(Please be aware that this essay is my opinion and represents my life. In no way am I judging anyone for their life choices with this piece)
Being child-free was not my first choice; like most people the indoctrination of the projected ideal of “family”, being specifically to procreate in a hetro-normative way, had been passed down to me through relatives, religion, culture and societal norms – there was never a need to challenge this or think of a life otherwise inclined. Everything reflected this narrative, in literature, film, TV, cartoons and advertising – all showing you the eventuality of having children and it being the “right” thing to do.
My first ever fears of not being able to achieve this pre-prescribed life was at the age of 7. My fear arose upon realising that I liked boys and girls romantically, already having fancied and kissed both, my mind was now confused; to what this made me? Could I have a “normal” life, because no one else seemed to be like me? Running to my Mother in tears I tried to convey all of these fears and express the isolation that I had already perceived as my future. My Mother simply said to me:
“This is a phase and everyone experiences it, you will grow out of this and get married and have babies”
Looking back on this moment it is strange as my Mother was considered a “progressive”, she stood for equality and claimed to be a feminist (a very privileged second-wave white feminist who echoed Germaine Greer) but still in comparison to my racist and homophobic Father and grandparents on both sides, my Mother always seemed like a beacon of light in a murky prejudice swamp of people.
My Mother challenged marriage and did not think it was anything other than a legal agreement which protected you financially, often saying that she didn’t even want or need a man, just a child (me) and the two of us facing the world. However my Mother seemed convinced I was a “mother earth” type – stating I (even when very young) had always displayed maternal qualities – qualities she would say she did not possess.
At the age of 18 my boyfriend (now husband) and I got pregnant. We were living together in rented accommodation that we could not afford and could barely feed ourselves. At this point my mental health had taken another nose dive, my agoraphobia started at this point and was still having regular psychotic episodes, being very unsafe and destructive with myself due to my borderline personality disorder. Stability was no where to be found, except in one another. To make things more complicated my boyfriend is Muslim and we did not want the family to hate me and know we had sex outside of marriage (in hindsight this would not have happened as the family are beautiful people – but we were kids ourselves and scared). We decided to get an abortion.
As a survivor of CSA, rape and sexual assault the termination procedure was very triggering for me. Vaginal examinations cause me to have sever flashbacks, which causes me to experience chronic pain in my vagina and anus, this is due to complex post traumatic stress disorder. As I was at the latest stage of being able to have a termination I had to be put under general anaesthetic – reminding me of the internal surgery I had after I was violently raped at 15.
When I phoned my Mother to tell her, she at first misheard me and thought I said “I am not having an abortion”, well thank goodness this was not the case, she started screaming down the phone telling me:
“you stupid girl, you will ruin your life, you have to have an abortion”
AT 26 years old my boyfriend (now husband) and I started to try for a baby, we were more mature and intended on getting married in the near future, so we joyfully prepared for our “real” lives to begin as parents. After 3 months I got pregnant and we couldn’t have been happier, all our plans and dreams were going to be put into practice and realised. However after our first visual scan – after seeing our little life we had created; in the early hours I miscarried. It was an ordeal like no other, experiencing the loss physically and emotionally, the pain mocking you and the world reminding you that you have failed and that it is most probably your own fault.
Friends and family were either unable to comfort me due to awkwardness or the projection of their own fears, together repeating the mantra:
“this one wasn’t meant to be.”
My husband and I still grieve to this day for this loss.
Soon after the miscarriage I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) , this diagnosis was a shock and scared me so much that for another 4 years I did not address my PCOS and ignored all the symptoms and hid my head in the sand – not wanting to face it. The doctors told me that it was likely that my anorexia and bulimia had given me a metabolic disorder which had lead to PCOS. Then just before I turned 30, after almost 2 years of feeling at deaths door and putting on lots of weight even though I wasn’t eating much, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes which I developed from having PCOS.
The girl with the eating disorder inside me saw this as the biggest failure possible. These illnesses were considered by society as “fat people sickness” deemed to be the responsibility of the overweight and lazy, the burdens on the NHS and society. For the first time since I was 11 I felt I couldn’t take back control of my body, as I always had during periods of extreme stress and emotional unrest. No longer able to starve myself like I had , especially if I wanted to have a baby.
