Coming to Terms with a Child-Free Life

My life will very likely, from this point on, be child-free.

Richard and I lost our daughter, Grace, at birth in 2007.  We disrupted our adoption of two special-needs boys, Neil and Austin, from the foster care system in 2015.  There is a possibility that we are not meant to be parents, something I have discussed in therapy, (to which my therapist inevitably replies that I’m being overdramatic!  Hah!) or it is possible -likely at this point –  that it just won’t happen for us.

And I think, right now, I’m okay with that.

There was a point in my life when I was very certain that I wanted to be a parent.  I liked being around kids, had worked with kids, was the friend at the party who hung out chatting with or playing with a kid. (I am still that friend.  I spent half an hour at a recent birthday party playing peek-a-boo with a tiny, high chair bound girl while others had adult conversations all around me!) I had always been told I would be a good mom, by friends with kids and people whose kids knew me, and like many people, I felt like kids were a line to a kind of immortality; a legacy you can leave behind and a way to touch the future, beyond where your own life will end.

Then, at a point when it looked like the complicated adoption route was going to be too much, too expensive and too risky, I got to the point where I was okay with not having kids in our lives.  We were happy, stable, comfortable.  We had begun to have enough money to pursue hobbies we enjoyed, to travel, to attend theatre and other events.  Then, while travelling, suddenly we were matched with the boys.  And life turned into a rapid tailspin.

I’ve been thinking about children often on the trip we are currently on.  When we first planned this trip, it was intended that our boys would be going with us.  The timing changed, as did many of the activities we planned when our lives changed and the boys returned to the foster care system.  As such, they’ve been on my mind a lot; I’ve had dreams (often nightmares, which have plagued me for months) about them, and have seen things I wanted to show them or talk about with them or experience with them.

I have several friends in my life who lead child-free lives, some by choice and some by chance.  They all have different stories, and I’ve gotten a chance over the last few weeks to talk to them about a life without children in it.  It was helpful for me to hear the opinions of others who are living the child-free lifestyle in a world that is so dominated by families and family interactions.  It’s easy to feel like an outsider when parents and kids are everywhere you look, but in reality, we’re not alone.  In Canada, according to the 2011 census, 44.5% of married couples are childless – either by choice or circumstance.

Nearly half.

I had no idea.  We are so inundated by the picture of the nuclear family that often, I think, we don’t consider it or look around to see if that perception – that everyone lives their lives one way – is real.  We assume that a couple will have their 2.4 children and each of those children will go on to marry and have their own little nuclear 2.4 grouping and on and on.

But increasingly, that isn’t so.  There are all kinds of families out there, and many of them are only made up of two people.  More and more often that seems to be by choice rather than chance, though in the end it doesn’t matter what brings you through that doorway, you are markedly different from society’s expectations just by passing through it.

The friends I spoke to are a mixture of childfree by choice and childless by happenstance.  Some knew all their lives that parenthood just wasn’t in the cards for them.

I knew from an early age that I didn’t want kids. Honestly if I found out that I physically couldn’t have them, I would probably be relieved. I wanted a career, I wanted to travel, and as I got older I got more focused on what I wanted to do with myself in terms of research, university, teaching, and didn’t even care if I got married or not. I’m married now, and my husband doesn’t want kids either. We like our careers, and truth be told I don’t think I’d be a very good mother.

 

Others came to that doorway through confusing, tragic, often convoluted routes that meandered through that confusing valley of life we all march into with adulthood.

In my 20s, I was certain I didn’t want kids.  Then I hit 30 and all of a sudden I DID!  By then I knew that my “plumbing” wouldn’t allow me to carry a baby of my own (I had miscarried a couple times while with my ex before I knew about my physical issues).  I looked into the state’s foster care system as well as adoption, but nothing worked out.  I even got as far as finding an attorney to adopt an acquaintance’s baby, and she miscarried them at 7 months.  As I got into my late 30s and then 40s, though, I have come to the realization that it was a blessing in disguise.

