More women in the Western world are now choosing not to have children. Here, author Catherine Gray reveals the reasons behind her own decision to remain child-free - and why, despite the ongoing stigma, she's happier than ever
‘So, do you have a family?’ my spinning teacher asked, having just told me about her twins. ‘Er, no, I’m just… it’s just me,’ I replied, feeling a stab of self-pity as I said it, and watching sadness flit across her face like a dark cloud. But, here’s the thing – despite what I felt in that moment a few months ago, I’m not sad. Because I’ve never been sure I even wanted children. Apart from in my twenties, when ‘Of course I’ll have kids!’ was the foregone conclusion. But that was much like the pub-fuelled bravado of ‘Yes, I’ll do a bungee jump!’ even though the reality of swan-diving into a crevasse is colossally different.
Looking back, I spent most of my adult life autopiloting towards baby-making plans because I’d been taught that’s what all women want to do. From the ages of 27 to 30, I was in a serious relationship and we meticulously architected our future kids (Seb and Lola), wedding (Yosemite) and house (next to Lake Annecy). Then that relationship imploded, largely due to my unreasonable behaviour (think the drunkest girl at the party: that was me) and fiscal incompetence (always borrowing money from him). When he dumped me shortly after my 30th birthday, I was still convinced I wanted kids, so I felt as if a flashing red, five-year countdown had been placed over my head. I truly believed that my fertility would take a cliff-dive after the age of 35 (not true, I now know, having dug around in fertility studies).
But then I watched half of my friends go through the tears, house-shaking tantrums and talc-scented loveliness of actual parenting. I gawped as my mate Sarah dangled a baby on her hip while cooking dinner, wondered at Polly’s ability to wrangle two berserk toddlers who were demanding Haribo like despots, and discovered that 48 hours of childcare was my maximum capacity. I looked at fathers and thought, ‘Yup, I could do that.’ I could totally be a father. They don’t have to push the babies out of their body, they’re treated like the walking version of the Athena topless man for simply picking their kid up, and they get congratulated for ‘babysitting’ when I think it’s actually just called ‘parenting’.
But mothering? Gulp. That takes a superhuman amount of pain tolerance, forbearance and stamina. No matter how ‘great’ the dads are, assuming they’re still around, nine times out of ten the mum does the lion’s share of the work. I don’t want a husband before I contemplate having a kid, I discovered; I want a wife.
Then, I quit drinking aged 33, since my wine intake had started to average a bottle a night (minimum) and I realised that if I wanted to hang on to my sanity, income, health and loved ones, then it was a good idea to choose life, rather than Sauvignon Blanc. The savage and beautiful process of quitting meant that I got to know myself intimately, and started seeing that swimming against the social norm can actually result in more happiness. The expected, ‘done’ thing isn’t always the right thing for the individual. My arrested development ‘party girllll’ persona matured, and the penny started to drop that my character was not one suited to children, despite friends suddenly saying, ‘You should, you’d be a great mother’, given I was much less likely to leave my baby in a car outside a nightclub.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t make a great mother. I’m marbled through with a seam of selfishness, I have the disposition of a grizzly bear when tired, and I get depressed when I’m not in a clean, serene, ordered environment. My five big loves (sleeping, reading, travelling, exercise and alone time) would be torpedoed with the tenderness of a nuclear missile. People often tell me, ‘You’ll regret it one day.’ But that is a clinically insane reason to procreate, like taking a job that you’re not sure you want (a job that will last a lifetime) for fear of regretting not taking it.
My parenting urge dwindled from 33 onwards, from 90 per cent to 60. Since 34, it’s never risen above 40 per cent and it coincided with a new obsession with exploration, which has seen me taking epic US road trips from New Orleans to Austin, learning to dive on remote Philippine islands, and living in Bruges and Barcelona. While friends started freezing their eggs aged 35, I was never tempted. Given the choice of spending a few thousand on egg-freezing or the double bill of seeing the cenotes of Mexico and the red roofs of Prague, it was a no-brainer for me.
Over the past three years, I’ve also written three books, which has been a galactic amount of work, but the most satisfying career move of my life. I’m fairly convinced that if I ever have a child, I will never write another book. Last weekend, I babysat my niece and nephew, aged five and nine, and didn’t even manage to wash my hair or answer my texts, let alone do any work after the exhausting bedtime rigmarole. I don’t know how ‘mumpreneurs’ do it.
People are often surprised that, not having children I’m good with kids, but it is possible to be a maternal person and funnel it into tiny people not created from your DNA. I do ‘magic shows’ for my friend’s daughter Laura, meditation with Maisy, I teach my niece yoga (marvelling at how easily she can do handstands), and cuddle up to read my nephew bedtime stories. I love these moments. But I also love handing the children back.
After another few years of travelling, I plan to settle in the South Downs to create a menagerie of dogs, horses and cats, and I don’t mourn that Seb and Lola never came to pass, because they obviously weren’t meant to be.
Of course, I may meet someone and suddenly feel an overwhelming urge to raise kids with them, but given I’ve never yet experienced that, I don’t expect I will. In any case, my life and heart is very full, regardless. My parents were both one of four, so I have loving pods of aunts, uncles and cousins the length and breadth of the country, from Brighton to Birmingham to Berwick-upon-Tweed (my family and I clearly have a thing about places beginning with B). I am an official ‘Auntie Caffrin’ to two, and unofficial auntie to about ten kids, which means I get to play Mousetrap, or build cushion forts, or read The Hungry Caterpillar whenever I so desire; not having children doesn’t mean I miss out on those fun times.
If you asked me today whether I have a family, I’d look you in the eye, beam and say, ‘Yes, I do have a family – a huge Irish one. And I’m very happy as I am.’
Catherine Gray is the author of The Unexpected Joy Of Being Single (£9.99, Aster), out now