I WAS what one might call an ‘intense’ child, prone to crying fits over the long-term damage the greenhouse effect was inflicting upon the planet, and a six-month obsession with Satan and His Desire To Tempt Me Into Sin after getting a missile bible for my ninth birthday.
I also spent a great deal of time alone reading poetry (you’re right! I didn’t have many friends. However did you guess?) and I think I was about 11 when I first read Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
And I knew. I knew that I didn’t want to have children.
I felt, even at such a young age, the huge responsibility of raising another human being, the mistakes that could be made, the neuroses that you could pass on to them without realising it, the impact that an impatient sigh or hastily-formed sentence could have on their psyche.
There seemed to be something so futile about the entire exercise.
I didn’t tell anyone.
Even at 11, I could tell that the reaction would not be positive.
I looked for answers in books, finding solace in characters such as Lady Macbeth, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier; women who had rejected society’s supposition that they ought to be entirely fulfilled by marriage and children, trying to ignore the fact that, ultimately, they were all doomed to a rather unfortunate fate.
It’s not that I dislike children.
One of my best friends, Áine, has a little girl so adorable that I plan on kidnapping her and raising her in my image to be a feminist vigilante.
I adore teenagers, particularly teenage girls, and am constantly inspired by their enthusiasm and hopefulness.
I think I would be a good mother.
I just don’t want to be one.
Maybe I’ll change my mind.
(You don’t know. People change. You might change your mind.)
Maybe I’ll meet the right person. (I did attempt to fit in. I found a lovely, kind boyfriend, we discussed marriage and babies and a future, this is what you’re supposed to want, this is what every woman is supposed to want, and I felt like I was drowning.)
People — well, let’s be real here, women — who decide that they don’t want to have children are often derided as selfish.
Maybe I am selfish.
I don’t deny that I like my life the way it is, that a sense of freedom is vital for my emotional survival and my work feeds me in a way that I’ve never experienced before.
I have fears about how that would be impacted if I became a mother, if, as Cyril Connolly said, that I would find that there is “no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”.
There still is a gendered expectation that it will be women who are the primary care-givers.
As Sinéad Gleeson said in an essay for The Pool, “I’ve watched panel events at arts festivals where women who are asked about ‘the juggle’... Has anyone ever quizzed Martin Amis about his childcare arrangements?”
In a piece for New York Magazine, the writer Miranda July spoke about the constant questions about who was looking after her son while she was on tour, commenting that “we give fathers all kinds of permission to focus on their work, to be creatively consumed, but mothers with that same determination make everyone uneasy”.
It can be difficult to admit that you don’t want to have children for fear that others might find that you are ‘unnatural’ for doing so.
This is heightened in a country such as Ireland where the role of the mother is enshrined into our very constitution (thanks for nothing, Dev) and where archaic laws ensure that the life of an unborn foetus is treated as equal to the woman’s, if not more important.
There is something about the assumption that you will want to procreate, which strikes me as astoundingly self-absorbed.
My writing brings me immense satisfaction but I would never presume that everyone else in the world should write a novel as well in order to feel that joy or that they would even want to.
“Oh, but motherhood is the most amazing feeling in the world!”
“You’ll never experience love like it!”
“My life was so empty before I had children.”
“Having children will be the best thing you ever do. I promise.”
But what if it isn’t?
I think it would be foolish to have a child ‘in case’ I regret not having any at a later stage.
What happens if I have the child, and regret that decision?
Resent that boy or girl for the rest of their lives, until they limp out of their childhood, broken and misshapen by some unconscious knowing that I wasn’t 100% committed to the idea of being a parent?
I was lucky enough to be born to wonderful parents.
I had a mother and a father who loved me and supported me and who did their very best to ensure that I was happy.
And I still struggled.
I fell, and they helped me up.
I fell again, and again, and again, and they were there to hold my hand.
They never gave up on me.
I feel guilty at the pain I must have caused them, the sleeplessness nights wondering if I would even survive.
Whenever I apologise for that, they shake their heads and say “that’s what you do when you have children. We would have done anything for you”.
That’s being a parent, I suppose, sacrificing some integral part of yourself for your child’s needs.
Feeling their pain as if it was your own. How can you stand it, I want to ask?
For I know what darkness a human being can hold, how much pain.
I know the bottom, she says, I know it with my great tap root.
It is what you fear.