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A bar, one Thursday night, after work. I'm sharing a bottle of wine with a group of colleagues when I fall into conversation with Mark, a friend of a friend. I mention in passing that my workload has increased because a member of my team is on maternity leave. "That's OK," he says. "Women hold the fort for each other because you'll be hoping someone will do it for you."
I bristle. "It isn't really OK because, well, I don't want kids," I say. He looks at me curiously. I take a defensive sip of wine.
"You can't have them?"
I sigh. "No. I don't want to have them."
"Why do you think you don't want to have them?"
"I don't think. I know."
"No, you don't," he scolds. "How could you?" Things spiral downward from there. I'm accused of being deluded, of letting feminist convictions run away with me, of not having met the right man. I am pathologized. Mark wants to know what happened in my childhood to make me so damaged, so — and I promise he uses this word — unnatural. Predictions are made for me: I'll come out of this phase 10 years down the line when it's too late for me to change my mind. I am not truly happy and fulfilled in my childless state, and I will never be. I'll die cold, old, and alone. Still, somehow, Mark, who has known me for a little over an hour, fails to make me abandon the conviction I've held for three decades. Go figure.
I do not want babies or children or "a family of my own." My earliest thoughts on procreation ran something along the lines of: Nice, if you like that sort of thing. I guess. I was roughly 7 years old, and I knew that I was not destined for motherhood, that I would not, and should not, ever be a mother. Not in a sad, self-denying way, but in a cheerful, confident way — a liberating way. I knew that my life was open to me, without any premapped destinations. (Secretly, I wondered why anyone else felt any differently. I still do.) I grew older, and my conviction grew stronger. By my mid-teens, I could quote statistics on the damage that kids would wreak on my career trajectory, finances, social life, and body. Although to be honest, none of that was, or is, as big a factor in my decision to remain childless as my instinctive feeling that I just didn't want children.
People told me I would change my mind. They told me that my biological clock would kick in, as inevitable as puberty and taxes, and that by my late 20s — early 30s at the latest — I would be yearning for a baby with every fiber of my being. (I have never yearned; I am now 38.) They told me that I'd meet the one marvelous man who would melt all my defenses and leave me with a single desire — to meld my genes with his and have his children. (I have the marvelous man who has never questioned my enduring childlessness, and whom I love all the more as a consequence.) They told me my friends would have babies, and then I'd feel left behind. (They did — and I relish my role as the person those friends rely on for light relief, fun, and child-free nights out. If pushed, I'll reluctantly admit to sometimes feeling it might be me who's leaving them behind.)
As I got older still, and evermore resistant, my detractors changed tack. They suggested that I must be in denial about adulthood, that I was clinging to a feckless, responsibility-lite lifestyle that would prove ultimately unhealthy. They said I was diminishing society. They asked who would look after me when I was old and infirm. (Am I the only one who finds the notion of reproducing to ensure you have a future nursemaid abhorrent?)
I'd defend myself against all these attacks. I'd point out that the maternal instinct was by no means indication of a sane mind; that all sorts of damaged women have children; that not being a parent did not make me irresponsible by definition. I have a job, and I take care of my friends and family. Also, contrary to popular belief, parenthood does not make one selfless. It tends to make people prioritize their children over themselves, yes, but it also gives them a sense of entitlement that can lead to some profoundly uncivilized behavior — as anyone who has ever been thrown off the pavement by a stampede of unapologetic Bugaboo-pushing mothers would agree.
Culturally, we've never been more fixated on babies: Over the last three years, the cliché, romantic-comedy iconography of happy endings has evolved from proposals and fancy weddings to a second blue line on a pregnancy test. The movie Bride Wars ends not with weddings, but with the swollen bellies of the protagonists; in Waitress, Baby Mama, The Back-up Plan, and this month's The Switch — which sees Jennifer Aniston's bundle of joy arrive via turkey baster — the longed-for handsome prince wears a onesie.
The celebrity scene is equally baby-crazed. At the tabloid end of things, we have Kate Gosselin and the Octomom, both of whom became national objects of fascination because of their multiple births — and nothing else. Women who have followed more traditional routes to fame (actors, singers, models) find their celebrity value ramped up once they become pregnant. They're placed on "bump-watch," their maternity wear endlessly deconstructed, their post-baby bodies graded. The Angelina Jolie/Madonna model of modern motherhood — adopt a few, have a few of your very own, with or without a man, maintain your sexual allure throughout — is now routinely invoked as the ultimate way to be a woman.
And regular women have taken up the trend. Ubiquitous mommy blogs host heated debates on the relative merits of organic baby food, four-figure strollers, and the latest inventions of "momtrepreneurs." Meanwhile, those trying, and failing, to have babies launch themselves into expensive rounds of fertility treatments, railing against being denied what they consider their absolute right, the one thing that the movies and TV shows and pop songs and celebrities are telling them is their defining opportunity for happiness.
I tell you what: When you're on the outside of all this looking in, it seems like complete madness. I accept that most women don't feel as I do. I accept that many are genuinely compelled to have kids. I'm happy for those who do, because it's what they want; and I'm sorry for those who can't, because that's horribly sad. Still, I think as cultural movements go, this one has veered wildly out of control, consuming huge chunks of airtime, to the detriment of other concerns. Also — shhh — it's kind of boring.
Much like my conversation in the bar. Of course, in such moments, I can just keep my mouth shut. Or I can stick to my guns and hope that once — just once — I might drop the "no kid for me, thanks" bombshell and have someone accept it as a rational life choice. That'd be my blue heaven right there.
Polly Vernon is the deputy editor of Observer Magazine in London, where she lives with her boyfriend.
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