I invited Emma Hollen onto the pod because of a super-entertaining Twitter thread about her struggle to get sterilised, and her eventual success, at age 30. But I learned that this was only a small part of her story. Emma’s mother suffered from depression and an oxytocin deficiency, both of which she passed onto her child, and meant the two never really bonded. As a child who was never loved properly, Emma feels like she’s not equipped to be a good mother herself, and, along with the side effects of the contraceptive pill, this was a major reason for her seeking out a tubal ligation. As a pansexual, non-binary person, Emma doesn’t feel that she fits the narrow definition of “woman” that society would force her into. And, as a science journalist, she taught me a lot about the diversity of the natural world, our place in the universe, and our chemical urge to procreate – which is distinct and different from some people’s desire to have and raise a child. I learned so much from our conversation, and I’m sure you will too.
Read the Twitter thread that tells the story of Emma’s sterilisation… with GIFs!
Listen to the podcast episode Emma referred to, No doubts, with journalist Sarah Chebaro.
Emma: I think, I didn’t realize how important it was until I woke up from the surgery and I felt, and I hope this won’t offend anyone, but I felt like I had had a sex change. It was as tremendous as that, suddenly my body felt whole again, I was sterile and suddenly this matched who I felt I was – it matched to my identity. And that’s what propelled me to share this as well. I think it’s because I felt that this was much more than just getting sterilised. It was, it was a tremendous life change. And I wanted to talk about that.
Zoë: Hey lovelies! Welcome to We are Childfree, a podcast that uplifts childfree voices, shares our stories and celebrates our livesI invited science journalist Emma Hollen onto the pod because of a Twitter thread about her struggle to get a tubal ligation, and her eventual success, at age 30. I’ll link to it in the show notes, and you should totally check it out, especially for the impeccable GIF curation. When we spoke, I learned that this is only a small part of Emma’s story. Her mother suffered from depression and an oxytocin deficiency, both of which she passed onto her child, and meant the two never really bonded. As a child who was never loved properly, Emma feels like she’s not equipped to be a good mother herself, and, along with the side effects of the contraceptive pill, this was a major reason for her seeking out a tubal ligation. As a pansexual, non-binary person, Emma doesn’t feel that she fits the narrow definition of “woman” that society would force her into. And, as a science journalist, she taught me a lot about the diversity of the natural world, our place in the universe, and our chemical urge to procreate – which is distinct and different from some people’s desire to have and raise a child. I learned so much from our conversation, and I’m sure you will too.
Emma: I was seven and I don’t know what pushed me to do it, but I was with my grandmother who’s always been very supportive and very loving with me. I guess, grandmothers always are you know, they’ve had time to practice with your mother… And I told her, “You know what? I don’t want to have children”. And I knew I was making a bold statement and that it wouldn’t go easy, but I was not expecting her reaction, which was basically a slap on the fingers and, “Never ever say that again, you will have children. This is a terrible thing to say.”
Emma: And that was the start of it. And I thought, I’m in for a ride.
Zoë: Yeah. I mean, what a thing to kind of, to a child, especially it’s like, to have that kind of reaction it’s extreme, right? It’s really extreme. I mean, did you feel that pressure growing up as well?
Emma: The thing is, after that, I barely opened my mouth about it for a long time, because I already felt like this was taboo and I didn’t talk about it among my family, because I’ve had quite a tough childhood. My mother had severe depression. My father was a bit absent, kind of workaholic dad, whom you don’t see much of. And I already knew, I think that part of my will not to have children came from my childhood, came from the way I was raised, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it because I was seven. But I didn’t bring it up so much because I knew that it would bring out other things that we couldn’t discuss in the family. So, it really came back out when I was in high school and you start discussing it with your friends and so on and I would, you know, try and be more vocal about it, but still it wouldn’t be understood.
Zoë: Tell me a little bit about maybe where you’re from and what your childhood was like.
Emma: So I’m from France and I was born in a very typical family – two kids, a girl, a boy, a dog, and a cat, I even had a fish when I was a kid. So we had like the whole shebang. And my mother had depression. I believe she had a postpartum that never really healed and tended to mix us up. I know she told me once that she was prepared to have a boy, but not a girl, because she knew she would mix the girl up with herself, which was very confusing to her. But in the end, what happened is that I grew up with this mother who was emotionally unavailable. I’m not gonna say abusive, but it was a difficult relationship and I could feel, or I was made to feel that I was somehow responsible for at least a part of her depression which was tough. And I think, unconsciously or not, that’s the first thing that prompted me to think, I don’t want to have kids because I don’t want make them go through that for sure.
Zoë: I mean, that makes complete sense. And this is something I hear a lot. Parents, they are humans and some people are not equipped to have children. And when they are kind of thrown into that world, this kind of cycle of trauma can keep going on. And especially if that person doesn’t get help and it’s really difficult. It’s really, really difficult. So I completely understand.
Emma: There’s there are a lot of factors that, yeah came in and my mother being depressed is the first factor that should have been taken into account. I think that you can’t just push a woman into motherhood telling her, “You’ll feel better this way. This is the cure to your depression”. And there’s another thing which I suspect I have too, which is she has an oxytocin deficiency. So, at my birth, she wouldn’t touch me. She said she didn’t feel maternal instinct and she wouldn’t touch me, and she didn’t breastfeed me. But when my brother was born, she got an oxytocin injection and somehow things went better. And as you probably know, oxytocin is the maternal instinct hormone. And I presume that I don’t have it either. And that’s the other major reason I don’t want to have kids. I don’t feel this surge of love when I see kids, I don’t feel like it’s part of my hormonal makeup.
