This week, performance artist Marina Abramovic revealed that she had three abortions - and that having children would have been a 'disaster' for her art. ‘You only have so much energy in your body and [with kids] I would have to share it,’ she explained in an interview with German publication Tagesspiegel. Obviously she's been vilified for this, one Twitter user described her as 'the most hated woman in the world right now’. Why? Because she doesn’t have and has never wanted kids, if there's one thing women are absolutely not allowed to wilfully walk away from, it's the siren call of their womb.
In the last few years, we’ve made massive strides towards acceptance and inclusion: from legalising gay marriage to speaking up about misogyny and racism. But there are still some lives you can lead in 2016 that will bring judgment and condescension to your door as if it were still the 1950s - one of those is being a woman without kids and an even bigger one is being a woman who doesn’t want kids.
There are a lot of women affected by society’s crappy judgment in this regard: those who haven’t had kids yet, those who want them and haven’t been able to have them, and those who never want them ever - like me.
I probably get the easiest ride, as someone who’s never wanted kids and consequently had her tubes tied at the age of 30, leaving the tags on my unused womb.
A lot of people expressed their amazement that I’d take such a permanent step so young, but it wasn’t even a question for me - being a mother has never appealed, and worrying about accidental pregnancy was starting to take over my life. I’d have been happy enough staying on the pill if not for the fact that it makes me vom - hence why my friend and I started #MyPillStory - and after many years of faffing about with the different types of baby-stoppers, I realised I could just have one simple operation and never think about it again. It took a ball-ache of a battle with the NHS between the ages of 26 and 30, but I finally had the op earlier this year. My only regret is that tying your tubes doesn’t stop periods, sigh.
I’ve been belittled, insulted and threatened over my choice, in part because I spoke up about it publicly. But the attitudes that cause strangers to send me Facebook messages saying I’m a slut because I want to have sex with my partner without worrying about unwanted children, are the same ones driving people to make intrusive and wounding remarks to women who would love to be mothers, but haven’t got there yet.
In the eyes of society, there’s no right answer when it comes to having kids. You’re not allowed to have none (selfish), you can’t have only one (cruel) and you certainly shouldn’t have ‘too many’, especially if you’ve ever used this country’s benefits system that you’re entitled to, to help cope in the early years of parenthood. We seem to be in an enormous hurry to make everyone get pregnant, anyone considered to be dawdling or delaying can expect probing comments and looks of faux-sympathy from every damn person they encounter, from relatives to randoms.
I get these too, but the difference is that I’m childfree, not childless. You might think those are synonyms, but they’re not: ‘childfree’ means I’ve made a choice not to have babies, and I’m happy with it (hence ‘free’, because motherhood is about as appealing to me as debt or tax). But ‘childless’ implies something lost, missing or lacking - and that, sadly, is the word we use to describe women who, for whatever reason, haven’t been able to become mothers.
Childfree women are pretty used to fielding rude questions, shrugging off judgments and ignoring insinuations. Over the years I’ve developed an armoury of boilerplate responses to the usual inquisitions I get - I call them ‘bingos’ because they fill up my mental scorecard of things I’ve heard a thousand times. They range from the sincere to the sarcastic depending on who’s asking and how much they’ve annoyed me. ‘Who’ll look after you when you’re old?’ is a common question to which I reply ‘Well, I won’t have spent my money on kids, so the most expensive, baller care home I can find.’ Often people tell me ‘You’ll change your mind’ to which I say ‘Did you change your mind about your children, then?’ Perhaps the most irritating of all is ‘What if you meet the man of your dreams and he wants kids?’, in this case I put my tongue firmly in my cheek: ‘I only date men I found outside the vasectomy clinic.’
I’ve had these conversations so many times that I’ve almost come to enjoy them, because I know the person I’m talking to hasn’t considered their position for more than ten judgmental seconds, whereas I’m bringing a lifetime of mic drops and shutdowns. But, the point is that I shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t have dealt with this situation over and over again, and I can’t imagine how hard it would be if my childlessness wasn’t a confident life choice but a source of pain and sadness. Every day, women who do want kids walk into IVF clinics for expensive, painful treatment that might not even work. They spend three agonising minutes willing a plastic stick to change colour. They deal with pregnancy announcements from best friends, colleagues and people who don’t even particularly want a child. They deal with so much already - no one should be adding to that heartache.
James (not his real name) is a 32-year-old engineer who recently went through a devastating miscarriage with his wife. He says, ‘It's really hard to talk about this stuff as a man. I do get comments about when we're having kids, but my wife gets it far more - and it went through the roof when we got married. The questions really bother me, but the worst thing for my wife is when people around her have kids or get pregnant. When you've just been to the doctor who's tried to justify your miscarriage in terms of statistics, it's even harder to face other people's good news.’
As well as your sanity, this stuff can really affect your career. Angel Storey, a 34-year-old freelance copywriter from London, like me, has never wanted kids. When she got married, she realised it might affect whether she was selected for jobs: ‘Since getting married I do go out of my way to mention that I'm not having children at job interviews. They can see the ring and often know that I'm on a spousal visa, and a young newly-married woman is a hiring risk (what with maternity leave and such), so I try to pre-empt that "risk" by bringing it up even though I know that it would be illegal for them to even ask. It’s a direct result of people assuming that newly-married = babymaking time.’
Thankfully, the tide does seem to be turning a little this year, and especially in the last few months. Andrea Leadsom’s nasty comments about her opponent Theresa May’s lack of children were widely condemned and led to her fluffing her shot at leadership. Jennifer Aniston’s furious takedown of the media’s obsession with her goings on of her womb went viral last week, she spoke for every woman who doesn’t want to be defined in terms of their partners and progeny, or lack thereof . And, after four long years of pleading, I finally managed to convince the NHS to tie my unused tubes, giving me a freedom from worry I haven’t experienced since I was a child myself. We are getting there, but slowly.
Here’s what I’d like to happen next. I’d like everyone to assume, as we do with men, that every woman has her life under control and will have children at her own pace, in her own way, if she wants to have them at all. I’d like the questions and comments to stop, completely, and for us all to realise that if a woman wants to tell you about her fertility and life plans, she’ll be the one to bring it up. And finally, I’d like society to move the hell on from worrying about who has and hasn’t procreated - there’s a lot more to life than judging other people’s.
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.