CHILD-FREE

An article appeared in the weekend magazine section of a local newspaper dealing with the question “Why are women without children still stigmatised by society?

The cover for this story contained a list of adjectives associated with being a child-free woman: childless, threat, taboo, freedom, failure, selfish, feminist, invisible, shame, barren, isolation, judgement. 

Only a day prior I had read the following statement in a Psychology Today piece on being a child-free male:

Others are truly childfree by choice.  They have made a conscious decision to not have kids, either due to lifestyle or to life values.  If they are in a relationship, it’s with someone who shares their view and also has chosen a life without kids.

It is this last sentence in particular which grated against me and was the prompt to write what is a very personal post on this topic.  Without a doubt, a child-free woman probably deals with much more societal judgement than a matched male, but I would like to challenge the common narrative around what it is to be a child-free 40-something man.

The Back Story

I grew up in a relatively poor nuclear family of mum, dad, and a sister 7 years my junior.  My mother, 13 years older than my father, moved from London, UK, to Dunedin, NZ, not long before I was born.  She herself had a relatively rugged upbringing from what I understand, having been born in January, 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War 2 (one of her earliest memories was being knocked down a bomb shelter during the London Blitz).

She grew up in a working class family, and in a country traumatised by war.  She married young, had three sons, and endured what I gathered was a rough first marriage.  She escaped to NZ with a young guy who was to be my father.

My father was the second youngest of four.  His father had been to war, being a fighter pilot for the RNZAF.  Something happened in my father’s teenage years, the details of which I know little about, but which likely affected his mental health.  He was 21 when I was born (an age unfathomable to me to become a father).  Not long after, he was getting electroconvulsive therapy for depression (most likely the treatment of choice in the mid 1970’s in New Zealand), to the point where it destroyed his ability to talk without a stammer, and needing language therapy to restore his speech.

We moved to the country when I was about 4 years of age.  My father co-piloted coal trains through the mountains between Springfield and Arthur’s Pass.  My mother stayed at home with me and our menagerie of animals, comprising sheep, chickens, and rabbits (all of whom were allowed in the house), ducks, dogs, and due to a previous stint with the Cats Protection League, and as a cat breeder, some 20+ cats.  For me as a child, I loved it, and this early upbringing likely explains my animal whisperer tendencies of today.

But at age 4, you don’t know that being a woman from East London in a small Kiwi country town, with 20+ cats, makes you an object of some ridicule.  My parents weren’t particularly well liked in this small country town.  My father had few friends.  My mother a few more, but not many.

I have an early memory of someone coming to our door one night, arguing with my father on the doorstep, then smashing the door down and having a fist fight with my father in our hallway.  He was just a random guy coming home drunk from the pub and who decided he wanted to punch someone he didn’t like.

I have further memories of my father always buying stuff on credit, only to have repo guys come around a few months later to take the car/TV/parts of the house back.  He also did a short stint in the prison after being arrested for non payment of bills (which was what happened in the late 70’s/early 80’s).  My mother once caught him naked in the bathtub with another woman who was around for a dinner party.  He was a troubled man.

Whilst I was closer to my mother than my father, I lived the with near constant threat of being packed off to boarding school by her if I ever stepped out of line.  On one occasion, she went so far as to actually pack my bags, throw me in the car, and started driving me down the road to… somewhere.  I was young enough that I had no idea that you couldn’t just dump your naughty child at the gates of a boarding school and drive off.

For all the physical abuse my father dished out to me, particularly when I was a teen, my mother was the one who most emotionally abusive.  She was openly jealous when I started having girlfriends, and at the point where, following the latest in a line of affairs had by my father, my mother asked me to apologise to my father for a sarcastic remark I made about him (she was fearful he would leave her for this other woman and she’d be alone), and I refused (resulting in an open face slap like I’d never had before), neither of us really forgave each other from that point on.

