Kim Cattrall and the child-free narrative: a vital rebalancing

Too often when I turn on Radio 4's Woman's Hour it seems to me to be some posh woman (or man) going on about some aspect of fertility, pregnancy, childbirth or child rearing. OK, this is probably an exaggeration – but let's face it, only just.

So what a relief to hear that the topics for last Monday's programme were chosen by Kim Cattrall as part of #WHTakeover week. Speaking candidly about being child-free, the menopause, ageing and relationships, she is a vital reminder that there's more to being a woman in the 21st Century than the well-trodden path of parenthood, a path that is so well-worn that the possibility of the alternative not being a route to lonely cronehood (is there a male equivalent?) is still barely part of the female narrative.

This is a subject I've wanted to write a hell of a lot more about than I have. The reason that I haven't is that I've been scared of upsetting people. When it comes to this subject, of all subjects, there's always a danger that whatever I say will be taken personally and misconstrued by others.

Which is a bit perplexing because if you turn it round and the opposite is the case, the same standard doesn't apply. People talk about being parents all the time – whether they're thinking of being, trying to be, not being able to be – and that's even before they actually are... From TV adverts, dramas and films parenthood is ubiquitous, and it's taken for granted that we all either want to be parents, or that we all want to hear about parenthood. Everywhere you go it's just assumed that you are a parent, and if you're not then you will be one day (or at least freezing your eggs). Yet any sort of explicit child-free-by-choice narrative is rare and certainly uncelebrated – as evidenced by Kim Cattrall's Woman' Hour comments, which were deemed so newsworthy they hit newspaper headlines.

While I'm unsure as to reasons why positive child-free narratives are unusual, I've come to the conclusion that it's vital that I own my own narrative and tell my own story too. At which point I feel I need to make clear that I speak only from my own point of view – how can I presume to speak from anyone else's? – without judgement of others. Because I have as much a right to speak about not having children as those who do. In fact, I already started a few weeks ago with my Blogger bio, in which I decided to give my reproductive status as much prominence as those who describe themselves as 'mum' or 'dad' in their Blogger or Twitter bios. It felt strange to do it, but important to me – and liberating – reminding me of the conscious decision my husband and I made all those years ago.

These days, when I tell people I'm child-free I only ever encounter positive responses. Being 46, working from home and mixing with women and men who are either child-free themselves or old enough for their children to have left home, I find it's hardly ever mentioned. But it didn't used to be like that. When I was a teacher in an all-boys' school in my early 20s my reproductive status was dissected on a daily basis by the pupils I taught, who appeared to obsess over my stomach as much as the international press still obsesses over Jennifer Anniston's (who'd have thought we'd ever have anything in common?). Never having been skinny, I've also never been fat. Like most women I've got curves and my stomach sticks out a bit – in a nice way, I think – because it's round, soft and feminine (even more so, ironically, when I've got my period). But even the slightest stomach swelling prompted an orgy of speculation and gossip among my classes. Without wishing to tar all youngsters with the same brush, if they think celebrity washboard stomachs are normal, then that's perturbing.

As was the theory offered by a colleague that the lurid fascination – repulsion – was to do with the idea of teachers 'doing it', as opposed to a mere friendly interest in our family lives. Such was definitely not the case when, during a brief spell of supply teaching a few years ago a Year 11 girl asked an apparently innocuous question as I went round checking work. "Do you have children, Miss?" she enquired, looking me up and down. "Didn't think so," she responded when I told her I hadn't. "You don't look the mumsy type."

However much I wanted to say "I'm glad to hear it" – as far as I was concerned she'd just paid me an enormous compliment, although she clearly didn't intend it as such – having been asked whether I was pregnant on a daily basis for years I was used to responding with a blank facial expression. This was also the case when, in true 'Allo 'Allo style the immortal line "You're not my mum" was uttered to me only once in all my teaching years. It took me all my energy not to counter with "Neither would I wish to be", but I managed it.
Kate Bush and her Hounds of Love:
my version of parenthood

I'm aware that saying all this makes it seem like I don't like children. In actual fact nothing could be further from the truth. Any teacher will tell you some of their pupils are so adorable they can see themselves adopting them and funnily enough, adoption has come to hold a much stronger appeal for me and my husband than reproducing our own genetic blueprints. The furthest we've got so far with this, however, is our cat, who I know regards me as his mummy, as I do him as my baby. So ardent is the maternal drive that he's awakened in me that for quite a while now I've been feeling enormously broody for a dog. "Look at the doggies!" I squeal practically every time I step outdoors, while babies and prams remain invisible to me.

