What’s it to you if some peo­ple don’t have kids?

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Bar­bara Ellen

World Child­less Week was cre­ated by a Bri­tish woman, Stephanie Phillips, as a way of high­light­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of peo­ple who are un­able to have chil­dren. Not to be con­fused with those who are child­less by choice – the “child-free”, as some say.

Seem­ingly worlds apart, they share a vexed sim­i­lar­ity. Of course, most peo­ple each group en­coun­ters are prob­a­bly just in­ter­ested and kind. Less help­fully, the child­less can some­times find them­selves tor­mented by in­va­sive, ag­o­nis­ing ques­tions, while the child-free can end up be­ing ruth­lessly in­ter­ro­gated about the “strange” de­ci­sion they’ve made.

It’s one thing to lis­ten sym­pa­thet­i­cally when peo­ple are in pain and need to tell their story; quite an­other to de­mand a de­tailed ex­pla­na­tion for some­thing that’s ef­fec­tively none of your damn busi­ness. Worse, too of­ten, all this is a mere pre­am­ble to what the in­ter­roga­tors re­ally want to do, which is to tell you what they did and how much bet­ter it is than what you did – in ef­fect, launch­ing a full-out de­fence of their own life choices.

This is what the child­less/child­free need to un­der­stand – that the tact­less, pry­ing uber-pre­scrip­tive bab­ble they en­dure doesn’t be­gin and end with the is­sue of child­less­ness. The world of par­ent­ing is in­fested with the roar of self-ag­gran­dis­e­ment about what cer­tain par­ents did, why they did it, and why ev­ery­one else should do it too.

Not all par­ents are like this, just a cer­tain breed, who never seem to tire of defin­ing them­selves by their (of­ten te­dious) choices. Nat­u­ral/as­sisted birth; breast/bot­tle; work­ing/ stay­ing at home; wash­able/dis­pos­able nap­pies and so on. What­ever they hap­pen to be talk­ing about, par­ent­ing top­ics that should only ever be friendly, laid-back de­bates take on a Napisan-soaked pugilism.

It’s as though th­ese peo­ple aren’t just idling away the time, swap­ping ob­ser­va­tions, they’re de­fend­ing to the hilt their lives and their tribes. All too of­ten, there doesn’t seem to be any­thing par­tic­u­larly help­ful or in­ter­est­ing go­ing on, no new credo or il­lu­mi­nat­ing spin. It’s just a ca­coph­ony of dif­fer­ent needy voices, all con­vinced that their way is best. Other­wise, what are they do­ing with their lives?

Per­haps this partly ex­plains all the pok­ing and prod­ding, the on­go­ing so­cial ex­am­i­na­tion that the child­less and child-free both en­dure. In their very dif­fer­ent ways, their very ex­is­tence negates the “nor­mal” world of par­ent­ing. They’re liv­ing, breath­ing hu­man tes­ta­ments to the fact that, whether some­one dearly, heart­break­ingly wanted a fam­ily or opted to give pro­cre­ation a swerve, with­out chil­dren, life goes on.

The only sane re­sponse to ei­ther of th­ese nar­ra­tives would be a mod­icum of po­lite in­ter­est and in­stinc­tive hu­man sol­i­dar­ity – a re­spect for their ex­pe­ri­ence or their choice. Fre­quently, how­ever, it doesn’t quite go like that. On too many oc­ca­sions, the child­less end up hav­ing to field pity­ing ques­tions about their lack of fe­cun­dity, some­times very bluntly, among peo­ple they barely know and in a man­ner that I humbly sug­gest helps in no way what­so­ever.

For their part, the child-free are of­ten pres­sured to ex­plain and jus­tify their stance. There are rude ques­tions, dire warn­ings about a bar­ren fu­ture, an un­der­ly­ing hiss of dis­be­lief. But there’s anx­i­ety in there, too. It’s al­most as though the thought sim­ply can’t be ac­cepted that, in ac­tual fact, the par­ent­ing life path isn’t re­motely spe­cial – it is, by def­i­ni­tion, or­di­nary, a tra­jec­tory shared by count­less oth­ers, most of whom don’t feel the slight­est com­punc­tion to drone on about it.

This is where a cer­tain strain of mod­ern par­ent­ing seems to end up – not an in­ter­est­ing, com­plex de­bate, but a wail­ing tor­rent of self­jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. It’s not some­one’s child­less­ness they pity – it’s the fact that they can’t ever be like them. And it’s not peo­ple be­ing child-free that gets to them – it’s the fact that they quite clearly and rather hi­lar­i­ously don’t want to be.

It's al­most as though the thought sim­ply can’t be ac­cepted that the par­ent­ing life path isn’t re­motely spe­cial

They’re not for ev­ery­one… Pho­to­graph: Alamy

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