I check my inbox. ‘Order your Mother’s Day hamper now!’ the headline shouts. Delete. On my television screen someone’s trying to get me to buy their ‘special gifts for special mums!’ I switch channels. In my letterbox there’s a flyer flogging perfumes, because ‘Mum’s worth every scent!’ I bin it and grit my teeth. Only another week of this, and then the hardest day of the year will be behind me.
When you’re childless not by choice, Mother’s Day can be a painful reminder of profound loss. For some it’s miscarriage, for others it’s infertility, and then there’s something called ‘circumstances’, a term with a complex set of sub-categories. My story involves all three – multiple miscarriages, long periods of apparent infertility and then a relationship with someone who didn’t want any more children. Although I gave up trying to become a mother almost two decades ago, wrangling that grief is still a daily challenge.
I’m not alone. There are dozens of online groups for those of us who are involuntarily childless, people who sometimes feel isolated and/or invisible as a result. These forums are digital lifelines, offering a sense of belonging, a space to confide our vulnerabilities, a place to find empathy for our shared heartache. At this time of the year the posts are full of wrenchingly sad confessions about how much it hurts to not be a mother on Mother’s Day.
I’m no Grinch. Communal rituals of gratitude and appreciation are important. Even though my anti-materialist mum called Mother’s Day ‘Commercial Bullshit Day’, I still gave her a present every year. Just as I would never advocate cancelling Christmas because many of us are non-believers, I’d never suggest we abolish Mother’s Day because many of us have been unable to fulfil our desire to have children.
Besides, the sense of exclusion experienced by involuntarily childless people is not limited to one day of the year. A high-profile tourism company is currently headlining every promotional email with the words ‘Family-Sized Holidays’, followed by promises to ‘get you and your family excited about planning your trip together’. Politicians on the Federal election campaign trail are peppering their speeches with promises to help ‘working families’. Yes, involuntarily childless people like me could unsubscribe from the promotional emails and try to avoid the election coverage, but self-exclusion would only add to our sense of isolation.
As a society we are gradually becoming more adept at acknowledging exclusion and loss. Our language around gender and sexuality is changing to recognise the complexities of identity. In the national conversation around Australia Day, we have at last begun to concede that for many First Australians this is a painful day of mourning. Formerly marginalised groups are inching towards the cultural mainstream as disability and cultural diversity are represented more authentically in marketing campaigns.
And some retailers are finally cottoning on to the inappropriateness of blanket sales campaigns. A restaurant recently emailed me using the term ‘Celebrate Your Hero’ as an alternative to Mother’s Day. ‘Whether you’re spoiling your mum, aunty or someone else special’, the blurb read, and I latched onto that word ‘aunty’ like a lifebuoy. When a retailer emailed to ask if I would like to opt out of any Mother’s Day promotions, I jumped at the chance. But these offers are still the exception rather than the rule.
There is a lack of clear data on the numbers of involuntarily childless people in Australia. According to the ABS, approximately 38% of couples don’t have children, and around 25% of women are likely to remain childless. Government website Health Direct reports that 1 in 9 Australian couples of reproductive age experience fertility problems. But it’s hard to find any reliable statistics on how many Australians who wanted to become parents have been unable to do so. I can’t argue for more sensitivity and visibility on the strength of our numbers.
What I can do is share with you the lived experience of this disenfranchised grief, in the hope that my story might inspire empathy and understanding for others who are still grieving. In ‘Childless: a story of freedom and longing’ (Text Publishing) I describe my seven-year-long quest to become a mother, and how that failure impacted on every part of my emotional life. And I describe all the ways in which I’ve tried to ‘accentuate the positives’ in my situation. But when Mother’s Day comes around, and women all over the country are being feted by their progeny, no amount of positive psychology can override the sense of loss I feel.
An occasional acknowledgement that some of us can’t share in this communal celebration would go a long way to easing the distress.
(This article was first published in The Guardian)
I was recently asked to answer a few questions for Booktopia about my new memoir:
Please tell us about your book, Childless: A Story of Freedom and Longing.
