Portrait of Susan Wyndham at her home in Paddington. Photo: James Brickwood
Whether or not to have a baby is one of life's most important decisions. Here, four women who are leading child-free lives reflect on the choice they made.
55, literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald
I was as devoted to my dolls as any other seven-year-old, pushing them around in their pram, propping them up for classes in front of my blackboard. To tell the truth, though, I couldn't wait until they were tucked into their cots and I could lie down on the sofa with a book.
Perhaps that makes me sound like any tired mum, but as I grew up the babies receded and the books took over. I didn't set out to be radical. I was - or thought I was - simply a child of the 1960s, a teenager of the '70s, a beneficiary of the feminist movement that carved up society just ahead of me. I was shocked, not long ago, to find a school essay I had written at 13 on the proposition ''A woman's place is in the home''. Expecting to find the nascent feminist, I read my earnest defence of men and women's traditional roles. That's not how I remember myself.
Besides, I had to earn a living. School led to university led to a cadetship at The Sydney Morning Herald. In my theoretical life plan, I would marry at 25 and yes, probably have children in some hazy future. In real life, I did marry at 25 to my long-time boyfriend. Two years later, we divorced.
I loved my job and fell in love with another man, whom I eventually followed to New York, where we worked and travelled as foreign correspondents. Every now and then one of us would say, ''Do you want to have children?'' and the other would say, "No" or, at most, ''Part of me does.'' We even imagined hypothetical children, Paddy and Anna - adorable kids who looked like us and never caused any trouble. But the part of us that wanted them wasn't big enough.
We watched people raising children in New York - an Australian journalist whose baby slept in an open drawer in his tiny apartment; stressed couples trying to wrangle precocious infants. Old friends in Australia were giving up or slowing down their careers to be mothers. I was pleased for them, but never envied them. I didn't coo over downy-headed babies or look longingly at passing prams.
When we moved back to Australia I was 38 and starting another demanding job. If ever I'd been unhappy in my work I might have considered taking a baby break. If I'd become pregnant I imagine I would have adapted. But without those pressures I was waiting for a wave of maternal instinct to wash over me. I waited and waited. Incrementally, that waiting became a choice.
My husband and I take parenthood seriously: the world doesn't need our progeny, so we leave the job to those who really want them. We admire parents and enjoy their children, but truly wonder how they manage without going mad.
It's only when people ask, "Do you have children?" and look embarrassed at the answer that I'm reminded of my oddity. Funny - I thought society would have changed more by now and I would be just another version of normal.
My parents divorced when I was small and my mother bravely brought me up, built a career and became a role model of independence. I was content - even spoiled - in our twosome, which created a peaceful home and times of solitude. Marriage has given me more of the same. I'm not sure my nervous system was made for the chaos of motherhood. As an only child, too, I felt anxiously responsible for my mother and for myself. I did not want to repeat her financially precarious existence, so I chose partnership with a man but not dependency.
My mother didn't complain about her lack of grandchildren, though I sometimes felt I'd deprived her. Only when she died last year did I suffer some pangs of regret. My past was disappearing and I hadn't created a future. Suddenly, I had fewer people to love; no children to care when I die; no one to inherit my memories and things that mean nothing to the rest of the world; no grandchildren to bring playfulness into my old age.
At the same time, the children of my friends are growing into shining young adults and I see the pleasure they bring their parents. But you only earn that dividend after 20 years' investment and there are no guarantees.
It's too late for regrets, and they have dissipated. I have a fortunate life, a happy marriage, loving relatives and friends. I lie on the sofa reading books. And I'm glad no one will have to grieve for me as I have grieved for my mother. I've saved Paddy and Anna a lot of pain.
62, humanitarian worker and consultant
I grew up in Melbourne with my twin sister. I was the tomboy of the pair, who ran around in the street and played football with the boys rather than staying in with the dolls. I certainly never fantasised about the fairy tale - grow up, get married, have babies, live behind the picket fence for forever and a day.
I was always adventurous and a bit of a risk-taker, and my sister and I took very different paths. She got married at 25, had two beautiful girls by the time she was 30 and, in my mind, sacrificed her own potential. Meanwhile, I was teaching in high schools in Victoria. When I was 27 I met an architect, with whom I had a de facto relationship for 10 years. I adored him, but he was very extroverted and I'm fairly introverted, so our relationship perpetuated my sense of lacking identity and self-worth. We never really talked about marriage, let alone kids, and when
I sensed him starting to edge towards that, I left.