 

Life was pretty good for us for two years after our marriage; we both had good jobs, bills were getting paid, we were debating whether we should renovate our current house or sell it and buy new. The one thing that was not going so well was me getting pregnant. My mind set had shifted so significantly from not really interested in having kids to wanting them so badly I actually didn’t want to express it out loud for fear it would break the spell, you know like telling the wish you make when you blow out your birthday candles. Finally, after changing up many things in my diet and lifestyle and still having no success, I asked my GP for a referral to the fertility clinic: 8 months later we had our first appointment. The clinic sent us both for a series of tests and it was through these tests that I was diagnosed with stage 3C ovarian cancer.

 

All the paths were different.  There is no one way to be.  For some, it was a choice that they felt like they needed to make because of other circumstances in their lives.  Whether it was a choice they made for the well-being of the potential children they might have, or for their own mental health, there are a myriad of reasons that can make someone less than ideal as a parent, and I am kind of amazed by the forethought and sacrifice that it takes to make that kind of a decision.

I made a conscious decision to not have children. I made the choice because I did not/do not want to risk exposing a child to my dna. Specifically the traits that are associated with my DNA. I did not want a child to have to be exposed to an increased risk of mental health disorders, violence, and the chance, although slim, that they may be emotionally abused by me due to my own issues.

 

Because I know it isn’t a simple choice.  And balancing what you need to lead a healthy life with what is “expected” can be unbelievably hard.

As I got older I started to battle with anxiety. It started with fairly normal teenager-y thoughts like “no one likes me” and “I’m ugly” but progressed to really out-there thoughts, and mostly manifested itself socially until I got so nervous being in social situations that I would lose my appetite, and therefore started finding ways to eat lunch by myself, and started to avoid travel and anything else that would take me out of familiar and ‘safe’ places. I knew this was holding me back in life, so I started seeing a therapist, and through a combination of that, having really understanding friends, and eventually medication, I have made lots of progress since my teenage years… Even though I know I’ve made great strides, I also know that I haven’t “gotten rid” of my anxiety (not sure it’s possible to do that), I’ve just learned how to manage it better, and part of managing it is avoiding the types of triggers that I know aren’t necessary or have no purpose in my life (scary movies, for instance). I feel like raising a child would be triggering in a few ways:

  •  I would almost never have that alone time I mentioned I feel like I still need once in a while

  •  You know how some people faint when they see blood? I feel that way about vomit. If I see someone puke, it takes me a LONG time for that image to stop invading my mind at inopportune times. I haven’t yet figured out how it would be possible to have a kid and not deal with vomit. I realize that probably no parent LIKES this part of the job, but I would have a much harder time with it than the average person, as immature as that sounds.

  •  I know it’s normal to worry that you’re not doing the right thing as a parent, or worry about whether your kid is happy/healthy, but I think this would affect me more than most people too. Every time I felt like I didn’t make the best parenting decision, I would probably beat myself up about it until it pushed me to my edge. Again, I realize that ALL parents have these kinds of thoughts, but I feel like most people are better at having those feelings in the moment and then letting it go, whereas I hang onto things longer than I should.

  •  I had a bit of a tense relationship with my mother growing up… I do have that fear a lot of mothers have of becoming their own mother… Of course, I didn’t want to become the exact opposite of her either (too soft instead of too hard) and screw up my potential kids by having no boundaries put on them either. Again, I’m sure lots of people have thoughts like this, but I would probably obsess over them.

And do you know why I admire them so much for being able to make these decisions?  Why I think that it’s such a brave choice to be able to make?

Because of all the words thrown around about people who live a child-free life, the most common one that I’ve heard is “Selfish.”  I heard that term even when we were trying to add to our family, as when people sometimes asked whether we had children, I would simply say “no” rather than going into the saga of our previous loss and ongoing struggles to adopt.  I’d be asked, “Isn’t that a bit selfish?  Don’t you want to contribute to society?  Who will take care of you when you’re old?”  Of course, those three don’t really have anything to do with one another, but they are the three things that I most wanted to talk to my friends about; what they heard from other people (In particular, the “S” word, though I didn’t ask about it specifically as I wanted the answers to be as unbiased as possible), what impact this has had in their lives (I wanted to know whether or not it really did change how you contributed to society), and then there is the Legacy thing that I have written about before; what happens when you’re old?

