• Making the decision to remain child-free is not easy. (Westend61/Getty)Source: Westend61/Getty
"When it came time to try for a baby, something in me baulked. I knew that it was normal to experience a degree of anxiety when confronted with major life changes, but this felt different."
By
Johanna Leggatt

9 Jan 2018 - 12:56 PM  UPDATED 9 Jan 2018 - 12:56 PM

For many years, I couldn’t make up my mind. Should I be a mother? Did I actually want children? Would I in fact be happier without them?

I met my husband when I was 29, and always assumed we would start a family because that is what you did. But as my 30s wore on, my unquestioning certainty turned to suffocating indecision, as I vacillated between ‘OK, let’s do this’ and ‘Good God, no.’

I made those ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ lists that are the preserve of teenage girls. I actually Googled, ‘Should I have children?’ I went to yoga and instead of compiling grocery lists in meditation time like everyone else, I tried to logically unpack the children question. Whether to conceive or not was the endless, suffocating and wearying obsession of much of my early 30s.

 I interrogated my friends who had children. Why had they gone down this path? What had been the clincher?

I interrogated my friends who had children. Why had they gone down this path? What had been the clincher? “It just felt right,” they would say. Or even sometimes: “My partner really wanted them.”

On the surface, my husband and I were well placed to start a family. We were financially secure, had a home with plenty of space, and, most importantly, my husband was happy to go along with whatever decision I made. He is also one of those people who notices when the milk is running low and the plants need watering. In other words, a solid person to raise a child with.

But, when it came time to try for a baby, something in me baulked. I knew that it was normal to experience a degree of anxiety when confronted with major life changes, but this felt different.

Then the thought came unbidden: I didn’t want to have a baby.

Then the thought came unbidden: I didn’t want to have a baby.

There, I had admitted it. I did not want to be a mother. In fact, the more I let that thought unspool, the more I realised exactly what the internal conflict was really about.

I wasn’t anxious because I didn’t know what I wanted. I was anxious because I knew exactly what I wanted, and deep down that was terrifying.

To remain childless by choice is to reject the primary definition of women as soothers, carers, and nurturers. To say no to that life, to shirk that role, is to invite curiosity from others at best and outright hostility at worst. I felt like I was rejecting some kind of primal drive, that there was this incredible thing that women can do and I had chosen never to do it.

But I feared making myself miserable, of beaching myself in a permanent state of frustration and regret at a life I had not fully chosen.

I was worried, too, about the loss of my internal world  — what writer Carson McCullers referred to as “the inside room” — that emotional reserve of joy and wonder that sustains a creative life.

Female friends, many of them in the same unsure category as me, were a great sounding board. Family, on the other hand, want nothing more than to see you and your partner reproduce, and resisting that pressure, the routine inquisitions at barbecues, is an exhausting labour.

But I knew there was a worse fate than society’s judgment and that was having children unthinkingly or simply to avoid that question mark that hovers over your life.

I would have lost that freedom to write, to travel at a moment’s notice.

I would have lost that freedom to write, to travel at a moment’s notice and, yes, the inside room would be no more.

Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild, once wrote that each person has a “sister life” they’ll never know, the path they never took. Being a mother is mine, but I have never regretted my decision to not have children.

My only regret, if you’d even call it that, is that I don’t get to experience my sister life; to live, just for one day, in the shoes of other women.

This, I realise, has more to do with curiosity than the feeling of having missed out.

Follow Johanna Leggatt on Twitter @johannaleggatt

 

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