“You’re brave”, I was told many years ago. Had I battled a terrorist with a narwhal tusk? Had I smuggled a Soviet dissident through Checkpoint Charlie in the boot of a Trabant?
No, I chose not to have kids. For a moment I struggled to contemplate how this could possibly be brave.
Then I remembered I was not normal.
There are two things parents commonly tell me. The first is that “I love my kids, but if I had the chance to go back, knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have them.”
Those same people, moments after telling me in a quiet corner that they think they made a mistake, can often be found discussing the joys of parenthood with other parents. We live in a culture where it’s socially unacceptable to regret having children. Of course, this isn’t a simple matter, few parents would want their children to know they regretted having them. Nobody can blame a parent from maintaining the pretence justified by that alone.
The other thing parents often tell me, whether they regret having children or not, is that they’re not entirely sure why they chose to have them. The most common theme is that “it’s just what you do, isn’t it?”.
The herd is useful, tradition is useful. The chances are that if something is a standard or has been done a particular way for centuries then there’s a good reason for it. Many people have decided they know better, ripped up the rule book only for it to be an unmitigated disaster and before they know it things are back to pretty much how they were before, only with slightly different names to try to cover up the failure.
The herd, of course, has a plan for your life. You start by playing a few games, then do a bit of education, find a job, find a partner, raise some kids, find some hobbies then retire.
Going against that plan is the harder road. There’s safety in the herd, masses of animals all doing the same thing. Any animal that does something different is a cause for concern to the rest of the herd. It might do something that puts others in danger. It might even be a predator in disguise.
Rarely does anyone ever ask the question why someone chose to have kids. Dare not to have them and we get the nagging and the constant leading questions, “When are you two going to get round to having kids?” And the stories about the great aunt that ran out of time and always regretted it.
If you want to add a horse tranquillizing quantity of alcohol, then apparently we would have made great parents and it’s people like us who are responsible for reverse Darwinism, if that’s actually a thing.
Some people, of course, always wanted to have kids: it’s a strong part of who they are. I couldn’t be happier for them, but that’s not everybody. On the flip side, there are those people who are resolute from the start that they don’t want children.
But there are those in the middle and they’re the vulnerable ones…
I find that an incredibly sad song, about how a society can railroad you into a career, into marriage, into parenthood before you’ve had a chance to think and whilst you’re still naive enough not to know better.
Then you’re trapped.
To work out how to escape this, I want to reverse back up to that leading question which I was asked in so many different forms over the years, “When are you two going to have kids?”. If your social group, your family, your friends, even your colleagues expect you to have children then the first thing you have to do is separate your personal, true thoughts from those of your community, your family and even those closest to you.
We are all different, it is not a duty or responsibility to have kids, you don’t owe it to your family or anyone else. This is about you and your feelings alone. It is entirely worth taking the time, alone, to work out exactly how you feel.
I can’t emphasise this enough: it is your call.
If you have a partner, of course they’re important, but don’t allow someone else to override your own feelings on this. You can never truly reverse having had children. If having kids is a deal breaker, then the deal is broken. Going your separate ways now might be painful, but it’s better than spending the rest of your life with children you don’t want.
And please don’t let anyone tell you that you’ll change your mind when you first hold the baby. It does work for some people, but it doesn’t work for everyone.
The decision not to have children is, mostly, the less permanent one. Sure, if you’re a woman the point where it pretty much becomes permanent is a lot earlier, but you don’t have to close the door forever at age 18. None of us can predict the future that well. If you don’t feel that you want kids now then that’s fine.
The problem is not you. The problem is other people…
People are Weird.
Unless you tell them differently, people tend to assume that you’re broadly the same as them. Not wanting children is such a defining aspect of life choices that it can upset people’s notion of who you are. People can get weird about that.
Sometimes people choose their perception of you over who you actually are. They start trying to mould you to their perception, not the other way around. Or to put it another way, they’ll tell you you’re making a mistake and you’ll change your mind. This, clearly, is their problem, not yours.
Some people’s own visions of their lives, particularly those who want kids, can also involve you having kids. They expect you to run parallel lives, which can mean they feel betrayed. They’re betrayed by their own assumptions, but it doesn’t always come out like that. Again, not your problem.
A common response is an overly-assertive demand to know why. That’s not always easy to answer, because the truth is often simply that you don’t feel any need or desire in that direction. That is justification enough; if anything the people who need to give the better justification are those who chose to have kids. You don’t need to explain further.
There are any number of emotional responses that can come out from people whose world you’ve just upset. The one thing I can say for sure is that you won’t lose any friends. There’s a small chance you might find that some people you thought were friends are really just acquaintances, but the earlier you find that out, the better.
The last thing to mention is that some people are pretty persistent. The in-laws who ask literally every time you see them; they exist. Some friends will also ask as often as they think it acceptable to do so. This, of course, is a type of bullying and you’re totally justified in telling them to back off, or referring them to the reply given in the matter of Arkell vs. Pressdram.
Remember, it’s a huge decision to make and it’s your decision alone. You don’t need to justify it to anyone else; “I just don’t want to” is the only response you need to make. Don’t let anyone tell you different.