Big family? You’re a threat to the environment. One kid? You’re selfish. No matter the number, everyone’s got an opinion. Six writers reveal the judgmental comments they’ve had to put up with – and scream, ‘It’s none of your business!’
NO KIDS: ‘You just need to meet the right man’
Rosie Mullender, 40, is in a long-term relationship and has no children
I’ve never wanted children. And, although I’ve never been heavily criticised for it, I’ve always been aware that people think it’s a bit odd. Even when I was in a happy eight-year relationship, friends would tell me: ‘You’ll change your mind when you meet the right man’ – not realising how offensive that was. Eventually, my boyfriend dumped me because he decided he wanted children after all. At work, a well-meaning colleague told me I’d ‘ruined my life’ and should ‘just have kids to keep him’. I was already devastated that I wasn’t enough for the man I’d planned to marry unless I provided him with babies; now I was being told I’d be miserable for life and it was my own fault.
One (male) friend even said, ‘Just “forget” to take your pill – he’ll accept it once you’re pregnant.’ He found it so weird that I didn’t want kids, he assumed the problem was the other way round and that the solution was to trap my boyfriend into fatherhood.
Wondering if there was something inherently wrong with me, I went for Maybe Baby counselling, where a sympathetic therapist guided me through my choice. I explained that I’d never wanted children and still didn’t but, if I could take a tablet that would trigger my biological clock, I’d do it in a heartbeat. ‘You don’t want children,’ she said gently. ‘You just want your boyfriend back.’ She was right.
When it came to dating again, I discovered that being a 30-something woman who isn’t keen to reproduce put me at a disadvantage. I’d meet a man and embark on a promising relationship, only for it to end as soon as he found out I didn’t want children.
Happily, I met a man on Twitter, where I’m open about my child-free status, who is equally averse to the pram in the hall. Now we are both in our 40s, the clamour for us to have children seems to have quietened down – perhaps because, with kids of their own, everyone’s too busy to comment.
ONE CHILD: ‘You’re selfish and it’s not a real family’
Alice Wright, 46, is married and has a son, Stanley, ten
I don’t know when I realised that I was a ‘one and done’ mum. I don’t think a decision was taken, but when my son was born I instinctively knew he would be my one and only.
Yes, labour was a bit of a struggle but my son wasn’t a difficult child – far from it – and my experience was probably similar to most new mothers: tiring, guilt-ridden and confusing. It certainly wasn’t bad enough to make me shut up shop for good. I just couldn’t see myself with another child because I already had mine. At first it was inconceivable to even imagine having another while still cradling the energy thief that is a newborn. But, as time stretched on, it became even clearer to me and my husband that a second child wasn’t going to be part of our lives. We didn’t even try and we were absolutely happy with that decision.
Strangely, no one else seemed to be. I was told on countless occasions by well-meaning friends and family that I ‘didn’t mean it’ or ‘you’ll change your mind’ – or worse, that it was ‘a bit selfish’. Other new mums I had met were disconcerted when I was getting rid of outgrown Babygros because shouldn’t I keep them ‘just in case’? I was even encouraged to start thinking about ‘number two’ during a hospital checkup.
When the second babies started coming, it was suggested that surely I was feeling broody again by now. Well, I wasn’t. Having a cuddle with someone else’s child doesn’t make me want to change my life and, besides, I have lovely, fuzzy memories of my own boy for when I want to take a trip down broody lane. To go back to babyhood always felt like a step in the wrong direction. So we never turned back and I haven’t regretted it.
I’ve run the whole gamut of motherhood and I’ve experienced it all, but during conversations with other parents I’ve been made to feel that having only one isn’t a real family, as though we haven’t done it properly.
Someone once told me I was ‘lucky’ because I only had one to worry about, suggesting they were a bit more stretched than I was – as though we didn’t have the same concerns for our only child, or that he wasn’t enough to worry about. It was as if having two or more kids gets you a bigger tick in the parenting book. Even now, as we approach the teenage years, there is still a look of surprise when I mention that my son is an only child. There’s suspicion he might be strange, lonely, bored, selfish or spoilt. I know he’s none of those things. Well, maybe a little spoilt because he hasn’t had to compete with any siblings for his parents’ love, attention or funds. So perhaps he’s the lucky one.
TWO DAUGHTERS: ‘You should try for a boy next’
Judith Woods, 52, is married and has two daughters, Lily, 16, and Tabitha, ten
Having had my elder daughter through IVF (thanks to flukey first-time luck), conceiving a second child proved to be a real struggle. I had always dreamt of two children and, despite a horrendous labour, I knew within 48 hours of giving birth that I wanted another – and soon.
As the weeks and months passed I felt that need consume me. Why? It was partly because I am the youngest of five girls and value my sibling relationships, but I also felt such a tsunami of emotion for my first baby that I was afraid of overwhelming her. It was as though a tap of mother love had been turned on and I worried that she was at risk of being engulfed by the rising tidewaters. I convinced myself that two children, however, could safely share the burden of being loved so fiercely.
After six years and many gruelling rounds of failed treatments and heartbreak, my second daughter arrived. I was giddy, grateful, elated; my little family was complete. Weirdly, though, other people (not close friends, but busybody acquaintances and strangers) seemed to disagree. ‘Two girls? Are you going to try for the boy next?’ Note: not a boy but the boy – as though our happy little setup was glaringly incomplete without one.
I laughed it off but didn’t grasp why it was anyone’s business how many children I had, never mind what their gender might be. As it happens, I come from a veritable female dynasty: my mother was one of two girls and went on to have five girls who had two girls each, so the chances of me popping out a boy were slim. And a third child was simply not an option; I felt blessed to have two and that was enough.
