29 August, 2011

A bit more about society ...

A follow-up to my previous post.  Apart from those few years when I was trying to conceive, I never believed that a woman had to be a mother to be fulfilled.  I always felt like a woman.  I always enjoyed being a woman.  I just didn’t feel that being a mother was the be-all and end-all of life.  I rebelled against the inference that I was only good for one thing, that my life was pre-determined, that I would be a mother and that would be the only good thing I’d ever do.  If I wanted children, I wanted to have them on my own terms, not because I was told I should, or because I wanted to conform to society's expectations of me.

But then I got older, and my hormones started to run rampant.  They weren’t helped by pregnancy and pregnancy losses and IVF drugs either.  I felt ready to be a mother.  And so my failure to become one hurt, and my drive to become one was accelerated by all those messages around me.

Fortunately, now, I don’t have the same hormonal urges.  I’m at the age where I’m not expected to get pregnant.  And I can brush off those (often subconscious) messages from friends, family, society, media, and politicians that my life is worth less because I don’t have children.  I know they’re wrong. But even so, knowing that people look at me that way still has the power to hurt.  Fortunately, not so often these days.

26 August, 2011

Studying happiness

Studies regularly come out that show that childless people are (in general) happier than those with children.  And a while ago a reader of mine commented about another such study getting publicity (in the comments on my Selfish post here).  She said:

“... it just made me roll my eyes at yet again another study designed to make one group feel better about choices or circumstances ... drawing a circle around one group and saying "Everyone here is this/everyone here is MORE this than everyone on the outside of the circle" is ridiculous.”

I agree with her – after all, she’s asking everyone to simply “let them be.” She’s saying not everyone who is childfree is happier than those with children, and equally it is not true the other way round either.  You can't argue with that.

But I don’t agree necessarily that this study was designed to make one group feel better about choices or circumstances over another.  After all, there is a lot of research about happiness, trying to figure out what the secrets are, what is different about happy or “cup half full” people.  And I think that this is good.  I worry that (like my mother) I have a tendency to worry.  (Hint:  Worrying about worrying is a bad sign.)  I worry that (like his father) my husband might turn into an old man with a depressive, negative outlook.  And so I like reading about happiness.  I like learning that being busy, and helping others, is in fact going to contribute to making my life happier.  I like being able to point out to my mother that by going to visit and help her annoying neighbour, she’s helping herself too.  I like knowing that when I’m old and have a cat, the cat will help soothe me and make me happy. Studying happiness – whilst it might seem a little pointless – can actually be useful, I think.

The thing is though, that not all the world is fair and balanced (unlike my friend I referred to above).   I find myself on the side of the fence where society, the media, and other men and women seem to do their darndest to convince me that I will never be happy without children.  (Sure, they're less obvious about it now.  But the pity says it all).  It's pervasive.  This family-centric focus of society is ingrained in advertising, in media reporting, TV, movies, books, and don’t get me started on political campaigning.  Even Cathy, the cartoon on the young modern woman, finished with her announcement that she was pregnant.  The assumption being of course that this was the ultimate happy ending.  That she wouldn’t live happily ever after if she didn’t have children. 

If you do have children, perhaps you don’t notice this; I don’t know.  I do know, though, that over the last ten years I have watched hundreds of women grieve their pregnancy losses, the loss of their tubes and sometimes the loss of their fertility, petrified that they will never ever be happy because they won’t end up with that holy grail of society, a baby.  For a time I was one of them.  I remember (though I also blame rampant hormones) being less concerned that I might have cancer, than the fact that if I did I would not be able to try to conceive for at least a year.  I was 40 at the time, and knew that this would likely mean I would never have children.  I was furious at the nurse who said to me “you’ve got to think of yourself now.”  She didn’t realise that I was thinking of myself, and that  I was afraid that – if I lived – I would have a life I wasn’t sure (at the time) was worth living.  My hormones were ruling my emotions, but my brain had also bought into everything I was exposed to, telling me that children are the ultimate prize, the necessary ingredient to achieve any happiness in life. 

