In the last month, there’s been a run of fertility-related news stories, from the pregnancy figures that confirmed the trend towards later motherhood, to the suggestion that IVF clinics are exploiting older women, to the huge emotional and financial cost of failed IVF. But among them, I don’t hear about experiences that chime with my own, or with those of some of the women I coach – the women who are or were ambivalent about having children.
Ambivalence, from the Latin, means to be pulled strongly in two directions. This aptly describes my relationship to motherhood. I spent my 20s and early 30s avoiding having a baby at all costs as I built my career as a foreign correspondent. Back in London and approaching 40, a combination of factors sparked baby angst. There was my ticking biological clock, burnout in my job and my father’s death, which exposed my aloneness and made me question why I’d prioritised work over family.
Panic hit and I threw myself into the search for the missing baby. I tested my fertility and, being single, explored solo IVF and freezing my eggs (deciding against both). I was looking for my own answers and I felt compelled to write a book about the predicament my friends and I had found ourselves in: no partner, no children, wondering how we’d got here and what to do next. When I dated a guy in my early 40s who I really liked but who didn’t want kids, I took my confusion to therapy, where I unearthed what had been hiding beneath the surface all along: my ambivalence about motherhood.
On the one hand, biology and society pulled me towards procreation. My monthly period, the plethora of prams and pregnant women in my neighbourhood, and the rise of Mumsnet all reminded me that there was a club I hadn’t yet joined.
I had zero desire to replicate my mother's life – divorce, two children and a shortage of cash
On the other, I wondered if I’d have the stamina at my age, never mind the egg count. I was also just learning to care for myself after years of self-neglect. Could I nurture a child? Crucially, I hadn’t found a willing, suitable partner. Research suggests a lack of relationship is a key driver of later pregnancy, and, for my peers and clients, of childlessness too.
My mother’s experience had taught me I didn’t want to go it alone. In fact, it had made me question if I wanted kids at all. I had zero desire to replicate her life – divorce, two children and a shortage of cash. I picked up that kids were a ball and chain, a financial drain and a nail in the coffin of any career I hoped to have. So I chose work, travel and freedom. I was in my 40s before I understood the positives of parenthood.
As a coach to professional women, many of them without children, I hear echoes of my own motherhood dilemmas. I hear a longing to experience the miracle of childbirth, alongside worries about how children would fit into our independent lives. I hear a yearning for the fulfilment motherhood promises, alongside fears it might be full of drudgery. I hear concerns about waning energy levels and the absence of a support network. I hear about the struggles to find a suitable mate as well as a desire to enjoy the couple relationship after waiting so long to find love. I hear from women who feel soul-dead in careers they gave their fertile years to and who want to find meaningful work, as I did, just as their fertility is running out. And I hear the fear of making the wrong, life-changing decision.
Today we have a choice about motherhood, but it’s not always clear-cut, and ambivalence can be a painful place. Some of us remain unsure until it’s too late, or perhaps we decide by not deciding. Did I do that? Maybe that’s easier than declaring we don’t want kids for fear of being vilified, despite all the progress.
Maybe I made my choice when I agreed to marry the man who didn’t want children – our wedding is in June. But despite that decision, at 48, I remain ambivalent. I’ll still wonder if I am child-free by choice, albeit a subconscious one, or childless by circumstance.
Most of the time I feel at peace, content to grow old with my fiancé without the stresses of parenthood, happy with my life and excited to finish my book, now I have my ending. Then suddenly I’m hit by a wave of grief and loss that’s so huge it leaves me gulping for air.
In those moments, I wonder if I have a right to grieve not having a family because of my ambivalence. The answer is yes – just as mothers who courageously say they regret their choice have the right to grieve what they have lost. Grief and relief can co-exist. In my case, they’ll have to, as I may always feel both.
• Katherine Baldwin is a writer, coach and speaker. She is the author of How to Fall in Love and is writing her second book.