Self-absorbed. Party-girl. Overambitious. These are how a woman is often described of if she doesn’t want children. I cry real tears when friends tell me they are pregnant or have suffered a miscarriage. I feel love, compassion and nurturing – attributes shared with mothers – and yet I am somehow considered a freak of nature for not readily wanting children of my own.
As I approach my 37th birthday – and six years into a wonderful relationship with my Mr Right – I’m forced to confront the so-called maternal instinct that has somehow eluded me and my 41-year-old sister (see Poppy’s story on opposite page). Somehow we are the women who disappear when a colleague brings in her newborn in case we are expected to coo and play pass the papoose.
We feel wistful when a friend’s once-pristine, stylish home is now covered in toys and tessellating foam tiles. Our hearts sink when she says, “I can’t get a babysitter, do you mind if I bring...” because our conversation will now be littered with nappy changes, vomit and tantrums. So what happens when you’ve spent your whole life not wanting kids and meet a man who does?
In my 20s I was less concerned with smashing the glass ceiling than working and playing hard. Relationships were fun, dramatic, chaotic, devastating, delirious. Love came and went. There was no big picture, no career plan and no fantasy wedding to a fantasy man. Life was about the here and now and, although my publishing vocation has been steady over a 13-year period, I’ve never favoured ambition over family. And then – bam! – in 2007 I met the right man. I told him early on that I didn’t want children, but by then we had fallen in love and, six years on, I am no closer to my maternal instinct than I am to a noisy children’s play centre.
I’d always assumed broodiness would be as palpable as the wallop of love. Yet I still don’t feel the void that people talk about, that they say only a child can fill. Civilisation won’t crumble because one in five women don’t have children – Earth cannot sustain its population as it is. Perhaps this is a form of natural selection? Not freaks of nature at all.
But that’s academic. The population crisis is not at the forefront of my mind in the middle of the night when I’m silently weeping at the equally distressing prospect of denying my boyfriend a child, exiting our relationship or watching my belly bloom (I have read We Need To Talk About Kevin and not being fully committed to motherhood is concerning).
I am also terrified of pregnancy, birth, breast pumps, potty training, mucky little handprints on nice things, competitive mothers, bad schools, bullies and giving our child a name that’s always in the top ten Most Popular list. “What on earth did we do wrong to put you girls off having babies?” laughs our mum, but behind the smile lurks disappointment. It’s not just her daughters who get interrogated. “So what do you do with all your free time not being a grandmother?” asked one of her not-so-tactful friends.
Eventually, “Well, both daughters live abroad so even if we did have grandkids we would hardly see them!” My other half isn’t yet ready for parenthood. He also feels too young, too inexperienced – even though we’re old enough to run a country. Meanwhile my eggs are withering by the hour (probably). And so we remind ourselves that parents don’t generally regret having children, and dance around baby names. And then I go and write a feature about not wanting children. Of course, Aquarius will be the first to know if I get that bam!
WHY WE DONT'T WANT KIDS
Two married women open up about not wanting babies
Poppy Sanchez, 41, executive secretary
“I’ve never kept myself awake at night over being childless. I’ve never struggled with my choice. I’ve just got on with my life. You read about women who choose a career over kids. I never thought, ‘Oh yes, I’ll have the big career instead!’ All I want is to earn a decent wage so I can go on holidays.
“When I met my husband I was honest early on. When he proposed I had to make sure I wasn’t going to ruin his life – I said I’d only say yes if he definitely didn’t want children. Twelve years on we’re happy not having had them. “Maybe if we’d had kids we’d be equally as happy, but I just don’t feel comfortable around children. Even on our family holidays my sister was always finding other kids to play with and I just wanted to hang out with the adults. One of my long-term boyfriends was 17 years my senior. I now face the possibility of being alone later in life, but that’s no reason to have children.
“One of my best friends had fertility issues so she and her husband chose IVF. Listening to her cry, I thought maybe I could be their surrogate, which we all discussed. Thankfully she got pregnant without the IVF – or me – and in retrospect I don’t think I could’ve got my head around carrying the baby of a man other than my husband. And what if I’d bonded with it?
“It’s hard when friends bring their children as they have only one ear for you. You find yourself repeating everything because you know they’re trying to be polite and listen but are really making sure their kids are behaving. It’s very disconcerting.
“I know I’m missing out on the biggest miracle of all. Sometimes I might see a baby that has a lovely little face and a sensation runs through my body – the same feeling I get when I see a cute animal or a cool pair of shoes. For me, it’s not about cost, time, career or any of that. Basically, I just never wanted to be a mum.”
Melinda Rudolph, 37, artist
“When I was little I thought I would get married and have children because that’s what you did. Later it seemed unattainable – I was bullied and didn’t have a boyfriend until I was 17. I found my groove at art school where I realised, ‘Wait, I don’t have to do it that way’. But I wholeheartedly object to the idea of not having children being a selfish decision. There is nothing more selfish than assuming that the world would be a better place if you personally propagated it.
“My husband could easily be persuaded either way, but we largely agree. We met in our mid-20s while he was doing his PhD and I was working off my student debt. We married at 30. I’m shocked that people have children they can’t afford, or at a young age when they have nothing to teach a growing person. I’m traditional in that I believe if you are going to have children you should be able to dedicate time and resources to them. I also don’t believe in allowing children to kill your life. I come from a mother who did that and it’s the saddest thing ever.
“One friend’s personality has changed entirely since having a child. Our relationship is totally one-sided now – I go to her house or to coffee shops with play areas. Yet other friends who have a life outside of their child will text and say ‘I need a night out…’. “All said, I love the children in my life. I feel a pang in my heart for one of them if I don’t see her for a week.
That’s not maternal; that’s love – pure and simple – for another human being who just happens to be a toddler. The pang is very similar to when I leave my dog at doggie daycare or when I leave my husband at the airport. Why must we quantify it? “Those who want kids just do. And those who don’t are probably not sure until that little indicator appears on the pregnancy test,
or the baby kicks, or they hold their baby for the first time and realise it looks just like them.
If you have the capacity to love, to sacrifice and to compromise, you have ‘instinct’ – maternal, paternal, whatever. There is no such thing as a natural mother. Are there natural fathers? “I love my life, my freedom, money, and having my husband all to myself. Equally, I reserve the right to wake up tomorrow and want 15 babies. It really is no one else’s business.”
WHAT IS MATERNAL INSTINCT?
“I had no maternal instinct, then I got pregnant. I dreaded becoming a mother, but once I had him, it was great. Got to have some maternal instinct having five kids!” Rema, 33
“I just felt my life was ready for a change. I wanted to move on, but do it within my relationship, now marriage. The best thing I’ve ever done. Motherhood made me realise how much I already loved, and it taught me to love bigger.” Jan, 35
“Perhaps maternal instinct is what distinguishes the women who devote their lives to their children from those who have children in their lives.” Judi, 25
“Women that I’d describe as having maternal instinct enjoy the sensation of being pregnant – that’s not every mother, not even most!” Annie, 29