And if you think my relationship with my parents was hostile, you should have seen the one with my sister (read as: fought like cat and dog for years).  She was “daddy’s girl”, and enjoyed, on the whole, a much better relationship with my parents than I did, with my mother admitting at one point (to a friend on the phone) that my father had always wanted a daughter more than a son.

The upshot of all this being that, while not being the worst or most abusive upbringing by many standards, I don’t hold fond memories of family life.  I was only very young when I met extended family on my mother’s side (all of whom were UK based), and my father’s extended family, while very supportive of me in my university years, largely stayed away from us during my younger years.  The sum total of this upbringing led to me to develop an avoidant or minimisation attachment style.

The Decision to be Child-Free

I can’t recall when exactly I decided that I wasn’t ever going to have kids.  I suspect it was in my very early 20’s, perhaps not that long after I had left home (cutting all ties with my family, which have remained severed to this day).  As the oldest “Scott” in my generation, I made the conscious decision, based mostly on the above back story, that I would not be carrying on the family name.  I recognised in myself that I held traits and reactions which were all too close to those of my parents, and I had no reason to believe that I could be any better at parenting, nor that I wouldn’t perpetuate the cycle.  I didn’t believe I could do the same thing (have children) and expect a different result from the previous generations of my family.

I broke the cycle. It was an easy decision to make.  I’ve never had any regrets.  There’s never been any doubts.  There’s never been even the slightest hint that I’d change my mind “if the right person came along.”

I just don’t know if it would have been different had my own upbringing had been different (it wasn’t, so that’s really a moot argument any way).  In some 25 or so years of making that decision, I’ve never wavered from it.  Whatever circuitry humans are supposed to have in order to drive them to reproduce themselves, I either never had it, or it was burnt out very early on in my upbringing.

Being Upfront

I’ve never shied away from telling people (in particular, women I’ve contemplated starting relationships with), that I don’t want children.  Ever.  Additionally, I don’t like children.  Anyone’s.  This has led to some interesting reactions over the years.

There’s been the running joke among friends that I’m a child hater, leading to the inevitable “here, hold my baby, Jamie – I know you really love babies”.  There was my mother-in-law swearing black and blue that I would grow out of it, and that everyone under 30 doesn’t want children, but they all change their mind.  My wife and daughter of said MIL told me, well before we were married, that she didn’t want kids either (so seemingly a perfect match!), but then went on to have a child after we divorced.

I worked as a personal trainer for close to a decade, and during that time, both with clients and staff, I’d have women tell me (usually in hushed tones) that if they had their time again, they’d seriously question whether they would have children again (typically followed by the quick disclaimer that “I love my kids to bits, but….”).

Then there was the old client who I caught up with for dinner in St Kilda in Melbourne one night circa 2006.  It was a fairly small restaurant, and I was in town in advance of my wife who was racing for NZ in the Oceania track cycling champs.  This client asked when we were planning on having children, and of course I said we weren’t – I didn’t want any.

I suffered one of the most embarrassing moments of my life as she yelled at me across the table, telling me how selfish I was being by withholding the wonders of pregnancy and child-rearing from my wife.  The small but bustling restaurant suddenly went very quiet.  I went very red and wanted the ground to open up and swallow me.

The Playboy Narrative

There’s an interesting narrative that you can pick up on if you read around about being a child-free man.  You are free to flit around the world.  You have much more disposable income.  A child-free man is a player, unencumbered and free (presumably, then, parenthood equals imprisonment?).

Maybe this is the case when you are in your 30’s.  But as a guy in his mid-40’s, I get a sense that perceptions of my child-free status are more negative than anything else. Certainly, being child-free feels far more isolating than it is liberating in our current society, albeit one where being child-free is becoming a bit more common.

