Why I Might Not Want Kids, And Why That’s Okay

Choice
Photo taken from Google.com/

One of the biggest decisions that a person can make is whether or not they will have children. When I was teenager I thought it was a given that I would, providing it was possible, have at least one child of my own. However, having spent a fair few years thinking about it I’m not so sure that parenthood is something I personally want.

The responses I tend to receive when I tell people this are, ‘But you’d be a great mother,’ or ‘Don’t you like children?’ both of which miss the point. As it happens I do like children – I absolutely adore my five-year-old nephew, and I love spending time with my friends’ kids. I also have no doubts about my ability to raise a child with all the love and care that it deserves. But does enjoying other people’s children and having faith in my ability to successfully raise my own mean that parenthood is something I should pursue?

The simple (and perhaps controversial) truth is that, fun and endearing as children are I have serious doubts as to whether I will thrive in motherhood or find in it the same level of contentment that I currently enjoy as a childless woman. You might assume when you read this that I just haven’t found the right partner yet, or that it just isn’t the right time for me to think about starting a family. And this is understandable; within our culture wanting to have children is not only an incredibly common experience, but one that is expected, and especially of woman. But for some, men and women alike, the idea of raising a child simply isn’t as appealing as it is for others.

Does enjoying other people’s children and having faith in my ability to successfully raise my own mean that parenthood is something I should pursue?

It’s often argued that starting a family is one of the most enriching and satisfying experiences that a person can have (if this is your personal experience then I fully respect that you have made the right decision for you.) But for someone like me who burns out easily, enjoys spending a lot of time alone, and often finds the expectations, needs and demands of others rather stress-inducing, parenthood (especially the pregnancy and early years bit) doesn’t seem all that attractive. Does this mean that I’m not maternal, or that I don’t appreciate children? No, it doesn’t. I’m very much in touch with my maternal side (there are many ways of expressing maternal love and affection) and I also understand from being an aunt just how joyful and life-affirming spending time with children can be. However, the difference between being someone’s parent and being their aunt is enormous. As much as I adore and am always happy to see the children in my life, I also highly value the freedom that I have to choose both when and how my time with them is spent.

Of course, as well as feeling uncertain about how satisfying parenthood will be, there are a number of other reasons why a person may choose to remain childless, ranging from lifestyle preferences and financial restrictions to anxieties about mental and physical health. Whatever the reason behind the decision, it simply isn’t fair to negatively judge according to our own needs and wants. We are each of us unique, and the experiences that bring us contentment in life may vary greatly from person to person. When it comes to creating little human beings isn’t it better for everyone, including our yet-to-be-born/perhaps-never-will-be-born children that we acknowledge rather than ignore our differences?

For many people having children is an enormously rewarding experience, and I hold a huge amount of respect and admiration for every one of my friends and family members who have chosen to pursue parenthood. But common and accepted as wanting to have children is within our culture, it is each person’s right to decide for them selves (without expectation or pressure from others) whether starting a family is right for them. For some people it simply isn’t; let’s please stop judging one another for feeling differently.

 

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Pleasure, Pain & Patriarchal Power: Could there be an elephant in the (bed)room?

Firting to Hurting
Photo credit: hiveminer.com

One of the books that I’m reading at the moment is a collection of essays titled Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in contemporary feminist issues. Featuring 17 short essays written by academics from across the globe, it’s the kind of book that you can dip in and out of and feel that you’ve learned something important from each time that you do. Over the weekend I delved into Laura Tarzia’s chapter on sexuality, which I’d been looking forward to since my last engagement with the book a couple of weeks ago. Focused on the complex relationship between sexual violence against women and female sexual desire, Tarzia’s chapter raises far more questions than it can possibly answer in a mere nine pages. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

When discussing the relationship between female sexual pleasure and violence in the past I’ve found myself feeling worried that challenging the healthiness of desires that exist outside of my personal experience will lead me to come across as prudish, ignorant, and judgemental of others; or worse, non-feminist. After reading more about it, though, I’ve realised that my concerns aren’t as naive or misplaced as I feared. As Tarzia states, there is a disparity between liberal feminism’s ongoing fight to eradicate sexual violence against women, and its acceptance of degrading sexual practices and experiences as long as they are ‘chosen’ and not unwillingly imposed. This is, of course, an incredibly complex subject to broach, but I strongly believe that it deserves our attention.