Zoë: Right. And did you see and feel the difference with how your mother was with your brother, and how she was with you? Was there a difference there? Did you feel any difference?
Emma: It’s so complex because, again, she had a hard time considering us as two separate entities. She would see so much of herself in me, especially because I was growing depressed as I grew up. And so, she couldn’t just make a difference, a separation between us too. Whereas my brother was a bit easier because he was a boy and because he was the second kid, and he didn’t go through that very traumatic first part with her. It was easier from the start. And so, I think it was with generally easier for her to raise him than it was with me.
Zoë: Yeah. Was she ever seeking help? I mean, for her mental health issues?
Emma: No. That’s the only thing that I can say. I’m still a bit sad about, let’s say I talked about it with her later. We had a lot of talks when I was older and I could put my feelings together and put them into coherent phrases. But I asked her like, “Why didn’t you seek help?” And she said, “Oh, because psychiatrists don’t work with me”.
Emma: And I found that a bit of a weak defence. And I said, “What about medication?” “That doesn’t work with me either”. And yet later on, I learned that it was her depression might have been worsened by the pill and she knew it, but she didn’t stop taking it.
Zoë: Okay. Yeah. There’s, there’s a lot to unpack that.
Emma: It’s very complex.
Zoë: Yeah. Anyone who is going through any kind of mental health issues, it’s hard to know what she actually did. Did she try and, and it was unsuccessful and I mean, women are often ignored, dismissed you know, there’s so many things that go on with, especially women who seek help from the medical world. I mean, we know the pill can have horrendous side effects for so many of us. So yeah, this is, she’s not alone in that. This is something that many of us deal with. Doctors need to do more about trying to help us with finding better options for contraceptives. And this is where this kind of discussion came about, about getting sterilised. And, and I saw you wrote an incredible Twitter thread about your experience wanting a sterilisation procedure and the pushback from doctors. So, we’re going to get into that. And this is something that I think we need to have easier access for women to get procedures like this because the other alternatives, they’re not perfect. They can be actually traumatic for so many of us. So maybe you can talk a little bit about when were you thinking about maybe getting a sterilisation procedure?
Emma: I think I started thinking about it, not as much for myself, I say, did it for other people, as a statement, you know. I was being told, “Oh, you know, you’ll change your mind. Oh, you’re not mature enough, but you’ll see, your biological clock is gonna, is gonna start ticking and you’re gonna feel it”. And I was just so tired of people telling me, I just didn’t know what I wanted that I decided, oh, you know what, I’m just going to go and go along with the surgery. And then people won’t be able to tell me, “You’ll see”, I’ll be like, “Nope, I can’t”.
Zoë: Yeah, yeah.
Emma: And obviously I decided to give myself time because you can’t do this on a whim. You know, you just want to be sure that you’re not going to make yourself regret it later. So, when I was, I believe I was 26, I tried and have the surgery. The first time they found out that I had a carcinoma, so they had to have it removed and it was put on hold for a while. I was with a boyfriend who had a vasectomy, so I didn’t have to think about it. And when I came back in France, because I was in Poland back there, when I was 29, I thought, okay, now is the time to do it. The coronavirus came. But it gave me time and I thought, “Okay – now’s the time. I just want to be done with my painful period. I just want to be done with contraception that doesn’t fit me. I absolutely don’t want to be on the pill because as a depressed person, it does horrible things to me. I just wanted to throw myself out the window and I don’t want to do that”. I just wanted a solution that was simple and that I wouldn’t have to think about anymore.
Emma: And so, I started looking for doctors’ names, like doctors who would perform the surgeries. And it’s so much harder than I thought, because legally in France, you can get sterilised as a woman, but the number of people who’d be willing to do it for you is very limited. So I started scouring the web and thankfully I found a list that was compiled by a man, his name is in the thread that I wrote, and he compiled a list of doctors who would perform the surgery. And that’s where I found about Dr Panel who’s very vocal about his defence of women and their right to get sterilised. And the operation went smoothly, and the whole procedure was really fast. They have to force you to take a four month reflection period, just to think it over. But obviously I was very sure of myself. So, I came back after four months and I asked, “When are we getting started?” And it went well. And what I appreciated with him is that there was a whole interview before that, but it was all about, “Do you know about this mode of contraception? And what about this one? And why don’t you like this one?” And I could feel that they were asking me these questions, not to force me to stay on the, you know, temporary motive, contraception, but just to make sure that I was informed, and I didn’t want to get sterilised out of a lack of information, but when it came to personal questions that were none.
Emma: No “what does your boyfriend think about that? What do your parents think about that?” And I said to the doctor, “Is that it? Is that all?” And he said, “Yeah. That’s your decision. I believe that as a grown woman, you’ve already thought about this, and I’m not going to question that”. And I appreciate it. It’s so much, it felt freeing for ones to have a man, I mean a man or a woman in front of me, not saying, “Are you sure? Because I’m pretty sure you’re going to change your mind”.
Zoë: That question. I think we all, pretty much almost every childfree person I think gets that question. And it’s the most frustrating thing, because it’s just saying to us that we don’t know our own minds. What would you be feeling when someone said that? Would you ever say anything back to someone who said that to you as well?