The man who was to become my husband then came on the scene. We got married when I was 37, which in those days was seen as too old to have kids. Whether to have a child or not didn't come up anyway, because he was almost 50 and had two adolescent daughters, so I assumed that he wouldn't want any more. And I just didn't have a burning maternal flame.
I worked as hard as I could to make the marriage work, but it didn't. We separated initially when I was 42, but it dragged on for another 10 years. That was a very nasty, painful time that really took an emotional toll on me, so I was a bit of a mess by the time the divorce rolled around. By then I was over 50 and menopausal and most of my options seemed to be gone. I became overwhelmed with grief about not having a family.
I realised that time had just passed me by - that I'd been caught up in a moment, a moment that went on for years. I really felt like a failure.
At the height of the grieving period, which lasted about two years, I decided to get a puppy. Ernie is the child substitute; everyone in my family knows that, so he gets Christmas presents. That's where all my nurturing has gone. I'm just as pathetic about him as any mother would be about a child.
After that period, I went over to an orphanage in Thailand and worked for three weeks with babies and toddlers who had HIV or AIDS. It changed my life, working with these tiny little vulnerable beings who, through no fault of their own, had this insidious disease. I think I got more than I gave. There were lots of cuddles and feeding and folding nappies and all that stuff I'd never done. That experience really put whatever else I was experiencing at the time into perspective.
I started to do a whole lot of humanitarian work after that. I've been to some really interesting places - the West Bank, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, China - and have met a lot of terrific people. I definitely wouldn't have gone down that trail if I'd had kids.
I'm well and truly over the grieving now. In retrospect, I'm really pleased a child didn't have to go through a nasty separation, divorce and custody battle. About three years ago, I went to see my mother. It was Mother's Day but I hadn't realised, and when I went to put my bags down there was a present sitting on the bed. She'd bought me a nice bottle of perfume because she was worried I was always missing out on Mother's Day. I still get a bit teary thinking about that.
I've got a couple of friends whose daughters I'm close to; they're in their mid- and late-30s and have talked about wanting to have a career and being uncertain about children. I'd never lecture them, but I just tell them what happened to me when I got into my early 50s and the enormous grief that I went through.
- as told to Nina Karnikowski
I grew up in a Catholic family of five children in Western Australia. When I was in high school, I presumed my lot in life would be to get married and have children, but that all changed after I moved to Sydney in my early 20s. I got involved with squatting in Glebe and was drawn into feminism and leftist politics. It was the early 1970s and there were lots of discussions around the idea that there were already too many people in the world.
I was 24 when I decided to have a tubal ligation. It was largely a political decision, but it was also coloured by the fact that I hadn't had a very happy experience growing up. My mother wasn't a good mother and I didn't want to repeat that. I was using contraception - the Pill, an IUD that I had to have removed, all sorts of things at different times. It just became really tedious.
Still, even though I'd decided I didn't want children, I remember going into a bit of a tailspin after the operation. I suddenly realised I would never be a mother. I was really upset. I hadn't understood how much your identity is tied up with your fertility.
I met my partner, Peter, in 1979 when I was 27 and he was 33. He'd already had a vasectomy, partly for the same political reasons as me and also because he knew he didn't want to be a father. But at 35 I found myself thinking I'd like to have a baby. The biological clock was banging really loudly. Until then I'd always thought that was a social construct - and maybe it is - but, anyway, it was ticking.
I'd also been to see a therapist and started to see myself in a better light and thought I could possibly be a reasonable mother. I suppose the desire had to do with wanting to fulfil my biology in a way. It's something very powerful you can do as a female: give birth to another human being. And I wanted to have Peter's child.
The biological clock wasn't ticking for Peter, though, and I had to spend quite a bit of time convincing him because he was still adamant he didn't want children. He said one reason was that he was very selfish and didn't want my attention being diverted to someone else. I suppose he didn't want to dampen his lifestyle. Eventually he came around, although he said the only reason he was doing it was because he loved me. So then we both went off and had reversals. Mine went well. It was more horrendous for Peter: there was a lot of swelling.