A: This memoir is a record of my long and complex quest to have a child of my own, a seven year quest which ultimately failed. It’s also about coming to terms with grief – the grief not being able to have something you always thought would be yours, and the long-buried grief of losing my biological father when I was very young. And it’s about my decision to embrace the positive side of this loss by taking advantage of the incredible freedom my childlessness gave me. I describe my years of campervanning solo around Australia every winter, and my visit to the beach where my father drowned. More broadly, it’s about our duty of care towards children, and how our failure to confront the climate crisis might impact on future generations.
Why was it important to you to write this story?
A: I wanted to try to understand the many decisions, large and small, that had led to me finding myself alone and childless at an age when most of my friends were enjoying being parents and grandparents. Writing it down was also a way of processing my grief, a form of writing as therapy. But I suspected there were probably many other women silently managing this grief, and feeling very alone with it. By bringing it out into the open I hope that we will all feel less alone, and less stigmatised, as childless women living in a culture that is still intensely focussed on the ‘ideal ‘of the nuclear family.
You write that you didn’t feel that you could be angry about the fact that you couldn’t be a mother. Did the process of writing this book change that for you?
A: I struggled initially with allowing myself to put that anger on the page. It had been so repressed for so long. But once I started to write it down, it felt intensely cathartic. My anger had been directed towards myself, my failing and vulnerable body; towards the people who’d jumped to conclusions about why I was childless; toward the medicos who’d failed to diagnose the problem which probably led to my three miscarriages and unsuccessful IVF. And anger more generally about our collective failure to protect children in the ways they need and deserve to be protected. Anger can be energising and illuminating. Many women find it hard to express their anger – we are taught it’s not ‘seemly’, not ‘womanly’ – but we can do ourselves a disservice if we repress it or turn it inwards. And of course anger often functions as a mask for fear. I have been so frightened of being alone, childless, grandchildless, partner-less. Writing the book, and embracing the solo travelling in my little campervan, has helped to calm many of my fears.
How much do you feel that your desire to have children has shaped your life?
A: For many years I just assumed I would be able to have children when I was ready to. It was strangely shocking for me to discover that it could be so difficult, and even impossible. My failure to have a child definitely impacted on the two most significant and long-term relationships I’ve had with men. It helped to destroy one, and it was a toxic undercurrent in the other. I wish I had understood better at the time that what I was grappling with was unacknowledged grief and trauma.
What would you say to someone going through similar experiences to your own?
A: I am very reluctant to try to offer advice or any soothing words of comfort. It’s hard. It was all damned hard. I just hope that my memoir will make readers feel less alone, if they are enduring the same kind of gruelling fertility journey that I endured. ‘Be kind to yourself’ – that’s what I would say.
Who did you write this book for? Who do you wish would read it?
A: I mostly wrote it for myself. I want everyone to read it. I want people who have children to read it, so they know what it feels like to not be able to have children. I want people who are unable to have children to read it to know they are not alone. I want everyone who cares deeply about the future of the planet to read it, so they don’t feel alone with their ‘solastalgia’ – their grief at the prospect of losing so much beauty and ecological complexity on this warming planet. I want people who don’t yet care about climate change to read it ,so they stop and reflect on the potential impacts on their children and grandchildren.
Can you tell us a little bit about your journey towards becoming a writer?
A: As a journalist I have been writing for many decades, but it wasn’t until I did the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing course about a decade and a half ago that I began to believe I could also be a published creative writer. As a teenager I wrote short stories and dreamed of being a published author but instead I became an environmental activist and a radio broadcaster. My first book was published in the year I turned fifty. Better late than never!
What is the last book you read and loved?
A: Jo Ann Beard’s latest essay collection ‘Festival Days’. I loved it so much, I had to carry it around the house with me for a while, literally holding it close to my heart, so moved was I by her writing. I find it hard to articulate what’s so good about her writing. Authenticity. Insight. Wisdom. Curiosity. Compassion. She has all these in spades.
What do you hope readers will discover in Childless: A Story of Freedom and Longing?
