‘A child of all life’: creativity and re-imagining life without children by Emma Palmer

Years ago when I was in the midst of writing ‘Other than mother’, my second book, I started to find that my writing was grinding to a halt. It was a gradual thing; a painful, murky thing. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write, and it wasn’t that I was short of things to say, it was more of a sense of the impossibility of writing about being without child. Like being in front of a very tall brick wall. Or facing a giant STOP sign. Feeling immobilised, with a groaning, silent sense of lack - with a capital L.

I could no longer write about something I wasn’t doing in an active, engaging way. It dawned on me - again, a gradual thing - that this writing, this little evolving work of art, had to be about what I was doing, what was happening and juicy and life-affirming rather than what I wasn’t doing. In short, it had to be about life in whatever form life takes in that moment or on that day, week, or month.

This was an important turning point for me in so many ways. It made me realise how being without child, for whatever reason, in the world we’re in, has the capacity to ‘shroud’ many of us in a sense of lack, feeling or being seen as lesser, invisible, and rather voiceless.

I had fallen, unknowingly, into a trap, imbibing that lack and the feeling of being less. My writing almost ground to a halt and I nearly gave up writing ‘Other than mother’ (I’m very glad I didn’t.)

I woke up one morning and realised what was happening. I saw the shadowlands I had visited or had visited me and my self-doubt. It was very useful - sober-making, too - in terms of the book’s content, to experience first-hand the stereotypes, assumptions and views about those of us without child, amplifying the fact that we’re without children whilst neither paying attention to, nor honouring the many other areas of our lives where we’re most definitely not lacking. The old chestnut of being defined by our procreation in a still overwhelmingly pro-natal society.

I also realised I had to re-orient the book around what I was doing with my life, expressing abundance, richness, and in doing so, becoming visible. For this book, and as a woman who is generally identified as someone who’s child free by choice - if I must be categorised! - I realised the book needed to focus on the choice to be childfree, reflecting my own situation at the time. For me it needed to be about life beyond being without child, a territory I hadn’t let myself envisage before then, perhaps still stuck in struggling to conceive of a life without children.

Figuring out life when you’ve always imagined you would be a parent but you’re not is a big one. It’s been a big one for me, and I’m childfree by choice. I see around me how it’s a huge, heart and life-wrenching process for those of you who imagined motherhood or parenthood, who longed to welcome children into your life, or who have had children who’ve died or didn’t make it to their first breath.

For me that figuring out has been far far less charged, far less painful and raw, as I’m childfree by choice. Having said that – and in no means discounting the scale of that loss - I

often find myself writing that I personally and increasingly think that there are vast grey areas between those of us who are without child by choice, circumstance, loss, ambivalence. It’s not really black and white territory for most folk. In the words associated with Jo Cox, the late labour MP there is often 'more in common than that which divides us'.

And I think, going back to the writing story I opened with, that all those turning points when we moved towards life, towards creativity - however you express that in your life - and away from that groaning, lonely, silent sense of lack - are life-changing. Sometimes life-saving, in fact.

I’ve experienced a fair amount of grief in my life, some very early on. I know the tsunamis, the troughs, peaks and then the prolonged numbness of watching my life as if I’m an actor on a stage: ‘is that really me living life? I can’t feel it’... then, suddenly, I’m flipped upside down with another tsunami, the stage swept away. I’m feeling everything all at once.

I haven’t, however, grieved for a child I couldn’t or wouldn’t be having. Nor for a child I lost. I have been with friends and psychotherapy clients and colleagues who’ve been through this. I support as much as is humanly possible. I sometimes see folk come through this with phenomenal strength, embodied strength – strength in their bone marrow - rather than an idea of strength. And an appreciation of the great preciousness of life.

I personally don’t think time is automatically a healer. I sense that turning back towards life, edging back, sometimes breath by breath - wherever our starting point - is what heals. We turn towards life and its inherent creativity. Death and destruction are over our shoulders. They’re there because death is part of life and life is part of death, but they’re no longer the only thing we see ahead. There are metaphorical ‘GO’ signs ahead of us, even if on the far horizon. Maybe we find out feet and walk forward.

I found my feet walking forwards, or, rather, my pen starting to flow again when I realised I needed to turn towards the reality of creativity and life after the choice not to have children – deeply challenging to me and my ‘I’ll be a mother one day’ identity for more than the first two and a half decades of my life. Part III of ‘Other than mother’ reflects that return to creativity. My intention in writing it was to explore how life can take so many forms which don’t involve the creation of a little human. Creativity takes so many forms. In writing that part of the book I realised for myself what I needed to connect, or re-connect more deeply with life: re-imagining what life looks like at 40 (and 50, 60, 70, 80…), gently letting go of old expectations (‘I’ll have children by the time I’m 30’, I would tell myself repeatedly), giving and receiving support from others, whether without child through choice, circumstance or loss, creating new traditions, new rites of passage for those without child.

The great Gary Snyder, American poet, essayist, and environmental activist puts it well:

"I am a child of all life, and all living beings are my brothers and sisters, my children and grandchildren. And there is a child within me waiting to be born, the baby of a new and wiser self" (Snyder, G. (1995) A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds. Counterpoint Press).