If you’ve been watching The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll be rooting for June, a mother trapped in a misogynistic near-future where her only value is her fertility. But spare a thought, too, for the infertile “Marthas” relegated to the role of domestic servants, or the sterile commanders’ wives, condemned to be mere decorative objects.
I’ve never wanted children and I’ve never regretted my decision. In the UK, at least, some of the stigma of not having children (as opposed to not yet) has gone. The parents I know don’t assume I’m frigid or workaholic or narcissistic or unwomanly, or that I hate kids. Yet the prevailing wisdom is still that, not having children of my own, I basically know nothing about them.
In fact, I’m around kids all the time. I first became an aunt 20 years ago. As a teenager, I babysat. And before that, I was a kid. I’ve been a stepmum and I’m a godparent six times over. I helped set up a charity for kids. I’ve even written about them – children play a central role in my psychological thriller, Give Me The Child.
None of that seems to stop some of the parents I know mumsplaining the weaning process, or reminding me that their baby’s head needs supporting (really?), or hovering anxiously as I play Wonder Woman with their toddler in case I – what? Break her?
Friends often presume I won’t want to be around their kids. They don’t pop round in case their offspring leave chocolate handprints, even though my house is awash in chocolate handprints – mine. They don’t invite me to their staycation/picnic/kid’s birthday party because they think I won’t want to come. But I love kids. I just don’t love it when their parents go on and on about them. A catch-up, lovely, but a two-hour lunch listening to mums grading the colour of baby poo? (It happened). Thanks, but nope.
Parents are amazed to discover I’ve been doing DIY or having a quiet night in with a book, instead of going off on one in Ibiza for the weekend
Many of the parents I know imagine their childless friends are forever reliving their twenties. They’re amazed to discover I’ve been doing DIY or having a quiet night in with a book, instead of going off on one in Ibiza for the weekend. In their minds, being childless means being the age they were when they were child-free. But the childless among us age, too. Our lives change, so do our priorities.
Life for the childless isn’t necessarily less complicated but, in tough times, I rarely get the support from some of my parent friends that I routinely offer them. I sometimes wonder if they believe that, as parents, they are inevitably always busier, more stressed and, dare I say it, that bit more important?
Because parenting increasingly seems – to me at least – to be a competitive pro-sport, a particular kind of mum will often turn to me about her daughter’s struggles at school, her 12-year-old bedwetter or the pain and guilt she feels because she doesn’t much like her teenage son, knowing I’m never going to judge or criticise, not because I have no opinions, but because I’m smart enough not to voice them. I’m not going compare her kid with mine or gossip to other mums who might judge or tell their children, who might in turn bully or shun her kid in the playground. I’m sympathetic while not forgetting that while most parents choose to have children, I didn’t choose my mum’s dementia or my breast-cancer scare.
Because I’m perceived as “neutral”, I’ve been deputised by friends to be the bearer of tricky news about another friend’s child. Remember that meltdown in the street? And the fact that your son engages in repetitive movements and doesn’t make eye contact? Ever thought of seeing a doctor about that? I observe the ways parents love and sacrifice for their kids. But I’m also clear-eyed about the ways they let them down.
I’ve learnt that being a parent doesn’t necessarily make you a better parent. Some of the best parents – in the sense of mentors, role models, champions and supporters of kids – are adults with no children of their own. We’ve no axe to grind, no parenting agenda. We have the time to listen to what kids have to say. We don’t need anything from them other than their willingness to interact with us.
Don’t relegate women like me to the sidelines. I may not know the hottest game or the week’s best band, but I’m free to take children as I find them. And that can only be good for kids and their parents, can’t it?
Give Me The Child is published by Harper Collins; www.melaniemcgrath.com