Emer McLysaght: I’m child-free by choice and I don’t blame you if you hate me

The path to the normalisation of child-free living is paved with resentment and fear

There is push-back on the long accepted but tone-deaf ‘wisdom’ that having kids is ‘the most important job in the world’. Photograph: iStock

There is push-back on the long accepted but tone-deaf ‘wisdom’ that having kids is ‘the most important job in the world’. Photograph: iStock

 

I sometimes resent people in my life who have children, and I’d be confident taking a bet that they often resent me. It’s not a pleasant sensation. It feels ugly and spiteful and largely redundant. It feels part of a larger, simmering and largely silent battle being waged between the child-free and the – what’s the optimal opposite word to child-free? Child-rich? Child-heavy? Childful? However, it also feels like an important cog in the slow process of the normalisation of child-free living.

I think we’re very much at the testing stage of the process. Birth rates have been falling steadily in Ireland for some time now, despite the country having the third-highest fertility rate in the EU. Falling birth rates are a worldwide trend too. Urbanisation, higher education, access to contraception and increased agency for those of childbearing age and biology mean that reproducing is no longer an assumed life path. Attitudes towards those who decide not to have children are changing culturally from “it’s selfish” to “it’s none of my business” and even “good for you”, but the realities of living in a society where the child-free and the childful live side by side are less polite. It’s often less “it takes a village” and more “two neighbouring villages going head-to-head in a county final where both feel justified in claiming to be more tired than the other”.

The world we live in doesn’t fully or even adequately support either cohort. This was starkly clear during the pandemic, when families and parents felt they were being failed in terms of childcare and access to recreation for children, while those without children or living alone felt forgotten in the “hugging grandparents” discourse and the relentless schools issue.

In more “normal” times the workplace can be divided between child-free people who feel like their time is less important than those with little ones at home, while parents are told that shorter working weeks and improved maternity and paternity leave are simply beyond budgetary and logistical constraints.

There is push-back on the long accepted but tone-deaf “wisdom” that having kids is “the most important job in the world” and “you’ll never know proper love until you’ve had a child”. Not only are these deeply insensitive to those who wish to have children but cannot for any number of reasons, but they reinforce the idea that life is incomplete until there are children in it.

However, this push-back is still in its infancy and undermined constantly by capitalism and its searing need to market fertility and pregnancy tests to every person on Instagram theoretically capable of getting knocked up. No matter how many times I click “not interested” on ads for IVF or baby slings, social media still pokes me with “Are you sure? You probably have a few dusty eggs left!”

Mutual resentment

It feels disgusting when your life choices result in resentment towards friends and family. I hate the jealousy I feel when a friend chooses their child over me, even though if I was in their boat I would no doubt do the same. I wouldn’t blame those same friends for hating me a bit when I can skip off to the cinema or a weekend away with minimal organisation and planning.

Having social occasions revolve around naps or bedtime can induce rage in even the most rational of people, while on the other hand a carelessly cancelled dinner plan might result in the end of a friendship if the parent hasn’t been out after 7pm in 14 months.

A lack of understanding on both sides is often at the core of these little injustices and rages. I suspect many parents feel that their child-free peers simply don’t understand how difficult it is to raise kids, how utterly exhausting and terrifying and thankless it can be. And it’s true, we don’t. It looks so, so hard and I think the demands on parents – particularly mothers – to be ever-present and fully engaged while also somehow cultivating mega careers and mandatory “me time” is bonkers. Parents might assume that their child-free friends think they’re crazy for getting themselves on to the bum-wiping train when actually there might be fear that we should have bought tickets for ourselves.

I’m often afraid that I’ve made the wrong decision and am committing biological treason by not engaging in my “natural state” of motherhood. I’ve definitely stared down the barrel of it but I’ve never actively pursued it. Is there something wrong with me? Am I lying to myself about not wanting children? Does the resentment help assuage these fears?

It feels incredibly negative to suggest that this divide exists, but it absolutely does. Ideally, we would all live in that utopian child-raising village where climate change isn’t real and you can be sure your baby’s nappy is being changed by a nurturing and Garda-approved carer while you tend the kombucha. I do live in a kind of symbiosis with friends who have children. I bring fresh eyes to a book that’s been read 300 times, I bring fresh arms when a toddler cannot stay on that hip for one more second, I bring ignorant incredulity to a toxic nappy situation. I would love if my taxes paid for universal childcare and top-notch maternity care. I would love for the child-free and the childful to co-exist blissfully with no griping about who has to always work on Christmas. It might not happen in my lifetime, and if my wanton way of living catches on we might be extinct before it ever does. But hey, baby steps.