Choosing Childlessness With Life In Mind: A Private Decision With Global Consequences
Until I was 27 I anticipated motherhood with warmth, accompanied by an inner mantra: ‘I’ll have kids by the time I’m 30’. This was my personal version, I guess, of what Melanie Holmes calls the “motherhood catechism: The schooling of females to assume that they will someday become mothers”. It’s strange to recall that even by the late 1990s it wasn't obvious, to me, at least, that child-bearing was and is a choice — the first time that I had paid attention to the pronatalism of societal messages (pronatalism being the promotion of the belief that child-bearing and parenthood are desirable.)
Aged 27, I provisionally decided not to have children. I remember the moment clearly — lying still, late at night, sleepless, listening to the rain, whilst on a Buddhist retreat in the Brecon Beacons in mid-Wales during a particularly fecund spring. It was something of a spiritual experience, without wishing to sound too highfalutin.
My final decision not to procreate emerged from a dream, the day after lunching with my best friend, Vicky, and her sharing with me the happy news of her pregnancy. My life was taking a different path. The day after that dream I found myself deciding to write the book that I had failed to find, eagerly scanning online booksellers.
What was I seeking, searching the Internet for the book I couldn’t find? Permission, maybe, that it was okay to be 31 and without child, maybe some encouragement in living a creative and nurturing life, without bringing an actual flesh and blood Earthling into the world. Perhaps I was also seeking reflections on childlessness that were influenced by ecological, environmental and spiritual considerations, which were very much on my mind — and still are. I am now 45 and am soon launching my latest book: Other than Mother: Choosing Childlessness with Life in Mind, the fruition of this 14-year-long gestation period.
Childbearing Is About More Than Just Children
Chosen childlessness is a hot, controversial, and invigorating theme. It can touch on issues of identity, gender, societal status, ecopsychology, green living, spirituality and how it is to be a minority — albeit a growing one. Five decades after women were given greater freedoms over our reproductive destinies in the shape of the pill, we are starting to realize the larger ripples from this technological breakthrough and its impact on relationships, sexuality, family life and gender conditioning. With more women than ever not having children —some by choice and some by circumstance — we are in the midst of a huge cultural shift, each trying to find our way.
Debates on these themes can cascade easily into combat and polarisations, particularly on the Internet — easier, I suppose, to hurl abuse when we can’t see a real live person in front of us. The hotter issue — quite literally, getting hotter at this point in life on Earth — is looking at how we choose to live individually and collectively, as we start to acknowledge more publicly the realization that human activity is seriously endangering life on Earth for us humans and other-than-human life. Not just in terms of climate chaos, but in terms of the severe loss of biodiversity, environmental degradation and the growing gulf of wealth inequality. The times of “great turning” which we’re in, to borrow the words of the eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, call for change in how we think and how we live rather than assuming it's going to be business as normal.
Given the times we're in, the choices of whether or not to have children, or whether to have a third or fourth child even, starts to be weightier. If we, in the so-called Western world, could limit our per capita carbon dioxide emissions to 2.5 tonnes per year, or less, at this point in the world's population, life on Earth could be sustained. But with the average American being responsible for 19.8 tonnes per person per year we are, in this anthropocentric age, putting great strain on the planet, our home.
Author Erica Gies points out how a statistical survey from Oregan State University, published in Global Environmental Change in 2009, highlights the environmental impact of childbearing. In addition to the resources a child will use in his or her lifetime, there is the exponential power of population growth. “Under current conditions in the United States, for example, each child ultimately adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average female – which is 5.7 times her lifetime emissions.”
So our approaches to child-bearing and child-rearing are very significant. Not simply because of population and consumption concerns, but because in order to have a fighting chance of the longevity of the human species beyond the next few hundred years, we are going to have to develop much more resilient communities; communities which will need to adjust to big shifts in how we produce food and eat, how we recycle, how we keep warm, how we travel and move around the place, how and where we work, and how we communicate and organise ourselves.
These are exciting times on Earth. We have the opportunity to courageously engage with difficulty, drawing on the immense resource of human creativity and inventiveness in exploring the experiences of child-bearing and being childfree by choice and by circumstance.
Of course, I am simply part of the latest wave of folk who are interested in and concerned by this theme. In California in 1972 the National Organization for Planned Parenthood was founded, later to become the National Association for Optional Parenthood, continuing as a support group until the early 1980s.
Stephanie Mills, the ecological activist and lecturer in bioregionalism, ecological restoration, community economics, and voluntary simplicity graduated in 1969 from Mill College, California. Stephanie delivered a college graduation speech which catapulted her into the national spotlight.
The year before, Paul Ehrlich’s bestselling book The Population Bomb had been published. Mills had been moved deeply by Ehrlich’s message that we humans are facing a future of war, strife and famine — victims of our own reproductive success, and exploiting Earth’s finite resources. Mills announced to her classmates: “I am terribly saddened by the fact that the most humane thing for me to do is to have no children at all.”.
I am but one player in continuing the legacy of keeping this theme alive and in mind, in an era in which there is scarce mainstream attention paid to the ecological and environmental consequences of having children. Since the 1980s, discussions around choosing not to have children with the planet in mind have died down until more recently.
Taboos still surround this seemingly unmentionable theme, for a whole thicket of reasons. So I am not alone in this work. I long for the day — and hope it’s in the not too far distant future — when we can have open, constructive conversations about our life choices, where a woman can be accepted as being childless or childfree by choice without feeling the pressure, even implicitly, that motherhood is the central defining factor in her womanhood. I am excited about the possibilities for those without child, in shaping their own lives, and, for those who are also concerned by ecological and environmental concerns, being ambassadors for Earth.
Kamalamani is based in Bristol, England, where she works as an Embodied-Relational therapist, supervisor, trainer, and author. She loves integrating age-old Buddhist teachings into life as a body psychotherapist, researching ancestry, and weeding her allotment. Other than Mother: Choosing Childlessness with Life in Mind will be published by Earth Books this month. Visit www.kamalamani.co.uk.