Emma: I would get very frustrated, at first, I wouldn’t say anything cause I was too shy. And then I started getting vocal and said, “No, I’m sure, actually”. And I would defend my point of view and people would say, Oh, but you’re too pretty and too clever so that would be a shame not to have kids and -” which, which is ridiculous and in the end they just gave up. But what’s interesting about that and I’m not saying this is a good way of doing it, but what’s interesting about it it’s that it forced me to consider all the reasons that I had not to have children – and there are gaggles of them. So I don’t feel a maternal instinct. I am depressed. I am impulsive. I had a very complicated childhood that didn’t provide me with the right model to care for a child. I think that the world is overpopulated. I am not very optimistic as to the way the world is gonna go. And I think it’s hard enough to be a good person in a world that gets you so much slack. You can be allowed to be mean in so many ways that it’s hard to be a good person, much harder to be a good parent. So, in the end, although these questions were very unwelcome, they just gave me more arguments to defend my position.
Emma: But don’t ask women about that!
Zoë: Please don’t, no. Yeah. How were your close-knit friends or, people near, were they supportive of, you know, your decision and, or did you face pushback from anyone who was close to you?
Emma: Thankfully. I had a lot of, most of my friends are really healthy and they were either, either they lacked understanding as to what I thought, or they would just feel sorry for me. Maybe it’s just like, “Oh, it’s sad that you don’t feel like you, you have what it takes to be a mother. You know, it’s sad that you don’t feel secure enough in your own mind to, to be able to love someone”. But it was, it was all well-meaning, you know, I understand these people’s questions and I understand that it even though it shouldn’t, it threatens them because we want to think that having a child should be this very obvious natural thing, which it shouldn’t, because we’re talking about bringing a human being into this world, which is a tremendous responsibility as a child who has not been loved properly. I know that this is not something that you do on a whim. This is something that you should consider every consequence of like, just when I hear a parent say, “Oh I want to have a child, but I definitely don’t want to have a handicapped child”.
Zoë: Oh yeah.
Emma: And I’m like, “Well, you’re not ready”.
Zoë: No, no. I mean that, that’s a truly, you have to be, you have to be ready to make many sacrifices, and that could be that your child may be ill or you may not be able to have the career that you fully want. Your body will be affected. I mean, there are so many things that will happen or could happen and you can’t put kind of limits on it. You can’t be like, “I’ll only do this thing if it’s a perfect child, or if it’s a boy, or if it’s a girl”, all of these prerequisites, that’s not what having a child should be about, but you’re right. In our society, people, they have a vision in the head of what parenthood should be. And it’s wrong. And we need to make people think more because clearly you and I, and lots of other childfree people that we think a lot about this decision to not, or to have children, I mean, this is something we will go over and over. And I think that’s a good thing, right?
Emma: It is. And I think every parent should go through this process and I’ve defended this idea of which is very radical and I’m still not very comfortable, you know, setting it up, but still, I think there should be a diploma for parenthood. Like you shouldn’t be able to procreate until you’ve proved that you knew how to care for a child, like basic, you know, basic care, physical care that you are mentally stable, that you know how to do the paperwork.
Emma: Obviously it comes with a lot of questions. Like how do you not exclude people from different social backgrounds? And so on, this would bring a huge reflection, but still, I don’t understand that so many parents would go on and make a child and not even wonder about what the consequences are.
Zoë: Absolutely. I think giving people the tools to be able to do anything better – that can only be a good thing. It does kind of blow my mind that we have people who have children who have no idea how to look after a child. They’re handed a baby and it’s like, “Off you go”. And it’s not saying that anyone’s a failure or is going to be a terrible parent. If you have to have lessons or classes or whatever, it’s just giving people the right tools. We have to learn how to drive a car. We have to have tests to learn how to do things in life, to be good at them to ensure that we don’t hurt other people. We don’t hurt ourselves. And that’s fine. But yet it’s almost as if parenthood, people see as a right, that, you can’t question that right. And I feel like maybe as a childfree person that can rile parents up that way even questioning that it’s a right. Do you feel like that as well?
Emma: Like I said, yeah, I think some people feel threatened. Because suddenly you say, oh, well I actually want to exercise my right not to have kids. It’s like, no, but the right is to have kids. It’s the natural order of things. And it’s no, it’s not, as a matter of fact, you’re gonna have this huge responsibility. This is not something you should rush into because it’s always been the way it’s been done. So, and there’s something else which is because we want to think this is a natural, obvious thing we don’t, like you said, we don’t prepare people for it. We don’t prepare mothers for what it’s like to be pregnant, for what it’s like to have postpartum depression, for what it’s like to want to throw your kid out of the window, because it’s screaming all night, which all mothers want to do. We don’t talk about this, and this is very dangerous, and this is very bad because so many people have a kid and feel terrible for being bad parents, just because they’ve never been told that one, they’re not alone. And second, they could have had the keys before.
Zoë: Yes. I mean, support, it can only help people. And like you said, helping mothers know that they’re not failing at something if their baby is crying all the time or if they can’t breastfeed or if, there’s so many things that can happen in that process. And it doesn’t mean you are a terrible mother because it happens. But because we’re not open and honest about these things, you do end up having women feeling like there’s something wrong with either them or their child, like they’re failing and it’s heartbreaking. I see it with friends or family. And I think we’re doing women a disservice by not being open and honest and saying, “Hey, having kids can be amazing, but also there can be negatives. So, here’s what can happen. Here’s how you can help this process”. And that cannot be a bad thing. And your mother, if she’d maybe known that, “Okay things may get pretty dark, but I am not alone. I can get help”, it could have helped her, and it could have helped you. And actually you’re thinking about not just your life, but you’re by not having children and perhaps repeating a cycle of trauma, you’re actually thinking about two people’s lives or more.
