Two things occurred to me earlier this month when reading the obituaries for the 1980s DJ Mike Smith. First, of course, that anyone’s death at 59 is horribly young, but secondly, the frequency of the description that he and his wife, TV presenter Sarah Greene, were “childless”. Only one report that I saw opted to say: “The couple did not have children.”
I don’t know why they had no children. But speaking as one who has specifically chosen that course and who is grateful to have lived in an age where that choice could be exercised, it is quite clear to me that the word “childless” is loaded with assumptions; that reproducing is the norm, something to which everyone aspires, and that to be without children is clearly to have failed.
“Childless” screeches of loss or tragedy, even sterility. So at best it’s offensive to those who have chosen not to have children, and at worst it’s grotesquely insensitive to those permitted no choice.
It was yet another reminder of strange freedom with which many judge those who do not have children.
This month there have been reports that an unnamed “Downing Street insider” pronounced Theresa May a turn-off to voters because she does not have children; apparently it implies the Home Secretary is “obsessed” with work.
Some observers rushed to point out that Mrs May has made it clear in interviews that she and her husband would have liked a family and “it just didn’t happen”. But there is no more need to make that distinction than there is to lend political weight in the first place to the fact that she doesn’t have children.
It is all irrelevant. I am no likelier to give my vote to Mrs May on the basis that neither of us has children, than I would limit myself to candidates who are 5ft 7in, or who have brown hair (with increasing traces of grey), or who share a 13-year-old cocker spaniel cross from Battersea Dogs Home with their ex-partner.
Why should being childless be a negative?
Those of us who have opted not to have children are wearily familiar with the inevitable conversation pattern once a near-stranger learns we have not reproduced.
First, they never hesitate to ask why, apparently oblivious that it might be cruelly sensitive territory; and when they have established that (in my case) it is a positive choice, it is not unusual to be informed baldly that I will regret it, and that I am selfish.
I can see that it is at least possible that I will regret it, although at 50 I show no sign yet. On the other hand, the idea that I might not regret it, and indeed might feel entirely content without offspring, is overlooked by the free-speaking commentators.
I like meeting children. I like holding babies. But I’ve never thought: 'God, I've got to get me one of these'
But the allegation of selfishness makes no sense to me at all. If it is selfish of me to choose not to have children, then it follows that those who choose to have them must be selfless – that is to say, they must have chosen to have children on the specific basis that they did not want them. Obviously this is the argument of the madhouse.
Yet still I am asked: “If we all thought like you, who would produce the next generation of doctors and inventors?”
For one thing I know of no one who yearns for a baby on the grounds of sociological philanthropy; and besides, somebody somewhere is giving birth to the next generation of yobs and murderers. Why not you?
It’s not to do with fertility or freedom
Those who do not attribute my choice to selfishness frequently assume I wanted a career “instead”, or that I prized what they (but not I) define as my “freedom”.
A girlfriend of mine who also has no children calls this the flying-down-to-Rio defence, where the lives of those who choose not to have children are assumed to be a constant whirl of glamorous travel taken on a child-free whim, funded by earnings imagined to be mysteriously limitless.
But I’ve always felt faintly exhausted by the flag-waving label of those who want to be described as “child-free” because it dictates that to have children is to be burdened; and while the responsibilities of parenthood are boundless, no parent of my acquaintance defines their offspring as a ceaseless encumbrance.
Meanwhile, those of us who have opted not to reproduce are frequently asked: “Don’t you like children?” Yet no one expects to like all people without exception between the ages of, say, 22 and 29. Why expect it of children?
I like children on the same basis that I like adults, depending whether they’re likeable as individuals.
Very many years ago – come with me on this anecdote – I interviewed the deeply wonderful Jools Holland, and he came up with a slice of wisdom which can be extrapolated to all kinds of subjects.
“People think that loving rock music is about being young,” he said, “but actually loving rock music is about loving rock music.”
For a lot of us who have chosen not to have children, it isn’t about career or freedom or loathing infants. And often it isn’t actually a negative feeling at all. Contrary to assumptions, it is not the equal and opposite imperative of the primeval desire to reproduce.
For me, there was a gradual realisation that many around me seemed to possess an instinctive need and I just… didn’t.
It’s a bit like ancient archaeology; some people are absolutely passionate about it, but the rest aren’t ragingly opposed. They just happen not to be interested. I like meeting children. I like talking with them, and listening to them. I like holding babies. But I’ve never thought: “God, I’ve got to get me one of these.”
So how about we lose the pejorative labels, if nothing else in a bid for greater kindness? Surely there is room for everyone, with no need for overt statements which judge and assume.
Parenthood is not the core identity of every adult’s life. I do not have children. I am whole. There is no “but” in between.