The idea that degrading sexual or sex-related experiences can be consented to by women within a patriarchal society is, without doubt, highly paradoxical, and can be further explored when considered in relation to the porn and glamour industries. During a discussion about the proposed discontinuation of Page 3 in The Sun newspaper a few years ago, my partner at the time argued that because the models had chosen to work within the glamour industry their portrayal in the feature wasn’t sexist or degrading. Scrapping Page 3 altogether, he suggested, would pose worrying censorship issues for our publishing industry.

It’s hard to ignore the possibility that our sexual fantasies, behaviours and choices may have been subject to patriarchal influence.

This is an argument that we also often hear in regard to women working within the porn industry and those performing any other work that involves ‘chosen’ objectification or degradation (recent debates surrounding Forumla One’s ‘grid girl’ ban, for example, demonstrate the extent to which the notion of consent in regard to women’s bodies remains a highly contentious issue.) What my partner at the time failed to perceive is the blurry distinction that exists between freedom of expression within the media and the normalised exploitation of women’s bodies (which some of us do willingly participate in). The average annual wage that Page 3 models were able to earn, for example, was not only extremely unstable (ranging from £12000 for beginners to £1M for the very successful), but incredibly modest in comparison to the huge annual profits that their naked bodies helped to rake in for The Sun.

I have personally always been more interested in the reasons behind the choices that women make about their bodies than the fact that they have been granted the autonomy to ‘choose’ in the first place. When we consider the immense power that traditional gender ideals have historically had over women’s lives in both the public and private spheres, it’s hard to ignore the possibility, as Tarzia highlights, that our sexual fantasies, behaviours and choices may have been subject to patriarchal influence. Whether or not a potentially degrading sexual or sex-related experience has been chosen by a woman, in a society founded on masculine ideology the choices that we as women make about our bodies may not always be as freely stumbled upon or empowering as we believe them to be.

In terms of consensual violence against women, BDSM and other such sexual sub-cultures are vital to consider. Existing across gender distinctions and binaries, these sexual practices facilitate the sexual subordination and dominance of both women and men alike. So as well as there being women who desire sexual violence to be inflicted upon them, there are also those who prefer to inflict pain upon their partners. There are also, of course, men within the BDSM and fetish community who desire to be sexually dominated by women, either because they seek to express characteristics that are discouraged in their professional and domestic lives, or because they enjoy seeing women who are routinely disempowered in society take on a different ‘role,’ so to speak. What is evident in all of this is that our sexual preferences and transgressions can be reflective of the power dynamics at play within both our public and private lives.

In a society founded on masculine ideology, the choices that we as women make about our bodies may not always be as freely stumbled upon or empowering as we believe them to be.

Considering also the performative aspect of traditional gender distinctions (within which men play the dominant role), and how this relates to perceptions of power in society, our sexual fantasies and behaviours can be seen to represent far more than simply a gateway to pleasure. In a society which both reveres and rewards men who display (or perform) behaviours that are considered ‘masculine,’ such as sexual prowess, aggression and dominance, it’s possible to see how women (traditionally perceived as less powerful) may be conditioned to both encourage and feel attracted to male violence.

Across the globe women’s bodies are publicly exploited and degraded on a regular basis. And whether it be through magazines, TV shows, films or pornography, we are all of us exposed every day to images that mirror a fundamentally masculine notion of sexuality. Bearing this in mind, an important question to ask is whether exposure to images and behaviours that openly degrade and objectify women has led us to embody and accept as our own sexual fantasies and beliefs that are rooted in misogyny.

I do not pretend to have any clear or definite answers to the questions raised in this article, nor have I intended to cast judgement or shame upon those who identify with the sexual desires and practices alluded to. One thing I am certain of, though, is that difficult and paradoxical as the notion of consent is when it comes to sexual violence and degradation, it is an issue that deserves our attention.

