One of the things I’ve grown to appreciate this past year is how contemplative I’ve become and that this platform has helped me connect with so many wonderful women. And it's empowered me to think about why and how I’ve done things in my life and muse about how it's all played out thus far. Perhaps because so many have been juggling how this pandemic year has affected their children, one of the things that's come up often is the fact that Jeffrey and I don't have kids. I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been asked, either together or separately, “When are you going to start a family?” or “Do you have kids?”. It feels like one of those landmine questions which often borders on invasive and personal, and it’s taken me a while to understand why it feels that way. So, I’m going to unpack it here in hopes of inviting more candid conversations around this topic.
Childless marriages are on the rise in many countries, and yet there are still those who define a family as a parent/parents and child/children, and to those people it’s not a family any other way. Why then is it so easy for childless couples to be misunderstood as being less than or missing out? It’s easy to assume that perhaps they’ve tried and failed and are therefore unlucky. In my experience, it’s never been cut and dry.
A couple of years ago, Jeffrey and I visited Newcastle where I spent a good chunk of my life before moving to London and then Santa Barbara. I wanted him to see the place that held so many fond memories, but also a place that was home to some pain and trauma. One of the must-dos was to take him to the neighborhood pub that my dad liked to drop in to to see rugby and golf pals. We ran into the family doctor I had growing up who knew my parents well and, since they were close friends, was aware of their untimely deaths. I hadn’t seen him for over 20 years and one of the first things he asked me was if I had children. It took me a bit by surprise, and I found myself simply answering “no”, with no elaboration. And without missing a beat, he responded with, “It doesn’t surprise me, you’ve had so much stress in your life”. Needless to say, the conversation got awkward, in part because it felt like such a personal question to ask and also because of the instant psychological analysis. But on reflection, the feeling I was left with was confusion and I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. Did he assume that I couldn’t have kids because the stress exacted some physical toll on my ability to reproduce, or did he think that the stress I experienced drove me away from wanting kids? Or as a doctor, was he magically seeing something in me that I was unaware of?
On that same trip, just a few days later, we ran into my great aunt and uncle who are now in their 80’s, in a fish and chip shop that was also on the must-do list. We all couldn’t believe our eyes that after all the time that had passed, we walked in at the exact same time. We had not been in touch since my parents passed, so there were lots of tears and lots to catch up on. After introducing them to Jeffrey my great aunt asked, “Do you have kids?” When I told her we didn’t, she said, “Ah, well, never mind then”, which is a commonly used phrase in Northern England to express sympathy for someone. I had heard that sentiment expressed so many times in my life, and now, when it was directed at me, it caught me off-guard to the point that Jeffrey and I both burst into laughter. Even now it makes me laugh when I think of the absurdity of her response.
When I was a young girl, I didn’t really think much about the fairytale of finding my prince and becoming a mother. In my teens, the feeling didn’t change, and in my twenties, when I did get married, my career was on my mind and my husband at the time was happy either way. Only now, I recognize it as something I don't feel obliged or pressured to do as a woman. I never thought I didn’t want to have kids, it was just never something that I thought that much about. Some friends in my social circles spoke about having kids almost as a right of passage or a box to check on the path to complete womanhood. I also never connected “women’s liberation” growing up as something that was at odds with motherhood. At times I felt judged, and at other times I felt confused. Not because I felt like I was missing out on something, but just the mere fact that childbearing was not front of mind. I would ask myself not if I wanted kids or not, but why I didn’t have a strong feeling one way or the other like so many around me seemed to have.
When I married Jeffrey, I was 39, and he was 46. We both had had so many incredible experiences in our lives as individuals up to that point, and we relished the idea of creating new experiences together. We also talked about the reality of what it would look like if we had kids. I knew Jeffrey would make a great father, and I knew I would be a great mother, but the main focus was of life with my husband, our marriage, our careers which we're both passionate about, and all of the adventures and travel that was ahead of us. And there was a joy in knowing that having kids would be a part of that if we had them, but that it wasn’t the end goal or a necessary part of our happiness together. And yet, it was hard to avoid the chatter from friends and even relative strangers who would say things like, “You better get on with it”, “when are you going to start trying?” and, “how many kids do you want?”
