Forty, Single and Childfree

This piece originally appeared in the Gloss Magazine on 05/04/2012.

If you’d asked me ten years ago where I would be or what I’d be doing at this point in my life, I probably would have told you that I wasn’t quite sure … a partner, kids, maybe … one day … in the future … just not right now. Right now was for high jinx with the girls on a Saturday night, another trip toSouth Americaand “finding myself” (basically an Irish version of Eat, Pray, Love with more fry-ups, fewer Italian lovers and a weekend hobble around Lough Derg in place of the Indian ashram). And then, about five years ago, the broody switch in my head got flicked on. I started to notice children. Of course, they are hard not to notice, but I noticed how I liked noticing them in places where previously I liked avoiding them: in restaurants or in the queue at the supermarket. If you asked me five years ago how I would be sliding into my fourth decade, I would have told you I’d be cleaning snotty noses and wiping grazed knees, but that’s the thing about life … it doesn’t always turn out like you plan.

Finding myself 40, single and childfree (FSC), I have considered all the routes to parenthood that exist for a single person. But a combination of practical and ethical considerations have ruled out those options for me. For now. I believe I would need the help of a partner or committed other in order to raise a child. This is not true of all women, but it is true of me. I am aware that women in their 40s can become biological or adoptive mothers and that it would not get me into the Guinness World Records if it were to happen (and if it does, I’ll write about that too) but there is something about that combination of four and zero that gets a girl thinking and planning for a different kind of way than the family way.

You often hear it said that nothing prepares you for becoming a parent. I think it’s equally accurate to say that nothing prepares you for when you come to want that and it doesn’t happen. And it’s not really spoken about in relation to single women; there is no discourse. Some time back Kathryn Holmquist, writing for the Irish Times, wrote an article asking why women don’t talk about being single and without children? And what did she discover? Not a lot, except that nobody seemed to want to go on the record.

So why do I want to go on the record? Well, I figure somebody ought to. Besides, it’s not like people haven’t noticed my singular childfree status. But I’m not quite sure how to speak about it, and people around me are not sure if they can go there, or if it’s a subject at all. Some assume it’s a lifestyle choice, but I’m rarely asked. Sometimes that’s a blessing; sometimes it’s a curse. It can feel a bit like living in the twilight zone: you live with the loss of what you had hoped for in your life, it goes unacknowledged, by you and others. It can feel like a private and invisible grief. Nobody died, but nobody was born and nobody talks about that when you’re a single woman.

As a single woman, you negotiate the bittersweet terrain of relating to other people’s children. At times, I cope with meeting and greeting new arrivals by wearing a smiling face. I want to appear genuinely happy when I’m feeling genuinely sad. That heady cocktail of pride and protection keeps the mask in place. I want to conceal my sense of shame and failure for not being in the parent club, and I want to protect myself and those close to me from how I am really feeling.

At times, I’ve  felt “less than”, as a single woman, like I’ve failed on the double, or I haven’t tried hard enough to “make it all happen”. At times, I’ve felt “left behind” as younger friends paired off to nest. As a single woman, you’re a sitting duck for the barbed wire of the casual well-meaning comment, like “Sure, you’re too busy having a good time to be bothered with a family” or “You’re lucky you don’t have children. They’re so expensive” or  ”You’re such a free spirit”. Am I? How do you know that? Would you say any of those things to me if I were childless but married?

There are big moments and big emotions that get lost in silence, because they are too raw to speak about. I remember an old school friend visiting me at my parents’ home with her new daughter. My chin wobbled as I watched my mother cradle and coo the baby. I felt her loss: that she wasn’t holding my child, that she wasn’t teaching me how to be a mum, that all those family stories she had stored away for my children were not being told. That night, I cried for both of us.

People who know me longer might have noticed that I’ve become more tentative, more hesitant. I think this is because I was sure that the life I came to want for myself would unfold and it hasn’t, so now things are less certain…I’m asking myself the bigger questions: What is my life about if I’m not a mother or a partner? What will my life be like without a family, a tribe, my own tribe? Who will claim me, own me … to whom will I belong?

