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