Press "Enter" to skip to content

Childfree by choice: stop telling me I’ll change my mind later


At work a while back, I was complaining that the air-con – usually set to subzero – was turned up to practically balmy. No one else agreed; my mate reached for the emergency nanna rug we keep in the office.

“Huh,” I said. “Must be the menopause.”

There was a heartbeat of silence and mortified looks from younger colleagues before I guffawed, thereby showing them that it was just a hilarious joke and I was nowhere near that age. Then I googled the average age of menopause just to be sure. (It’s 51.) I’m in my early 40s, so safe from the “change of life” for a bit, but if I suddenly decided to have kids, me and my ancient eggs would probably be in for a torrid time. Not many women my age conceive easily; most need assisted reproductive technologies such as IVF or donated eggs. The chances of someone my age getting pregnant naturally are minuscule, and all the technology in the world only raises the likelihood to tiny.

So it’s endlessly surprising when people tell me I’ll change my mind. Uber drivers, a GP, once even a woman-child working in a clothing store who looked about 12. I’d like to think it’s my youthful good looks. But it’s not. It’s disbelief that I’m not still striving to quicken.

Some people find it so hard to believe I don’t want a child that they insist on referring to my dog as a fur baby (not the people I know; they’re just slightly impressed I can keep something alive besides succulents). But those people who don’t know me so well like to think that the furball is a replacement baby. He’s not. I love that dog but he’s a dog. Sure, I tickle his tummy and of course I get him vaccinated – but he’s still a dog. I mean, I had him castrated, leave him alone all day and feed him liver treats. He’s a dog, not a replacement baby.

The subtext of “you’ll change your mind” goes back to the idea of motherhood being the natural position and anything else being deviant. That in turn means that the childless must be locked in battle against the mythical biological clock. That hormones will eventually ensure the right instinct kicks in. That a proper woman will at some point gasp and realise she is destined for children. (Hey, if she does, do not get smug on her pregnant arse. That’s just rude.)

The idea that some hormonal clock makes us go gaga for babies at a specific time is cuckoo. A woman might have an epiphany about child lust, but that epiphany did not spring fully formed from her loins. We have circadian rhythms, which are unrelated to reproduction. We have monthly cycles, which are related to fertility but not to child lust. We have a drive for sex. And there’s a “clock” counting down to our infertility. But there’s no spontaneous, natural internal change that makes women suddenly want a baby.

Research has shown that “baby fever” exists in both men and women but is not related to any sort of out-of-the-blue hormonal surge. Kansas State University published findings of a study into this topic in the journal Emotion in 2011. They found exposure to good baby experiences such as cuddles increased the desire to have babies, while negative exposure such as listening to a baby’s piercing cries decreased it. Then rational factors such as considering the trade-offs of having babies kicked in. “We had people who were high on the positive aspects and they see all the good things about babies and want a baby,” psychology professor and co-author Gary Brase said. “We also had people who were high on the negative aspects and absolutely do not want to have babies. Then we had people who were high on both positive and negative aspects and were very conflicted about children.

“Having children is kind of the reason we exist – to reproduce and pass our genes on to the next generation,” he said. “But economically, having children is expensive and you don’t get any decent financial return on this investment. And yet, here we are, actual people kind of stuck in the middle.”

“The reason we exist” is a biological argument; it’s true, but it’s not the whole story. People want to pass on their genes; the end of your family’s bloodline seems unbearably sad – but that’s not particularly rational. Unless your bloodline includes the DNA for altruism, your blood holds the cure to cancer or your genes mean you can wear your underpants on the outside and save innocent lives, it is just a thread in an unimaginably large tapestry.

There’s also an instinct to pass on what you know. I do it sometimes – imagine how I would love to share the occasional insight I have about life. How I learned that it’s a bad idea to grab Dad’s old razor and rub it up and down your legs vigorously because your friends are shaving theirs. I would like to tell my nieces one day that ribbons of skin and unstoppable bleeding in the name of vanity is a very poor idea. Every time I read a good book or discover a hidden travel gem or work out how to drill a hole in brick, I feel the urge to share that. To help someone who doesn’t know. (Just as well we have Twitter then.)

Amid the plethora of superficial reasons for having children, women are in the main making their choices based on deep thinking, driven by their circumstances. Hopefully their choices are increasingly honed by supportive information, rather than arsehole assumptions.

Of course plenty of women change their minds. And many never do. But if you untangle this oft-heard expression, “You’ll change your mind”, there’s a sort of desperate hope to it. The people saying “You’ll change your mind” want reassurance that ultimately, given time, everyone will come to the same conclusion they have. Otherwise you’re implicitly challenging their decision, and their subconscious baulks at that.

It is true and right that women (and men) change their minds. Baby lust can wax and wane. They might change their minds multiple times as different costs and benefits become apparent. They might find themselves surrounded by friends with babies and realise they want that sort of fulfilment. They might find a new relationship that suddenly makes the idea irresistible. Heterosexual or homosexual couples or single women might find a way to have babies that they hadn’t found before. The woman who desperately wanted kids early may get over it; another could have the instinct grow to the point where she will think about unprotected sex with strangers just to get there. It’s not a magical internal tide; it comes and goes with stages of life, with other satisfactions, losses, jealousies or comparisons.

But strangers telling women that they’ll change their minds shows how much having children is still considered essential to being a woman; that if you don’t, you’ll fall short. It’s saying, in the words of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that you are “lacking”, “deficient” and “half a person”. Which is why that phrase can induce a hot flush of rage. It’s saying that while you’re free, you’re morally wrong.

This is an edited extract from Tory Shepherd’s essay On Freedom (MUP, $14.99)

Source: TheGuardian