While I understand that sometimes the question, “do you have kids?” is simply asked as a kind of broad brush stroke to help create a picture of one’s life choices, it also raises in me insecurity. When I answer, are they thinking something is wrong with me? Are they implying that having kids is somehow the overriding definition of who I am? And I don’t mind the question on its face - It’s more that it feels loaded, especially for a woman, and in order to give the answer full justice from an authentic place, it’s not always the right place or the right time to get into the weeds with it.
Do I have a need to defend my decisions? Do I wish I had done things differently? The answer to both of those is no. I've been asked “the question” so many times over the years, that it’s created in me an awareness of some underlying cultural significance around the issue, and if that question is so common in my experience, perhaps it would be worth digging into it a bit. In the process, I’ve found a kind of clarity that, while there’s perhaps a biological drive, the culture that we’ve created has spawned a great number of options for women. We all enter into our adulthood with a certain amount of bandwidth, and however we choose to spend that bandwidth - on being a working woman with 5 kids, a stay-at-home woman with one child, a single woman who has decided to adopt one of the multitude of children in the world looking for a solid, loving home, or a woman like me who didn’t have a strong opinion on the matter one way or the other - all paths lead to womanhood.
And here’s the reality - When we first got married, we agreed that if we had kids, great, if we didn’t, also great. During that first year, we chose to go down the IVF path, and while the results of that allowed us to have a child if we chose to, I was having such a miserable time with the medication and the procedures, that we decided we didn’t want to continue. So we stopped, and while we can still choose to move forward with having a child, it’s now been 8 years and we’re happy, fulfilled, and enjoying our journey exactly as it’s unfolding. And, I've discovered that my mothering instinct has surfaced in many other beautiful and rewarding ways with those who are near and dear to me.
While there's many ways to slice and dice this life we've been given, the only essential criteria is to live it authentically to you and what your heart and soul desires. Motherhood and nurturing manifests in many different ways, and all can be equally enriching. I believe, as women, it's a gift to share our unique journeys to womanhood to emphasize that complete womanhood is found in all of us.
Sending lots of love,
Your light sharing of the matter of asking a reoccurring and normal yet inquisitive question made me stop everything and wanting to read your article.
I felt your voice was projecting my thoughts and reflections about the very same subject.
It must be simply so rooted in human nature that the picture is only perfect and working when kids are included that it takes people by surprise when one is candid enough to say no. Even more so when not feeling the need to elaborate. People seam then so enthusiastic of coming up with all sorts of scenarios to the why there are no kids.
I myself have always loved my work, traveling and yes kids. But compared to my sister that knew at 18 that she wanted a big family, lots of kids, I loved living my life exactly as it was and didn’t plan or envisioned or pictured myself at all with kids. I have enjoyed becoming the most loving and loved Zia, which means Auntie in Italian. I have had the most loving experiences with my friends kids that flock to me and love spending time with me. But when they return to their parents, I am happy and don’t miss one bit the rest that falls into place along with parenthood. I was 34 when getting married. My husband, 7 years younger. We very much felt that if it would happen the first two years good, if not, good. It did at no point occur to us that we weren’t complete right from the start. Never felt that something was missing to make it perfect. I in particular didn’t feel ever the inner clock ticking as they say in Europe. I felt so very accomplished in having found my true love, I did not feel any need for other than cherishing and living that love.
I do realize that society and mentality, especially in Europe, often leads to the famous questions. I was questioned for years very ungraciously when I would finally get married, as my aunts considered me already a hopeless case. Once that had happened they barely gave me a break before starting asking when I would reproduced. And one is to endure it all, possibly gracefully with some answers that satisfies the curiosity or pity of others. I have seen endless friends and families being ruined or distorted by having problems with their children. It’s really not the holy grail. For some it works, for other’s it doesn’t. I can’t imagine how many couples are ONLY together because there are children involved.
It seams outlandish to lots of people that my husband and I could be entirely happy with just the two of us. Also that we might willingly accepted that if it wouldn’t just happen we would not want to consider any other option to have children. So there you have it. Do I love children?Yes. Would I change anything in my life? No. I thank you so very much for your kind and candor words. Too seldom one encounters such refreshing honesty. Stay well, stay healthy!Diana
I have read all your comments and I’m so blown away by your sharing. I’m so honored to be part of this community we’re building here and love all your stories. Thank you so much for the gift of openness and for being here. I’m so filled up! Lots of love to you all xoxo
What a rich, thoughtful, vulnerable article. Tim and I have been married over 30 years, were raised Catholic and are each others best friends. We’ve had incredibly rich careers and having children was never a priority for either of us. We have been happy.
