On Friday night, I attended a Ping Pong night organised by my work colleagues at London’s Bounce. It’s a really fun night and something that happens a couple of times a year. Everyone is organised into doubles teams and the evening consists of beer, good cheer and banter, as we all live through the highs and lows of winning and losing.
Except I choose not to play.
I like to go along and be part of the social event but I can’t bear team sports or competitive situations. I’m much happier witnessing the progress of others with a glass of wine in my hand, capturing the action on social media.
An interesting thing happens each time I go along to one of these things. I’m routinely asked why I’m not playing, if I wished I was, if I regret my decision, if I feel I’m missing out. Usually the questions come from just one or two people who can’t believe I’ve opted out and are desperate to make me part of the game. Nope, I say, I’m happy with my choice.
I’m childfree-by-choice, as it happens, and my life is often like that Ping Pong night, complete with a continous rolling sidebar of questions from friends and strangers, although they get less frequent as I get older and out of the baby-making zone.
I’ve always known I didn’t want kids, even as a teenager, and although I have always been very clear on the decision, I have regularly ‘checked in’ with myself to make sure my head was still in agreement with my heart. There have been pressure points along the way – I had to have The Conversation with my husband-to-be about it in case he thought I’d change my mind. ‘I never say never,” I said, “but as far as things stand now, I don’t want them, and you need to be sure you want to be with me.” Then came the weddings-and-babies years of my thirties – the peer pressure was huge. “It’s just what you do,” friends said. The more they said that the more I questioned it. I’d never want to ‘just do’ anything that everyone else is doing just for the sake of it.
I loved my friends’ babies but sometimes my enthusiasm for them was taken as a ‘sign’ that I was broody. There was one particular weekend where I was doing that couply thing of staying in a country cottage with a group of friends. One couple brought their adorable baby boy and I bounced him on my knee for pretty much the whole weekend. Looks passed among the group as if to say, “See? Finally she’s joined us.” I hadn’t. I had just met a tiny person that I really liked being with. Looking back at the pictures still makes me smile. He was smily, fat-cheeked and gorgeous.
One by one, my friends had their children. Many of them struggled to conceive and being childfree, they felt able to tell me about their problems. I was so grateful not to have the all-encompassing urge to get pregnant, that I could hear their stories and comfort them as much as I could. It seemed as though they thought it was some sort of failure on their part, that they struggled to admit to each other, but could do so to me. Some friends admitted to me that they didn’t realise they’d had a choice about having children, and that they hadn’t expected the ‘drudgery’ of their post-natal lives. But then they threw themselves into it, happily, and had one or two more children. In for a penny, I suppose…
I did have a couple of wobbles during those years – mainly because having babies was what everyone was doing. My opting out of it was like choosing not to go to university, have a husband, buy a house – like not ticking a box in the tick-box life. But my gut instinct was right and I stuck to it (I ignored it about one of those things, but that’s for another blog post).
There are possible underlying reasons why I don’t want children, such as my parents dying early, that may be partly responsible for my decision. I do feel very strongly about not willingly inflicting that experience on another person, especially as an older parent. But perhaps there is also some truth in the other statement sometimes lobbed at me: “you just haven’t met the right man yet.” The only time I’ve ever felt anything close to an urge to have a baby, it was because I had fallen deeply in love with a man. I think I must have a low-level ‘water-table’ of maternal hormones that were brought tantalisingly close to the surface during that time, but I’m grateful to my gut instinct, because that man turned out to be a colossal git.
Whenever I get the Sidebar of Questions, including the usual, “but you’d be a great mum!” I always say, “I’d make a great bus conductor, but I’m not here to do that either.” I just know I’m not here to be a mother. Other people are, and they’re great at it. I love seeing my friends raising their beautiful children and I salute them. I have loved accompanying my godson and his mother when he is at football, trampolining lessons or drumming on a kit in a music shop (he’s brilliant at it: I call him “rock-godson”). It does give me joy and thank goodness I do have my friends’ children in my life.
Someone once said to me that freedom was obviously the most important thing to me. At the time it didn’t quite register. “Is it?!” I thought. I was still married at that point, but looking back, I was constantly making bids for freedom. My running times at weekends had got longer and longer as I plunged deeper into the Buckinghamshire countryside, on ever more circuitous routes that would wear me out. I was staying out after work more and more and taking all-day shopping trips on Saturdays. On holidays, I longed to disappear off over the horizon on my own. In retrospect, it was all pretty clear.
Yes, freedom is incredibly important to me. I long to have a Jack Russell in my life, but it would curb my freedom and would be unfair on the animal. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the same would apply to a baby. It would completely unfair on both of us if I had one. Am I being selfish? I’m sure someone will tell me I am. I will admit openly that I do not want to live my life through someone else’s – the things I’ve achieved have come relatively late in life and they’ve been hard won. If being selfish is making a decision that improves my life and avoids a disappointing one for another human being, then I’m happy to live with that.
And I do.
Because I can.