Childfree couples who are perfectly content with their decisions not to have children find this constant barrage of opinion to be frustrating and insulting, as if they don’t know their own minds, as if they aren’t capable of making a responsible decision.  Childless not-by-choice couples (though my experience is largely of childless women, more specifically) often find this focus on family to be extremely distressing.  It reminds them of what they wanted, but could not have.  It makes them feel isolated, abnormal. And they worry that they will never achieve happiness again.  They face the future with real trepidation, imagining years of emptiness and sadness and loss stretching out before them.  Some  consider suicide, and they cry out for help.  They feel like failures, although their strength in living in a society that constantly tells them they are abnormal and unsuccessful shows that in fact they are far from failures.  They are my heroes.

Like my friend, I wish that there wasn’t such an emphasis on promoting one lifestyle decision or circumstance as being in any way superior to another.  It isn't fair to anyone - it places unfair expectations on people on both sides of the fence, it makes people feel there's no hope, or that they are failures, or it makes the smug even smugger.   But we can't change our imperfect society.  Not now anyway.  So here I am.  A childless woman living in this society where “having a family” is supposed to be the only way to achieve fulfilment and happiness and full humanity (and womanhood).  And so I have to say that finding a study that contradicts the common stereotype, and that tells me - or perhaps more importantly, tells other women going through loss and fear right now - that our lives won’t be lonely and sad, but can be happy and full, is very welcome.

19 August, 2011

Accepting my body

Right now, my body is doing what it should.  It hasn’t always.  That’s clear.  I’d have children by now.  I’d be slimmer.  I’d have been a star athlete and a Silver Fern rather than just a talented but rather out-of-breath athlete.  I wouldn’t be quite so pale and vulnerable to the unprotected New Zealand sun.  My feet would be smaller.  And my bum.  I’d have 20-20 vision.  Oh, and my hair wouldn’t be going grey.  Still, I put those moans aside, because they’re part and parcel of normal life. 

I have often heard women say “I hate my body.”  They hate their body because it has let them down, they feel it has let their partners down, and not least their unborn children.  I can understand those thoughts. But they make me sad.  The anger I hear women direct towards their bodies seems so toxic.  I’m not sure I ever felt that way – I never saw my body as something separate from me, something that should be blamed, or hated.  I did feel broken though. 

Right now, however, I’m not trying to conceive, or carry a child, so my body doesn’t feel broken.  Right now, my body gets me up in the morning, carries me around during the day, is strong enough that I can work out regularly at the gym, or walk around the hills of my suburb.  I am strong enough that I can cook, lift the garage door (until it’s fixed), lift a heavy suitcase, reach things on the top of a shelf.  Unlike my darling niece, I can digest my food without medication, unlike a nephew the only gasping I do is after a hard workout, not because I need my asthma inhaler.  I’m having physiotherapy on my knee, but in doing that I am revelling in the strength I am developing in sadly neglected muscles.  My knee isn’t failing me.  I failed it – but I’m fixing that. 

My body is amazing.  It’s ordinary; it’s not The Body by any means.  But it could be a lot worse.  And it deserves my respect, and my gratitude.

13 August, 2011

When I'm old

In a few days, provided that the predicted snow-storm doesn’t close the airports, I will be visiting my mother.  She is almost 78, and has not had an easy life.  She is aging.  I have to repeat things.  Frequently.  Always a worrier, she worries more now, because she forgets to tell herself to stop worrying.  Did I mention I have to repeat things?  She is coping wonderfully since my Dad died six years ago, but does find it lonely at times, as self-sufficient as she is.  Whilst my sister lives nearby, I worry about my mother on her own. 

And this is when my emotions become confused.  I am glad that my sisters and I am around to care for my mother, whatever she might need.  But as I do more and more for her, and as she needs me to do more and more for her, selfishly my mind turns to my own old age.  Who will look after me?

This is an issue that is of real (public or secret) concern to those of us without children.  We worry about our old age.  Whenever there is a public debate about having or not having children, we hear the argument that you should have children at least to have someone “who will look after you in your old age.”  It is a point that always hurts.  No-one wants to be old, sad, vulnerable and alone.

Of course, in reality I know that having children is no guarantee that you will have anyone to look after you in your old age.  You probably know by now that my husband’s three brothers all live overseas, and if he left, then my in-laws would be alone.  Another reminder of this is my great-aunt and uncle.  They had three sons, all intelligent and successful.  And inevitably, they lived far far away, holidaying on yachts, hobnobbing with media barons, setting up their investment banks.  But Uncle Ray and Auntie Winnie rarely saw them.  And as they aged, my parents stepped in.  Even though they lived a three hour drive away, my parents helped out.  I still remember seeing my father help Uncle Ray out of his chair one day when I was also visiting.  I was struck by the comparison – my dad was in his 60s, and was vibrant and healthy and strong, and Uncle Ray was in his late 80s and frail.  And I was struck by my father’s compassion, his willingness to be there for his wife’s uncle.  I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of my father than that day. 