Emma: It’s something that’s hard to explain to people sometimes, but that’s the point of view that I really defend, which is I am doing good for the kid. They’re like, “What kid? You’re not giving birth”. And I’m gonna say, “Yeah, I’m doing it for the kid that’s not being born”. I know that I am absolutely unequipped to be a mother. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to raise this child with hope and love and care and that’s why I’m not doing it. It’s really hard for people to fathom, but still some of the friends have listened to it and actually given some thought about – they’re becoming mothers, and I think they’re going to be better mothers for it. My best friend wants to have a child, she’s always wanted to have a child. And we’ve talked about this together and she’s given it so much more thought to, since we’ve talked about it. And I’m so glad because she says, “No, I know exactly what I’m going to be facing, but at least I’ve given it so much thought that I can really feel prepared”.
Zoë: That’s awesome. So yeah, that’s all we can hope for, right? That people don’t feel like that, alone in this. And that’s amazing. And like we were saying, people are going to have kids, whether you tell them the reality or not, there are still going to be many people who decide this is something that they truly want. My sister was the same. She said she needed to do this no matter what. And I think there’ll always be people like that. So, we’re not going to scare people away if we’re honest with them. And we’re just going to give people more support and help, and that’s a good thing.
Emma: And they should be grateful that we’re here because they’re going to need people who don’t have kids and are not tired of kids to take care, of theirs once in a while, you know?
Zoë: Absolutely. Absolutely. What do they say about “it takes a village?” Us childfree folks, we can help and support in other ways if we want to, so I think we absolutely have a role in society. But it’s difficult telling and making people understand that we can fill other roles. We don’t all have to fill the role of a mother. That’s one way for someone to live their life, but we can do many things in our life. But do you feel like there is this pressure that this is the pinnacle for all women is to be a mother?
Emma: I’ve struggled with it. My father’s a bit misogynistic and he’s tried to confine me to this role of what a woman is, according to him. I’ve been wanting to be a formula one pilot forever when I –
Zoë: Oh, wow.
Emma: – but he wanted that for his son, not for his daughter. So, in the end I ended up being a science journalist instead, but today I identify as non-binary because I couldn’t put myself into this idea of what being a woman was. I just I didn’t relate to it. And I still feel guilted for it, I still feel guilty about not being womanly enough, even though I identify as non-binary. And I feel like not having a kid is the ultimate deprivation of femininity, it’s like as long as you don’t, it’s what makes you a woman. When we say in French, I don’t know if you say it in English, but they say when you have a kid, you become woman.
Zoë: okay. I’ve heard of this. Yeah. Yeah. I couldn’t disagree more with that idea that it’s what makes us a woman, and you’re right. Because of patriarchy and misogyny, young girls are told that they can’t be who they want to be. And you from a young age wanted to do something. And you’re just kind of slowly, you’re oppressed and made to feel smaller. And your life is meant to be smaller than a man’s, and it’s heartbreaking because maybe that career that you wanted, it could have been something that would’ve been amazing for you, but because of the way your father treated you, you didn’t feel like you could pursue that. And this is why we need to break out of this idea that we have these strict gender roles of, “If you’re a man, this is what you’re meant to be doing. If you’re a woman, this is what you’re meant to be doing”. No, let’s break completely away from that. I was like you, I mean, I was a complete tomboy. I always had short hair, didn’t fit any kind of mould of what a pretty girly girl was meant to be like, I played with boys’ toys and so from a young age, I totally felt alien as a girl, as a fitting into what this role of a supposed woman has meant to be. And I’m glad that now I’ve processed that and gone, “Actually, I’m just me, whatever that is. I am me and I’m happy with that”. And we, that’s what we need to do for young girls and boys. We need them to know that they can just be whoever they are and that’s fine.
Emma: It’s high time we did away with that. Really, we’re just human.
Emma: That’s all we are.
Zoë: Exactly. And, and what I’m loving is that younger generation seems to be embracing this idea of fluidity and that they can be whoever they want to be. They don’t have to be defined by what they’re told that gender is. They can be whatever they feel inside. And we need more people to be open and talk about it, but it’s a slow process, right?
Emma: Yeah. And so many people have been making fun of the fact that it’s like LGBTQIA+, and you know, they have the A’s and the queer and actually I think that it goes to show, there are so many categories that it’s just a spectrum and you have to stop putting people into boxes because there are so many of them that there’s just going to be a single combination for every single person on earth. And that’s just fine.
Zoë: Right. I mean, it makes sense to me. Your background is in science. So, for me, I just see the wonder and beauty of a human and the diversity of humans. So, it’s hard to even accept that we could even think there could be these two, just two roles in our world, and it’s a man and a woman and that’s it. It’s like what? Every face is different, every fingerprint is different. How on earth do we really, really think that there is only these two ways of living our lives? It’s so crazy to me. Did you see that your experience with science and everything that this did, this kind of inform your ideas about gender roles and, you know –
Emma: Well it definitely told me that it’s not part of the natural order. You know, we have lesbian dogs and we have lizards that reproduced by parthenogenesis. So they were reproduced by themselves and we have hermaphroditic snails. And so, yeah, no strict gender roles. And the very binary vision of male and female is not even a natural thing, not even among the animal kingdom. So we’d just have to do away with that because I think it’s a very religious point of view, and I’m not saying that religion is a bad thing, but I think religion should stop where personal liberties are threatened, especially when it concerns your identity or raising a human being into this world. It’s too important. I believe we should stop there.
Zoë: Yeah, absolutely. Religion is a really, it’s a tricky one because yeah. I can see how it can help some people, but I can see how it hurts so many other people as well. And it absolutely enforces this idea that, “If you’re a man, you’re meant to be doing this. And if you’re a woman, you’re not going to be president, you’re not going to be doing anything incredible with your life”. You’re just meant to be supporting men, basically. That’s what you’re meant to be doing. And yeah, it’s a really hard thing for me to kind of battle with.
