"She has no children. She has nothing." So said a so-called friend of Beef Princess. (I’ve stolen the title of this blog post from Nicole, who was also moved to write). We've certainly been exposed to the subliminal messages of society that encourage this school of thought. We've probably all heard family or friends say something like this over the years. Maybe it was before we tried to conceive, before we knew that we might end up living life without children. But we would have heard it, and it would have sunk in. Maybe some of us even said something like that. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have, as it took me a while to decide I actually wanted children in the first place, and I hated the pigeon-holing of a woman’s lot it implied. But I could understand if others did – after all, this is the pervasive message of society today.
To hear something like this - that without children you have nothing - can be incredibly hurtful. Why? When we know it is not true? When we know – and I’m sure even the woman who made this statement knows – that it is not true. Why? When we know that we are so much more than whether or not we have children?
The reason why I think it hurts us so much is that we've probably all said it to ourselves at some stage. In those dark days when you realise you may not be able to have children, or in those dark days after loss or illness, you tell yourself dreadful things, imagine that other people are thinking the most awful things about you. (Well, I did at least.) We've focused for so long - for some of us for our entire adult lives, for others, a very short but intense period of infertility and loss - on having children, on the importance of children, of family, of taking our place in the bosom of the community, of being accepted, together, normal. And so when we feel deprived, locked out, we have genuinely felt as if we had nothing. We felt as if we had no future. I know that we felt as if our husbands and partners would be better off without us, that we were failures as women, that we had no purpose in life, that we would never be happy. Some will have wondered what the point is of continuing to live. Some people reading this might still feel this way, still stuck in those dark days. And so, when we hear someone say this, say that we have nothing, we slip back to that moment, and believe it all over again, even if just for a split second.
Feeling hurt, feeling ostracised from a society that continually emphasises a lifestyle that we can’t have is one thing. But what explains the statement itself?
If you ask me, the statement “without children you have nothing” says more about the person saying it than it does about us. Why the need to put someone down like that? To sneer that they have nothing? It was supposed to be a barb, to be unkind about a person who had already hurt the speaker. But why she felt it was okay to use that particular barb (least of all to Beef Princess) is what astounds me. It would be like criticising someone for the skin colour, for being left-(or right) handed, for having blue eyes or a high voice, for being poor, or for having a low (or in some circles a high IQ).
But the majority rules, and people who “have no kids” seem to invite judgement, simply for going against the norm. Just like on the school playground, difference invites judgement in the adult world too (perhaps even more so). But I wonder too, is part of the motivation for this judgement perhaps the desperate need to feel that they themselves have more than they actually feel they do? You know, the happiness is relative theory. (If you have more than those you compare yourself to, then you will be a happy person. If you have less, you will be unhappy.) Is that why sleep-deprived, freedom-constrained mothers feel the need to put others in their place, in turn putting their role as mothers on a pedestal? That allowing themselves to feel superior makes them feel happier? Is it perhaps that they feel so insecure, so conflicted about their role as mothers, that there is a constant need to reaffirm how wonderful their life is, and how much better it is than that of those of us without children? (After all, perhaps that is why I feel very happy about my own life; because I can do things that those with children can't).
The message from society these days is that having children is everything. There is no doubt that this is what the majority of our community either believes, or professes to believe, or wants us all to believe. I don't think it is a simple case that this is what everyone believes. Human beings are notoriously bad at being able to analyse their own motivations. I think this is a case in point.
Whatever the motivations of both the statement, and our reactions to it, we all know that it is not true. Children are admittedly a wonderful part of life, but they are not the only thing in life. We know that. Relationships - with family, friends, colleagues, and our partners - sustain us and nurture us. Work sustains us, helping others sustains us, an open mind, intellectual challenges and explorations, our health, our hobbies, our pets, and even a good bottle of wine or a crisp apple – they all sustain us, and help us live a happy life. My father-in-law had four children, decent health, and was very well-provided for when he retired. But when he retired, when he lost his job, he thought he had nothing. He is an intelligent, logical man. But his attitude defied logic. He lacked the insight, the emotional intellect, to examine his emotions, his beliefs, and his attitudes, and hold them up to the light. Consequently, he has been miserable for over 20 years, when he could have lived a happy, amazing life. I think that people who say things like “without children you have nothing” are equally lacking in insight, emotional intellect, understanding, and perhaps most importantly, compassion.
And I pity them.