So I’ve always been a little sceptical of the argument that you have to have children to ensure you aren’t lonely or alone (the two are different) in your old age.  I’ve talked about this on a previous blog and my lovely blogger friends have decided we’ll all live on a commune together, pool our resources, and have a wild old age.  I rather like that idea.

I was even more comforted to find this article some time ago.  A study showed clearly that childlessness doesn’t mean you will be lonely and unhappy in old age.  In fact, it showed that the childless are more likely to have built support networks, wider friendships and family relationships around them than those who relied on their children to provide this.  That cheered me, and reminded me to continue doing this into my old age. The commune is really starting to sound like a good idea now, don’t you think? 

However – yes, there is a “but” to this topic - the study’s author reported that 

Childless women who believed it was better to have a child were much more likely to report being lonely and depressed than their female counterparts who said it didn’t make a difference.”  

And so I realise that so much of our loneliness – or rather, so much of our happiness - is dependent on our attitudes.  My mother doesn’t expect (or want) her daughters to be there every day, or to telephone every day.  And so she doesn’t sit there pining for us, she goes out and gets on with enjoying her life.  In the last 7-8 years, I have really come to terms with the benefits of not having children, and I am enjoying my life.  I am determined to do this, precisely because I don’t want to be a woman sitting pining about “what might have been.”  Making the best of my situation now, relishing it and enjoying it, can only establish a good foundation for a happy, busy, and content old age.  I owe it to myself.

That said, I'm still going to work on my nieces as a back-up!

08 August, 2011

Public Reactions to Infertility

Whenever an article is posted online about infertility, or living without children, I shudder at the comments.  I know I shouldn’t read them – they end up making me feel angry, persecuted, and devalued.  They tend to tell me one of three things.  Either:
  • I will never be a) happy or b) emotionally mature or c) know what love is, unless I have a child
  • If only I adopted/tried IVF/just relaxed/tried sooner I’d have children; I obviously did something wrong and it’s all my fault
  • I was never meant to be a mother and therefore in wanting that I was either going against nature or god’s will or fate, and it’s time I accepted that.
These themes are familiar and enduring.  And can be painful.  Following yet another public article, Mel  posed these questions on Prompt-ly:

What is this doing to our psyches?  To be constantly analyzed like this?  What makes you put yourself out there again in the future when you get slammed like this?

Seven or eight years ago, these articles, and follow up comments, would have made me feel terrible.  They would have reinforced my negative view of myself, and I hate to think the feelings these articles/comments induce in women who are currently trying to conceive.  Women who fear that they will not be able to have children; women who are worried, and insecure, and question the reasons for their life, are very vulnerable.  The constant message that the only way to bring meaning to your life is to have children is incredibly cruel to women who fear that they don’t have a choice.

These articles, or perhaps more accurately, the on-line comments, are usually so narrow-minded, written from a place of such innate bias, that whilst they make me angry, I think they also make me stronger.  I question my life more now, the way I live it and the things I do, my beliefs and my values.  And ultimately, I come out more contented.  I know I don’t need to have children to feel that my life is worthwhile.  I know I don’t need to have children to feel like a good person, to feel like I help other people, to know that I contribute to society.  I know that I don’t need to have children to be kind and compassionate.  And so, whilst I get frustrated at the ignorance of the view that says I can’t achieve these states as a “selfish, childfree person,” I know that ultimately, it isn’t true.  Truth can hurt me.  But unkind, intolerant lies can’t. 

Let me qualify that, lest I sound like a hypocrite.  I know I said I felt marginalised and hurt in my last post, when I felt my rights were dismissed as unimportant.  But I think that was more because of where it happened, and who made the comments, than the actual views.  After all, as I mentioned, they weren’t new to me.  And so yes, I will admit that occasionally these attitudes and analysis can hurt.  I’m human.  I have good days and bad.  Sometimes it gets in.  Sometimes, I question the validity of these views, and of my own.  But mostly, I don’t do that anymore.  Perhaps I’m able to reach this state simply because motherhood was never my only goal.  I knew there was more to life.  More to me.  Perhaps it is simply a reflection of where I am in my life now.  Age, time, pain – they all help us grow.