The anger toward myself was violent, wanting to rip my flesh and fat off my body, often obsessively imagining cutting fat with scissors, wanting to stab myself in the ovaries and remove the cysts.
After the diagnosis and being at the doctors and hospital appointments weekly, the eventual conversation began about whether I wanted to have children or not and what fertility treatments were available to me. Even being referred to a diabetic midwife to get the best advice possible due to my PCOS and diabetes. At this point feeling confident we would be able to conceive. People kept telling me that the fact I had been pregnant twice before meant that it was just a matter of time and patience. So my husband and I persevered and continued to do all we were told.
We had been trying for over 2 years and we had no luck, the next step was for me to go to the doctors and ask what our options were for fertility treatments. Due to my disabilities, visiting the GP surgery is an ordeal in itself, unable to go unassisted my husband came with me, however I went into the appointment alone as knowing there would be a lot of fat shaming, which would embarrass me in front of my husband.
Walking in, this unwanted feeling of loss surged through me – feeling emotional and anxious, adrenaline pumping through me, shaking, I sat down. The doctor asked what they could do for me. Explaining as clearly as possible my situation whilst gasping for air through shear panic. After the usual chit chat about my medication, diabetes checks and general well being – I took the plunge and asked:
“What are my fertility options?”
The doctor tilted their head in that manner which suggests pity. The following information was about to hit my ears and puncture my heart:
“Unfortunately your BMI is too high for us to give you any fertility treatment, if you can loose the extra weight before you are 35 then we can give you IVF treatment, ideally you would start fertility treatment now due to your age.”
My heart stopped for what seemed like a lifetime, the tears swelled in my eyes and throat and the rage inside me was switched on. Indignant to the ridiculous hoops, that metaphorically were too small for my fat sickly body to jump through. The doctor knew that due to my circumstances that this achievement was highly unlikely, having PCOS and Diabetes made it very hard to loose weight, not impossible but certainly challenging, especially when unable to leave your house freely and in a time constrained manner. Having lost so much weight since my diagnosis, logically my thoughts were that fertility treatment would be a woman’s right and that I had shown my commitment to being healthy. Not, however, arbitrary bureaucracy dictating that my weight fit into the predetermined “one size fits all” paradigm, due to the outdated system that is BMI testing. As a tall, big framed person – my BMI has been high even when visibly skinny.
My voice was irate, my tears chocked me and my anger made me shake – the “hysterical” mentally ill person was about to blow, you could see my doctor visibly lean back – ready for impact. Crying through my words I said:
“But how is this fair? How can you treat women this way? These rules are ridiculous and penalise people who are over weight, even if they are as healthy as they can be. Fat people get pregnant all the time, I see them!”
My doctor explained to me it was due to the area I lived in, in other areas of the country women have until they are 40 and the weight requirement is not an issue. This injustice made me feel detached and empty. They didn’t care that I was severely mentally ill, that leaving the house on my own was impossible, making regular exercise difficult. Even reverting back to my anorexic or bulimic ways was not an option, not eating now made my pancreas produce less insulin, my liver produce more glucose, which makes my body store fat. These requirements gave me (a now 31 year old) 3 years to loose weight and then 1 year in which to conceive with IVF. To some this may seem achievable, for me I knew that the impact this would have on my physical and mental health was dangerous. That already the obsessive thoughts had begun:
“I wont eat. I will exercise excessively at home. If I am stressed I will have to start to self harm again, to keep the pain controlled and away from others. I will have to only focus on this until I get pregnant – nothing else will matter, If I don’t succeed I shall have to kill myself.”
These thoughts took over and were at the back of my mind when I told my husband what the doctor had said, pretending that to a certain extent I was OK, that I could handle this. Although there was this little voice inside me, whispering repeatedly:
“Is this what a safe Mother would do? Is this the parent I want to be – half dead by the time a baby arrives? Will I be able to regain mental stability once pregnant or once the child is born? What if we miscarry again? What if this recreates a dangerous environment for my child, such as the one I grew up in?”
