I love children. Truly, I do. I even used to be one myself. But other people’s children are never as fascinating, lovable or beautiful as your own. In fact, other people’s children can be aggravating, noisy and impolite.
Most parents accept, with mutual tolerance, the notion that one’s own children are always the best. The problem arises when, like me, you don’t have kids and therefore people automatically assume you must want to spend time with theirs.
I’m lucky in that my closest friends all have thoroughly excellent children whom they refuse to impose on me, insisting on making plans for the two of us that do not involve screeching infants throwing mashed apple around the place. In fact, my closest friends are so considerate that I actively have to ask to see their progeny now. The result is that I adore their offspring because seeing them always feels like a treat rather than an obligation.
But with acquaintances who are not in your inner circle there is often an expectation that the person without children will make all the social effort. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve arranged to meet up with someone, only to be notified by text at the last minute that I’ll have to schlep across London to some hayfever-ridden park where a ghastly family picnic will be in full swing. Or I’ll be told that little Arabella or Gabriel ‘would love to see you’ when, in truth, Arabella or Gabriel would far rather be left to their own devices blowing bubbles and soiling their nappies to their hearts’ content.
As a 40-year-old woman who does not have children, I’m something of a rarity in these circles, a bit like an albino hamster. So I’ll be expected to play delightedly with these children and everyone will assume I must cherish the opportunity to hang out with their babies given that I have none.
Inevitably, these mothers will also engage me in a long conversation about how hard it is to be a parent, to which I must listen while nodding sympathetically and trying not to glaze over. In their eyes, I am a woman without responsibility. To them, my lack of children means that I am footloose and fancy-free and have a blissfully empty diary that can accommodate their much busier lives. To them, I must be hankering after the chance to spend time with their babies.
When you are childless (and particularly when you are single) you are expected to put in all the emotional labour to keep in touch with those who have children. There’s a supposition that you must be yearning for some ‘family’ time, and that you can travel and fit in around their schedules because you don’t have to worry about the logistical difficulties of packing sunhats and muslin cloths and packets of processed pumpkin.
And I understand this. But it feels to me as if there’s no effort made in the other direction. There’s vanishingly little attempt to think about how many things I might also be juggling, as if my career is merely optional seasoning on the main meal of life; as if my childless status means I’m forever knocking back martinis and running off to nightclubs at a moment’s notice.
There’s no empathetic sense of how difficult it might be not having children, or how lonely it might sometimes feel. Instead, I’m meant to be grateful for the opportunity to see other people embedded in their family lives while simultaneously being made to feel guilty for the frivolous nature of my own existence.
‘Oh, I’d so love to write books,’ I’ll be told, as if my profession is a matter of breezily dashing off a few words here and there when the mood takes me. ‘But with five kids, you know, it’s just impossible to find the time.’
Well, I want to reply, ‘I’d love to have kids, but having written five books it’s just impossible to find the time!’ Also, this parallel universe me would add, how about, when we next meet up, you get a babysitter and we go somewhere that’s convenient… for both of us?
This week I’m…
To the Love Island: Morning After podcast. As the season draws to a close, this next-day analysis has ramped up my enjoyment considerably.
This beautiful BA&SH dress: ideal for dressing up or down and with perfect 1940s-style shoulder pads. Also now in the sale.
The candle at one end only, thanks to Emma Bridgewater’s deliciously fragrant Scent of Wallflowers with spices and vanilla.