inside me?” No!” “It’s a unicorn baby.” “In your tummy?” “Yes.” “Oh.”) and whose games I will not stop playing. I’m so glad these happy, loved, confident and joyful tiny people exist, as they will grow to be the adults in life’s rich pageant who will bring joy and love and compassion and ecstatic experiences to the other adult people they will meet in their own lives.

None of this means that I will be doing it myself. My reasons are complex and deeply thought-through over a very long period of time – years, in fact. They are also absolutely private except to my closest circle of people.

“Who cares?” my therapist said to me about all this. A queer, older woman without children, she was the perfect person for me to talk to as a marriage-refusing cis-het woman without kids. She didn’t mean it rhetorically, however. She was trying to help me pinpoint who it was that I thought was judging me about my choices, the bearing of which was a kind of slowly crushing, suffocating feeling I couldn’t precisely describe, but one that is common to every child-free woman who has been put on the spot to justify their choices – something which men without children are rarely if ever subjected to.

“Who specifically in your life are you talking about? Who are they?” The woman at the dinner table? I didn’t know her well, her opinion didn’t matter to me, but her question was still invasive to the point where it angered me.

We went a little further into this where my therapist guided me to the epiphany she has handed out to so many other people, like opening a door in your home to a whole new room you never knew was there: “It’s not someone in particular, or even ‘society’, is it?” she asked me. “It’s you.” We all internalise what other people think of us to some degree or other. A completely unnecessary way to bring unhappiness to our lives by second-guessing ourselves.

“What people say to us in judgment isn’t actually about us, it’s about them and how they feel about themselves,” she said, before turning into a ball of pure light and ascending to the ethereal plane, leaving me to walk lightly through the rest of my life.

There are as many reasons why a person might not have children as there are people to have or not have them. For some, it’s a freely given, affirming choice. For others it will be the most painful point of their entire lives; a decision made beyond their control, and having it prodded at, no matter how well-meaning intentions might be, is extremely upsetting. Perhaps we could come to a point now where we acknowledge how many ways there are to live outside of heteronormative coupling and still be a valued member of society. Ultimately, when it comes to other people’s choices, wait for them to bring it up in conversation.

Children or not? Who cares. Married or not? Who cares. Living in an endless, orgiastic bacchanal of non-monogamy? Who cares. People will continue to have children, while some of us will not. Humankind will go on. The pandemic will, we have to believe, end. We will either survive climate change or we will not (we have to believe that we will). You will die. Cities will rise and fall. Erosion will wear the Himalayas flat. Civilisation will come to an end and the heat death of the universe will stop time from existing.

Considering this, go and do whatever it is that makes you happy (yes, we pay good money in therapy to be told something this self-evident and ancient), without judgment. Whatever it is that will bring, through you, the most happiness to the people in your life. Whatever that is, for you or for them, it’s of no one else’s concern. Just be excellent to each other, and if it helps, forward this piece on to that person who just won’t stop asking you, fellow woman without kids. Herewith for me, I am never thinking about it again.

And neither should you.


Elmo Keep

The GuardianTramp

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