This is what I tell friends who are torn about having children
I am of an age when most of my social group is in their late 30s and early 40s, and, as has always been the case, the majority of my friends are women. So I find myself increasingly having this conversation – usually with a friend, but sometimes with a nice woman I bond with at a party or somesuch – and it goes like this: she always assumed she would have kids, but she didn’t meet the right partner in her 30s, and actually it was fine because she was so busy with her career, and who can afford kids anyway? But now she’s 40 and while she’s not desperate to have kids, she’s also not that keen on losing the option. It kinda sucks being the only one among her friends without kids, when the WhatsApps are full of Hey Duggee chat, and what will happen to her when she’s old? Will she be all alone? So should she have a baby now? I look her right in the eyes and I tell her what I always tell women in these circumstances: don’t bother.
I need to clarify two things here. First, this is in no way a reflection of my feelings about my own children, whom I genuinely cannot imagine my life without, even though I lived for almost 40 years without them. That your life becomes entirely about your kids once you have them is not proof that’s how life should be – it’s a reflection of what kids are like. It’s strange how often people confuse the cause and effect here. I can only assume it’s done mainly by parents who are trying to reassure themselves that they definitely made the right life choices when they realise that, for the next eight years, their weekends will no longer be about seeing their friends, but consist entirely and only of shepherding their kids to playdates and making awkward small chat with random people who just happened to have had kids around the same time as you.
Also, this is advice I give only to women who are ambivalent about having kids. Women who are desperate to have them and have endured hideous losses and medical treatments would never be treated so blithely by me, not least because I have been there. When I hit my late 30s, the desire to have kids walloped me and left me so dazed that I lost the ability to have conversations that weren’t about fertility. When I failed to become instantly pregnant, and then when I later miscarried, it was an all-consuming heartbreak, but unlike with romantic heartbreaks, there was no promise of eventual redemption. For a while, I was barely able to function.
You can keep your billionaires and your supermodels: there is no demographic I envy more than women who are contentedly child-free because, of the ones I know, their lives are brilliant. But I know I would not have been fine if I hadn’t had kids. The sadness would have cast too long a shadow, and maybe that’s evidence of a lack in me, but it is also why I have never doubted my decision to have them, even if I spend many a weekend indulging in fantasies about the incredible books I’d be writing, if I didn’t have to spend another Saturday at some kid’s fourth birthday picnic. (Jane Austen, the Brontës and Virginia Woolf never wasted an afternoon at a Peppa Pig party.) The propulsion towards parenthood – maybe biological, maybe emotional – overwhelmed me, and I have great jealousy of those who don’t get swept up in that illogical, brain-scrambling tidal wave. Why force yourself to walk into that maelstrom?
Of course, there are many reasons why a woman might feel she should force herself. In Ann Patchett’s new book, These Precious Days, she has a lovely essay about her lifelong certainty that she didn’t want children, and also the ludicrous things people have said to her about it. “Even if you don’t want children, you should have one anyway, because later on you’ll wish you had one and then it’ll be too late” is a typical comment, although in my experience, the older a child-free woman gets, the happier she is with her life. (By contrast, men don’t tend to get those jibes, but I’ve seen plenty become sentimental about missed parenting possibilities as they sail past 60.) Fear of future regret is a powerful drug, but it can only be a theoretical fear and, contrary to popular propaganda, having children isn’t the only achievement that counts in a woman’s life. Children aren’t insurance policies or promises of companionship in your dotage. They’re just people, and they come with all the exhausting irritations that we all bring to the party. Some of us, for whatever weird reason, really need that in our lives. But to those who don’t, I say, don’t bother, and congratulations.