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Personal Essay: Why I chose to be child-free

In her personal essay, Tanja Wessels explains why choosing a life without children works for her.

I am in my mid-40s, happily married to a man who would make a wonderful father. And perhaps ironically, we chose to be child-free.

Whether or not we would have children was a conversation my husband and I had early in our relationship. We had to; I was in my early 40s, and he was a few years older. Like many women, growing up, I assumed that I would one day have children.

However, if parenthood was something we wanted, it wasn’t going to happen by chance. In addition to age, there was also the added fact that my husband had a vasectomy years before in a prior relationship. Unexpected pregnancies or “happy accidents” weren’t on our horizon.

We spent days, weeks, months talking it over.

If we wanted to have children, we would have to make it happen. This reality prompted deep reflection and introspection and changed my outlook on the subject. I took stock not only of the person I’d become but also of the world around me. It looked very different from what I had imagined growing up – economic disparities, political instability, environmental decline…

I also asked my closest friends how they really felt about motherhood. Their answers surprised me. There were no regrets, but nor was there an unanimous flood of enthusiasm. No one said, “It’s the best thing that will ever happen to you!” Instead, I heard many levelled, honest answers: “Do it if you really, really want to have children.”

That was my first wake up call.

The second came from an even more unexpected place: When we sat down in the office of a fertility expert in Hong Kong’s Central district, the doctor didn’t glance up while she filled out a form on her desk. She confirmed our names and ages, then asked bluntly: “So you want to have a child?”

 “Well, we would like to find out what would be involved,” I offered, nervously.  She put down her pen and looked directly at us. “Let me give you some advice,” she began. “Having children will not improve your life. It will just make it different.”

I was shocked to hear this, particularly coming from someone who specialises in helping people get pregnant. I was also delighted.

It felt like we’d been given permission, from an expert no less, to acknowledge the way we felt deep down: happy without kids. Even so, she talked us through the practicalities of getting pregnant, given the need for a vasectomy reversal and fertility treatments, and the fertility process.

She also encouraged us to enjoy our lives, no matter what we ultimately decided, and arranged for us to see a psychologist to make sure we had the necessary emotional support to handle the decision.

About a week later, we came to our decision. As we sat with our psychologist, I cried. I was mourning the life I now knew for certain I would never have. There are many ways to have an incredible life, and parenthood is an irreplaceable one.

Tanja Wessels reflects on motherhood.
Tanja Wessels reflects on motherhood.

Reflections on Motherhood

Once the decision was made, a weight lifted. I started feeling more at ease with the certainty of our child-free future – a lifestyle many consider socially unacceptable. At the same time, I found myself reflecting on the idea of motherhood and what it meant to me now that I knew I would not experience it.

My relationship with motherhood has taken as many variations as there are opinions on the topic. I grew up imagining that I would have three children – I toyed with names, mapped out our family photos and believed it was just a matter of time.

Then life happened: relationships came and went, I moved around the world and, as my 40s rolled closer, the cliched ‘biological clock’ grew more deafening with its socially endorsed ticking. In our society, having children is perceived as a fulfilment of your genetic duty, first to the individual family or genetic line, second to the immediate community.

Though I am a very independent person, I always knew that I didn’t want to raise a child on my own. If I was going to have a baby, I wanted to first have a healthy partnership and offer that child two points of view on the world. With all of life’s uncertainties, I wanted to stack the odds in my favour from the beginning. I always had clarity on this.

This left me in a tricky spot. I loved my life and would have happily waited to make the motherhood decision. However, biology was not in my favour. Though some sources argue that fertility research is outdated, it’s generally accepted that female fertility starts to decline when a woman reaches her early 30s and slows more rapidly after the age of 35. 

As I passed my mid-30s, biology quietly moulded my decisions: Where should I live? Should I take that job? Go on that date? Freeze my eggs? My choices felt like a series of irreversible trade-offs and a murmur of anxiety hovered above me like a big empty speech bubble.

As much as I love being a woman, that part of the deal riled me. I felt limited, fettered by biology. However, with time, it has also re-framed my thinking and brought me to a place of peace – as well as excitement.

And I am not alone.

"My relationship with motherhood has taken as many variations as there are opinions on the topic."
“My relationship with motherhood has taken as many variations as there are opinions on the topic.”

Choosing to be child-free

Childlessness has been on the rise over the past three decades particularly in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member states, according to a 2018 report published by the OECD Family Database.

In Finland for example, the proportion of women aged 40-44 who are childless increased by over 5 per cent between 1990 and 2010. Similarly, rates of childlessness in the United Kingdom amongst women 45 and older increased by 6 per cent between 1995 and 2010. In Austria and Spain, at least 20 per cent of women between 40 and 44 do not have children.

Likewise, in South Korea, the birth rate is at an all-time low – last year, it fell to less than one child per woman for the first time ever. And recently, the Financial Times reported that the number of new births in China dropped for the second consecutive year since the country repealed its one-child policy. Meanwhile, the fertility rate in Hong Kong is the fourth lowest in the world at just 1.19 per woman as of 2017, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.

My personal decision to be child-free led me to think more deeply about children, and how they’re viewed by society. In our collective mind, we see children as the purest form of life – a well of abundant innocence, the blank canvas on which it is safe to pin expectations.

But when we view children as a bastion of virtue and hope and assign a best-before date in terms of value or importance, we miss opportunities for society as a whole. We overlook the chance to employ the knowledge, skills, and experience that people have cultivated over decades – to learn from their victories and fears.

What if, instead of focusing so much on creating more humans, we invested more in being better humans?

Tanja Wessels

Life doesn’t stop and start at childhood, rather it is, if all goes well, a long and diverse experience with value at every stage. When we spend so much energy admiring babies and children, we often overlook our peers, the disenfranchised or the elderly, who are as much a part of the world as the young.

And as we idolise children, we simultaneously put pressure on women to produce them. In turn, motherhood has become a subject of public commentary, judgement and scrutiny; however, one’s value in this world should not be conditional. Being a mother should be optional. Kindness and compassion should not. When people feel loved and appreciated they are more generous and giving, this creates a knock-on effect that benefits all.

What if, instead of focusing so much on creating more humans, we invested more in being better humans? Better at listening to each other, better at nurturing both the young and old, better at caring about our world and its limited resources?

Letting go of the idea of motherhood has only strengthened my resolve to commit more deeply to my other roles in life. I am an aunt to three wonderful children, whom I absolutely adore, and am a big part of their lives. I am also a daughter, sister, wife, neighbour, colleague, writer, artist and environmentalist.

I care deeply about the natural world, and I don’t want to rely on future generations to fix it. I want to be part of the solution, too. That which I have to offer the world won’t come through my children – expecting them to act on values that may or may not resonate with them – it will come through me.

Fully expressing and being ourselves in this world is something we should strive for as humans. Creating a world where people feel valued and celebrated is our individual responsibility. That is not up to the children we may or may not have, that is up to you and me. A wise fertility expert once told me to make the most of my life, I have every intention of doing just that.