I’m rarely asked why I chose not to have children. I’ll admit the idea of missing out on mum politics and a school run did disturb me but it passed. People I know have never felt the necessity to discuss the topic with me, probably because I didn’t. I recall reading a strident Polly Vernon, vehemently defending herself from the barrage of people who seemed to approach her daily, yes daily I tell you, to inquire as to her fertility choices. I’d hazard an educated guess that when faced with intensely personal issues, the stress comes not from others but more likely is a result of our unresolved selves. It’s somewhat far-fetched that your hairdresser, newsagent or the guy at the pub will constantly engage you with, “So what are you doing tonight? Thinking about having children?”
I’ve never had a change of heart. Barely eleven years old, I recall thinking to myself – indeed I may have even loudly announced it to nobody in particular – that I was never going to have children. My father ensured our home life wasn’t stable and it left a legacy. On reflection I realise that I didn’t get the chance to enjoy being a child, and the idea of being responsible for one was far too scary. Nonetheless, at the time I thought I was odd. I hadn’t even thought of marriage. However, what I had come to think of as my errant woman brain turned out to be a full-time, clinically depressed one. I took and still take anti-depressants, drugs that my psychiatrist said might have to change if I wanted children. No way. Now I’d got the right ones, after so many false starts, I was finally feeling like me. I wasn’t about to do something that would alter that state. A life marked by years of inconsistency and instability finally had a floor, albeit a shifting one, but it was the most security I’d had and this was no time to go rogue.
I told him it was sorted.
“What do you mean?” He said in the same voice he said everything: his steady, educated but slightly uninformed voice that ensured he got the information he wanted.
“I mean I’m not having children. As much as I think they’re adorable and the idea of a squeezy toddler makes me smile and go gooey, it’s just not going to work. It’s too much responsibility and I’m still dealing with the fallout of being a grown up toddler myself.” He thanked me for doing part of his job for him, then out of interest I asked him how high the stakes were for a depressive having children. The figures weren’t good. That applies both in terms of producing a child who would have to face a life where the moving men drop into your brain, as well as the spectre of post-partum depression from my end. I didn’t want to end up in the news, demonised by social workers because I left my kids in the frozen food aisle at the supermarket.
By the way I adore kids. No that’s wrong. I love, love them. I love them for being interesting and creative people and fun. I’m a fairy godmother, an anarchist auntie and they’re not just cameo roles. I’ve played a huge part in the lives of my godchildren – yes I’ve changed nappies and dealt with school runs (the politics of the latter was far too much for me) as well as the fun stuff – and it’s been utterly fulfilling. It’s also been just enough, enabling me to enjoy my own inner child, who likes to play. I like the fact that a piece of cardboard can be a car and that when I’m with them I can be in the moment. Now in the advantage of my age (my new name for middle age) I don’t get questions, however I see the questions debated in articles from the UK and Australia where many people are old and alone.
“But aren’t you afraid of growing old alone?”
Ah now you’re talking future. In order to maintain non-panic in my life and give the impression of being the most resilient depressive in the world, I have a dirty secret: I live for the moment. Not the future. That’s too onerous. You see why I love the company of children? So the idea of having babies as some sort of insurance, a security blanket for old age, has never entered my head. It’s a strange notion in this era. Children go travelling and meet tall blonde men on beaches whom they follow to a foreign place. (I did) They study abroad. They work abroad. They become drug dealers and go to jail. They build lives that people could not have imagined 40, 30 even 20 years ago.
“It’s nice to have children around as you get old.”
What is old? Will I get old? I might die before then. I might be hit on the head by a coconut, struck by lightning or taken by aliens. Seriously I know so many people who have kids they never speak to. And others who have children they don’t like, where the feeling is mutual. I know one family where the only child joined a religious sect and was never heard of again. So this concept of being around, let alone kids being around, well it’s all a bit abstract, to me anyway. Word to the wise: If your reason for igniting your ovaries is to bring security in old age, I’d seriously rethink it.There are no guarantees they will be there or even bring you joy. Having said that, I do get a warm fuzzy feeling when I see generations together, but there’s no envy or self-pity. It’s the same feeling I’ve had when I see young children with their parents in the park. It makes me happy. A bit like watching Toy Story.
“Aren’t you scared of dying alone?”
The adage goes there are two moments in life when you are totally alone. Before you make a speech. And just before you die. Having just experienced the death of my friend Bob, his children were in his thoughts but as seizures and incontinence took over his body, he didn’t want them around. Some of us don’t get old. Happily, even with there are still many families where the children are around to provide comfort in old age or can quickly hop on a plane when needed. However, there will come a point, regardless of who is around, where we will all feel alone. From a personal point of view, I’ve lived my life feeling alone in a crowd of people I know, leaving parties after five minutes because I’ve felt disconnected. So the idea of being old alone doesn’t concern me as long as I have some friends who are still alive and most importantly good health. Because ironically, the thing that people value most as they grow older is independence. My mother who has not been sick a day in her life is 86 and not a day goes by when she doesn’t reclaim her independence. While she loves to see us and have us around, I know it’s that ability to run her own life that keeps her from being alone.