‘Do you have children?’ This stock question still floors me. When confronted, I don the mask, breathe deeply, get a grip and try to answer honestly. It doesn’t always work out that way. In a supermarket queue, my bored fellow shopper seems happy with my breezy reply: ‘Yes! One’s at university, the other teaches English as a foreign language, online.’
Lying doesn’t come happily or naturally to my husband or me. Where it won’t land us in trouble, inventiveness has become our coping strategy for what seems a casual disregard of the possibility that we might not have children and that our childlessness might not be voluntary. When I must be honest, I brace for the invariable slight pause after my answer, the fleeting look of something I can’t quite fathom – disapproval? Pity? Certainly some sort of deflating expression.
Everyone’s home should be alive with rugrats (a term I dislike), little pattering feet, hungry youths, grown-up children, grandchildren and, if you’re lucky, great-grandchildren. The failure to have children – whether by design or not – is stigmatised. Having children is what you do. Positively deciding not to have a family (not a decision I made) is deemed selfish. You grow up, get partnered, have children. How couples have children seems irrelevant. I’m only relieved we don’t live somewhere that regards a childless woman as a criminal embarrassment who should be put to death. But even in this country, I’ve heard television presenters proclaim: ‘A home just isn’t a home without children.’
I don’t blame my career or anything else; my life worked out like that. The tricky thing was, most people I met in my twenties and thirties had partners/spouses and, often, children. Nearly 30 years ago, at an after-work social event, I told a female colleague that I’d love to be married with children.