I would describe getting to 40 and being single as being a bit like taking a bus from the airport in a foreign country. You don’t realise until you’re on the bus, that you really wanted to be on the other bus. You never listened to your mother when she warned you that people who are too fussy in life could end up on this bus. You haven’t got the map, because there is none, nobody’s written the travel guide and the signs are all in a foreign language. You panic, you cry, you shout at the bus driver and then you decide that you’ve paid for the ticket so you might as well look out the window … and sometimes the view is not so bad. And that’s where I’m at. Some days I’m wiping away tears with my sleeves and some days I’m taking in the view from my window seat. I don’t know where the bus is going, or what it will be like when I get there; all I know now is that the journey will be different from the one I imagined.

It’s almost a year since I turned 40 and the intensity of the feelings of grief and loss have shifted. I’ve started to look forward to the future again. I went through a phase of hating being asked about my travel plans or my latest evening course because I hated having free time and money, the insignia of the single career woman. I wanted to be broke and smelling a baby’s head. But now, thoughts of travel, new hobbies and new adventures are starting to form in my mind.

I now realise that being 40, single and childfree does not mean that I have failed. Not that I ever considered being single and without children as a failed state. For many women, it is a chosen state, a preferred state, a nirvana even, but it wasn’t my nirvana. My sense of failure came from the belief that if I had tried hard enough, I would have met a partner and become a parent.  But that didn’t happen, and it’s not my fault.

I’m learning that I can draw my own map; it might be a bit squiggly around the edges, sometimes the road turns out to be a cul-de-sac or a cliff edge is not marked, but that’s part of the adventure when you’re a DIY cartographer. I give myself permission to detour when I need to. I dip in and out of gatherings that involve children depending on how I’m feeling. Sometimes I’m honest (“Not today, that would be a bit hard for me”); sometimes I fib. I practise being an auntie to my brothers’ children. I tell them stories of our childhood, how good I was and how bold their dad was when we were kids. My mother laughs.

I’ve started to think about how to experience intimacy and love and belonging in other ways than the family way. I’ve taken refuge in the bosom of the sisterhood. I seek out single sisters (and some brothers) who, through either accident or design, have not become parents. Having friends on the bus makes the journey much easier. They invite me to look out all of the windows and to see other possibilities for my life that I hadn’t noticed before.

I’ve outed myself. I’m no longer hiding in the closet. For a woman who couldn’t utter a syllable on the FSC topic a year ago, I’m catching up. Speaking with other friends and colleagues, some coupled, with and without children, has been both empowering and healing. It has been a way for me to legitimise my experience and to create permission to speak about my “spinsterhood”. And that’s another reason I want to go on the record. I want people to understand that being single and without children at 40 is not a non-event; it has been a big event for me. I’d like to see more women discuss it in public. Lack of discourse contributes to a sense of taboo. It causes those with lives like mine to experience feelings of shame and isolation. And it condemns our well-meaning friends and families to continued foot-in-mouth disease.

According to our most recent census data from 2011, there are almost 100,000 women aged over 40 who are single and have never given birth. 15% of women living in Ireland aged 40-44 are single and have never had biological children. That’s 19,770 women, which is about twice what it was 20 years ago, so we’re a growing demographic. It’s time that we started talking.


5 thoughts on “Forty, Single and Childfree

  1. Welcome to the childfree bus, Eileen! The conversations about being childfree are becoming more frequent, and there are a lot of different stories. My husband and I are childfree by choice, and I just turned 40. Many of us feel like we are put on the defensive about our situation and our choices, but like you, we have realized we are a growing demographic. We want to be recognized as the fabulous, whole people that we are. But it is hard to fit in with our fellow 40-somethings when they all have small children running around! I blog on the subject sometimes too. Feel free to join in the conversation. I look forward to reading more of your perspective about it.

  2. Wonderful to hear people writing about this. It can be hard to navigate life when society has pushed you to the side. I wrote a piece recently on being single-not so much about the childlessness as I didn’t think I could write on something I hadn’t thought about, because like you, I don’t believe I could be a single parent and I never met anyone so I never considered it. Reading your piece though, I may write about it in the future. Thanks for sharing. Good to know you’re there. Here’s the link to my piece.

  3. I too am 40, single, and childfree. Thank you Eileen, for putting many of the thoughts and feelings that I’ve struggled with this past year into words. It’s comforting and makes me feel much less alone. I will be sharing your article!

  4. I’m approaching 45 single and childless. Not what I expected or wanted. You’ve articulated what I feel. I finished reading it in tears. Thank you so much.

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