A: Insights. Authenticity. Revelations. Catharsis.
And finally, what’s up next for you?
A: I have an idea for a third book and although it will be another non fiction book it most definitely will not be another memoir. 😉
Very exciting to open up this box and find copies of my new memoir ‘Childless: a story of freedom and longing’ inside. In bookshops from March 29th.
This year I am running another series of online courses in Creative Non Fiction, Advanced Creative Non Fiction and Feature Writing. The courses run for six weeks and cost $420 ($360 concession).
Email me via the Contact page of this website to enrol.
Creative Non Fiction Writing
My next six part Creative Non Fiction online short course will begin on Thursday 21st July. It involves two contact hours (online) per week, and some homework writing tasks.
We are living in the age of ‘reality hunger’. The reading public has an insatiable appetite for well-crafted true stories. This six week online course will introduce you to some of the essential skills required to write publishable works of creative non fiction. From essays to memoirs and autobiographies, from personal columns to self-help books, the ingredients remain the same: well-planned and focussed research, a clear and convincing voice, and an ability to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ your readers what you want them to know. You will also learn how to structure and write a persuasive publishing proposal.
How to distinguish the ‘story’ you want to tell from the ‘situation’ you want to describe in your creative non fiction writing.
How to create vivid ‘characters’ in non fiction writing.
How to develop the right ‘voice’ for your story.
How to choose the most appropriate point-of-view to tell your story.
How to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ your reader what you want them to know.
How to employ research techniques, including interviewing.
How to do immersion writing.
How to pitch your work to editors/publishers.
Gain an insight into today’s publishing industry.
You will also get a chance to receive individual private feedback on your work from the teacher.
Dates: 21st July to 25th August.
Advanced Creative Non Fiction
My next Advanced Creative Non Fiction online course will begin on Thursday 15th September. It involves two contact hours (online) per week, and some ‘homework’ writing tasks. This course follows on from my Creative Non Fiction course (but that course is not a prerequisite).
Making your personal essays resonate
Great personal essays are pieces of personal narrative non fiction writing, often written from the ‘I’ perspective, in which we can all recognise our own humanity because of their universal themes. We will look at how to make sure your personal stories will resonate with a broad readership.
Working with rhythm and texture in your writing
We will look at how to use a more interesting and varied approach to creating texture (including lengths of paragraphs, lengths of sentences, etc.) and how to employ rhythm in your writing.
Playing with form and content
Creative non fiction offers many avenues for being playful with form as a way of reflecting and communicating content, even when your content is quite serious. Found texts, redacted texts, listicles, collage, fantasy, braided and discontinuous narratives are just some of the forms we will explore in this class.
Writing authentic dialogue
Dialogue is a fantastic tool to use in creative non fiction writing, especially when it comes to moving the ‘plot’ along, revealing important aspects of character, and ‘showing’ rather than ’telling’ your reader what’s going on. The key to writing good dialogue is honesty. We will look at some examples of effective dialogue in non fiction writing.
Structuring your writing projects
There is no ‘correct’ or ‘perfect’ structure for your CNF project – there are many options, and in the end you will need to choose one. Finding a structure that works for you will depend in part on what kind of non-fiction project you’re writing: is it primarily a memoir or biography? Is it an informative book? Is it a book that presents an argument? Is it a blend of genres? Is it a playful book, in which case can/should your structure be playful? Is it a collection of essays or articles? We will look at some options for you to consider in structuring your writing.
How to begin and how to end
Finding an engaging opening for your story is sometimes the hardest part of writing. And yet it is also the most important. You need to offer – or promise – them something at the beginning within a very few words. You probably only have a paragraph or two to get their attention and/or engage them emotionally in your story. We will look at some techniques you can use to work out the best ways to start – and the best ways to finish.
You will also receive some individual private feedback on your work from the teacher.
Dates: September 15th to October 20th.
My next Feature Writing online short course will involve two contact hours (online) per week, and some ‘homework’ writing tasks. I will be scheduling the 2022 course dates soon.
