Choosing to be child-free

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Are you too selfish to be a mother? Do you hate kids? You'll change your mind. Won't you be lonely when you're older? You just haven't met the right guy. Are you one of those career-obsessed women? Should you freeze your eggs in case? Don't you love me enough to have a child with me? Your mother must be so disappointed. Do you love your sleep-ins more than loving a child?

All of those words have been uttered to me from a variety of people. Some I shrug off, but some are like lemon juice in a paper cut. And people feel they have the right to say these things to me simply because of my choice not to have children.

There's no gentle way to say I don't want to have kids. It's such a harsh statement. But it seems by refusing to breed I'm conducting societal heresy. After all, mothers are soft and nurturing, and women who don't want children must be sharp and prickly.

American comedian Rita Rudner once said, ''My husband and I are either going to buy a dog or have a child. We just can't decide whether to ruin the carpet or ruin our lives.''

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I love jokes about it. Because no matter how I phrase it, I'm judged. And trust me, it's a lot more fun to say I prefer to ''use my vagina for fun not function'' than expose my vulnerabilities. For me, it all boils down to one thing: I've never felt clucky. Not before, not now, at age 39. I simply never saw children in my future. I didn't realise it would be such an unpopular choice. But what's the other option? Fake my enthusiasm and bring an unwanted child into the world hoping for the best?

It's important to point out that being childfree and childless are completely different situations. My heart breaks for women who long to be a mother, yet circumstances prevent them from having a child. I have a friend who has admitted that her ovaries ache every time she sees a woman pushing a pram. I've cried with her.

But being childfree means you have made a conscious decision not to have children.

It is the last female taboo.

Most of the childfree people I spoke to for this story initially asked to not be named. All feared judgment. Some didn't want to be defined by their decision. One had never said it out loud. But after some gentle nudging they finally agreed, so that we could all step out of the shadows.

Maha Obeid, a 41-year-old journalist from Sydney, says, ''I feel like I'm waging a war against what society thinks and I'm tired of fighting.

''The first question people ask me is if I have children. It makes me really sad. And I'm Lebanese, so there's 10 times the judgment. It's like I'm not valued as a person because I don't have children.''

Laura Bernay, a 55-year-old singer-musician from Perth, confesses, ''I never woke up on weekends wishing for the pitter-patter of little feet. But I've never said, 'I don't want kids', to anyone. Instead I say, 'It didn't work out for us', just to avoid the judgment.''

A recent study called Childlessness in Australia, undertaken by Dr Bronwyn Harman, lecturer in the school of psychology and social science at Perth's Edith Cowan University, looked at why people choose to not have children. Of the 330 women surveyed, 250 were voluntarily childfree and 80 involuntarily. Focusing on the voluntarily childfree, Harman found the main reason they chose to not have children is that they didn't feel maternal, followed by thinking that it would ruin their lifestyle or career. Only 6 per cent actively disliked children.

''In the comments, the main reason for not having children is simply - they just don't want them,'' Harman says. ''One analogy was it was like a Lamborghini: you might want to drive a Lamborghini but you don't really want to own one.''

Yet it's not beneath male politicians to taunt Prime Minister Julia Gillard as ''childless'' and ''deliberately barren'', as if these were the most vile, bitter put downs they could muster.

Celebrities who speak about it are few and far between. Recently, Dame Helen Mirren spoke about being childfree, telling British Vogue, ''Motherhood holds no interest for me. I have no maternal instinct whatsoever.''

Australian singer-songwriter Ricki-Lee Coulter told the media recently, ''[The entertainment industry] is not really the climate or environment to raise a kid in. Plus, it's not something I desire.''

I can hear the tut-tutting now. ''Oh my god, she's so selfish.''

No, she's just made a choice. When a childfree woman is called selfish, it's the mother of all insults.

''In my research, the one thing I hear more than anything else is that most people judge the childfree and immediately call them selfish,'' says Harman, who has three children herself. ''I believe some parents are envious of the childfree.''

Wait, what? If they are jealous of our childfree lifestyles, then why are so many hellbent on convincing us to pop out a littlie?

''The reaction from parents is that raising a child is full-time, stressful and hard work,'' Harman says. ''But it's rewarding work. No parent said they would change back, but there is a feeling of envy, even if it is fleeting.''