02 August, 2011

Debating Adults-Only Spaces

There has been quite a debate on the whole issue of adults-only spaces on Mel’s blog.  It was prompted by an article that commented on various businesses choosing to make adults-only spaces available, including Malaysian Airlines First Class cabins on particular long-haul flights.  The article implied that these changes were prompted by the wishes of childfree adults.  I won’t get into the inference that makes about those childfree adults.  I’ve covered that before.

Mel argued that children are people too, and shouldn’t be discriminated against, in the same way that we wouldn’t discriminate against women, or different ethnic or racial groups.  Her reasoning was that behaviours should be banned, not groups of people.

She garnered a lot of support for this view, with many posters aghast at the thought that children should be banned from “public spaces.”  There were some very emotional comments about how decisions like this seemed to want to force parents to only ever travel economy (coach) or by car.   They missed the point completely.  Perhaps understandably, being a US-centric site, the respondents didn’t realise (or ignored my comments) that Malaysian Airlines first class is very different to a domestic first class product on US airlines.  Malaysian Airlines also offers a business class product that is itself quite luxurious, with lie-flat beds, and is open to children and babies.  Parents were not required to travel only economy class.  They were certainly not “banned from flying” yet numerous responders argued against this.   

There were also emotional responses to the idea of adults-only Harry Potter showings, adults-only restaurants (or adults-only evenings in restaurants), or resorts, as if they thought children would be restricted from every restaurant, or every movie, or every resort.  Clearly, this is not the case and is a rather absurd notion, and has never been suggested.  But even the idea of one restaurant in an entire town restricting its dinner services to adults-only, or of one airline restricting one class to adults-only (although in reality, it only restricts babies under 2), seemed to make the commenters angry.

There was a polite minority who were torn on the issue, and some who had no problem with the idea, generally arguing that:
a) businesses were not public spaces (like public libraries, for example).  Let’s face it, you can’t get much further from a public space than a quality Asian airline’s exclusive first class lounge and cabin, and
b) that businesses make decisions about who their customers are all the time.  If these decisions don’t work economically, the businesses will be either forced to change, or to close down. 

That’s why I don’t understand the objections to such policies.  After all, my friends and family with children support these policies.  This is not a conspiracy of the childless or childfree against parents, as presented in the article.  As many parents as non-parents support these moves. 

In the UK, a major holiday company has officially launched Thomson Couples, an all new adults-only holiday experience aimed at couples who want to spend time abroad in a child-free environment, away from their own kids, and other people’s.  An article on this decision can be found here. Ryanair may or may not introduce adults-only flights later this year.  It announced the decision on April Fools' Day, but the press release is still on their website in August, so the status of the announcement isn't known.  These though are business decisions from successful, profitable businesses that already cater strongly to families..

And when it comes to restaurants, my sister wouldn’t blink an eyelid at the idea of an adults-only restaurant.  She relishes adults-only time, conversation, music, and good food and wine.  Her daughter (my adorable three year old niece) doesn’t.  One day she might.  Then that’s fine.  My Malaysian relatives wouldn’t travel First Class on their airline with their babies, though they would travel business class.  But they’d all appreciate the degree of child-free luxury in First Class.  My friend relishes leaving her children with their grand-parents, and making a child-free flight to Hong Kong.  Parents like to have adults-only time too.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

So I was very surprised at the vehemence of the responses to the suggestion that a business could choose to restrict children, even if only at specific times, or from specific spaces. 

Some comments in particular stayed with me:

It’s not the children who should be banned, it’s the parents who bring children places they don’t belong or who fail to address the issue when their children are behaving in a disruptive manner.  This was a recurrent theme.  And I do agree with it.  After all, Mel’s premise that behaviours should be banned, not whole groups, is reasonable.  But the practicalities are that children are not going to go to these spaces on their own.  And if the parents don't take the children, then there isn’t a problem.  It’s when parents put children into environments when too often they can’t understand the behaviour requirements and are mentally and physically unable to adhere to them that a restriction becomes an issue at all.