Media editors are always looking for fresh and engaging freelance feature content, especially when it comes to travel articles, opinion pieces, personal columns, profiles and informative features. In this online course we will introduce you to the basics of feature writing and show you how to pitch and sell your work to relevant publications. You will learn how to find an eye-catching ‘angle’, how to write to the traditional formulas of feature articles, and how to write for a particular ‘house-style’.
How to come up with a fresh ‘angle’ for a feature article
How to tailor your feature articles for a ‘house-style’
How to write personal columns and essays
How to write opinion pieces and reviews
How to conduct interviews and write profiles
How to research and write informative features, including travel articles
How to be an ethical feature writer
How to identify appropriate publications, then pitch your story ideas and articles to editors.
You will receive individual feedback from the tutor for some of the work you complete during the course.
There must be a good metaphor. A fresh one. No food comparisons (soufflés never rising twice, cakes you can’t have and eat, multiple bites of the cherry.) I hate cooking. Grooming, perhaps. I think of a comb running through hair, each stroke gathering up a different combination of strands, tackling a different series of tangles. This metaphor has its limits too. Still the same head.
Mirrors are an obvious choice of metaphor. My first memoir was full of them. Is it a different mirror I’m looking into? No, it doesn’t quite work. Mirrors can’t encompass the temporal. They only capture you now. And now. And now. Not then. And after then. And before then.
I’ve written a second memoir, everyone. Another sad one. Happy stories are boring. This is what I tell my writing students. Find the thing that troubles you the most. The knot you can’t untie. Write about that.
But – again?
Writing multiple memoirs is not new. Think of Karl Ove Knaussgard pumping out millions of words about himself. Think of Deborah Levy, Vivian Gornick, Joan Didion, all producing multiple slim volumes examining their large lives. Think of Michel de Montaigne and his personal essays, scratched and re-scratched in ink, a man examining and re-examining every fleeting thought he has over a lifetime.
I am no Knausgaard. My first book, Shy: a memoir (Text Publishing 2014), took five years to write. It felt longer. For a while now I have been convinced that I only have two true stories to tell in memoir form, and then it will be done. But why re-trace the same steps, the same years, with variations on the same themes? Why tell this story? And how to justify – to potential readers and to myself – what could look like an act of monumental egocentricity?
When I was researching for my creative writing doctorate, I came across an Australian psychologist Peter Raggatt who had re-visited the theory of ‘the dialogical self’ and had written specifically about dialogical selves in storytelling. Raggatt asks: ‘Can one’s life be captured in a single, grand, synthesizing story? Consider your own response to a request to “tell your life story.” Taken seriously, the question might prove impossible to answer satisfactorily.
Part of the problem, he says, ‘is in the singularity and finality of the phrase ‘your life story’- as if there could be a definitive account. The phrase ‘your life story’ ‘presupposes a … linear, integrated, and coherent (tale), with all the facts about your life neatly tied together with a golden thread, a single narrative voice.
But as Raggatt reminds us, ‘the story you tell will probably be but one story from a number of possibilities, and therefore the life story could never be encompassed by a monologue.’ The life story, he says, ‘is really more like a conversation of narrators, or perhaps a war of historians in your head.’
In my first memoir I took this idea of the dialogical self and named several of these ‘selves’ or ‘personas’ inhabiting my head. Most of the time they were called either Shy Sian or Professional Sian, and they had a long conversation in the final pages my memoir. They were two possible versions of me as I saw myself eight years ago, and they were mostly interested in debating the topic of my shyness.
But because identity is mutable and ever-emergent, and because hindsight is a process rather than a momentary epiphany, and because understanding shyness was never going to provide me with a complete picture of myself, I’ve been at it again, asking who am I, and why? This time, shyness will barely rate a mention.
The second memoir is about my long, complex and ultimately unsuccessful quest to have a child. These events were evolving during the same years I wrote about in the first book, but it was never mentioned. As American writer Vivian Gornick explains, every work of literature has both a ‘situation’ and a ‘story’. How I came to be childless wasn’t the story I wanted to tell in Shy.
