In the past 19 years I have had the good fortune of listening to friends, acquaintances, psychotherapy clients and sometimes relative strangers talk about a hugely intimate area of their lives: parenthood, procreation and what happens when procreation doesn’t. I’ve listened to Dads tell of their joys and struggles, would-be Mums longing to get pregnant who can’t and a handful of courageous Mums who wouldn’t procreate if they had their time again – even though they love their children. I’ve met the odd stridently childfree woman: “I was 10 when I knew I wouldn’t have kids!” through to the much more commonly encountered folk who just aren’t sure about parenthood; through ambivalence, relationship circumstances, financial uncertainty, recovering from the pain of their own childhoods, to name but a few considerations.
All of life happens in this realm, and all the stories are, of course, absolutely unique. Sadly, the majority of these stories – with their rich learning and experiences – also remain largely untold and unshared. Invisibility shrouds the area of being childless and childfree and sometimes I understand why the childfree by choice are quite, er, vocal, as a counter-balance to this invisibility. The only reason people talk freely to me is because they’ve found out in conversation, or through reading an article I had authored, that I am particularly interested in this subject, particularly the child-bearing decision with ecological, environmental and transpersonal considerations in mind. The research eventually transformed into my second book ‘Other than Mother: Choosing Childlessness with Life in Mind’ which was published by Earth Books this time last year.
I continue to have fascinating conversations about this process and the conversations continue to evolve. For example: how do we bridge between the childless and the childfree? Even when we’re without child for very different reasons, surely we can still stand together and challenge taboos, build networks, initiate new rites of passage, celebration and ritual? Perhaps – hopefully – we can support one another in the face of societal stereotyping (the career driven childfree woman springs most readily to mind) particularly given the fact that we live in a society which is pretty poor at holding the grieving of would-have-been parents? In my experience far more unites those who are childless and childfree than divides them, given good enough conditions for trusting, honest, kind communication.
I’ve recently held a day workshop on the longings and legacies of those of us without children. Prior to that we were noticing in our meet up groups and during other teaching days that it can be easier to compare ourselves to parents rather than cultivating the confidence to be in contact with our own life longings, particularly given the influence of pro-natal agendas, with many folk being both questioned and criticised for not having children. Deciding not to have children, being faced with circumstances in which we won’t be parenting, or losing our only child or children means that a re-orienting process happens for many of us, as our lives takes a very different direction to the one we once conceived or we re-orient ourselves in swimming against the tides of mainstream pro-natalism.
The one subject which still seems a little too hot to talk about very much or very often is whether or not to have children with the world – our home – in mind. My book ‘Other than Mother’ specifically explores this decision-making process with life in mind. By this, I mean exploring the parenthood decision against the backdrop of the inter-related crises we face in this anthropocentric age: our attachment to fossil-fuelled lifestyles, climate change (or climate chaos, more aptly put), the 6th extinction event, the inbuilt inequalities of late stage capitalism, and the polarisation of views and beings, for example, exemplified by the ‘war on terror’. This subject is no longer just about population pressures, it’s also about runaway, often unquestioned consumerism. It raises more questions than it answers. For me it’s also about care and respect for the hundreds of thousands of children without love, shelter, sustenance and care who are already here on this beautiful planet.
Of course, it is easy to think that our individual actions have little impact – they have more impact than we like to think! The times we’re in, we need to face what’s going on, and act on all levels: individual, family (if we’re part of one), community, workplace, region, nation, continent, whole-world community, bearing in mind other-than and more-than-human life, as much as human life. Even though talking about the parenthood decision with life in mind is a ‘hot’, charged and demanding subject, it’s a dialogue still worth having – and the dialogue is growing, as our awareness of our impact on the biosphere and what to do with the precious time we have on earth grow.
A few years ago I trained as a ‘carbon conversations’ facilitator, encouraging participants and communities to reflect and act upon their carbon footprints through looking at energy, travel, food and so on. It was a natural extension of my existing facilitation and training work. It was so valuable to explore these areas – and so challenging, because so many of who turned up live relatively privileged, materially comfortable lives. It was important – and hard! – to take a fresh look at areas where we could change our minds, change our lives and the impact that would have; not only on our carbon footprints, but the conversations we were having with friends, family and work colleagues.
I’m happy to continue to have conversations about the parenthood decision and ‘otherness’ and to offer spaces for others to meet, because it strikes me that these conversations are at the heart of the sort of resilience we need and are increasingly likely to need in the coming decades – and because it’s the least I can do for the biosphere. During my lifetime (nearly half a century) I’ve witnessed a squeeze in terms of community events and a shrinking and/or privatising of spaces where communities used to meet, socialise, plan and act. These childless and childfree meet ups address that – in their own small way! – inviting us to show up, be ourselves, share intimate stories if we wish, sitting with those who may have a very different viewpoint and experiences to ours, and still dialogue respectively. Trust and connections build, a handful of people feel less alone, touching universal themes and sharing hopes and fears in what it means to be alive in 2017.
I am in awe in witnessing the capacity of those who have been unable to have children to grieve and gradually gradually turn around their lives. Because they have touched agonisingly sore spots in themselves and often in close relationships, too, they seem to emerge with great perspective and a desire to make a difference. I’m also in awe of those who have or who are in the process of deciding not to bear children because they want to respond to the cries of the world and do their bit of ‘world work’, standing up for the earth and other elements. I am glad to be part of a tradition reclaiming, reoccupying, and further building a community space in which we can talk about intimate areas of life in good company.
With resilience in mind, I shall end with the wise words of Stephanie Mills, the Michigan-based activist, prolific writer and fellow of the Post Carbon Institute who kindly wrote the Foreword to ‘Other than Mother’. Asked for her advice to those who feel conflict about having children and living sustainably, she replied:
“It’s a tough decision, and it should be – you know the decision to have children should be made very consciously. Because they deserve no less. And if people who are ‘on the fence’ about it I encourage to consider not having children, or as Bill McKibben puts it, maybe one. But to understand that we’re probably going to be going through some pretty strenuous times over the next few decades and consider whether they’re prepared to shoulder the responsibility of caring for a child in difficult, potentially difficult circumstances, and also think about the impact that that child is likely to have on the planet, especially if it is raised in an affluent American fashion. To weigh those realities and then follow your heart; search your conscience and follow your heart” (source or link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_DA_tWrTHw)