In considering “normal/appropriate” public behavior it’s not fair to expect children under a certain age to consistently behave like adults.  I agree.  Therefore why should they be brought into particular environments where they cannot and should not be expected to consistently behave like adults?  It’s not fair on the children, it’s not fair on the parents, and it’s not fair on the other customers.  So what is wrong with businesses that make that decision if the parents won’t?  Sensible parents – as many of those who responded attested – would simply not choose to take their children to places where they couldn’t meet the behaviour requirements. 

I stay at home if I want absolute quiet.”  So everywhere else is open to children?  Everywhere?  So if I want a day or an hour to be spent without children, I have to stay at home?  Isn’t this as bad as suggesting that you shouldn’t go out if you have children?  Surely we can ensure that everyone gets their own space?

“...we have to put up with the occasional painful reminder ...” Thanks for your compassion, fellow infertility sufferer.  You’re arguing that I never have the right to go somewhere where I might be allowed to feel just a normal member of society, but instead should always be subjected to the painful reminders that I could not have children.  I expect to go places where I might either delight in the adorableness of a child, or feel painful stabs that I’ll never be a mother and my husband will never be a father, or experience both at the same time.  That’s fine.  Just occasionally though it’d be nice to be free of that.

Denying me and my kids the right to go somewhere is a bit cheeky.”  Why?  You want to deny me the right to go somewhere where there are only adults.  Isn’t that a bit cheeky too?  What’s the difference?  Why can’t we both have spaces that appeal to our desires.

What next, child-only planes?  Family-only? Apparently yes (see the article I referred to above about Thomson Holidays and Ryanair).  And why not?  The parents on the family-only flights would not have to spend the time worrying about their children bothering their neighbours, but could perhaps relax and enjoy the flight with other like-minded people.

My favourite response was “Suck it up is what I chose to do” from a mother who admitted she wouldn’t take her children into these spaces anyway, so what does she care if she can or can’t? 

In the end my conclusions are:                                                                                                                           
  1. This is not about banning children.  It is about choosing to offer different or complementary services with adults-only options (eg Ryanair or Thomson Holidays, Malaysian Airlines first class, or at a movie theatre or evening dining at a 5 star restaurant).  That means everyone is catered for.  Surely that’s a win-win?  And what can be wrong with that?  Perhaps it is the language used - for example “children are banned” - that has fuelled this debate?
  2. In my opinion, this debate has nothing to do with banning children and children’s rights.  Quite frankly, babies and children don’t care about going First Class or eating out at a posh restaurant.  They go where their parents take them.  This is about the parents’ rights being curtailed; unable to take their children wherever they want to go, regardless of the wishes of either the business or the other customers
  3. Clearly, my right to choose to go somewhere where there are no children is less important than a parent’s right to take their child wherever they want to go.  Parents’ rights appear to rule over all others.  Those of us without children know that; we live in a very pro-family society.  But wait.  That’s not right, surely?  Minorities have rights too.  However, my thoughts and feelings were/are not an issue for most of the respondents to the blog post.

    And once again, as a childless/free woman, I felt ignored, marginalised, and without a vote in society.  My thoughts, wishes, desires don’t count.  I don’t count, and the reason I don’t count is because I don’t have children.  My pain doesn’t count, and the reason my pain doesn’t count is because I don’t have children.  I was surprised how much this debate affected me.  And I was surprised at where this had happened.  I didn’t expect to be made to feel that way on an infertility blog.

Interesting Note that Really Says It All:  I surveyed the responses, checking those in favour of child-free spaces and those against.  Not surprisingly the division was strongly between parents (or the pregnant, or the about to adopt) who were against restrictions on children/adults-only places, and non-parents, with only a few exceptions, who were either not bothered by the restrictions, or indeed, were actively in favour of them.

Another Note:  To be fair to the respondents, most of them said they either wouldn’t take their children to restaurants or movies, or if they did they would remove them if they became disruptive.  Whilst that is often too late and has already spoiled the experience of the other customers (not to mention the parent), this is a responsible attitude and I commend it. 

Further Note:  I am not a child-hater.  I think it’s obvious that I don’t expect everywhere I go to be without children but I’ll say it just to make the point crystal clear.  I love being able to go to a child-friendly cafe with my niece.  Just like I love being able to go to an adults-only restaurant too.

Final Note:  I’m very nervous about posting this.  But when I began this blog, I decided I would always be honest, and wouldn’t shy away from my views.  This is me, this is how living life without children affects me. No Kidding. This is what you get.