I think a lot about ally-ship (is that a word?!) Ally-ship particularly, but not only, in terms of how those of us without children can be effective allies. It’s true that the lives of the happily childfree can be very different to the lives of folk early in the process of coming to terms with not being able to have a child, or never having been in the circumstances to have had them (and perhaps not yet having found their ‘plan B’ in the words of Gateway Women founder Jody Day). It’s also true – I’ve seen it happen many times – that a lot can be gleaned and learned between the childless and childfree.
I’ve spent a fair chunk of the past 20 or so years researching and writing about ‘otherhood’ which ended up becoming my second book ‘Other than mother: choosing childlessness with life in mind’ (Kamalamani, 2016). I’ve spent fascinating, moving hours listening to those without children for all sorts of reasons – and parents, too, some happily parenting, some with a fair dose of ambivalence. What I realised quite quickly is that there are a lot more grey areas in the realm of being without child than is often portrayed in the overly black and white thinking of the grabby headline mainstream media.
The reason I personally find it hard to refer to myself as childfree is because although I’ve largely chosen not to have children - although in truth, I’ve never tried, so that’s not even true - there are times when I feel more childless than childfree. Childless because I still have times of sadness at not being a parent, as well as childless in terms of naming the stereotyping and judgments of wider society – more of which below. I also just don’t like the term childfree – it puts me in mind of caffeine free, or fat free or sugar free. Relating this to the realm of the parenthood decision has never worked for me – I know it does for many. When I first started researching otherhood and the parenthood decision terms like childless and childfree didn’t exist. It sometimes amuses me nowadays when I get picked up on this – ‘you do know you are childfree, not childless, don’t you, and should call yourself that?’ I’ve had proper tickings off – in person and online. How quickly we police one another’s language, often without the inside track…
In running other than mother events in the past few years I’ve come to realise – to witness, in fact - the importance of alliances between the childfree by choice and the childless through loss, circumstance and happenstance rather than choice. A couple of reasons for now why I think these alliances are vitally important:
Our precious uniqueness
The more we take time to hear each other’s stories; all the twists and turns in one, rich life, the more we realise the unique-ness of each life. Of course, there may well be similarities and co-incidences too. What I realise more and more - and I realise this with every year that passes having worked long-term as a psychotherapist, too - is that it becomes fairly impossible to generalise about life when we hear individual stories. Personally, I love my childfree life. I have time to write when I want, work when I want and few financial pressures. And truthfully, my life isn’t childfree. I’m lucky enough to have been an active
aunt to my grown up nephew and growing three nieces for almost two decades now. I’ve also witnessed and supported the growing up of friends’ children. So, in truth, my life has never been childfree, even though I haven’t created any children of my own (in the spirit of the African proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and all that…)
When I witness the wonderful complexity of a life story being shared, like this example of my own life, terms like childfree and childless, which are often used for the sake of convenience, seem so hopelessly inadequate. In supportive conditions I’ve seen people from very different circumstances learn a huge amount from one another, helping the more superficial judgements and polarisations drop away. It’s heart-movingly transformational.
Having just temporarily dissed the terms childless and childfree, here I go using them again! Whether we’re without child through choice or circumstance, happenstance or loss, I think we need one another because we face at least some of the same challenges of being stereotyped as a result of our childless/childfree ‘status’ (or, more often than not, lack of status).
Childfree folk are still stereotyped as cold, unfeeling, selfish, career driven. Childless folk are often portrayed with pity, talked about in hushed whispers, in parallel with a yawning lack of supportive spaces and contexts to process the often multiple losses they’re experiencing – this is often the realm of complex grief, as it’s called. Our culture isn’t great at supporting individual and collective mourning, perhaps most notably in the often invisible areas of miscarriage, losing children, and not being able to conceive. I find myself wincing as I hear people jumping straight to ‘well, you could adopt’, thinking they’re being helpful when someone is in the early stages of expressing their loss. No room to breathe, to be, to assimilate life. We rush on, trying to fix each other and ourselves without the real time and space grief needs.
The childless and childfree are still seen as ‘less than’ in a world which is still underpinned by pro-natal attitudes, behaviours and structures (sometimes I find it hard to believe that it’s 2018….) So my sincere wish is that this ally-ship grows and grows, finding its own way: friendship, networks, new rites of passage etcetera etcetera. I see this starting happening in a few places, the growing links between those of who write and talk about being without child, for example ‘Ageing without children’, with its growing Facebook page founded by Kirsty Staunton. This comprises of people who are without child for all sorts of reasons. In terms of more and more public figures speaking out about being judged for not having children. There’s always a place, I think, for also meeting with those in very similar life circumstances to ourselves, for example, during deep grieving. Or in celebrating the joys of being happily free, perhaps socialising together (for example, The League of Fabulous Women founded by Dr Chloe Peacock). And let’s not lose sight of the fact that there’s as much that unites the childless and childfree - those pesky words again! - as divides us.