‘The Lady’s Not for Turning’: Political U-turns and why they matter

margaret-thatcher
Margaret Thatcher, 1987

On 10 October 1980, Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech that would change the way we think about political decision-making for the foreseeable future. Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, she uttered the words: ‘You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning’ – a phrase that would transform her refusal to reverse a terrible and hugely unpopular decision into an example of political power and virility. Thanks to Thatcher U-turns were now considered representative of inexcusable political weakness. And my how we’ve grown to love the stupidity and incompetence that they represent. As Nesrine Malik wrote in a recent piece for The Guardian, ‘There is nothing opposition politicians and journalists like more than a good old flip-flop.’

Whilst Thatcher is long gone from Downing Street, the impact of her political stubbornness has been immense. One has only to type ‘Political U-turn’ into Google to gain insight into just how much power her words held at the time, and how much the media continues to ridicule those who are guilty (as if it were a crime) of backtracking out of their political decisions.

Of course, in some cases political U-turns are wholly unfair and deserve all the ridicule they get. May’s recent backtracking out of her energy price cap proposal, for example, has left millions of over-worked and underpaid Brits with increasingly unaffordable energy bills to pay. But even in cases where U-turns are made in favour of reasonable objections and for the greater good of the people, we are still prone to condemning them as nothing more than lack of conviction. Unfair and misguided as some government U-turns certainly are, it seems there may be more than meets the eye to the disdain that many of us feel towards them. And I think this can be explained via meritocracy.

Politicians sometimes make mistakes. And, like everyone, they sometimes change their minds.

In a society which overvalues success and fears failure like the plague, it’s no wonder we’re so hard on those who demonstrate any kind of uncertainty about their actions or ideas. After all, the notion that we must never fail at anything, including any decisions that we make, is something that most of us internalise from an early age. It’s something that we’re first made aware of at school, where we’re expected to work hard for good grades if we are to achieve anything of value in life. And then at college and university, where we’re encouraged to compete with our peers for academic merit. It is then drilled in again when we reach the workplace, where we’re expected to keep moving up through the ranks and making more and more money as we go.

What we often neglect to realise in the pursuit of success is that, more often than not, failure is a necessary part of the journey. Other than the incredibly wealthy and privileged of our society, there are very few who find success without making some mistakes along the way. So, if we consider that political decision makers are some of the most successful people in the country, and that like everybody else they are expected to succeed without any failure, the idea that their U-turns are always rooted in incompetence seems pretty harsh. Politicians sometimes make mistakes. And, like everyone, they sometimes change their minds.

And this isn’t to say that I’m not well aware of the fact that some government U-turns are merely tactical rather than based on genuine mistakes. But I must say, I’d rather live in a society where political decisions are sometimes reversed than one in which policies are always stubbornly implemented and held in place regardless of the objections that they are subject to. In a democratic society, the ability of our politicians to admit their failings, change their minds, and decide to go down a different path is something that I would personally like to see more rather than less of.

For the Love of… Learning?

night-night-sky-nightsky
Photo credit: Foter.com

During my graduation ceremony, the head of my university’s English department boldly stated in his speech that graduates live happier, healthier and more comfortable lives than those who choose not to complete higher education courses. At the time I thought, ‘What a load of tripe!’ Several years down the line I still believe this to be the case.

The notion that university attendance leads to higher levels of personal well-being is, I believe, a gross misconception founded on the outdated belief that academic study leads to higher salaries and, therefore, better quality of life. In a country where over half of the school-leaver population now goes on to enrol at university, holding a Bachelor’s degree in the UK today isn’t likely to improve either employment or salary prospects for most graduating students.

For those who hold unflinching career goals and are naturally gifted in academic study university is, of course, always going to be a beneficial endeavour. As well as being able to easily produce work that receives good grades, high academic achievers are also often blessed with the guarantee of professional well-paid work on completion of their courses, regardless of the subjects they choose to study. But for those who are uncertain about their careers, and who may also struggle to produce consistently good coursework, attending university simply doesn’t have the same benefits. Bearing this in mind, the question that I’d like to focus on is whether there is still value in attending university outside of the ‘happier, healthier, more comfortable’ myth. Personally, I believe that there is.