In hindsight the realisation had already hit me, that was the end, the end of that dream. That the answer to all my thoughts and questions were right there in front of me. Not realising it at that point, but a valuable lesson, a pause in the rat race for the nuclear family, an opportunity not granted to most – a chance to question all of this!
Over the next 2 years keeping most of this to myself, especially because when you do tell people, they can not help themselves but say:
“This will happen for you, I will keep the faith”
Not realising how damaging these words are, making you feel like less of a woman or human – for the fact you had lost “faith” or that this will not happen for you at all. This made me feel very alone and meant my grief was shoved down and buried. More opinions from people were:
“Why not adopt?”
The answer was simple – in this country (the UK) I am considered as a severely mentally ill person, who cannot adopt. This at first seems like an injustice. Yet if you think about the fact that severe mental illness is an umbrella of disorders some of which mean you can be a danger to yourself and others, you can deduce that this is for the protection of vulnerable children and not to discriminate the mentally ill. This does not mean that there shouldn’t be further investigation, to look at how to give those who may have chronic mental illness and wish to have children more support.
You see mental illness is almost viewed in groups. It starts off with situational and circumstantial reactions to the stressful eventualities and life events we face, such as grief, stress and low self esteem which can cause bouts of depression and anxiety – normally affecting an individual for less than a year. Then you have people who have mood, personality and anxiety disorders for more than 1 year or chronically, such as: bi-polar disorder, addiction and impulse control, clinical depression, personality disorders, OCD, generalised anxiety disorder, eating disorders etc. Then there are disorders considered severe which are psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, psychotic depression and postpartum Psychosis, as well as trauma related disorders such as post traumatic stress disorder, either complex or non-complex.
Most people who suffer mental illness in their life time, do so for short periods or their illness does not affect their ability to lead a functional life. However some of us have severe mental illness which impacts everything in our day to day lives, our abilities to function and take care of ourselves are impaired and the likelihood of impulsive unsafe behaviour is higher. So the point I am trying to illustrate is that – there is a point to this rule – to be properly assessed makes sense. Furthermore only the individual can really know if they can or cannot take care of a child, asking themselves:
“Am I too ill to have a child and take care of that child, to not impact them in a negative way with my illnesses and disabilities?”
The realisation was clear and logical, the answer for me, personally, YES!
Asking myself continuously why the need to have children and each time it was apparent to me that all my motivations were selfish. Wanting a child so that I could experience a “happy family”, to “break the cycle” of abuse and neglect I had faced, to witness my husband be a Father so that I could experience a healthy Father and child relationship, so that if my husband died I would have a part of him still here. None of these reasons seemed good enough, seeming empty and damaging to a child.
Thinking of myself when young and the pain endured from my parents, who really should have questioned everything before bringing me into the world. Possibly concluding it was just to fuck me up and narcissistically abandon me or hold me emotionally hostage. Or maybe it was to love and be loved and things changed, as life does. Whatever the reason – the reasons were never challenged, the status quo needed to be maintained, as would have been if I was never afforded the opportunity to question my abilities as a parent. It is never a bad thing to ask yourself:
“Can I truly (to the best of my knowledge) say that upon having a child that I shall be able to look after them, emotionally, physically, fiscally and that I shall not put my child in danger due to selfish needs and ego”
Genuinely most people will think they can do this (I did too), however the statistics of child abuse, neglect and sexual abuse paint a different picture. Furthermore the extremes are not the only damage that can be done, the importance of functional safe upbringings is fundamental to bettering the physical and mental health of children collectively. Too often the selfish needs of adults cause children the most harm. Having children or caring for children is a privilege, it is not to be taken lightly and your rights to “have them” does not override their right to exist in a safe environment.
Even though grieving for what could have been, for dreams that were never realised is still a process I am very much in, the reality that having a child would be unsafe for both me and said child; makes me feel better about my decision to not pursue something that has already been taken off the table. My focus is now on imagining and realising a new life more suitable for me.
Yes, being child free was not my first choice – in spite of this my choices now as a child-free person are limitless.
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