In particular, I was resentful that it represented these things for women more than it did for men. It always seemed to me so terribly unfair that, no matter how liberated and modern your relationship is with your partner, there’s no way around it: the woman has to be the primary caregiver, at least for a certain amount of time. I think I would have felt differently if I was a man.
I happened to fall in love with a man who also felt quite strongly that he didn’t want children. When we met, that was quite an early discussion that we had. But as I reached my mid-to-late thirties, I had this fear that suddenly something would click and there would be this desperate need, this desperate want. I had a period of thinking maybe I was making a mistake - I don’t want to do something now, or not do something, and regret it in twenty years. But my husband, quite reasonably and very helpfully, said: look, you cannot insure yourself against that. It’s more than possible that, at the age of 60, you’ll think, that was a mistake; but you also might not. There’s literally nothing you can do about that.
What did happen for me is that I wasn’t particularly interested in my job either. I felt very much like, if I’m not going to have a kid and I don’t really have a career, then what’s the point - what are you for? I had a kind of early midlife crisis - which is why I came to Berlin. My six months here completely resolved that situation. As soon as I left work, did some writing and other things I wanted to do, got to know the city and spent a lot of time completely alone, I stopped thinking about having a child altogether. It was like it had never even been a thing.
I’ve always questioned where my ambivalence towards having children comes from. I spent my first years in a small town near St. Petersburg, where almost everyone had just one child, if they had a child at all. My parents were academics, who moved in circles of dissidents, before they were allowed to leave for America in one of the waves of Jewish emigration out of Soviet Russia. A lot of their friends didn’t have children - my aunt, for example, never had a child - and to me it was a much more normal thing.
There was the falling birth rate from the depression era, and also the Soviet, and continued Russian, relationship to women - which has always been incredibly chauvinistic. The notion of sexual equality in the communist era is valid, but it came with a lot of other baggage. Having children was almost an addendum onto other stuff women had to do, and there was very little discussion or thought given to the role of a mother. A useful citizen was a worker, who made contribution towards society. The fact that you also happen to propagate the population was almost a side matter.
My parents are complex people, and we don’t talk about these things. The only thing I can remember them ever saying is that they didn’t want grandkids, or have anything to do with small children. My mother always hated kids until she had her own. When I got older, her friends would tell me that, because there was no contraception, people would get abortions all the time. Her best mate told me about it in quite graphic detail, that it was normal for people to have 2, 3, 4 abortions. That was your method of birth control; even then, there was this declining birth rate.
Among Western women slightly older than me there was a kind of fetishisation of childrearing. I know pretty much no one who doesn’t have kids, but all these women now have had their kids, and we’re coming out of that. Certainly in the UK, where I was educated, and especially in London, where I now live, younger people feel like they just can’t have children. Where are they going to put them? And how are they going to afford them?
My friends who did have kids, their daily lives seem really, really hard. You’re working only to pay for childcare - what role then does work have in your life? What are you going to do when your kids don’t need looking after any more? How can you go back into the workplace - society isn’t set up for that. These become questions about wider society, and about how unfair everything is. For white, middle-class people living in a wealthy society, that kind of thinking will become much more prevalent, and therefore normalised.
It’s been quite a long time since anyone asked me about this.
When you get to my age, 41, the assumption is that you’ve already had kids, or that you can’t.
I used to hate it when people would ask if I planned to have kids. I’d start trying to justify myself, get quite defensive, reveal some personal stuff - and afterwards, I’d feel a little bit dirty.
So you manage yourself, because you know that either someone will argue with you, or you’ll make them uncomfortable. You stop talking about it. You just don’t have those conversations at all. It’s a kind of self-censorship.
Some of my writing has focused on the question of what it means for a woman's life when she makes a decision not to have children. Absolutely central to the idea of what it means to be a woman are: your image of your physical self, and how you are perceived and perceive yourself if you aren’t a mother. It’s a sensitive topic, especially when women reach a certain age, and it can be uncomfortable, but, for me, it’s a matter of curiosity.