The knowledge and skills that I gained through studying fiction and poetry will always be worth far more to me than any job title or salary.

When I was choosing which course to study, I wasn’t sure about what kind of job I wanted it to lead to. With no specific career goal in mind, I ended up basing my decision on how enjoyable and interesting I thought any given subject would be. After all, what would be the point in studying for a career-specific degree if I might only lose interest in it later on?

Having always enjoyed and felt that I was good at writing, I decided that literature was the most appropriate subject for me. And I’m pleased to say that four years after graduating I have no regrets about this choice. Whilst my degree course has not made my life more happy, healthy or comfortable (life is still just as complicated and I’m still struggling on just a little over minimum wage!), the knowledge and skills that I gained through the study of fiction and poetry will always be worth far more to me than any job title or salary.

Of course, some may feel that attending university without having a specific career in mind is a little extravagant considering how expensive it is. However, I strongly disagree with the perceived benefit of education being so closely tied to the salaries and professional statuses that courses can lead to. University is incredibly expensive – that’s an unfortunate fact. But if there is a desire to learn and a feeling that personal development if nothing else may benefit from it, then doesn’t that alone make education a worthwhile investment?

I will likely spend the rest of my life repaying my £20,000+ student loan. But regardless of this ever-growing debt, I’d still rather be educated in a subject that I’m passionate about than spend the rest of my life feeling as though I’ve missed out on a wonderful opportunity. Higher education isn’t something that will benefit everyone in the same way, but regardless of the jobs and wages that university can and does sometimes lead to, the benefits of learning simply for the love of it should never be underestimated.

Stamp Duty

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Second class stamps found in the street

During a recent walk home from work I found myself feeling incredibly excited when I stumbled upon four unused second class stamps, the bright blue packet of which stood out against the dirty grey of the pavement like a lotus flower sitting in the mud. Strangely, it was the same level of excitement that I’ve felt on occasions when I’ve found significant amounts of money in the street. Stamps are by no means expensive, of course. But what they represent and what they are able to facilitate is, in my opinion, worth far more than the small amount of money they cost to buy.

When I was eleven years old my family relocated from noisy, polluted, over-crowded London to the very rural village of Hartland in North Devon. In addition to the isolation I experienced due to the profound lack of public transport to and from the village, the most difficult part of moving to the country was the distance it put between my friends and me. In addition to regular phone calls and visits, something that proved incredibly helpful was writing letters to my friends and receiving their replies in the post. This is something that I continued to not only enjoy but find hugely therapeutic throughout my early adolescence, up until the mid naughties when letter writing was sadly replaced with email and social media.

Some may argue that sending emails back and forth does the same job as letter writing in that it connects you to those you love and miss. And for the last ten years or so my main method of corresponding with friends and family has indeed been via the internet. But whilst email and social media has made keeping in touch incredibly quick and easy regardless of distance, writing and receiving handwritten letters facilitates a level of connection that electronic messaging just can’t compete with.

It was the letters that smelled of Indian spices rather than the typed emails I received that made the distance between us feel less significant.

When you receive a handwritten letter you are given an opportunity to learn a little something about the person who sent it. Are their words cramped together or widely spaced? Are the letters long and sweeping or short and compact? Have they scribbled out any spelling mistakes, or strained over perfectly composed sentences? And what about the stationary? Has your pen pal put effort into their chosen paper and ink, or have they made use of whatever they can find? Have they sprayed the letter with their perfume, or enclosed a little gift to make you smile? All of these details work together in a letter to give a real sense of the person who wrote it. When two of my closest friends left the home that we’d been sharing in Bristol to travel India for three months, it was the letters that smelled of Indian spices rather than the typed emails I received that made the distance between us feel less significant.

