Written by Kate Fox

Lifestyle

Happily embracing Otherhood

Having children has never been on Kate Fox’s to do list. But there’s never been a shortage of people telling her it should be. They’ll know who they are when they get an invite to her childfree, menopause hoopla.

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Kate Fox, pictured with husband Alfie Crow, and their beloved cocker spaniel, Norbert

Every woman who says she doesn’t want children will have heard, “You’ll change your mind” from well meaning relatives, friends and random strangers at bus stops.

At 39, I’m not quite old enough to have hit the menopause but I look forward, when I do, to holding a big party, complete with a bouncy castle for adults, an ‘I Told You So’ cake and pasta made out of my own fallopian tubes.

“Who will look after you when you’re old?” they ask, furrowing their brow in concern for me and the contents of my womb.

I hadn’t realised that children were born to provide free social care for their parents.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” they go on to pronounce, as if the future survival of the human race is down to them convincing me to be fertile.

What I should do is quote the results of the World Happiness Survey to the people who are worried about my decision not to have kids. It consistently finds that people’s happiness plummets when they have children and increases again when they leave home.

I don’t, because even though I don’t want to be a mum, I’m still a nice person, honest. That reminds me of that other favourite, “But you’d make a lovely mother”, as if only nice people become parents.

The state of not having kids is seen as so unnatural it doesn’t even have a name – though a recent American book by Melanie Notkin has suggested it be called “otherhood”.

There are now even support groups which exist to support the “child-free by choice” because of the stigma they face from a society that’s set on reproducing itself.

The “child-free” label is meant to counter the usual one of “childless”, which implies that we’re lacking something.

I first heard it from the TV historian Lucy Worsley who caused a stir a couple of years ago by saying publicly that she didn’t want children and thought she had been “educated out” of wanting them by her school’s emphasis on getting on with a career first.

Other famous women have spoken out about the flak they get.

Artist Tracey Emin says she’s fed up of being asked about it, but thinks that society sees women who haven’t had children as “witches”.

Actor Miriam Margolyes, who has played many a witch in her time, is a bit more joyous about her decision not to have kids, saying gleefully that they’re a “pain in the arse”, though she does like getting recognised by children all over the world because of her role as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films.

That reminds me of that other favourite, “But you’d make a lovely mother”, as if only nice people become parents.

Helen Mirren has often talked in interviews about not wanting to give up her freedom to have them, though says she sometimes thought children might be nice “as a memento of this or that relationship”.

Rumours have recently swirled that Jennifer Aniston is pregnant, but she said that she was annoyed that non-mothers are valued less by society: “I don’t have this sort of checklist of things that have to be done, and if they’re not checked, then I’ve failed some part of my feminism or my value as a woman,” she said. “I’ve birthed a lot of things, and I feel like I’ve mothered many things. And I don’t feel it’s fair to put that pressure on people.”

Apparently half of women who don’t want children have always known that they didn’t. I’m one of those. It’s always been a part of my identity. I’ve been intrigued to discover that something I have in common with many of my enthusiastically child-free friends and acquaintances is that we didn’t like playing with dolls when we were little.

I wonder if there is something innate that makes people want to be parents or if they’re just copying what they saw growing up?

But other friends talk about their daughters pushing prams and pretending to feed Tear Drops dolls without any encouragement from them.

Scientists say that parenting urges are part learned and part instinctive, although there’s no consensus about whether there is such a thing as a specifically “maternal” instinct. The idea of one might just be convenient for the current social order in which women still take on the bulk of the childcare.

I thought I was still in a minority though, but since I started researching the issue, I’ve discovered it’s much more common than I’d thought.

Of women born between 1930 and 1946, only one in nine did not have children. A figure that’s always remained fairly consistent across history.

Now more than one in five women in the UK don’t have children, and the proportion is rising all the time. In countries like Germany and Japan, it’s nearer one in three. Their governments are worried and looking at tax and childcare measures to try encourage people to keep procreating.

I’m relieved though that I don’t have to cope with tantrums in the supermarket if I don’t get him his favourite flavour of Pedigree Chum – because I’m allowed to tie him up outside

Fertility is decreasing in the West, even as the population of the world as a whole rises and is predicted to hit ten billion by 2050.

Of course, not all of those people are choosing not to have kids. Some biologically can’t. Also, the decline in religion and traditional family structures, more women working, the contraceptive pill and economic pressures mean that many women find they’ve left it too late to start a family.

Some cite their worries about the population issues and the competition for natural resources.

It’s not just dwindling natural resources and the high environmental cost of stuff that babies tend to need (like clean nappies and air). The average cost of raising a child, from cradle to college, is now a mind boggling £212,000. People might say they couldn’t put a price on the love of their children, but seeing the figures written down does help put it into perspective a bit.

How many degrees or holidays or new shoes does that represent? Would people make the decision if they knew that they’d be spending an average of £9k on toys for their little tyke over the course of it’s life and 14 grand on food?

The more I spoke to parents and non-parents, I found out the boundaries between the choices are not as clear as I’d imagined. I had been nervous about questioning parents about their choice to have kids but it turns out that many of them are not so dewy-eyed about their little darlings that they can’t see they could have chosen differently.

From the male taxi driver who told me bluntly, “I wouldn’t have kids if I had my time again. We’d have gone on more holidays and got a bigger house,” to the mother who said that she knew she’d have got further in her career if she hadn’t had her daughter and sometimes resented her because of it.

Conversely, even the most determinedly child-free person can have moments where they waver. My particular trigger used to be when people said that the love they felt for a child was like no other love they’d ever known.

I wondered if I was missing out on my very own oxytocin rush. However, falling in love with my now husband seven years ago, then more recently with our cocker spaniel, Norbert, has helped give me my own high of love hormones, without the dirty nappies and sleepless nights.

I’m relieved though that I don’t have to cope with tantrums in the supermarket if I don’t get him his favourite flavour of Pedigree Chum – because I’m allowed to tie him up outside, and when the anxiety of his first girlfriends starts to hit, I can just have him castrated.

There are other advantages to having a canine dependent.

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My husband (who luckily feels the same way as me about both children and dogs or I wouldn’t have gone out with him in the first place) is able to be an absolutely equal parent. Neither of us gave birth to Norbert. Neither of us were able to breastfeed him (though in my besotted early days of his puppyhood I probably would have tried).

I know really, however, that Norbert is not the same as a child. He won’t talk about us to his grandchildren. He won’t reminisce about his first rawhide chew, his Puppy Training certificate for Good Behaviour, that time that he farted and sniffed my husband’s bottom instead of his own.
He certainly won’t look after us when we’re old.

There are other ways of leaving a legacy and living on but recently I’ve had to admit that I do actually feel some sadness about my lifelong decision not to have kids.

Though I think it’s the sadness that comes from any decision you make. The road not taken. The sliding doors moment. The children I have never given life to exist as potentials that will never be fulfilled. Though I do know that the greatest gift I could have given my non-existent children would have been the power to choose whether them becoming a parent was something they truly wanted for themselves, or just a result of social pressure to be like everybody else.

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Written by Kate Fox

Standup poet who's been poet in residence for Radio 4's Saturday Live, Glastonbury Festival and the Great North Run.