In writing a new memoir there have been new problems to solve. Given I have published a memoir already, how much do I need to tell again? What can I assume the reader knows, doesn’t know, needs to know, or doesn’t need to know about my life? If I re-visit some of the same territory, will it be annoying for those readers who’ve read the first memoir? If I don’t, will it be baffling for those who haven’t?
Other challenges are already familiar. For example, who did I need to consult before I felt ethically comfortable writing about them in my book? What would I have done if they were not happy – take them out, disguise their identities even further, or learn to live with their discomfort?
To tell this story I have had to write – again – about an earlier relationship with a high-profile person. When the book is published the same questions will be asked about why I’ve chosen not to reveal the identity of that person in the book, when a simple Google search will reveal their name. My answer will be the same. If everyone else has a made-up name to protect their privacy, using that person’s real name would be weirdly inconsistent.
I’ve made some new discoveries. In the first draft of the new memoir I had to revert to using real names, because when I changed them, there was a strange temptation to change other small details. Distorting the truth for ethical reasons felt like a gateway drug to unethical distortions. When the book is ready to be printed (Text Publishing, 2022) I will swap those real names for fake ones, secure in the knowledge that everything else I’ve written is true to my memories.
I’ve also discovered that, although the subject matter is completely different in the second memoir, the emotional territory is essentially the same. Fear, loneliness, grief, and unfulfilled desires are all back in the frame.
What both memoirs have had in common is their transformative effects. Researching and writing the first book enabled me to recast my shyness as an inherited temperament trait rather than a character flaw. I am still shy, but I am no longer ashamed of my shyness.
And writing the second memoir has enabled me to transmute deeply buried grief into self-compassion. My infertility led to three miscarriages, contributed to two relationship failures and produced a motherlode of sadness. Somehow, when that sadness is transferred to the page, it has less weight. Absence mutates into presence. I haven’t made a baby, but I have made something that will go out into the world and take on a life of its own.
(This essay was first published in Victorian Writer magazine, December 2021)
My second book, ‘Childless: a story of freedom and longing’, is being published by Text Publishing on March 29th. Here’s a sneak preview of the cover art:
As NSW endures a gruelling winter lockdown, I’ve been remembering the long months confined to home alone in Victoria last year. In no mood for self-improvement activities (learn to yodel! bonsai for beginners!) I spent the evenings watching popular television series. But my escapist screen binge turned out to be an immersion in the same ethical dilemmas being thrown up by the new virus. And when Covid reached my family, those dilemmas became acutely personal.
Show after show posed questions we were struggling with in the real world: How do we choose between the needs of the individual and the community? What are the benefits of selflessness? Can security and redemption be earnt if we opt for love and self-sacrifice over selfishness and greed? Night after night the characters demonstrated why we struggle so badly with restrictions on our freedoms during a pandemic. (Spoiler alert)
I began with American comedy The Good Place in which the brattish Eleanor has a freak accident and finds herself in heaven. Trouble is, there’s been a mistake. She’s meant to be in The Bad Place. Eleanor is offered a chance to stay, but only if she gives up her anti-social habits. (She’s the type who would run you over with a shopping trolley to grab the last roll of toilet paper.) With help from her mate Chidi, an ethics professor, Eleanor gets a crash course in moral philosophy. Over and over, the characters in this fictional world must choose between helping themselves or helping others. And each time, helping others turns out to be the best choice for the greatest number of people. From the comfort of my couch, I was being reminded that the harsh lockdown rules we were following were aimed at saving lives – including, possibly, our own.
Next was Canadian comedy Schitt’s Creek. A formerly wealthy city family washes up in a small country town and is forced to rely on the goodwill of strangers to survive. Their money used to buy them unimaginable privilege and at first, they find the limits on their personal freedoms intolerable. Gradually they discover that most people around them are caring and generous, and those qualities are contagious. The central characters’ narcissism is slowly replaced by kindness, their selfishness by resilience.
Again, this moral lesson felt familiar. At that time the media was full of stories about friends, relations and strangers helping each other out during lockdowns. From food deliveries and dog walking to impromptu concerts on balconies, people were realising that giving is the gift that keeps on giving.