Emma: and I think it’s hard to battle for men sometimes as well. I remember I had this boyfriend who was the most clever and eloquent person that I was with, and he felt, he told me one day he just fell crying. And he said, “I feel like a monster because of what I’m being told I am”. He just felt like, this image we have of what it means to be a woman. He had this image of what it means to be a man and all the terrible things that come with that, the fact that you have power and you have privilege and he felt really guilty about this. And I thought, that’s not the right way to proceed. That’s not the way it should go. You know, we shouldn’t feel guilty about who we are. We should feel informed and we should feel responsible, but definitely not guilty. We should feel responsible enough to take action, but not responsible of everything that’s going wrong in the world.
Zoë: Absolutely. I can see how there is so much pressure on men as well to, that there’s toxic masculinity, that they’re meant to be a certain way as well. And it does, it harms everyone to say that you must fit into this, defined person and yeah, let’s just let people be who they want to be. And it starts very young. It starts really young to educate and we need the young boys to see that they need to respect women and not treat them like possessions. And there’s so many things. And I don’t know. Do you think it’s getting better, do you think? Do you think where we’re moving in the right direction?
Emma: I hope, but I wish we were going as fast for men as we were for women. I think there’s – to go back to the subject of parenthood – I think that there’s one idea that’s been enforced way too much with men it’s that they have to have legacy. They have to leave something, a trace on earth, and some people will just work their ass off until they’ve built this huge empire that they can claim, you know, is their victory. And some others will just say, “I will reproduce my DNA and it will be a mini-me. And it will just prolong my legacy into this world”. And that’s why so many men want to enforce having kids it’s just because they feel like if they die, not having kids, they will die forever.
Emma: And yeah. I think we need to heal on both sides. Women have to learn that it’s not because they have a body that can procreate that they should, and men should learn that they’re enough. They don’t have to have their mini-me or their huge corporations. That they’re enough. We’re enough.
Zoë: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. Legacy is a really, it’s a big topic for childfree people because, there’s a pressure put on us, especially women, because we’re the ones who are meant to be having the babies, and also meant to be having sons. And it’s too much pressure to put on anyone, that this is how we leave a legacy is biologically as well. It’s a fallacy. We don’t need to leave a legacy at all. And if we do want to leave a legacy, there are many different ways we can do it. If we really want to do it, we can touch one other person in a positive way. And that can be anyone, a friend, someone in your community with your work. There’s so many different ways, but ultimately we have to get away from this idea of leaving a legacy. Let’s just let people live because life is hard enough as it is. Right?
Emma: It is, and we’re so, small, you know, compared to the huge vastness of this beautiful universe that we live in, why does it matter? Why does it matter at all? And like you said, it’s the fallacy even more so, because you can share what you have to share with so many more people when you don’t have a kid, you know, when you have a kid, you have to get, you get, you have to give all of yourself to this person because it matters because it’s important. But when I also made the choice not to have a kid, because I wanted to be able to reach out to more people and be available for them emotionally I also know that I, I’m not good with people who are clinging. I cannot fathom the idea of having someone always trying to call me, even, even a friend you know, who’s always like every day, “How are you? You know, I haven’t had news from you for, for, for a long time”. “It has been 12 hours”. I couldn’t, my friends all know that. So how about a kid? Well, no, never.
Zoë: No, there is no turning that off. Yeah, I see that with my sister and my nephew. I mean, my nephew’s three, so it’s, it’s that age where they all just like clingy little monster and they’re just hanging onto you. And you know, it’s just constantly, I hear my sister’s name being called, like non-stop throughout the day, because he just wants her attention. No one else’s, just her attention. So, it’s a lot, absolutely. And you know, if, if you’re not ready for that, or if you don’t want that, then yeah, that’s a lot for anyone to take. So I think listening to who, what kind of person you are, what’s your personality traits? What’s your values? What are your priorities? All of these things help you make a better informed decision about, are you the right person for this role or is there another way to live your life? You’ve made the decision to give your life to other people and yourself, and that should be commended, but that’s an amazing thing. And it’s just it’s another way to live a life. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. And we need society to see that.
Emma: And let’s be very clear. I’d have nothing against parents. I’m not going to say that every single parent, but I definitely admire those that decided to have a kid and stuck to that, and did it wonderfully to the best of their ability… I’m not going to, there’s no way to parents does no way to perfectly raise a child just so you know, there’s no perfect way of doing it. But if you love your kid and you stick to your guns and you pledge to yourself that you are going to improve yourself, all that, it’s just like with a relationship. It’s just like what it means to be human. Just pledge to yourself that you’re going to strive every day to be a better person with yourself, with your kid, with your partner.
Emma: I admire that in the parents, for sure. I know that I’m not parent material. I’m not strong enough and that’s fine.
Zoë: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, we don’t have to hold ourselves up to this, on this pedestal of, we must all be this perfect person. It’s impossible, and you hit the nail on the head with, especially for mothers, they’re meant to be perfect at this. And it’s impossible. No one can be perfect at anything and being a parent, is changing constantly. Your child is changing constantly. You’re exhausted. There are so many factors that go into this that you just all yeah trying to create a perfect experience is impossible. But society doesn’t tell us that, this society puts a pressure on us to create this perfect experience. And if, you know, if you’re honest about it, you know, mothers are, you know, they’re crucified. If a mother says anything about it, not being anything but perfect, they are absolutely crucified. And we see this when people say they have maybe regrets about parenthood and it needs to stop. We need to let women, breathe and be able to be honest. Right?
