“Childbirth is a real rite of passage,” said one of my closest friends recently, having just given birth.
I am not usually sensitive to comments around having children, but this really made me think: If I don’t have a child, am I really a woman? If I don’t go through childbirth, does that mean I am not as strong as women who are mothers? What if I am never part of this ‘club’? If I never feel the love a mother has for her child, have I really felt love at all?
As much as I try to challenge these thoughts when they arise, the narrative is tough to shift. It sticks.
That’s why it was so triggering when, during that Oprah interview, Meghan Markle said: “The most important title I will ever have is ‘mum'”. It tells us that motherhood really is deemed a badge of honour; one that not all of us will wear.
So where does that leave those of us who don’t? Are we without identity? Are we incomplete somehow?
I am writing this on the eve of my 40th birthday, and I know I am not alone. More women than ever are reaching their late thirties without having had children. In December 2020, figures revealed that half of women aged 30 don’t have a child, compared with one in five among their grandmothers’ generation, and in 2018, an international study showed that a fifth of British women are childless in their early 40s, the third-highest figure in the world.
Despite these figures, it seems that being childless is still something people feel they can openly question; something we collectively try and ‘fix’. In true lockdown style, I feel the intensity of my situation more than ever before. My social media feeds are full of homeschooling mothers and new babies, whereas I have barely been able to date – as a result, I’ve lost a precious year of my fertility. I realise in the greater scheme of the pandemic, this may not be a big deal. But I feel it nonetheless.
I regularly hear comments from those close to me and those not-so-close to me: “Do you want to have kids?”; “Are you disappointed you haven’t had kids?”; “Don’t worry, you will meet someone and things will just move fast”.
Despite feeling comfortable in my life without children – which doesn’t mean I don’t want to have them – these questions still always catch me off-guard. I can’t help but feel disappointed, a little unaccomplished and slightly embarrassed that I haven’t quite hit the schedule as planned. And then I feel angry that I am forced to experience emotions that I don’t genuinely feel. Society feels them for me.
Like many women in my position, I have pre-prepared responses to these questions that I deliver with absolute confidence. My childless friends do the same. This helps to avoid the inevitable follow-up: pity, unsolicited advice and encouraging tales of women who are perfectly happy without children.
Let me be clear: I know this is done with nothing but good intention. But women like me don’t need to hear inspirational stories about successful, happy women without children. We are those inspirational stories. We are those women living our fulfilled lives. That should be enough, no questions asked.
“Why don’t you freeze your eggs or get a sperm donor?” is a common response to my situation. I am well aware biology is not on my side and I also know my options, of which there are many. But fertility support is a rich person’s game, not helped by the fact that some Clinical Commissioning Groups in the UK offer IVF on the NHS to those under 35 only. I know funding is limited, but I wonder if this could ever change.
‘Social’ or ‘circumstantial’ infertility are newish terms to describe women who have not had children through no medical reason – just circumstance – and it still feels taboo. There are many women under this umbrella and all with different stories. Based on the questions I get asked and the advice I am regularly given, it is clear society still does not know how to discuss this subject in an informed and balanced way. I rarely share my thoughts on this openly for fear of sounding bitter or resentful, because that is absolutely not the case.
This is also not an attack on mothers or in defense of childless women. I would never want to take away from all of the mothers out there – I see you and I celebrate you. I am so proud of my friends who navigate birth and child-rearing in a raw and honest way with strength and humility. I genuinely enjoy sharing that with them, I really do. I’m fascinated by what women’s bodies can do, I want to hear the birth story, I want to hear anecdotes about their amazing kids.
But I am definitely not, at this time, part of the exclusive club that is motherhood. And I want to feel like that is OK.
So, why isn’t it? This is a question I asked myself recently, when a six-year-old asked if I had a husband and a baby. Where is this coming from? The traditional societal structure is learned from such a young age through the people around us and the media we consume – call it ‘Disney syndrome’, perhaps. Whatever the cause, it’s clear that the expectations of a woman’s life start the moment she is born.
This isn’t about mothers being sensitive around non-mothers. It’s about considering how we communicate motherhood to young girls, and how we can change the narrative. Yes, as Meghan says, ‘mum’ is an important title, and it is a badge of honour – but it is not the only one a woman can have.
We need to normalise women not having children. Maybe we should stop putting motherhood on a pedestal. It is not the pinnacle of womanhood. It is not inextricably linked to our identities as women. Let’s remove these expectations and assumptions for the young women that come after us.