So, what did they hear from others?  Did they experience the judgment I had felt? Like anything else, they were all different and experienced a myriad of different things.

 

At times, people would give us the whole, “but you’d be such great parents!” or “not having kids is selfish!” spiel, but they were pretty easy to dismiss, for the most part.  The opinions of others regarding my body/uterus and my relationship with my husband is not something I’m interested in entertaining.  People used to ask us when we were going to have kids a lot during the first few years of our relationship, but that sort of fell off after a while.  I rarely get questioned about it anymore.

 

I think there is a lot of judgement regarding people who don’t have kids.  See the above “you don’t have the same priorities” “you just don’t understand because you don’t have kids” (um what about just being human).  And we are etiher living this life barren of all joy and meaning, or we have it so easy (but barren of joy and meaning) so you can’t win.  People totally feel free to comment on it which I don’t get and make huge assumptions. Don’t assume that I am sad about my life – I am not.  Don’t assume I hate kids – I don’t.  Just really it isn’t most people’s business (which I actually don’t mind talking about it! which is why I responded to your question) and I don’t think people have much sensitivity.  I don’t have a good stock answer really – though I am finally at the age where most people (if they know how old I am generally people think I am younger) don’t ask anymore.  I used to give a general – you never know. Now its more a general – it never happened.  But I am more comfortable with my situation and and at peace with it now.

 

Society is very invested on norms. Even though there are many, many women (and men) who choose not to have children, it’s still outside the norm. And I get a lot more flack as a woman than my husband does as a man. I’m 30 and I’m still told I’m going to change my mind, just wait until I get pregnant, aren’t I being selfish, what have you. I think it’s more selfish to have kids when you don’t truly want them than to NOT have children when you don’t want them. My responses vary. Sometimes I say “I’m not going to change my mind, so let’s talk about something else.” Sometimes I say “I respect your decision to have kids of your own, but this is really my decision.” I’m occasionally tempted to ask who is really being the selfish one if the person in question is particularly obnoxious.

 

Personally, I’ve never really understood the “selfish” thing.  I even heard it a bit when we talked about adoption, in a slightly different way – people insisted that we should have our own biological children because we could.  That it was selfish to choose to adopt when we had the capacity to produce children of our own.  I don’t get labeling adoption as selfish, but this may have been part of the reason we felt pushed to adopt from the foster care system rather than joining a waiting list for private adoption.  Whether or not that pressure changed our fate is something I can’t even begin to calculate – or consider for that matter.  Regrets are pointless.

This can also be an incredibly painful thing for people to discuss when they have dealt with infertility or made a difficult choice to remain child-free because of health or other reasons.  I wish I could tell everyone that uses the “S” word that they may be sending someone off to politely cry in the bathroom because of course, they wanted kids but for whatever reason didn’t get to fulfill that want.

As for telling people they will change their mind when they are older, something that my friends heard quite a bit, Really?  Would you say that to a woman who chose to go to law school instead of medical school?  Oh, you’ll change your mind when you get older and wish you were in surgery instead of court!  Do we say it to women who choose a husband?  Oh, you’ll change your mind when you get older!  Have you seen his grandfather?  Totally bald!  Why on earth would anyone feel equipped or entitled to inform another person what their choice will be in a few years?

This is particularly absurd when coming from someone who does have children.  How would they know what someone without kids will think?  They don’t really know what the impact is on a life that doesn’t include kids.  There are so many different things in your life that work differently without kids there.  Sometimes I used to complain that I got a bit lonely, or bored, and thought kids might fill that hole – it doesn’t work that way, actually.

But having had both a child-free and child-filled life I can see the ways both impact your life.  For myself, I kind of lost myself when kids were in the picture.  We had a special circumstance – kids with such intense special needs that I couldn’t have even ten minutes to myself.  Going to the bathroom involved a 20 -30 minute prep period before hand, just for a pee.  And much of the time we didn’t have kids, we were preparing for (reading up on, going to classes about and researching) them, so it was a little bit of a different experience.  Once they left, well I’ve been working on healing.  But I’m beginning to see what some of the benefits might be.