Emma: Yeah. Life is a messy game. You can’t ace it. It it’s as simple as that. So we might as well support each other. You can have depression, you can regret having kids. You can have an accident and not be able to move ever again. And people shouldn’t stop visiting you because of that. They shouldn’t stop supporting you because of that. They should support you because it could happen to them any time.
Zoë: Absolutely. Yeah. There are no guarantees in life at all. So then why did you put that Twitter thread out there? Emma, what was it that like, was the turning point where you were like, I am just going to write this? Because it’s an incredible thread. We’re going to link to it, especially so anyone can read it cause the response was amazing with it and it really resonated with so many of us childfree folks. So, what made you actually go and do that thread?
Emma: The thing is I’ve always been a rather fight-my-own-battles kind of person, I never go and seek for help. Cause I always think that the best help that I can provide myself with is the one that I came up with. But still I knew that we needed to open this discussion. Cause I could feel I’d gone through so many discussions, so many conversations about this, where I felt that we’re so backwards about this still that I thought it, it will have to be beneficial for someone. I can’t believe that there’s not someone who’s not going to benefit from hearing about this testimony, I guess. And the fact is that, yeah, like you said, the, the reactions were tremendous and I’m so glad that I have such a healthy community that nobody told me “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”. Everyone was very supportive. I think, I didn’t realize how important it was until I woke up from the surgery and I felt, and I hope this won’t offend anyone, but I felt like I had had a sex change. It was as tremendous as that, suddenly my body felt whole again, I was sterile and suddenly this matched who I felt I was – it matched to my identity. And that’s what propelled me to share this as well. I think it’s because I felt that this was much more than just getting sterilised. It was, it was a tremendous life change. And I wanted to talk about that.
Zoë: Was this in France?
Emma: It was in France. Yeah,
Zoë: It sounds like it’s a really conservative country from other experiences that I’ve learned about, especially about women’s reproductive rights. This is what I’m hearing.
Emma: I mean, I don’t know. Maybe some people will agree with me. I think France wants to believe we’re a lot more progressive than we actually are. I think we stopped progressing once the French revolution was passed, you know, we thought, “Oh, we’ve won every battle. We’re good. We’re good. You know, the age of enlightenment is past us. We can just rest now”. No, no, there’s still a lot more we’ve got to do. On the legal point of view, France is rather advanced, you know, gay people can get married and women can get sterilised and men can get vasectomies and we can get abortions. But when it comes to the actual mentality of people, we’re still very backwards, I think, because we don’t talk about these things. It’s as simple as that, you want people to change their mind and actually start considering an issue. You have to talk about it. And there is no public discussion about so many of these topics, as soon as we start talking about this, it’s like, “Oh, it’s them activists again?” “No, we just want to talk. We think it’s important. You might be depressed. Why don’t you want to talk about this?”
Zoë: It’s so important to be open and honest and help others in their journey. And that’s what you sharing your story is absolutely doing. The medical world and the treatment that they have for women especially black women, women of colour, it’s pretty horrendous that – this is what this project has really opened my eyes to. And that, I don’t believe we do have bodily autonomy. Did you feel like that, especially going through this intense process of trying to find doctors to listen to you and push back after push back, did you feel like that as well?
Emma: It didn’t tip at my resolution, but I felt that someone less confident than me would have maybe had a kid just because they felt that it was something, it was just, the way it was supposed to be, which is wrong. And they didn’t know it yet. I’m also very surprised and yet not so very surprised that it’s so easy to get, you know breast implants at 18, but impossible to get sterilised at 30, even if you’ve had kids. Like some women who are 40, who had three kids still struggled to get sterilised in France and that’s not normal.
Zoë: No, I, it doesn’t make sense to me at all. Why do you think there is this push back for first, not believing women, because you can go to the doctor and say, “I really, really want this. This is going to benefit my life. I’ve thought about this for years”. And you’ll be told, “You’ll change your mind”, or they just don’t believe you – why is this attitude from the medical world?
Emma: I think, even though the state and church have been divided in France since 1905, we’re still in this very conservative mindset. And it’s a community mindset, which means that every time somebody makes a decision, it will impact and question everybody else’s decision in the community. So when you go to a nurse for something completely unrelated, and she says, “Do you have kids?” And you say, “No, never”. And she says, “Oh, you mean not yet?” I just feel that the way you think is irrevocably linked to what other people decide for themselves. It feels like you cannot be individual within this community.
Zoë: That makes sense to me. And it’s sometimes it feels like people are on autopilot. A lot of the time when they ask those questions, it’s like, they haven’t even thought about what if I was someone who had miscarriages? There is so much stuff that can go on in a person’s life. And when people ask these prying questions it hurts people. Like it really hurts people.
Emma: Sometimes we just don’t realise that the woman can’t have a kid, indeed. It’s absolutely terrible.
Zoë: It’s truly shocking from the stories that women send me, that the pushback from the medical world for getting sterilised is still very, it’s tough. I mean I’m hearing many more stories of women not being able to get it when they want to – in their twenties, it’s so rare. So we need to change this because if we can decide we want a child, we can decide we don’t want to child. And instead of making us feel like we’re children, accept that we are grown ass women and stop treating us like children, Do you think – we talked a little bit about maternal instinct earlier on, and as someone who you know, is, in the science world and who sees how animals world – this is a question I always wonder about, or people ask me about, whether maternal instinct is like a real thing. Whether there is a biological clock, whether it’s in our biology and this is why doctors, they just assume this is just so inherently in our genetic makeup. That it’s, of course we want children. Of course we will want children. What do you think is this, something that is just in our genetic makeup?
