Last week, an editor from an UK online parenting forum called Mumsnet got in touch with me and asked if I would write an 800-word article about my decision not to have children, as someone who makes children's books. I'd touched on it briefly last year when a Radio 4 editor invited me to talk about it on Woman's Hour. But the presenter, Jenni Murray, mostly glossed over it and had me talk about Oliver and the Seawigs instead (which was fine by me!). I'd never written a public article on the subject, and since I think things through better when I write them down, I felt that writing the article would be a healthy thing to do. I'm fairly sure I don't want kids, but I find it's always good to check in with myself every once in awhile, just to make sure. You can read my article on Mumsnet here.
I was surprised at the amount of feedback I got, but more so by the negative tone of the forum comments. (And yes, I didn't know much about Mumsnet before I dove in.) Some of them seemed set on ripping me to shreds. If I'd been quoting facts and figures and got them wrong, I would have expected to be challenged. If I'd told Mumsnetters what they should be doing, or belittled their choices, I would have expected them to be annoyed. But I wrote a very personal piece, reflecting on my own experience. I thought people might find it interesting, and be able to relate to certain elements, or just skip over it if they found it irrelevant.
One friend suggested that if I'd come at it as a parent, saying I had one child and people were pressuring me to have two, I would have found more support. But many people commented that, as a childless person, I didn't belong there all all, and others castigated me for not staying right in the centre of the discussion and taking part. (I couldn’t win.)
From the public Mumsnet forum
Why did I agree to Mumsnet as a place for my article? Well, I've had people along the way who have influenced my own decision not to have kids, and I value the things they told me. Some of them were child-free and glad for it, and others were parents who regretted their decision to have children. I've had countless experiences of people telling me how wonderful parenting is, but only a few people who were honest with me about why they chose not to have kids, or why they wished they hadn't had children. I think it's important that women who are considering pregnancy get to hear from people on either side of the decision, people with varieties of backgrounds and reasoning.
Quite a few people on various forums wrote that they thought it was a non-issue:
But I also had lots of people comment on Twitter send me e-mails and direct messages on Facebook to thank me, saying that they loved the article, related to it, or were inspired by it. Other people wrote that they'd had a lot of pressure to have kids, or a second child, or seen friends pressured and bullied about it. So I know it IS an issue.
Public comments on Twitter
The comments from people claiming that it's a non-issue reminded me of people who comment on racism, saying 'I'm not racist, my friends aren't racist, why does everyone have to keep banging on about it?' ...Well, because racism still exists. And so does pressure to have children. People still berate us with assertions that we'll regret our decision. They see us as lacking something, a ‘loss’ that they don’t notice so much in men. (Notice how much more scrutiny female celebrities get about being childless than males ones do.)
If women or men are struggling with this pressure, or struggling with trying to decide whether to have children or not, why shouldn't we talk about it? Why shouldn't we share our own experiences? I accept Mumsnet criticism that I didn't write very well about the subject, or that my writing was boring; fair enough, if they think that. But I do NOT accept that, because some people think our society has 'moved on', that this means I should shut up about it.
People talk endlessly at dinner parties about far more trivial decisions, such as DIY; no one says to them, 'You shouldn't talk about your decision not to have wallpaper because that decision is totally personal and no one can tell you what to do'. People tell you about dry rot, about different pastes, about how they messed up when they tried to put it up themselves, how they really don't recommend wall paper because painting's easier, etc. So there should be even more help when people are trying to decide about having kids. People shouldn’t be told what to decide, but if they want to find out about other people’s experiences, it would be great if they had safe places to do so.
I didn't actually write that headline, ‘I don’t want children’ – is shunning motherhood the ultimate taboo?. Internet readers ought to be aware that people who write articles generally don't write the headline. That's done by the editors, who usually choose the most controversial slant they can in order to make people click on it. Be careful about reading an entire article in the light of its headline.