 

On the positive side I know that being a parent takes up a huge amount of time and energy.  A huge amount of resources.  I have that time for myself. I can stay up reading a book as late as I want (I might pay for it being tired at work but not the same as having to take care of a toddler).  I don’t have to censor my music or viewing choices.  I can plan a trip to wherever and not worry about paying for braces or finding child minders.    My husband and I only have to consider the needs/wishes of one other person on a regular basis, not a couple of small people we are responsible for.  Of course, we both having family and friends so at points you do have to consider the larger world but not in the same way.  And maybe this can be negative…maybe we aren’t as productive with our time because we have more of it? Maybe when you have the responsibility of a little person you push yourself to grow more?

 

We paid for college and grad school ourselves, and now, in our 40s, we have a paid-off house and no debts, fairly good retirement accounts, and can afford to travel once in a while.  That’s not a reason NOT to have kids, because I know that you always find a way to afford it, and blah blah blah, but since we weren’t going to have kids anyway, it’s a nice bonus… The bigger “quality of life” positive, though, is that I NEED QUIET.  And I have no patience whatsoever, and I snap easily, and get grossed out easily, and I absolutely cannot take bodily fluids or fart jokes or endless hours of Disney crap.  And with no kids, I don’t have to do any of the stuff that I wasn’t interested in when I was a kid, and have no patience for now.

 

I think the biggest impact this decision has had on my life is the fact that I’m still single. My ex and every guy I’ve been interested in since has wanted kids. Of course, none of them were willing to quit their jobs to stay home and raise the kids, so they want them but would still want me to be the primary caregiver, which irked me. Of course they would always think it was just a self-esteem thing and would tell me I’d change my mind and be “a great mother” but the problem was I didn’t want them to stay with me and just hold onto the possibility that I might change my mind, because in the likely event that I didn’t, they’d resent me. Or even worse, if I did, I fear that I might end up resenting the kid (even though I would love it).

 

I guess the biggest impact is that I’m able to be so immersed in dog rescue.  God knows, I wouldn’t be able to have 30 dogs and kids at the same time.  I’ve made a difference in the lives of a lot of dogs that I wouldn’t have been able to help otherwise.

 

The bottom line, I suppose, is that of course your life is completely different when you take out the element of children.  This is no more or less an impact than education or location or hundreds of other possibilities, but somehow society seems to give it more weight, more value.  The impact of living in Canada over the US has changed my life in ways that probably are more dramatic, but what people from the outside see is that my life is different from theirs because it doesn’t involve children.

It’s very strange, when you think about it.

And in the end, what is the legacy you’ll leave behind without children?  There are so many possibilities.  You could rescue animals, as my friend above mentioned.  You could have time for research and education as another stated.  I’m choosing to write, here on this blog and in other endeavors.

When you die you want to know that you have left a mark on the world and the people around you and for many people children very often tend to be that mark. How do you achieve this purpose in your life when you can’t have children? The truth is it can be achieved, I know in my heart that it can. I just haven’t figured it out yet.

 

As a last note, almost an afterthought, I asked my friends what they would like people who choose to be parents to know about their lives.  Coming from having seen both sides of the coin, I had my own opinions on this (including many things I wish I had told myself, like “You don’t have to do this to be complete as a person.”) There were two themes in particular to the answers, both incredibly important for people who live within the “standard nuclear family” to understand.

The first is that they wish parents knew they didn’t hate kids at all, as that seems to be a common perception about adults who don’t have children.

I like kids a lot – I just don’t need any of my own.  I feel happy with my choice, and I feel free.  Also, there seems to sometimes be an implication that we are jealous of those with kids.  I find that strange, but no, I’m not jealous.  Sometimes it’s hard for couples who don’t have kids when all their friends have kids.  Suddenly your friends’ personalities drastically change, and while this is understandable, please know that it’s weird and sometimes disappointing when our friends’ personalities change drastically after the birth of their own children.  We understand, really, but we miss you.

 

I want them to know that my life is not empty or lonely. There’s not a hole in my life waiting to be filled with a child. I am fulfilled with my career, a few close friends (some of whom have children, seriously!), my pets, and my husband. And there are children in my life. I work full-time as a middle school SLP and I LOVE it. I have three nieces and a nephew, and one niece has glommed on to me from the beginning. She always asks “Where’s Tante?” when there are family get-togethers if she doesn’t see me. I mean, how special is that? At the same time, I get to devote time to activism, my job, my union responsibilities, and hobbies without feeling guilty that I’m taking time away from children.

