A few weeks ago someone I have known for years looked at me over the rim of a steaming cappuccino and said: “Don’t you feel you’ve wasted your life?” She was referring to the fact that I don’t have children. I was shocked. Someone who knows me and hopefully sees me as a good person thinks my life has been wasted. So with my genetic line grinding to a halt with me, does it follow that I have no legacy? No stake in future society? Have I really wasted my life?
I moved the conversation on but the question stayed with me.
Don’t misunderstand, I have no regrets. My life thus far has been pretty great but I have to acknowledge that selfish part of me that doesn’t want to vanish back to carbon without leaving a trace.
Intellectually I understand the drive to reproduce. It’s human nature. It has just not been very important to me.
And I am part of a growing demographic - a tribe of men and women who have chosen a childfree life.
Britain now has the third highest rate of childlessness in the world and that figure is on the rise. Families are shrinking and women are waiting longer than ever before to have kids. But despite this childfree women are still represented as selfish, unfeminine or unhinged.
I don’t hate kids, I just don’t like them enough to want one of my own. They barely registered on my ‘things to do’ list for my life, I was too busy living it. I spent my 20s and most of my 30s travelling and working abroad. My partner and I were pretty much free spirits, going from one country to another, from one adventure to the next. Our only goal was to learn, to experience and to see as much as we could. Children were not part of the plan.
There are many animals that just die after mating. The Bristle Comb Worm for example is a rather romantic hairy beastie that can be found lolling around on saltwater reefs. Under the cover of darkness during the new moon it performs a somewhat elaborate dance with its mate. This underwater ballet ends rather dramatically with them both dying in their own juices. I am, you understand, hoping that as humans we have evolved a little further than this. While offspring are important they surely cannot be our only reason for existing.
It seems that these days parenthood has been elevated to some sort of self-righteous, elite club. A club with rules, benefits and challenges that those without children are told they cannot possible understand. The childless are to be pitied. They are seen as self-centred and immature with no real investment the future, no skin in the game.
The fact is we, the childfree clan, do have more time on our hands and despite the common misconceptions we are not all sunning our stretch-mark free (I wish) bodies by the pool or wandering the halls of some silent, grown-ups only museum. Some of us are giving back and perhaps more than most parents, because when we give back it is to our whole community, not just to our own offspring.
Statistically the childfree are more likely to give time to their communities and leave more money to charity after they die. 48% of childless people over the age of 55 making provision in their wills for charitable donations in comparison to just 12% of parents of the same age. One German researcher found that a staggering 42% of charitable foundations were actually created by childless people.
Eglantyne Jebb founder of Save the Children was childless as was Maurice Pate of Unicef and Cecil Jackson-Cole who helped establish Oxfam, Help the Aged and ActionAid. You can nurture, parent even, without actually being one. They say it takes a village to raise a child and I just want to be part of that village.
I am not advocating the childfree choice, I am just standing up for it as a choice. Just because we don’t have children doesn’t mean our voices, opinions and contributions to our communities are worthless. I believe we need and we deserve a seat at the grown-ups table.
I am working on finding peace with my need to leave a legacy. While writing this I mentioned my worries to a friend with children and she said something that I will never forget. She reminded me that I will live on the memory of the people I have loved, in the memories of her children, my friends and anyone else who knew me. They will choose to remember me because they want to, not because I am responsible for their eye colour.