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Why I'm Unsure I'll Ever Want Children

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Artwork by Sydney Hass.
As someone who doesn't have any, or know that many, I seem to talk about babies a lot. It used to be (OK, it still is) that I'd spend evenings nestled around a pub table like a camp fire with friends, heads huddled together as we'd take it in turns to tell scare stories of birth and stitches and pain. Talk of babies used to be about how best to keep them out of our wombs – now we're placing bets on who's next to get one in the oven. Pregnancy is no longer a word to be feared, but congratulated. Expected.

Given that I'm several months past my thirtieth birthday, this isn't exactly shocking topic of conversation. Take in to account that the average age for a woman to have her first baby is now 30.3 and, really, it's verging on the embarrassingly basic. But whatever – it's that or house prices.

But while a growing number of my pals are busy pushing tiny humans out of their vaginas, and another lot are happily talking about when they might have the pleasure themselves, I'm still stood at the bar in open-mouthed incredulity that we're old enough to even be considering motherhood. And at the risk of sounding naive, I thought I was in good company. I thought my friends were all as completely freaked out by the idea of being a mother as me. Turns out, that's not quite the case. Even if they're still years away from having children, the majority of my friends at least know they want them. And while I'm not jealous of the maternal urge, I am of their conviction and self knowledge. Equally, I'm envious of those – and they are fewer – who know they don't want children.

Because here's the thing: I am ambivalent about babies. Sat on the fence about the whole thing. Totally undecided. And although I've got more than enough time to have one should I so wish (despite what some newspaper articles would like to tell us), I feel there's a certain urgency – part self-imposed, part the joys of societal pressure – to make up my mind either way.

It's not that I don't like children, I do. I've hung out with kids and can confirm that the rumours are true: they say all those funny things we've been told they do. And they're also annoying – imaginatively, excruciatingly annoying – as well. So on the one hand, sure, let's get me a baby. On the other, please God, can we not.

Of course, there's a whole lot more to this dilemma than that. My anxieties about having a baby are manifold, and can range anywhere from the standard "how ouch-y will labour be?", to the slightly more hysterical "what if it becomes a mass murderer?" And this is before we get on to the really fun stuff, the real dinner party gold, like: how fair is it to bring new life into a world fast disappearing down the U-bend? Discuss! It's on these less-rational days that I think, you know, if I'm going to be torn asunder only to give birth to a weird killing machine during the apocalypse then maybe I just won't bother.

But. But what if I choose to remain childless – what then? Is this it? Is this all there is? Days filled with work and Netflix and eating brunch in mid-priced restaurants until I die, with nothing to stand – or crawl – in my way? As much as I am aware of the tired, cutting guffaws of parents echoing from the playground right now, that future doesn't look that appealing either. Someone once told me that they thought they'd probably have children not because of a desperate desire to pro-create, rather because they weren't imaginative enough not to. And I think it might be the most honest thing I have ever heard. Because despite my concerns – legitimate or otherwise – about stepping into the unknown world of being a parent, there is a gnawing part of me that feels that the road already trodden is, actually, the one filled with greater risk. Risk, I suppose, of regret.
Artwork by Sydney Hass.
From where I'm sat, the dominant discourse in the baby decision making process appears to be 'no one regrets having a child' – the implication being that those who don't, might. But it's not as cut and dry as that. Just ask Merle Bombardieri, author of The Baby Decision: How to Make the Most Important Decision of Your Life (spoiler: Merle doesn't mince her words), who points out regret is inevitable whatever you decide. The real question, as she tells me over Skype from the States, is "which decision will you regret the least? That's how you get the answer." Like I said, Merle tells it how it is.

"Whatever you decide there's loss," she says. "If you decide to have a child, you're losing a lot of control, a lot of freedom, and there's a lot of uncertainty. But if you choose to be child free you're giving up on those fantasies you've had through the years of having a child."

And people do choose to be child free – more and more of them. A UK census in 2015 revealed that 55% of cohabiting families were without kids. And yet, as a society we still expect our women to be mothers, even though one in five of them will be childless by age 45. Even in 2016 barely a week goes by without a childless woman, either by choice or through circumstance, being pushed to publicly defend or justify her status. Even my ambivalence is met with a raised eyebrow, a narrowed look. It's partly why Merle, a mother herself but also a passionate child free advocate since the 1970s, wants to see our default choice be set to child free. That should be our starting position, rather than assuming children are part of our futures.

But for me, it's having to take that active decision-making role that is proving to be the hardest part. I would much rather leave the whole thing down to fate (otherwise known as the withdrawal method), but that's hard when you treat the pill like rosary beads. I'm not surprised in the slightest that many in my situation let sloppy sex decide for them. When I asked a friend, now mum to a four year old, if she always knew she wanted kids, she told me that she suddenly had "an unbelievably womb-y sensation and just wanted a willy to make me pregnant." But rather than have a conversation about parenthood, her and her partner just stopped using contraception. "Leaving it up to fate relieved us of having to make the decision."

Before you come at me with your pitchforks I do realise, although still difficult, that this is something of a luxury problem to have. As a heterosexual woman in a longterm relationship, if and when I do decide to try and get preggers, that decision need only involve two people. I won't, hopefully, need to think about sperm banks or surrogates or asking a big favour of a male friend with good genes. The question is, will I – can I – ever know what the right thing to do is?

"I think what you can do is you can build more certainty", says Merle. "It's a blurred picture which might become clearer. A lot of people drive themselves crazy thinking they're completely on the fence when there is a bit of a leaning – 60/40 is already the beginning of the decision." So maybe I'm only perched on the fence after all. But having the confidence to jump off it is going to take a lot more potentially uncomfortable soul searching. Or a more slapdash approach to contraception.
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