I’ve never been that maternal when it comes to children. Maternal towards some friends perhaps, playing the “mum” role at university when drunken nights out went too far, but I struggle to picture myself as an actual, real, mother. Beyond playing with my much younger cousins in the countryside, reuniting a lost child with her parent once, and volunteering as a teaching assistant at a youth theatre in my late teens, I have limited experience with children, and I’d like to keep it that way. That presents its own internal conflict: Now I’m approaching an age where friends are considering becoming parents, I’m wondering if I should flag to those I get romantically involved with from here on out that I probably don’t want kids.
Nearly one-in-five American women ends her childbearing years without having borne a child, compared with one-in-ten in the 1970s
Here’s what I think I want my future to look like: a long–term life partner, who I may marry in a small ceremony, who will take a sabbatical to travel with me in our late 30s, and who will also want a cat. I already have my cat name picked out, and no, I’m not telling you because it’s original and mine. When friends have children someday, I’ll be the “cool aunt” who babysits on occasion — then goes back to writing, with upcoming flights booked for a long weekend away somewhere with good food and art. That sounds like a pretty nice life to me.
At school, when friends would talk about how many children they wanted and what their names would be — even though they themselves were still children — along with the wedding that would come first to a man they’d met six months prior, I’d find it baffling. “Six months?! I wouldn’t marry someone without having known them for at least four years. That’s only four birthdays you’ll have celebrated with them. You’d hardly know them.” I was 11. Ever the realist. And as for the make–believe “future children” games, I don’t have any memories of playing those, maybe because it never appealed. The fact girls were using their lunch breaks to discuss and daydream about these things shows how early on the idea of becoming a mother is instilled in people, and how a maternal instinct is expected. One study found that toy preferences among children become gendered as early as three to eight months old.
Now, at nearly 28 years old, I feel the same as I did back then: disillusioned and uninspired by the idea of being a parent. I don’t like the idea of all aspects of my life being dictated by a child, and I hate how common it is for women to lose their own identities, absorbed instead into the role of mother (while dads regularly continue to still be Harry-down-the-pub-after-footie). I’d also worry about how I’d affect a child, because we all have baggage from our parents. Having said that, I’m not 100% committed to the idea of not being a parent. I find “gentle parenting” an interesting style of raising children (which avoids leading by consequence and punishment, instead promoting boundaries and understanding); I know if I was a mother that helping my child build self-esteem would be high on my agenda; and I’m very pro-adoption and fostering. Occasionally, I can see myself fostering teenagers in my 40s, when I’m (hopefully) financially secure and ready to give more of myself to support others. That feels better to me, than to insist on having my own “flesh and blood” when there are children that need love and care already here, waiting.
The trouble is, recently I’ve been thinking about how and when to tell the men I date all of this, especially as I always date men older than me, who are usually in their early 30s. It’s an age in which a lot of people find themselves at a crossroads of decision making, and I don’t want to deprive anyone of a future centred on a traditional family unit. I realize that what I want by comparison is unconventional and unexpected, but I also know I’m not the only one questioning the model presented to us as young girls with our dolls and toy houses. Pew Research Centre found one in five American women ends her childbearing years without having a child, whereas in the 1970s it was one in ten. The trend is even more apparent in women with advanced degrees.
There are so many things we do as humans that, because they’re normalized, we kind of get wrapped up in them before really considering whether this is an authentic desire of our own, or someone else’s dream. Last year, on a first date with a 33-year-old at the back of an Uber, I mentioned I probably didn’t want children. He didn’t seem to mind and continued dating me. In honesty, I was relieved to be able to share this, even if it felt like a buzzkill to bring up. It felt almost confessional, like I’d let a taboo loose, and as though I’d warned this man from the off so he couldn’t later ask why I never said anything. I’m aware this is my own fear of being confronted about not wanting to be a mum projecting itself, but it still felt important to say.
The other issue is that I’m simply not sure. I’ve changed and grown in the last five years, so while my views on children haven’t shifted, I can’t promise they won’t ever. I don’t want to be locked into a definite, which is also why I hesitate to tell dates about it. People love to say “I told you you’d change your mind” to women who were once ambivalent about motherhood, who then later become mothers. Actress Jodie Comer recently said on BBC Women’s Hour when speaking of her latest film The End We Start From, “Before going into this [role as a mother], I didn’t really feel like I had a maternal instinct.” She explains how, through acting, she found herself softening to the idea. Life isn’t set in stone, and I don’t want people to see any child I may one day have as an admission that I was “wrong” or that I didn’t know myself well enough. Isn’t one of the key pillars of feminism that we have choices?
Choosing to not be a mum feels radical in patriarchal society. On Instagram, I follow an account called We Are Childfree. It documents the reasoning women have given in their decision to remain childfree and is designed to empower. Though I find it sad that women in this camp often are called on to justify themselves, it’s comforting to see social spaces like this emerge. I don’t have any childfree role models — all of the women in my family have become mothers, and many of my friends either aspire to it, or are where I’m at.
The biological clock isn’t the same for men as it is for women, so I know that in dating men rather than women, I’m not on the same knife edge when it comes to making firm decisions. Having said that, infertility is seldom considered in men and global figures suggest that sperm counts have been declining for a long time. There is still time for me, and (hopefully) for the men I date — I’m not holding anyone back. But I’d like to tell these men my stance, because this is part of getting to know me.
As for how early it needs to be said, I’m still at a loss. If a man tells me he’s set on being a dad, obviously I’d say where I stand. But when neither party brings it up, dancing around serious topics in the early stages of dating in favour of lighthearted fun, do I even need to broach the subject? Twenty-seven is young, but it’s approaching a decade full of expectations, one of which is getting pregnant. Right now, I’m still figuring it all out.