On a recent Sunday afternoon, I had coffee with two men – one who was looking and feeling exhausted, mostly because he has a six-month-old baby, the other who was looking and feeling awake and refreshed, mostly because he doesn’t.
The man without the baby had decided, with his long-term partner, not to have a family and, many years on, they were still together and happy with their choice.
For me, it was interesting to be sat between them, discussing the pros and cons of parenthood versus living childfree. Especially as I was in the middle of trying to get to the real root of my desire to be a mother and had been asking myself whether I’ve really got what it takes to offer up my sleep, my freedom, and to a large degree my life to another human being for many years to come.
Our chat was also pretty timely, since I’d recently ended what was a lovely relationship with a man because he didn’t want to become a dad and because I didn’t feel willing or able to close the door on the option of being a mum.
Over a strong coffee, the father described parenthood as exhausting and all-consuming and acknowledged the string of sleepless nights would put any relationship to the test. But without hesitation, he said he’d do it all again in a flash and wished he had two or three youngsters just like his little girl.
Meanwhile, the childfree man shook his head at the thought of waking up at two, then four, then six in the morning and of the constant vigilance throughout the day, while acknowledging he had no way of comprehending the ‘but it’s all worth it’ side of the equation.
And this, as I see it, is the problem.
We can’t know what we’re missing unless we actually experience it. We’ll never understand the ‘but it’s all worth it’ part of parenthood unless we become parents ourselves. A childless woman or man will never know what it feels like to have a child.
Similarly, a mother or father will never truly understand what it would have been like to have spent the rest of their lives without children, even if they can envy the apparent benefits of not being responsible for another human being: the time, the freedom and the hours of sleep.
This is a particularly big problem for someone like me. Not to trivialise motherhood, but I have one of those personalities that hates to miss out. If there’s a miracle of life to be experienced – such as giving birth and feeling an incredible bond with a child – I want to experience it. I ask myself all the time what it would feel like to know that kind of love, as well as to feel that level of responsibility.
On the other hand, as a bit of a free spirit, I can fully appreciate the advantages of a life without children. As someone who loves spontaneity, foreign travel and enjoys the creative side of her work, I can imagine the arrival of a child would shake my world.
But looking deeper than that, I also feel like I’m only just starting to enjoy my life, just beginning to thrive, rather than merely survive, and I’m at a stage when I want to nourish, care for and give to myself.
I want to love my own inner child. I’m not sure I’m ready to sacrifice myself for another being just yet – although I know the choice to wait brings potential consequences.
As I contemplate the pros and cons of parenthood, I’m reminded of a moment at Gatwick Airport. I was on my way to Barcelona to spend a week with a friend and soak up some sunshine. I was taking my work with me because, as a freelance journalist, I can.
As I stood in the check-in queue, I noticed a good looking couple. The woman held a small baby in her arms and nuzzled its neck every now and then with such tenderness and warmth. The man, meanwhile, carried a cute toddler in his arms, chatting on and off to his adoring, curly-haired child. As I looked at them, my heart yearned for a relationship strong enough to sustain a family and for the opportunity to nuzzle my baby’s neck while my partner cuddled our other little miracle.
Then I looked down and glanced at their luggage – stacks of it, suitcases, prams, car chairs and baby bags and groaned at the thought of how much time, energy and organisation it must have taken to pack all those things and to plan for this trip. I’d barely got myself to the airport on time – my head started to hurt just thinking about all that responsibility.
But then writing this, I’m aware of something I’ve known for quite a number of years: that the prospect of a life of freedom, spontaneity, packing lightly and getting loads of sleep, in my mind, pales into significance compared with the opportunity to grow and nurture a family of my own.
So I come back to where I began. If I never conceive and give birth to a baby and if I never have a child through adoption or other means, I will be OK. No doubt, I will learn to relish everything a life without children offers. I’ll create in other ways, find other opportunities to love and nurture, and I’ll travel and explore.
But while I accept it’s best to hold the dream of motherhood loosely and not to pursue it at all costs and while I’m aware that what I want for my life today isn’t an instant child but rather a period of love, fun and joy – of learning to cherish myself and another and delight in everything a loving relationship brings – I know I’m not able to close the door on having children. For today.