In your 30’s, if you don’t like, and don’t want to spend time around kids, you rapidly lose friends.  Most of them are well into their careers, building nests, mortgaging themselves up, and having their first children.  As you are seen as having none of their self-imposed financial constraints and family restrictions, you get treated quite differently.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard something along the lines of “well it’s alright for you to <be doing something they can’t>, you don’t have a baby and a house to pay for.”  They say they don’t want the freedom of your choices, but they don’t want you to have that freedom either.

By the time I hit my 40’s, the kids of Gen X parents are getting a bit older, and due to some combination of scholastic, sporting, or sartorial achievement, their kids have become a form of social status signalling.  Proud fathers boast of their children’s achievements. A reflection, no doubt, of their inherited superior genetics, school choice, or some combination thereof.

There’s simply nothing that you, a dysfunctional 40-something childless man, are doing in your life to match this, especially if your childlessness is not a sacrifice for a high status career (surgeon, lawyer) or national/international sporting achievement (rugby).

The Uninvested?

Being child-free at this stage in my life, I get a sense, more than ever, that people feel that you are just uninvested in anything much to do with wider society.  A similar sentiment was echoed in the article I highlighted at the start of this post:

Politicians are really good at ignoring us too. Coming up to an election it’s just ‘family, family, family’. It’s all about doing this for our children and our children’s children. The implication is if you don’t have children you don’t have any investment in the future of your country or you don’t have any interest in the future of this country or you don’t matter.

I think this perception holds especially true when you are child-free by choice rather than due to any particular issues with fertility (which, to an extent, can be forgiven by society), and when you aren’t a part of the property-owning class.  In the eyes of society at large, you simply haven’t put any roots down, anywhere, and thus are not invested in anything in society (so you don’t get to share in the spoils) (but still pay your taxes, or else).

Step Parenting

I want to return to the quote I opened with.

Others are truly childfree by choice.  They have made a conscious decision to not have kids, either due to lifestyle or to life values.  If they are in a relationship, it’s with someone who shares their view and also has chosen a life without kids.

For those who don’t know, Anastasia and I are not a completely childless couple.  Anastasia has a teenage daughter from a previous marriage, putting me in an effective step relationship with her daughter.  This has formed one of the biggest personal challenges for me in my recent adult life.

With her daughter having been living with her father for the majority of our relationship (with the exception of school holidays), it’s been relatively easy (though still not without some challenges) for Anastasia and I to focus on our relationship, careers, travels, etc.  But this year, with her daughter moving to NZ (for boarding school), and the natural development of the relationship between a mother and a young girl turning into a young woman, I found this step-relationship incredibly difficult to navigate and it is only very recently that I’ve been able to make much sense of it.

Despite the depictions in TV programmes and movies, becoming a step parent, in any shape or form, is not easy at the best of times.  Being someone who has never wanted any form of parenthood (except for maybe a cat), it’s been even more difficult.  My reading of research in this area makes mention of the various biological and non-biological relationships we hold in our lives.  Anastasia and I have a biological relationship with each other by way of sexual attraction.  Anastasia and her daughter hold a biological relationship too, being mother and daughter.

But I hold no biological relationship with Anastasia’s daughter.  And that’s where the friction begins.  I won’t go into all the details here, suffice to say that a 40-something male, who doesn’t like children, who struggles to connect with the daughter of the partner he loves very much, leaves said 40-something feeling broken, unreasonable, selfish, and often incredibly isolated.

Failing the Game of Life

I hold a deep respect and empathy for any woman who makes the decision to be child-free.  For everything here in my woe-is-me story, I know that society judges child-free women much more harshly than men.  But I felt I needed to add a different perspective and challenge the common narrative that us child-free blokes are all smoking cigars in the Men’s Club and getting a pat on the back for making it this far in life without having spawned a mini version of ourselves.

When you live in a society where your success as a 40-something male is judged by the type of house you own (I rent), the car you own (I have a bicycle), your six-figure salary (mine is 5), and the school your kids go to (I’m child-free), it’s very easy to feel like a bit of a failure at the game of life.

Advertisements