But… like you the questions always leave me feeling less than. AND I’ve always felt like others need to satisfy their curiosity and have a clear narrative that makes sense to them… Oh. They must have had trouble having children and so on. While in our 40s the question stopped coming, and the hurtful judging friends disappeared, I still get the question and find myself confusing them further by saying. Tim and I LOVE children. We never made it a priority and are very happy. That is truly unbelievable to many. Others see how happy we are and “get it”. Those the friends we have in our orbit today.
Thank you for sharing Caroline. I admire your courage. You tapped into something I’ve struggled to talk about.
Beautifully written Caroline. The weight of the question is immense. I have had this asked in every corner of the world, and underlying the words when I respond “no” is always some form of sadness. And yet I do not have a “sad” life. I married for the first time at 45 to an also never before married man of 46. We are now 10 years into a glorious and adventurous marriage. While I always expected to have children, and wanted to be a mother, we all make choices in life. Ultimately, finding the right partner was the most important thing to me, and so by the time that happened, we both had different ideas about how to spend the second half of our lives. As you have said so eloquently, the real sadness is realizing late in life that you have lived someone or societies idea of how to live, be fulfilled and contribute to the greater good.Cheers!
Wow! Brilliant deep dive into such an ‘eggshell’ of a convo. I have two children I adore, but first and foremost I am my own person, and I live that philosophy. I always felt that if one DOES have children, a woman shouldn’t give up her individuality to fit into the societal mold of what a mother should and shouldn’t be. I applaud and love having loads of female friends who have decided motherhood wasn’t the route for them. They are happy, interesting, content & delightful people – just as many of my ‘mom’ friends are. It always saddens me when I see or hear the dialogue about how ‘sad’ the life of a non-mom ‘must’ be. It is ridiculous. We are all various versions of what and who women should be. Having children doesn’t define me, just as it shouldn’t define you. I truly believe that it is an uncomfortable image for most societies to see a woman without children. Which is utter crap. Nobody really comments or observes how ‘sad’ a life a man must be if he forgoes children. It is bizarre and disappointing that women have to keep having this conversation. Enjoy your life, and carry on into your many awaiting adventures.
This piece, this blog entry, is so well written. “That question” does get asked (too) often. I’ve been confronted with this question and it is very strange to me, because it is invasive and it is personal and I’ve found the question comes immersed in judgement. I’ve actually known some women that have told me (in all seriousness) that as a woman I must have children; that “God” wants me to have children. I’ve laughed in their faces! I find these judgements absurd. Its so odd to me to have any one other than me pretend as though they have a “vote” in whether I choose to have children. I won’t. I’ve never wanted children and I don’t think that makes me any less of a woman. There are plenty of children that go without nurturing and there are plenty of women that are not mothers, for whatever reason, that nurture. As you so elegantly wrote, nurturing can come in many different enriching ways. Thank you for being so sincere in writing this piece about that question. There really are so many ways to nurture in life, and I really do agree with you and found myself feeling lighter and “seen” upon reading this. To each their own is a birth right; especially when thinking about something so personal as raising children.
As a childless woman who has had a very full life—one who is asked “the question” still—although it’s morphed into “grandchildren”—this beautiful essay touches me to the core. xoxo
Caroline, thank you for sharing this! Really appreciate your thoughts on a very personal question – I get asked this as well, and it can be difficult and annoying to have to explain why I don’t have children (and why I don’t want any), especially when it’s none of those peoples business. From all your travels and adventures, I know you live a fulfilling and amazing life and I have nothing but respect for you!!!
Caroline ~ you said it All, beautifully…I was and am the eldest of 8 siblings and a military family. Active Duty and traveling. I was made Second in Command and had a lot of responsibilities at a very young age. Myself and my sisters practically raised my three brothers. I really thought I would not have children. I was almost 30 when I had my son and up till then it was a burning question, “Do you have children?” I was a single parent and head of our household and w/o child support. It was hard. My son is now 40 along with his wife and they were not going to have children and then at 38 changed their minds and have two beautiful boys! Whether or not we ha ve children does not define us as individuals and as you pointed out, motherhood and nurturing is a very big part of Our Lives with or without. I know from my experience with you and your Beautiful store that you’re a nurturer and in everything you do. Thank you, for “unpacking”. Well said and heard from this woman!!! Much love and hugs. ♥️