When my nieces and nephews were much younger, I sometimes asked them whether they thought I was an adult or a child. The answer was always the same: a child – even though my first nephew was born when I was 30. Similarly, when my boyfriend turned up alone at his sister's house for the first time after breaking up with his previous partner, his little niece asked him where his mother was.
In the eyes of a small child, an adult is a parent. If you don't have children, you must be a child yourself. When we grow up, we don't entirely rid ourselves of that notion. People without children are often portrayed as floating along in a perpetual adolescence, all fun and irresponsibility until they are ready to settle down and get on with the proper, adult business of raising kids. The cliché about people who don't have children is that they are selfish, unable to put someone else's needs before their own, and that this selfishness is a sign of immaturity – they do not, and should not, have children because they are too childlike themselves. And yet, were they to have children, they would find that this selfishness and immaturity would instantly disappear.
I defer to my friends and relatives who are parents, not only on matters of child-raising, which would at least make logical sense, but often also on questions that have nothing to do with having children
Clearly, this cliché is not true. Anyone can choose to have children, or not, for reasons selfish or selfless, mature or immature. And there are enough bad parents in the world to demonstrate that reproducing is no guarantee of magical transformation. And yet, despite not having children myself, I find myself subscribing to this demeaning stereotype. I defer to my friends and relatives who are parents, not only on matters of child-raising, which would at least make logical sense, but often also on questions that have nothing to do with having children. I believe that they have wisdom that I don't share, that they have esoteric knowledge about the workings of the world that I can never hope to have. That they alone truly understand love, pain, patience, suffering. That they are adults and I am a child. And all because they have kids and I don't.
It's madness, but there it is. Worse yet, from my point of view, is the fact that I don't even want to have kids. I'm 41 years old and in a serious relationship, so people ask me about it all the time. Every time I say that no, we won't be having children, I feel ashamed. I look at my friends who are struggling through IVF and I think about how noble they are, that they are willing to make so many sacrifices, not just to have a baby, but to become a full human, to truly engage with the world. What is it about me that I don't want to have this experience? I must be too weak. I must be too – there it is again – selfish and immature. I can't possibly be – and I'm sure this is at the heart of it – a real woman. I've internalised the message we see all around us all the time: that a woman who doesn't want to have children is unnatural. And it's this pervasive belief that makes me feel defective. It is not reality.
I've made my choice and I'm learning to ignore that self-critical voice and to believe that I am an equal and fully-functioning member of the human race, even though I am not a mother. I have plenty of opportunities to experience family life and compare it with mine – my partner and I have 17 wonderful nieces and nephews between us and most of my close friends have kids. One of the things I've noticed is that having children structures your life and gives it meaning. There is an imposed routine to your day and a purpose for which you do everything. As an adult without children, I don't have that. This could make my life feel meaningless. But looked at another way, it is a source of pride. I have to find my own structure; I have to find my own meaning. I don't have a little person to make sure that I keep getting up every morning. I have to find a reason. I don't have to be my best self in order to be a good example for my child. I live with personal integrity because it is the right thing to do. The work of my adult life is not to be responsible for someone else – it is to be responsible for myself. Whenever I leave the home of a sibling or friend with children, I feel regret, but also relief. I can go back to my home, my relationship, my work – the things that give my life meaning. I'm proud of the life I've built and no matter what small children, society or my own darkest thoughts might tell me, I am an adult woman and as worthy of the title as anybody else.
Marie Phillips’ next book, Oh, I Do Like To Be…, is published by Unbound. You can pledge to support it here