Yet I’m sad, indeed baffled, to report that over the years other women have tried to assert some kind of one-up mothership because they have three or four children. I mean this in the nicest way – I really don’t care. So what if their husbands earn enough for them to afford a larger brood. And that they are fertile enough to achieve it. Good for them. I smilingly refuse to be drawn on the subject – which I suspect they find annoying as hell.
Bringing up nice, healthy, emotionally resilient children in the 21st century is tough enough without making it into some sort of competition. Having babies is joyous and transformative; nothing is the same afterwards. The flood of love hormones can leave you drowning and you need friends and confidantes close by. It’s just such a shame that some women need reminding that motherhood doesn’t mean you abandon sisterhood.
THREE CHILDREN: ‘The third must have been an accident’
Rebecca Ley, 39, is married and has three children, Isobel, eight, Felix, five, and Sebastian, two
‘So… was it an accident?’ said the mother at the school gate, surveying my burgeoning bump and the two children I already had in tow.
‘No…no,’ I said, laughing as though she had made a joke. It was only later that the remark bothered me. Our third child wasn’t an accident – far from it.
I always wanted three. The exhaustion and chaos of two young children didn’t put me off as it did some of my friends.
In fact, I was broodiest for my third child. I knew what it was all about by then and pined for a downy head to nuzzle, a bundle dozing on my chest, a little plug-socket mouth to feed. It was a visceral, animal longing that no amount of sensible analysis could dissipate. I’ve never been as certain of anything as I was that I wanted baby number three – but no more.
Sure enough, after Sebastian arrived in February 2016, I was done. It was the big family I wanted, one that just about fits within the boundaries of normality.
At least that’s how I see it. I’ve lost count of the number of ‘You’ve got your hands full there, haven’t you?’ comments I’ve received. And the glances in the park when people work out that, yes, there are three of them.
From an environmental perspective I know that many people think having a third child is selfish. Indeed, one of my oldest friends launched into a diatribe about overpopulation when Seb was just a few weeks old. ‘I just don’t know how anyone has children. It’s such a huge responsibility,’ she said, invoking rising sea levels and disaster. ‘I can’t imagine having one child, let alone three.’
I didn’t know how to respond. It is a massive, exhausting and occasionally terrifying responsibility. Our world is uncertain. But nothing in our life has ever felt as clear cut.
FOUR GIRLS: ‘Are you disappointed not to have a boy?’
Joanna Moorhead, 55, is married and has four daughters, Rosie, 26, Elinor, 24, Miranda, 20, and Catriona, 16
I have four daughters. That’s a sentence I feel incredibly proud to be able to say; and when I do say it, it usually gets the reaction:‘Wow!’ (often, and especially if she’s
female). ‘Four daughters! You’re so lucky.’ I am lucky. When I was a child, if anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said a mother of four children (I came from a happy family of four children) and a journalist.
The icing on my cake was having four daughters, although I didn’t know it until I completed my family and had my youngest. But the same day my fourth daughter was born, my husband encountered a neighbour and told her the news. ‘Oh goodness,’ she said. ‘Are you very disappointed?’
My husband was perplexed and so was I when he related the story. I guess some people must have assumed that the reason we went on having children was because we wanted a boy. A friend, who had four daughters and a son – in that order – advised us to ‘keep trying’. In fact, I felt that I’d aimed for the stars and reached the heavens.
Even now there are still the naysayers, especially those who criticise me for being unecological by having four children. My response is that it all evens out in the end; I was one of four and only one of my siblings has children, so from my parents’ family of four came seven grandchildren.
But reaching the four I wanted wasn’t a straightforward trajectory; between daughter number two and daughter number three, I had three miscarriages. I knew I couldn’t keep on trying for ever – losing babies is tough – but I never lost sight of my dream family. And the more girls arrived, the more girls I wanted.
The day before I gave birth to my fourth daughter I finished reading Little Women with my second daughter, and I remember the tears rolling down my face as I realised how close I was to having the perfect family. By the following evening, I had it.
FIVE KIDS: ‘You should be ashamed; big families are the last thing we need’
Clover Stroud, 43, is married and has five children, Jimmy, 18, Dolly, 15, Evangeline, six, Dash, four, and Lester, two
It was my first trip out with my new baby. My elder children were with friends so I’d gone to meet my husband for lunch. Waiting in a café, an older woman lingered by my table, clearly longing to see the newborn. ‘What a sweet baby,’ she said kindly. ‘You must be proud. Is he your first?’ I smiled, cradling him carefully to let her get a better look.
‘Actually, he’s my fifth,’ I replied, brimming with pride. The woman froze, anger then disgust registering on her face. ‘You should be ashamed. Big families are the last thing this world needs,’ she hissed, leaving me reeling.
She wasn’t the first person to pass judgment on my reproductive choices. Telling someone that you have five kids always elicits some kind of response – from surprise and awe to outright horror and pity.
I’m the youngest of five. My mother gave me the sense that childbirth was an extraordinary gift and that a house bursting with children would always be happy. My elder brother and sisters were my idols and I grew up knowing I could handle anything life lobbed at me as long as I had a lot of siblings nearby. Despite that, I didn’t set out to have a large family. By the time I was 27 I was married with two children I adored. I didn’t feel the need for more. However, after I divorced and met my second husband, we both knew we wanted children together, too.
Today, my youngest is in nappies while my eldest has started driving. Having five children is relentlessly demanding and curtails some decisions. Private school is out of the question and holidays that start at an airport are rare as affording seven flights to anywhere requires a remortgage. I gave up my ‘family car’ for a minibus, always roast two chickens for Sunday lunch and think I should have bought shares in Persil. Every day is chaotic, messy and incredibly noisy but life as a mother of five is one filled with vivid colour and endless love – and that’s exactly why I chose it.