And there’s something so incredibly enriching about sitting down to physically scribble thoughts on paper; about kissing the sealed and stamped envelope for good luck before it’s dropped into the postbox, and then eagerly checking the mail every day in the hope that a reply has been delivered. It’s the time and effort that it takes, and the feeling of anticipation. It’s the not knowing if your words will make it to their destination, or if the person you’re writing to will take the time to send a reply. Most importantly, though, it’s the sheer joy that arrives along with a letter, and the feeling of closeness that you feel to the person who wrote it when you read their untidy, or neat, or illegible handwriting. Each person’s handwriting is wholly unique to them, and when you open a letter you touch the very same paper that the writer has touched. No matter how eagerly anticipated, or beautifully composed, emails can never achieve this level of intimacy.

The last time I sat down to write a letter was in 2015 when I was crowdfunding for my post-graduate tuition fees and sent letters of thanks to those who’d donated. Not since my own trip to India in 2010 have I written a letter to a friend just for the sake of it. What better excuse is there than finding a packet of stamps in the street?

The Significance of Misery

deflated-balloon
Photo taken from forexlive.com

Today is New Year’s Day, which also happens to be the day after my birthday. And this year, for the first time in my adult life, I’m not hungover. In fact, this is the first time in my life that I have not spent either Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve with family and friends. Whilst I could list various reasons as to why I chose not to be around other people, the simple truth is that I’ve not been feeling very cheery recently. Rather than put myself in a situation where I would, in all likelihood, end up badly sleep-deprived with a hideous hangover to contend with, I decided instead to opt out of the festivities and spend some time alone thinking about how I feel.

I’m aware that some people will be reading this and thinking, ‘That’s a bit miserable,’ and I totally understand where this comes from. In a culture which over-values sociability,  the idea of spending time alone when we’re supposed to have fun with other people is almost unthinkable. However, what I will say in my defence, and in the defence of the thousands of people out there who also find the whole Christmas and New Year period a difficult rather than enjoyable time, is that sometimes allowing ourselves to feel miserable is exactly what is needed.

To those who have never struggled to manage their so called negative emotions, this may sound ridiculous. After all, the story we’re so often told is that smiling, thinking positively and spending time with good friends is the best way to banish feelings of sadness. But for some, including myself, this approach doesn’t always work. For those of us who do sometimes struggle with feelings of depression and anxiety, it’s vitally important that we acknowledge rather than hide the fact that we’re not feeling good and do whatever is needed to get ourselves through it. In my case, this sometimes involves spending lots of time alone and definitely not being around anyone I don’t know very well, as would have been the case had I involved myself in this year’s Christmas and New Year gatherings. However, in a culture obsessed with the pursuit of happiness, it can be extremely difficult to allow ourselves and others the space and the time to retreat when we need to.

The story we’re so often told is that smiling, thinking positively and spending time with good friends is the best way to banish feelings of sadness. But for some, including myself, this approach doesn’t always work.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that we should all be more miserable or that we should stop looking out for one another – I for one will always be enormously grateful for the effort that my friends and family make to include me in their plans, even when I’m being a grumpy so and so. However, feeling sad and needing to be alone is, at least for some of us, a natural and important part of both working through and overcoming negativity. Telling people that they should push their feelings aside because it’s Christmas or their birthday, or New Year’s Eve, and because these are times when we’re supposed to feel good, invalidates a fundamental and unavoidable aspect of the human condition. We simply cannot feel happy all the time, and sometimes we feel sad and solitary when we’re supposed to feel jolly and enjoy the company of others.

Whilst we may run the risk of disappointing those we care about if we choose to be alone, it is sometimes best, not only for ourselves but for everyone else, that we do just that. Some might argue that Christmas is just a few days of the year and that it’s selfish to not put our feelings to one side for the sake of those we love and care about. But does the fact that Christmas is a time of year when we’re supposed to think of others and feel happy mean that we should stop looking after ourselves? I would argue that it doesn’t.