I did agree very much with one point the commenters were making, about the real taboo:
Deciding not to have children isn't 'the ultimate taboo'. Talking about not wanting your children is much more of one. My heart aches for my friends who regret having children, particularly those who've told me that it's wrecked a huge part of their lives. And if they can even admit it to themelves - sometimes it's easier to repress this feeling - people who feel this way have to be very secretive about it, because it's the last thing they'd ever want their children (or possibly their partner) to hear. An anonymous Internet forum seems like an ideal place to be able to talk about this sort of thing, explore the issues and find support from other people. But the commenters I encountered didn't let me make any mistakes at all; some of them took so little time over my piece that they misread parts of it, and still waded in to hurl insults. If I did find myself pregnant, I'd be very wary of going back to these same people for help.
Comments from the public Mumsnet Facebook forum
I said I saw myself as a pioneer, and people replied that I'm wrong to think this, that my experience isn't unique; there are lots of people who don't have kids, that it's very commonplace. True! But there's nothing unique about pioneers, either, there were lots of them. And reliable birth control IS something very new in the grand scheme of history. Until the '60s, there was never a large population who could have the support of a heterosexual partner, have regular sex, and not expect to have children. This is new ground, and it gives women more space to spend a greater proportion of their lives doing things besides raising children. I'm glad I live in this time in history; I find this exciting.
But what most saddened me about the comments was the relentless sense of attack. Some of the people commenting didn't give me credit for anything; the second they saw a possible hole in what I said, they were right in there, assuming the worst. It's wrong to attack people for how they feel about something, and unhealthy to attack people who have dug into their own experiences to share something very personal. Parents, of all people, should know about good manners, because they should be teaching these good manners to their children.
Why would I want to jump into a forum discussion where people are being rude and seem bent on finding the worst in what I've said? I wasn't getting paid to return to this post, and I didn't seem much point in replying to people who found my way of writing patronising. I didn't get involved to make parents feel insulted. Also, it takes me time to think these things over, and I could see that some of the people commenting had taken very little time to think through their replies. That didn’t inspire me to dash off quick remarks, which I knew would be savagely scrutinized and misunderstood.
If Mumnet doesn't ever commission any more guest posts, it's no skin off my back. But you'd think that people in the forum would be interested in hearing new voices, possibly from people with different experiences to their own. And generally, when I do family book-related events, I find parents glad to meet me, and happy to have me work with their kids. I'd much rather take part in something where I seem to be having a positive effect on people, and where there’s an environment of mutual respect.
To those of you who thought my points were irrelevant because I’m foreign (I’ve only lived15 years in the UK) and have a different faith background: well, there are a lot of foreign people in Britain, with all sorts of faith backgrounds. If you think Mumsnet should have only one type of person on it, I feel sorry for you. (And yes, that would be patronizing but you would deserve it.)
I'm glad I wrote the article. It made me understand how, in this context, 'enlightened' thinkers can be oppressive. It's one thing to say that everyone should be able to decide for themselves about having children. That’s very true. But it's another thing to say that, since you are enlightened about the subject, the issue should be kept private and not discussed. I'd urge people not to silence other people this way, who want to talk honestly about the pros and cons of having children, or who might confide their own regrets.
I'm glad it helped some people. Thank you, to those of you who wrote me very moving messages; the short ones in public and the longer ones in private.
I hope it might be of help to friends who are trying to have children but haven't yet succeeded. I would never want to belittle their grief or say I don't support them in their efforts. But I also want to be there for them if, in their cloud of sadness, it helps them see a child-free future as a little less bleak.
. . .
Edit: Thoughtful response post by Leigh Kendall (@leighkendall on Twitter) on taboos, infertility, safe spaces and speaking out:
I haven’t yet read these books on the subject, but after reading my post, other people have recommended them:
I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, by Jen Kirkman
Think YOU WANT kids? READ THIS!, by Caitlin Moran (Grazia magazine)
I did read this book in 2002, and I must confess I can't remember many of the details, but I do remember feeling quite taken aback:
Misconceptions, by Naomi Wolf
Feel free to suggest more reading material in the comments if you like. (Unfortunately the spam filter on my blog won’t let you post hyperlinks, but if you give the title and author, we can look them up.) And if you're coming over from Mumsnet, feel free to disagree with me but please be polite.
Edit: Here's another link to a blog essay about a decision to be child-free by my former work colleague, Lisa Edwards: Because I Can
Quotes from Helen Mirren, Oprah Winfrey, Dolly Parton and 22 other celebs who decided not to have children, in NY Mag