Emma: I’ll try not to tread out of my field of expertise, but what’s for sure is that people say that the instincts of survival and reproduction are the strongest in the animal kingdom for sure. We are built genetically built to survive and reproduce, and just ensure that the continuation of our species. From what I’ve learned, from what I’ve read, maternal instinct is very much a hormonal process. Like I said, my mother had an oxytocin deficiency and she couldn’t even touch the kid that you’d just brought to the world. So it goes to tell you, and again, I have depression and I’ve learned that it’s not me. Depression is not me. It’s a hormone cocktail that just happens to kick in sometimes and suddenly makes me sad. Just the same way, maternal instinct, as hormonal cocktail maybe mixed with something else, but still a very chemical process will kick in and will make you want to have kids. And I think, yeah, that’s what we call the biological clock, you know, it does peak in our life when we’re supposed to be the most fertile and that’s going to kick in. Should that prompt you to have kids? I don’t think so. Actually, I think that’s what you should be most were against, you should be able to differentiate between your will end determination to bring a kid into this world and love the crap out of it, and the sudden chemical urge of popping a kid – these are very distinct things with very different consequences.
Zoë: Yeah, absolutely. I never felt any kind of desire to have a child or want to have a child, but I, so myself as still a nurturing person in many other different ways, and I think we can, we don’t just have to fulfil some biological supposed destiny that, we’re told, this is what we’re here for. It’s like, no, I think some people, like you said, there is like a, a hormonal or an emotional pull towards something. And that makes someone really, really want to do this. And there are many of us who don’t have that, that kind of, genetic makeup or that pull or whatever it is, and accepting that there’s many different variations of, or somewhere absolutely normal. The way you feel is absolutely normal. The way I feel is normal, the way my sister who had a child is normal.
Emma: And I think people want to feel that not wanting a kid is somehow anti-spiritual. You know, it’s kind of like you’re being a beast. Whereas I think that listening only to these hormonal instincts and not to thinking about what they mean is being an animal. It’s being more animalistic than actually having a profound reflection about this. I’m not saying that people are popping kids because they just want to be animals. I’m just saying that people who actually want to think about what their chemical makeup makes them want to do is in a way less animalistic than people who will just respond to the urge by doing it.
Zoë: Yeah. It’s an interesting topic that is constantly asked, the biological clock is something obviously that we have in our culture. And I think you have to separate this idea of a biological clock from something genetically kind of inside many of us – I think the term “biological clock” was brought about in the 70s when women were having careers, and the workforce and the companies were terrified that women were all of a sudden not going to have children and, “Oh, shit, they’re actually going to have careers and they don’t want to have kids. So we’re going to have to pressure them in a way to go back”. And the term, the biological clock was the perfect kind of idea. It’s like, “Oh, but you know, you’re going to get that feeling”. And then you start to set this off in people’s minds and then, they start to question themselves and they go, “Oh, well, I guess I’m meant to have children because apparently there’s going to be a thing that goes off inside my brain and I’m going to want to do it.” It’s all about kind of putting this doubt into people and instead of actually just letting them truly think about who they are and what they want. So yeah, I hope we can change that and encourage young people to listen. Like you said, to kind of listen to who they are inside and what they need in their life, you know? But what do you think then the decision to not have children? What has that meant for your life?
Emma: For me, the first thing that it means is the security of knowing that I won’t neglect a human being. That’s the most important thing for me. It’s knowing that I won’t mess up a kid. That is so important for me. I’ve been known to be kind of a childhood hater because I can’t stand being around kids when they scream and cry and which is not true. I just appreciate them as human beings and just like any other human being, you don’t like people who are being mean, or shouty or anything. I don’t make a difference between a kid and an adult. Some kids are obnoxious, some adults are obnoxious. I’m not going to run towards them with my open arms thing: I don’t care, we don’t care, and if I didn’t want to have a child, it’s because I actually care about the human being that’s going to be born and I don’t want to neglect this human being. So that’s the first important thing. Second, it means that I have more time to dedicate, to outreach, to taking care of my friends, to taking care of the men I love, to taking care of other kids who might need me. I’m going to be thrilled to be an aunt if my brother decides to have a kid and I’m going to be thrilled to not be an aunt if he decides not to have any – there’ll always be people to take care of. And I’m already rejoicing for that.
Zoë: there’s a myth that, you know, childfree women, we hate children and, it’s annoying because ultimately I believe you should be able to love, hate, like, dislike a child, whatever, because why are we all meant to just love children? Just naturally. We’re all meant to love them? Why? they cry. They’re very loud. And you know, there are many reasons why many people, especially people with, you know, neurodiverse issues or very sensitive to sound. There are so many things that can actually be triggers to many of us and actually, it’s okay to protect yourself. And you know, ensure that your well-being is looked after. And I hate this idea that we’re all meant to just, you know, automatically love children. You know, it’s not fair. It’s not fair at all to put that pressure on people.
Emma: It’s very cultural, I think, because I mean, maybe I’m wrong, but they say that, when a kid dies in Europe, it’s a tragedy, but in Africa, when an old person dies, it’s a tragedy – because they’ve accumulated so much knowledge. I think we are genetically, chemically made to love kids because that’s just the way a species survives. But we’ve come such a long way. I don’t want to say that we’re not animals because we are animals, but we’ve come such a long way to understand how we feel to explore things, to put words on this wonderful, wonderful variety of feelings that we’ve developed. And we have the right nowadays to not just oblige the impulse of loving a kid and just think, “Oh, well actually we can have a bit more of a complex relationship with this child and even hate him if you want it” – we are more complex than this, and it’s fine. And I’m pretty sure that there are animals that just eat their kids.