The days of me wanting a human baby are long gone, if they ever really existed. There was a time in my early twenties when I thought I wanted children, or presumed along with the rest of the world that I did. Up until then the idea of not having any had never occurred to me. But I wonder how much of this was due to social pressures and media messages. There's money in them there wombs – families consume more – and by its very nature, having children is something that's ingrained within the generations, from the days when women were encouraged to have as many children as possible to help out with the family business and to continue the family line. Looking back now I see how certain people I met influenced and inspired me more than I – and they – realised. A roommate at uni, for example, who was always adamant she would never have children. Several older colleagues – male and female – who always spoke openly about choosing not to have children, not to mention my husband who, 9 years older than me still has a group of old school friends of whom none has had children. Coming into regular contact with many amazing, creative, inspiring child-free people helped me to neutralise a lot of social programming, and see that not having kids was not necessarily something to be scared of.

Growing older, the regret that society told me I'd feel still hasn't appeared. I remain at a massive loss as to what went through the minds of the people who told me to "get cracking", "get a move on" and not to leave it too long, oblivious to the double standard: if I'd ever told them not to have children or to hold off a bit no doubt they'd have been horrified. I do wonder, though, if any of these people ever feel any regret? Not for having had children, but for presuming to sell a narrative that wasn't theirs to sell. Many of these people may also have tut-tutted at teenage pregnancy, yet while teenage pregnancy has lost a lot of its stigma over the years and is no longer seen as the end of the world, the child-free life is still viewed as a direct route to a sad, lonely and terrifying old age in which I'll be drooling into a bowl of rancid soup in a freezing house, slowly dying alone and undiscovered until my corpse leaks into the carpet.

And there's worse, much worse than talk of biological clocks, ticking time and of being, in Kim Cattrall's words "a selfish bitch". Whether or not it's true that not having children is an important contribution to the well-being of this planet РI'm not clever or informed enough to know Рit's certainly wrong to say, as I have heard some state, that only those who have children have a stake in the earth's future. The clich̩ that we must look after the earth 'for our grandchildren to enjoy' is as irritating as it is anthropocentric. I'm aware that even mooting the idea that fewer people means less pressure on the planet probably makes me a eugenicist (as if women deciding not to have children out of their own free will can be compared with Hitler), but how about looking after the planet for its own sake, and for the sake of animals? When I'm old I will be more likely to mourn the loss of ancient forests and natural habitats, along with animal cruelty and mass animal extinction, than having been pregnant and given birth myself. I'll mourn not having done more to help.

The world is changing and for my own well-being I want to move on from defending my choice to rebalancing the conversation with positive stories about the child-free life. Wanting to write about my particular reproductive choice does not mean I protest too much, have a chip on my shoulder, am egocentric and insecure, need to 'calm down, dear', or am in need of a bloody good shag. Clearly, those among us who haven't given birth can be nurturing, protecting, generous, loving and kind too. The obvious joys of parenthood are well-extolled, but the child-free life also has much to recommend it, and if we're all unconsciously looking for ways to live beyond death, then there are other ways to create permanence – giving birth to a novel, for example, or parenting this planet. There are many ways in which I may express my maternal side too – mothering that side of myself that has been invisible to me all my life until only very recently, that side I have neglected and abused for so long with that terrible voice in my head.

Having babies is no longer a necessity, but a choice – the human race certainly doesn't rely on me for its survival. I visualise myself in the future, old and grey, visiting my present self saying, “You did what you thought best at the time, and you were lucky to have the choice.” That alone is something to be glad about.


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