A psychologist and mother of two children, Anne Hollonds, says, ''I've always questioned why people who choose to not have children are considered selfish. There's a large part of having children that is selfish. 'Because I wanted it for me', 'It was something I had always dreamt about.' You have to own the fact there is an element of selfishness there.''

Author of the 2012 book Childless, Gillian Guthrie, says a chasm in understanding can occur between the haves and the have-nots.

''The perception is we're not tied down, we don't have real, nurturing feelings, we're not prepared to make the sacrifices mums and dads have to make … we're ambitious and self-seeking,'' she says.

''Now, I might be jealous of my colleague who has kids and who has to leave work early and arrive late when I'm expected to work through.

''It may well be that mothers and fathers find it hard to understand the lives we, the childless/childfree, lead, just as it's often hard for us to imagine what incessant family life is like. It's easy to be hostile to what you don't understand.''

That hostility can be subtle, Obeid says.

''I feel like I don't take up any space because I don't have children,'' she says. ''Mothers with kids push in front of me at cafes like my time is less important than theirs,'' she says.

''Friends with kids cancel at the last minute all the time. I understand that sometimes things come up with the kids but if I'm in my car driving to their house when they cancel, they don't even acknowledge that that is rude. Again, it shows my time doesn't mean anything to them.''

Harman goes a step further and says society ''despises'' childfree women because womanhood and motherhood are intertwined. ''You are defined by the number of children and how well you mother.''

Harman is about to throw the cat among the pigeons again with a new study that she is currently undertaking, looking at life satisfaction. Who's happier: women with kids or women without? ''The main factors I'm looking at are self-esteem, social support and resilience,'' she says.

Whatever the outcome, it will no doubt be controversial.

Hollonds thinks it will be very hard to measure. No matter what a women's choice is, it seems she needs to justify it. ''It's not enough to say I didn't have children but I'm the CEO of a bank - you also have to do volunteer work to show you are a nice, compassionate, non-selfish person,'' she says.

Bernay agrees. ''I feel like I have to do this great, amazing thing so it's okay for me to not have kids: write a best-selling book, find a cure for cancer. Why can't you just be?''

Hollonds says it works both ways. ''On the flip side: women who've chosen to stay at home and have children feel they have to justify they have a brain. It goes to the heart of how women feel they have to justify their existence.''

She believes all this is changing, though. ''I think [being childfree] is the last frontier of social stigma for private choices, especially for women. Childfree is almost the final taboo. It dawned on me that we used to talk about divorce like this. Divorce was seen as shameful. But it doesn't have that same stigma any more.''

Although I'm very comfortable with my choice to not have kids, one thing I do think about - and, yes, sometimes worry about - is being lonely when I'm older.

I have a great relationship with my parents and regularly go on holidays with them. However, having a child just to look after you when you're older is horrendously unfair.

I was recently reminded that not everyone has the close relationship I have with my parents. I'm in a loving relationship with a wonderful man (who also doesn't want to have kids), and I have a great brother and sister-in-law with two awesome nephews who I love to bits. So why would I be lonely? They are my family, too. Right?

Harman says yes. ''My study is under the umbrella of parenting and family. I say people who choose not to have children are still a family. Yet I've had lots of criticism about this. Why is it only the inclusion of children that makes you a family? You have a familial bond with somebody that doesn't include a blood connection. Why can't it be with your partner and your partner's parents and brothers and sisters?''

Friends can be considered family, too. That's why, slowly, more childfree people are being brave enough to speak up and connect with like-minded people.

Childless truck driver Casey Pilcher set up Childfree Victoria, which organises outings in that state, while Gillian Guthrie hosts childless lunches in Sydney.

''I had this overwhelming feeling that I didn't want to go to another social function where I might be asked about my parental status,'' Guthrie says.

''At least we're able to enjoy the camaraderie of being in the same boat and not being outsiders in a community playing happy families.''

In Melbourne, a group of childfree women who call themselves The Barren-esses have regular catch-ups, showing it's better to take the sting out of words such as ''barren'' by using them. You can also buy T-shirts emblazoned with ''Intentionally Barren''.

I plan to wear mine with pride.

Shelly Horton wll speak at the 'Children? No Thanks' panel at the All About Women Festival on April 7. For more information and to get your ticket, visit The Sydney Opera House.