Sci-fi series War of the Worlds was much darker fare. In season one aliens destroy most of humanity, leaving just a handful of survivors wandering around trying to find family members and stay alive. Mutual distrust between strangers soon evolves into mutual dependence as they face the common enemy. But some characters must choose who to save and who to abandon to a grisly fate. Others sacrifice themselves in trying to protect their loved ones – and vulnerable strangers. I was reminded of those emergency doctors in over-crowded Covid wards who were sometimes having to select which patients would be given life-saving treatments and which would not. How do you place a value on a human life? Whose responsibility is it to protect the most vulnerable amongst us? Is altruism always the best option, or are there times when we should put ourselves first in a crisis?
Around this time Covid began spreading through aged care homes in Victoria. My mother had moved into one the previous year and was now locked down in her room. For her safety and for ours, we weren’t allowed to visit her. My siblings and I took turns singing to her over the fence as she watched from behind a locked window. Life mirrored art as the virus stalked the frail elderly and the aliens stalked the survivors in War of the Worlds.
As I sat at home worrying about our mother, I began watching Le Bureau. In this five-season series French spy Guillaume must choose between loyalty to a collective (his spying mates) or to an individual (the woman he loves). Betraying the collective could have fatal consequences, but so could the alternative. The same dilemma is vividly illustrated in The Good Place, when a runaway tram forces the characters to choose between mowing down one person, or five. In Le Bureau, Guillaume is forced to ask himself the hardest questions of all: how much suffering is he prepared to endure to prevent the suffering of the woman he loves? Would he risk his own life to save hers?
When Covid found its way into our mother’s aged care home last August and she contracted the virus, those ethical questions became all-consuming for our family. Should we insist on being allowed to visit her – jumping the fence if necessary – putting our own health and the health of others at risk? Should we allow her to be taken to hospital for treatment, instead of respecting her clearly stated preference for no medical intervention?
A year after my mother’s death I am still asking myself these questions. An ethics professor would probably approve of our choices, but that doesn’t make them any less painful. As the fictional characters on our TV screens remind us, sometimes even the most morally sound decisions can still lead to grief.
(This essay was first published on the Meanjin blog, August 2021)
In late June I climbed into my new campervan and headed north over the border to New South Wales. Avoiding the coast, I noodled through the countryside, enjoying the big skies and the fresh air. After last year’s long lockdowns it was such a luxury to be able to escape Melbourne and re-visit the towns I’d travelled through in my first van journeys just a few years ago. Made it over the next border to Queensland, where i’ll be staying for another week. Then it’s back to home quarantine in Melbourne. Here are a few happy snaps of me n Jazzy enjoying our freedom.
1. Tonight at the end of our street a woman was having an acute episode of psychiatric distress. Neighbours called police and ambulance – CAT team clearly required. We got six cop cars, one cop chopper, two fire trucks. Then, 45 mins later, an ambulance. System’s fukt. #mentalhealth
2. One cop threatened to ‘deal with me later’ because I was watching from the other side of the street, concerned for woman’s welfare as cops in riot gear knocked on her front door. So I started video’ing.
3. Two decades ago the husband of one of my friends had a psychotic episode on Bondi Beach. Police surrounded him and shot him dead.
4. Didn’t want to see history repeating. Cops said neighbour and I were being a ‘hindrance’ to their operation. From the other side of the road?? Hoping the video’ing might have been a ‘hindrance’ to a police overreaction to a woman suffering deeply.
4. I’m sad and angry. We just had a Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System. This was a real life example of how terribly we are failing – and misunderstanding – people who are suffering. No one thought to ask the neighbours abt family members who could help her.
5. I know there are other versions of this story. I’m sure police thought they were protecting others from potential violence. But ‘simple’ responses to complex human problems don’t work. The woman was terrified. Cops could have asked us what had happened rather than threaten us.
