The first is: “Why aren’t you married?” This one I despatch easily – I either go for the laugh – “still waiting for that billionaire”. Or – if the questioner is an ass I will say: “No-one ever wanted me. I guess I am just not lovable enough.” My voice will catch and I will look down sadly (a la Princess Di). If I’m lucky I stop them in their tracks – if not – I get the follow up:
“Got any kids?”
Not being married and in your 50s is like having a weird stain on your clothing or food in your teeth. People want to help you – but they don’t know how. So they look away.
Not having any kids implies a problem. After all – we are genetically programmed to continue our species. The subtext here is: single women, married or divorced women, straight or gay women, women over 40 (and sometimes even over 50) … can have kids. So why haven’t you? What is wrong with you?
We western chicks in our 40s and 50s were given carte blanche for life. We’re the first generation of women after feminism – we got to take on the world and make our own choices: work, travel, contraception, abortion, partners. We could follow our natures without fear of punishment and social disgrace. We could choose not to procreate.
But was it a choice – or was it the price we paid all that freedom?
I did flirt with the idea for a couple of months in the mid nineties – but I didn’t want to give up my job. There was no way I could have lived on the road with kids along. And leaving them at home for weeks at a time just wouldn’t have been fair.
Plus – and I never told this to anyone before: I never saw myself carrying something around in my body. The thought was odd and alien. The idea of milky boobs and black lines up my belly just made me feel squirly. Still does.
When I was living in NYC – there was a group of women in the building who had adopted babies from China. They celebrated cultural holidays and held birthday parties in the lobby. It seemed to be the ideal solution – everyone got what they wanted. But I wasn’t moved enough to try it for myself.
As camparigirl and I explored the issue – we came to realise that many of our close girlfriends are childless (urgh – even that word implies that something’s lacking). We decided to do a bit of a poll – and see why that was.So we asked: did you choose not to have kids. Or is it just the way it panned out?
The replies surpassed our expectations. Who knew our friends had been sitting with all this pain and wisdom? Or, that they would be so willing to tell us about it. Not everyone was thrilled: as Simonetta (an ex Music business guru – just turned 60) pointed out succinctly: “Asking a woman why she is childless is even ruder than asking how much money she makes.”
“For me it wasn’t much of a choice”, said Annamaria, (52 – who writes for TV and Radio): “My maternal instinct never kicked in. I remember, even as a child playing with my dolls: I would pretend they were my students, not my children”.
Kimberly, a writer/professor in her mid-40s – seconded that emotion: “Friends and even strangers would tell me that having children is the best thing this world has to offer, and if I didn’t, I would regret it. They told me that I would never know the beauty of ‘true, unconditional love.’”
“I would say in all honesty I had no maternal instincts until I hit 40”, admitted Carla (49/ex rock-chick and now property flipper). “Which didn’t give me much time. But I look back now and see my life was pretty selfish, and in some ways, I was very immature, certainly about relationships.”
“(For me) it boils down to one thing: I don’t have the energy ..”; this is Kimberly again. “I would rather focus on my career and my husband. I feel my choices may be considered selfish, but they are also selfless. I know I will never hold my own sweet child, but I just don’t think I could ‘do it all’.”
Mercia (a Marketing exec who just turned 41) came to that realization too, but for different reasons: “I understood very early on that my personality would not have allowed me to be a working mother. The guilt and pressures of doing both (jobs) well would’ve driven me crazy. I made the conscious decision rather to be financially independent and have a career.”
Balancing children and work was obviously a key consideration. But relationships – failed and otherwise – also played their part.
Carla: “I met someone six months after my 40th birthday and spent a year with him in Australia. As someone whose relationships have not segued into one another, and who has spent many years as a single woman: I remember, vividly, sitting on the plane home – coming to terms with the fact that, not only did I probably face spending a few years on my own again, but that along with the loss of the relationship – had gone my last chance to have a child.”
Mercia’s marriage “was not in a good place from the start. I was determined to not have children until we could sort out our problems. We never did. We got divorced. And I am very grateful that I did not have children.”
Kimberley too was satisfied with her decision: “I made choices and one of them was to have a career and, hopefully, a good, long, happy marriage.”
For others it was a question of timing – which Carla laid out candidly: “it came down to: wrong man right time, right man wrong time.” she wrote. “I have just married for the first time at the age of 49. My husband is 47 and has one daughter. There is no doubt for either of us that, had we been younger, we would have tried to have a child together.”
As we read the letters from our friends; we realized that we had known in some peripheral way that these internal conversations were being had – the frank phrases were simple framing something we had seen in action. But some of the words we read stopped our breath: for other friends – their choice not to have children had been informed by loss.
A Spanish friend told of a miscarriage late in her second trimester. An event so devastating, she couldn’t bring herself to ever try for a baby again. “The blood and the pain and that little body that I saw; it was awful. I just couldn’t do it. For me, it wasn’t possible anymore”. She was 36 then, and 20 years on the wounds are still fresh.
F had terminated her pregnancy when an amniocentesis revealed her baby had Downs Syndrome. “I know what people say – that Downs babies are loving and non-judgemental and sweet, but what if I hadn’t been able to love him? What if I couldn’t bear to be with him – how would that have turned out?” She decided never to take that chance again. And lost her partner in the aftermath.
And for others – being childless wasn’t by choice, it was the end of a dream: “If you don’t mind – I don’t want to take part in this” wrote one friend. And I understood: hearing the echo of sadness. For her something she had hoped and wished for, had never come to pass. L was more direct: “You know the answer to that Sue – I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to marry me let alone have kids with me. And I didn’t want to do it on my own.”
I wonder if I will be quite so cavalier next time someone asks me “Why never married, why no kids”. Going for the laugh, now seems shallow – the easy out. After all – these are questions that go to the heart of femininity, to the core of being a woman. The answers we give will define how successful other people – and sometimes we ourselves, feel we have been as a female.
Perhaps we owe it to all the women before and after us to look the questioner in the eye and say: “you know – that’s a complicated one – and I would like to do your question justice. How long have you got?”