Without proper management misery has the power to destroy us. And this is exactly why we tell each other to think positively and smile when we’re feeling down, thinking that if we pretend to be okay then we will avoid being completely consumed by our pain. But as dangerous and destructive as wallowing in negativity can be, taking a good look at ourselves and trying to make sense of what we’re feeling, even if we don’t like what we see, can sometimes help us to get back on track. So, as well as continuing to accept the support of our friends and family when we need it, it’s also important that we learn to allow ourselves and others the space to be alone and to feel miserable without guilt if that’s what is needed. This is exactly what I have done over the last couple of weeks. And I must say, I’m feeling all the better for it.

 

‘Cigarettes & Alcohol’

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Photo credit: Foter.com

They say ‘Once a smoker, always a smoker,’ and as someone who’s given up and started again more than a few times, I’ve come to accept that this holds a lot of truth for me personally. Like most of my smoker friends I’ve been lighting up since my early teens, and the ritual of rolling and smoking cigarettes has become a long-term habit that I thoroughly enjoy at the same time as wholeheartedly wishing that I didn’t.

Part of the reason I started smoking at the age of 13 was that all of the adults I knew were smokers and so it seemed like a pretty normal thing to do. There was, of course, also a rebellious element as I was totally aware of the health risks that cigarettes pose. Unfortunately I didn’t care too much about this at the time, and persevered through the initial sickness and coughing fits even though I knew that I was damaging myself. Shamefully, though, the biggest draw to cigarettes for me when I was a teenager was the misplaced notion that smoking was something you did if you were cool, which I really wasn’t back then. I was the clumsy fat kid with frizzy black hair and ill-fitting school clothes. And, as all misfits will relate to, I was made well aware of my perceived ‘otherness’ by my peers.

Disliking school for this and many other reasons, I started bunking off on a regular basis. My favourite thing to do in light of there being very little else, was to pester strangers in the street to buy me cigarettes, and then hang around smoking in the park down the road until I was eventually found and dragged back to class. Whilst the desire to bunk off thankfully subsided as soon as I graduated, the pleasure that I found in smoking has unfortunately remained very much in tact.

The biggest draw to cigarettes when I was a teenager was the misplaced notion that smoking was something you did if you were cool, which I really wasn’t back then.

In addition to nicotine, the other substance that I regularly consume and enjoy is alcohol. And like all great pairings, I can’t seem to separate one from the other: the pleasure I find in smoking is significantly amplified when I have a drink in my hand, and alcohol isn’t quite as satisfying on it’s own. The way that I’ve dealt with this in the past when I’ve managed to quit cigarettes for extended periods of time is simply to avoid alcohol altogether. Sounds like a perfect solution, right?

Wrong.

On the surface abstinence seems like a great idea. Not only does avoiding both drinking and smoking have immense benefits in terms of physical health, it also saves a lot of cash; I could probably buy a house with all the money that I’ve spent in pubs over the years! But dig a little deeper, and it poses some problems. I’m by no means reliant on alcohol and (unless I’m under lots of stress) I very rarely drink enough these days to become completely intoxicated. But sharing a decent bottle of wine or having a few beers with friends is something that I look forward to and that I find incredibly relaxing. Whilst I no longer feel the need to binge on alcohol in the way that I used to when I was younger, denying myself the pleasure of drinking at all ignores a large part of who I am. In my experience, and I’ve tried several times, complete abstinence only leads to feelings of isolation, loneliness and sadness. I’d much rather dabble a little and have a good time with the people I love than find myself alone and miserable.

I’m never going to be someone who enjoys sitting in the pub with an orange juice and a packet of crisps as everyone around me drinks and smokes. But rather than beating myself up about my inability to reject everything that’s bad for me, I’ve decided to accept it and relax a little. There’s no denying that smoking is incredibly bad for my health, or that drinking alcohol leads me to smoke more than I’d like to. But the more I tell myself that I’m stupid for doing it and deny myself pleasure for the sake of trying to quit when I’m clearly not ready, the less likely I am to find the determination to stop.

I’m hopeful that there will come a time when smoking feels less desirable to me. Until then, though, the best thing that I can do is savour every single cigarette that I smoke, and wait patiently for the right kind of willpower to emerge.