I also want them to know that if they feel that children are the missing piece of their puzzle, then that’s fine. That’s their choice, just like not having children is my choice. I don’t think anyone is terrible for wanting children. Just don’t assume I’m selfish, or mean, or a child-hater for choosing not to give birth to or adopt children of my own.

 

The second, and very important note was about the way parents can judge the lives of those without children as being less important, of less value, less interesting… just less in general.  It’s dismissive, it’s rude, and it’s painful.  It’s something I’ve experienced myself, quite often as a matter of fact.  People think that your time is worth less because you aren’t spread as thin, or that the things you choose to spend your time on are less worthy of consideration, because it doesn’t involve raising kids.  Not everyone reacts this way, of course, but I’ve seen my fair share of it.

I think it is harder for married couples without kids to make/keep friends.   I had someone say to me a gathering of my husband’s extended family that they never saw me anymore.  This wasn’t something that was my choice but my husbands cousin and his wife who we had previously been very close with just didn’t hang out with us or invite us to hang with them.  I replied that everyone was busy and the person responded that I had “different priorities” in a snotty way.  Which I guess is partially true, no I didn’t have kids, I did have a job, a home, family, friends, all of the things that are what I consider normal priorities…the same ones the person speaking to me had.  I don’t know how to say it exactly but to to all the parents out there my life is a lot like yours.  I get it that you have these tiny people who require a lot of care/time/attention and are your focus.  But those tiny people are an expansion of your family.  You have more humans in your family to consider but my family (which consists of my husband and me and my cats) still contains humans!  We all have things to juggle, maybe not all the same things but it comes down to making an effort.

 

 

Today I have resigned myself to the fact that I will not be a mother.  But almost everyday it still breaks my heart.  The hard part now is moving on with life and doing so in a society where everything is about “the family”.  Many of our friends have drifted away, partly because of cancer, but also because they have their own family to focus on and being childless is one less thing we have in common with them.  It is rare to find a couple in their early 40’s today who don’t have at least one kid that they are running around after.  Many people simply don’t have time away from their kids to go to a patio for drinks or to a movie, or it is such a hassle for them to find childcare it is often not worth the headache for them to come out with us.

 

 

When I talk about feeling busy/tired/stressed during tax season at work, I feel like I’m often met with the “Oh boo hoo my kid woke me up at 4:30 am today, then talk to me about tired!” attitude (I say attitude because of course my friends are never so rude to use these exact words, but sometimes I can kind of tell they’re thinking it). I acknowledge that a kid would cause me more stress than my job does, but I still have responsibilities and deadlines and have to adult, and I feel like I have the right to have feelings about that.

At work, I feel that often my requests to leave early or come in late to deal with something personal are regarded as less important than family reasons… the attitude that the only personal situation that could be more important than work would be to do with your children, I automatically felt like they regarded nothing in my life as important. Like I was someone whose whole life could be work because it’s not like I had kids to go home to or anything. Luckily I’m not working for that firm anymore, but in a way I still sometimes feel like more work is expected out of me because I am childless. I would like parents to understand that we need and value our free time too, because we may not have kids but we still have responsibilities and important commitments in our lives.

 

As for me?  Well, I have my husband, my furballs, and an extensive network of family and friends and friends who have become extended family.  I have people who love me, and people to love.  I have so many books on my to-read list that I’ll never get through them all, regardless of how much time life gives to me.  I have art that I want to create and writing projects that I want to pursue and places that I want to travel to.  And, as of right now, I’m tired of pursuing something with whole-hearted ambition that may be beyond my grasp.  I’m busy living the life I have now, regret-free and with full abandon.

If you are struggling with this, with thinking about your place in a world that values family above all else, I’d suggest that you, like I did, sit down and talk to some of your friends who live a life without children.  I think you may be surprised by how wonderfully average you’ll feel afterwards!

If you have more to share or are interested in starting a discussion, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

What did you think?