Zoë: That’s very true. That’s very true. Yeah. Yeah. This is just always, again, not pressure on us to act a certain way, to be a certain way. And you know, we need to fight that.
Emma: And to go back to the topic of depression, because why not? When I have depression, I try to make sense of it and find reasons to be sad. And I think as humans, we have the urge to have kids because that’s just the way we perpetuate the species. And so we try to make sense of it by saying, “It must be because we love them”. We just love the crap out of them just to prove ourselves that it’s a choice, we choose to love them. It’s not just an impulse. It’s not just chemical. It has to make sense for us. We have to feel more that we are more than chemical machines and that’s our way of making sense of it, I’m guessing.
Zoë: Yes, it makes sense to me. The topic of anyone who’s struggling, anyone out there who is struggling with depression or mental health issues it’s such an important thing to recognise that you have to look after yourself first and foremost. What do they say about putting on an oxygen mask before helping anyone else? You have to focus on yourself and prioritise yourself. But as you know, women we’re told that we’re meant to sacrifice and give ourselves over to everyone else. But it makes complete sense that anyone should first look out for themselves and ensure that they are, you know, their wellbeing is met and that, you know, they all focusing on their own mental health, that own emotional support. It’s this thing again about, women are told, we are meant to sacrifice and give ourselves over to everyone else. I mean, do you feel like that as well? Do you feel like, you know, your depression is, it’s still not enough for some people to understand that that’s not a good enough reason that you may want to not have children because you want to focus on your own health, you know?
Emma: It’s not even important. It’s like, what is, is that a related topic? As a matter of fact, it is. You know, when once a year you actually want to shoot yourself, you might want to reconsider having kids because that’s not a stable environment. And to tell you that having kid is the most wonderful thing in the world, and it will cure all your ailments and say, no, no, no, no, no. If you think about it for just two seconds, you’re going to get pregnant, which is going to be the most horrible experience in the world. And then you’re going to have problems with your partner, because suddenly you don’t want to have sex with him anymore because your vulva is completely a wreck. And the kid is screaming every night. And it’s just, I’m not going to say that it brings nothing but problems, but it definitely brings a lot of problems. So that’s not going to cure your depression. And yet we’re asked to sacrifice ourselves too, for the cause, you know.
Zoë: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.
Emma: And it’s just, that’s going to make you feel complete – “Don’t worry baby, it’s going to be alright”.
Zoë: Yeah. It’s bonkers when do you think about it? Just like, no, I’m intelligent enough, like this does not make sense to me. Like, no, you can’t, you can’t kind of pull the wool over my eyes. It doesn’t make any sense. Yeah, it’s baffling. It’s about some of the things people just say without even thinking about it, it’s just going to cause more hurt to people. We need to think about what we’re saying to people and let them look after themselves first and foremost. And if not having children as well, what they think is going to be best for their life, then, by God, let them do that, you know?
Emma: And if you really love kids, don’t force people who don’t like kids to have them.
Zoë: Yes. Yes.
Emma: I’m impressed that we can force so many people into parenthood. When they’re telling us first-hand, I’m not going to be able to care for that kid properly.
Zoë: Right. Yeah, it does not make any sense because you’re not just hurting the parent’s life, but you’re hurting a child’s life. So then Emma, what would you, what advice would you give to someone who went through something similar as you, who struggled with a tough family life and, they’re also considering not having children? And they just maybe feel alone in their feelings. What would you kind of advise them?
Emma: You had Sarah on your show. And I would say exactly what her mother told her, which is if you have doubts say no, you can never be sure that it’s going to be perfect because it’s not. But if you have doubts that you’re not going to be a good parent, you’re not going to be able to love that kid, if you’re afraid of some possibilities, just don’t go for it. There are so many forms of love in this world. There are so many ways to love a human being and you don’t have to be a parent to exercise that love.
Zoë: Here here. Thank you. That, that was, yeah, amazing. That will help so many. And you know, your story, I know will resonate with a lot of people because I do get a lot of messages and emails from people with a tough family life. And there’s a lot of pressure that can come with that. And you know, ultimately, it’s about them protecting themselves and looking after themselves before anything else. That is the main, the main thing. So, you know, thank you for sharing your story with me and everyone who’s listening. Is there anything else that we, you know, we didn’t talk about that you would like to talk about?
Emma: I could talk about quickly about my mother’s reaction to hearing that I didn’t want kids.
Zoë: Absolutely. Yes. Tell me a bit about that.
Emma: So it, it came in bits. First I told my parents that I was bisexual and then I told them that I was pansexual and they were not surprised anymore. And then I told them that I didn’t want to have kids. And I think they always knew, but hearing it was a different thing. My dad didn’t really want to get involved in that discussion, but I could feel that my mother was deeply hurt because she felt that she had failed as a mother. This was the result of her having failed as a mother. And I reassured her. I tried at least to reassure her in so many ways, saying this is so much more than that. But she, even when I told her that I was getting the surgery, I could feel like, “Oh yeah. Okay. Are you sure?”
Emma: And it’s like, “Yeah. And that shouldn’t, you shouldn’t feel that this is a condemnation for your, I’m not going to see failings, difficulties as a mother. You’ve done the best you could”. Nowadays we are trying to rebuild the relationship. I still don’t feel like I have parents, but I feel like I have people that I’m, you know, people that have raised me and are trying to do their best to rebuild the relationship. And I’m so grateful for that. And, you shouldn’t feel that you have to have a kid to reassure a parent, to give them what they want, because they’ve given you so much or given you so little. It all boils down to you to who you are, to what you can give and to what you want to give.