6. Meanwhile a guy who believes in the nuttiest and most dangerous conspiracy theories (deemed terrorism in the USA) has been happily house-minding the PM’s residence. Upside down world. #auspol
It’s 1989 and I’m cycling slowly across a bridge spanning an eight-lane freeway, on my way to save the planet. I’ve spent the last three years campaigning on ozone depletion and global warming for the Australian Conservation Foundation, trying to wrap my un-mathematical brain around the delicate sciences of climatology and oceanography. I’ve learnt things about the workings of the circumpolar vortex and the potential loss of island nations I would rather not know. The world has become a different place, full of institutional roadblocks and oblivious over-consuming humans. I’m not sure how to turn those delicate sciences into powerful stories that will nudge people into action.
At least one of my campaigning mates has given up on the idea of having children. When he turned thirty, he had a vasectomy. ‘Adding to the population will only make things worse,’ he told me. ‘Why create people you love and condemn them to an uncertain future on an over-heating planet?’ But I still want a child. Not right now, I’m too young, too busy, but later, definitely. And my child will help to save the planet, just like me. Well, she’ll try.
Cycling against the wind I turn my head to the left and see long lines of vehicles stretching eastward to the outer suburbs of Melbourne. The cars are not moving. They’re idling, waiting for the peak hour crush to dissipate, spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I brake to a standstill on the side of the bridge, stare at the ribbons of cars stretching to the horizon, and it overtakes me at last, the dread I’ve been pushing down for the last three years. It rises from the pit of my gut to my throat and now I’m whimpering. Standing astride a stationary bicycle above the freeway, fingers white-knuckled on the handlebars, I’m crying, because now I know. I can’t do it. The end of the world is nigh, and it’s my fault because I haven’t done enough, and I can never do enough. I’m too young and too tired and too afraid of the future. I swivel the bike around, scrape away the tears and ride home again as fast as my legs can manage.
Three decades later a Swedish schoolgirl is addressing a United Nations summit in New York about climate change. Or rather, climate inaction. The world is still getting warmer and the adults in charge are still dragging their feet. Greta Thunberg is snarling. She’s lecturing the grown-ups about tipping points, feedback loops, climate justice, betrayal and forgiveness. She wants to cry, I can feel it in her throat, but she won’t. She is a genie released and she is trying to magic up some shame, before it’s too late. I do the maths. She is exactly the age my first daughter would have been. And I’m one of the grown-ups she’s lecturing.
It’s 2019 and people are debating why fewer Australian women are having children. The Bureau of Statistics reports that the birth rate in the last couple of years hasn’t been this low since the turn of the century. A newspaper opinion writer claims that childless women are ‘opting for fur-babies’ because they’re ‘scared of lifelong responsibility’. I look up from the newsprint and watch the small black dog chewing on a sock at the end of my bed. Sometimes I call her ‘baby’, it’s true. But when it comes to parenting, she wasn’t my first choice of species.
Maybe the women who the opinion writer is denigrating don’t have as much choice as she thinks they do. Infertility affects about one in 6 couples in this country. And if some women are actively choosing not to have children, maybe there are reasons other than selfishness. According to a recent survey by the Australian Conservation Foundation, a third of Australian women are reconsidering their plans to have children because they believe climate change has created ‘an unsafe future’. Maybe it’s not freedom from responsibility these women crave, but freedom from guilt. Or from fear.
I knew the future could be unsafe three decades ago, when I was campaigning on global warming for the ACF. But I still wanted a child, more than anything. Three decades ago – two decades ago – one decade ago – there was still time to make the world safer. There was still hope.
Sometimes I feel only relief that my quest to become a mother was a failure. I’ve condemned no child of mine to the clean-up job my generation is leaving for the next, and the one after that. I try to tell myself I don’t have to care about those future children. I haven’t smelt their hair after a shampoo bath. I haven’t read them a bedtime story. I don’t know what foods they’ve pushed to the edge of their plate, saving them till last because they taste the best. But the future tugs on me like a child’s hand, reminding me that I’m attached to this planet, these people, even the ones I’ll never meet. Reminding me what’s at stake.
(This essay was published in The Big Issue in April 2021)
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