Several years ago, I had a conversation with a young woman on a train that I've never forgotten. We began chatting in that curiously intimate way strangers sometimes do when traveling. It wasn't the happiest time of my life - I was getting over an engagement that I'd broken but that didn't make it any easier. There were quite a few reasons for the break up: for one, I simply wasn't ready to marry. I'd noticed a controlling, jealous streak in him that worried me. Back then, I didn't know who I was. (In fact, I would reach my 30s before I did). There was one reason, though, that set the seal on my decision to call it off:
I had always known I never wanted children and I had made that clear to him. He would make patronizing remarks like "you'll change your mind when you're older" despite my repeated insistence that I wouldn't. He couldn't seem to wrap his head round the fact that I had not the slightest desire to reproduce.
I wasn't prepared to compromise. I definitely wasn't prepared to spend my life with someone who would disregard my feelings and who seemed more interested in going along with society's expectations than examining the reasons why he wanted children. So I called the engagement off. Shortly afterwards, I got chatting to this young woman who I'll refer to as K.
K had a two-year-old daughter, despite the fact that she'd never wanted children. She told me that she'd, quote "caved in" unquote and had a child. Her husband and her mother pressured her and society had done the rest. K knew almost immediately she'd made a mistake. She hated being pregnant and said that she didn't appreciate how her body was her own until then. The thought of giving birth terrified her. When her daughter was born, everyone was delighted - except her. "I felt nothing towards her. She didn't even feel like mine. I thought it was the baby blues and it'd get better but I still feel detached from her two years on."
I told K that I never wanted children. K was supportive of my choice and said it was an equally valid one and should be respected. (If the term 'childfree' was around then, I hadn't heard of it).She freely admitted she envied me and warned me to stick to my guns and "not to give in to pressure like I did. If I could turn back the clock, I would." K felt that nobody ever tells women the truth about motherhood.
She told me that she felt she no longer had an identity or independence. Her husband, especially, did not seem to view her as an equal partner or a person in her own right. K went through the motions of caring for her daughter, saying "I put up a good front but I feel like I'm living a lie."
Listening to her, I felt sad and angry. She succumbed to pressure, yes, but how unfair that that massive pressure was placed on her in the first place. I sensed she was overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and shame and probably had no one to confide in. I think she was able to talk so openly and honestly with me because she knew I would not judge her. I hope I was able to help a little.
This is the flip side of the coin we never hear about, I remember thinking. K seemed to feel so alone but I bet she's not.
We got off the train and said goodbye. I never did see her again. I've thought about her from time to time and wondered how she's doing.
I'm grateful we met, though. I'd been second-guessing myself about my broken engagement and I'd been feeling irrationally guilty for refusing to have children. Meeting K cleansed me of that. Whenever I'm bingoed, I remember her because I know if I'd gone with the societal flow I'd be walking in her shoes.
I'm convinced we met for a reason. I learned an invaluable lesson that day.
Listen to your instincts. If you're in any doubt about having children - don't.
Flickr photo by Malingering (cc)
Technorati Tag: Childfree
January 04, 2008