By then I was 39. I was probably already very infertile. They said to try for a year, which we did, and then we prepared to start IVF treatment. When they did an ultrasound, however, they said, "Sorry, but it's too late."
We thought about getting an egg from a donor. Peter would have had to have another treatment to extract his sperm because the vessels had closed up again. At that point he said, "No. We tried."
It took years for me to recover. It's not like I went around playgrounds peering longingly through the wire or anything, but I was very distressed - frustrated and disappointed I hadn't been able to make it happen. I'd been so convinced that if I worked really hard, and did everything required, we'd be able to have a child together. I hadn't factored in ageing and the rapid decline of my fertility. Besides the disbelief, there were intense feelings of loss and sadness and grief; a real sense of emptiness and absence.
I do regret it, especially now that I'm alone. I had no idea Peter would die so young [he died in 2008, aged 60]. It would be nice to have a really close relationship with another human being that would continue; provide that sense of belonging, of meaning and fulfilment, of a loving family.
Are there things I wouldn't have been able to do if I'd had children? Actually, I think another reason I wanted them was to avoid having to do meaningful things. I trained as an artist so there's always that pressure to produce art and try to be successful. Now I have no excuse.
- as told to Fenella Souter
When I learnt how babies were born, I didn't believe it. I don't remember this, only the story my mother told as if it summed up something about me. "Impossible," I'm said to have said. "The Queen wouldn't have had babies like that." There I rested my case.
As the first grandchild on either side of the family, my childhood was filled with babies squeaking and squawking. The advantage of this was that they grew into small cousins and sisters who could act in my plays. The disadvantage was that I was expected to mind them in the bath. There could be five small girls running along the wide enamel lip of the bath, with soap everywhere and water on the floor, and disaster averted only by extreme vigilance. By the time I was 20, the question, as far as I could see, was why anyone would have children, not why they wouldn't.
I don't regret not having children and I'm positively glad I didn't have one when the biological clock set off its alarm. I'd just published my first book. "The poor baby," my mother said when I told her I might have one after all. And she was right. Even if I'd risen to the occasion, as I hope I would have, a full-time baby would have been in conflict with some deep note in me that needs unencumbered space in my head: not all the time, but enough. Without it, the textured landscape where books are born flattens out to a desert.
As it turned out I was exceptionally fortunate, for just as I reached 30, one of my sisters had babies, and so did my ex-husband with his next partner. Three girls were born within three years of each other and I loved them all from the start. I loved them then, and I love them now, and I can't imagine what life would be like without them.
I loved having them to visit when they were little. I loved our expeditions and adventures. I also loved handing them back to their mothers, and returning to the open windows above my desk.
They're in their 30s now, and one of them has just been up to Papua New Guinea with me, to a village where the sisters of mothers are called "small mothers", not aunts, and she's taken to calling me that now and again, though mostly I'm Dru as I have been since she could speak. I wasn't going to be Aunt Drusilla, not to her, not to any of them - just me, the person that I am, distinct and odd and myself.
When I was growing up, there was my mother's friend Gillian, the only adult woman outside the family we called by her first name. She didn't have children, and unlike the mothers of friends who were likely to cry or snap, she gave us her full attention, and I wasn't the only one to bask in it.
When she came to take me out from boarding school, we'd wind up the car windows and talk. Back at the house we made toast in front of the fire. Gillian made shameful secrets less shameful, upsets less upsetting, and the dark thoughts I could confess only to her less dark. I went back to school with a cake in a tin and books to tide me over till the next time she came tooting up the drive in her old station wagon.
Gillian was in our parents' will as our guardian if they died. She'd signed up for 18 children that way and years later she told me she'd wake in the night sometimes at the thought of all those parents going down at once.
After my mother died, I found she'd kept an essay of mine from primary school: "When I grow up." Most of it was about being a dancer in a pretty dress, but these were the last two lines: "My shoes will sparkle. I will not have children." I don't remember that, either, nor the imaginary children I had on chairs around the house that couldn't be sat on.
Before my mother died she said she hoped I'd keep on writing and fill my books with characters. I wish she'd lived to meet them. But most of all I wish she'd lived to see her grandchildren grow up and that something of her has come to them through me, the small mother with windows above her desk.