Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I don’t have children. I’ve never really wanted them, nor have I ever been sure I don’t want them. Babies often seem cute, and children fun, but it’s also always good to give them back. But then, I’m 34, and it feels like if I’m going to have them, ideally it would be quite soon.
For most of my adult life, having children wasn’t an option: physically and psychologically it seemed unviable. And for most of the time after reaching a healthy weight after recovery, in 2009, my thoughts didn’t move beyond an oft-repeated little circle:
Do I want children? Not really. But I’m getting older, and do I want to go into middle age and beyond without them? Maybe not, but fear of future regret isn’t a good enough reason to do something this important. I’ll ask myself again soon.
Nine months ago, things shifted a little bit. My younger brother and his fiancée had a baby girl. She is delightful, and they seem very happy being parents to her. I’m happy to be an aunt, too, though we live quite far apart and I’ve seen much less of her than I’d like. Being older and having passed so many other milestones before my brother (though not marriage, either, which is coming up for them this summer) has perhaps made this step of his feel more significant. When I’m with them I find myself reflecting on how their lives have changed, and how they’ll now continue to, in an inevitable arc further and further away from what I know. I think about the long slow miracle by which a foetus becomes a grown-up, and wonder who their daughter will be when she’s my age now. (In fact, for her first Christmas present my partner and I made a mixtape of singles released in her birth year, to be given to her age 16, and also included recordings from both of us, making predictions for 2031, and talking to her, whoever she’ll be by then, across that 16-year gap.) I think about her and wonder whether I want to replicate that aeons-old miracle in my own life. And, of course, as I reflect, I wonder whether having had anorexia all that time is still affecting how I think about this great life-shaping question.
In a sense, of course, it’s trivial to affirm that a decade of illness would affect everything, including this. Asking myself what precisely anorexia’s effects might be is more interesting. So is thinking about the things anorexia no longer impinges on – or never has. In what follows I explore the most important things I’ve identified, from the most to (perhaps) the least obvious. I’ve become acutely aware while writing, though, that the very act of reflecting on possible links with that aspect of my past creates a real possibility of manufacturing connections where there are none: you can make everything be about anorexia if you try hard enough. So I’m taking my own connection-drawing with several pinches of salt, as should you.
1. Body stuff
OK, so this is of course an issue. Whether it’s more of an issue for me than for any other woman without a history of anorexia who contemplates having a baby, I don’t know. Probably not. The idea of having a little human being grow inside me and then having to get it out of me scares me, and the accompanying physical discomfort of growing bigger and less mobile certainly doesn’t appeal. I don’t worry that I’d resort to unhealthy eating habits during or after pregnancy; I think I’m beyond that. But I do wonder how I’d cope with the short- and longer-term changes, and find it hard to imagine not wanting my body to return, after giving birth, to what it was before. I understand that becoming a mother can change one’s attitudes to all kinds of things like this, but I also know it’s not guaranteed to. Above all I recognise that simply not knowing how my body would respond to the whole thing makes me a little nervous.
There is a flipside, though, for the post-anorexic body: a sense in which pregnancy offers an important opportunity to explore one’s physical potential. I took the pill from my early 20s for hormone replacement, stopped it for a while after recovery to see whether my period would resume normally, started it again for its contraceptive function, switched to a different one because of its side-effects, then got sick of the new one too, and am currently not taking anything. Over the years I’ve missed pills and have never got pregnant; sometimes I didn’t worry much about missing them because part of me wondered whether I even could conceive. Although there’s nothing now to suggest I couldn’t, I think there’s still something in me that would like to know, and would take conception as some ultimate sign that my body truly has healed.
And when it comes to healing, well, that’s another thing anorexia and recovery give you intimate understanding of. Someone who has survived anorexia and come out the other side has first-hand evidence of just how resilient their body and mind are. In the weight-restoration phase after anorexia my bodyweight pretty much doubled; even triplets don’t tend to do that to you. My body changed almost beyond recognition, and continual physical and psychological adjustment were needed, both during the nine months of weight gain and in the years afterwards, when I started lifting weights and getting stronger and capable in new ways. And I managed all those changes – took them in my stride, even. I’m pretty sure I could do so again.
2. Money and time stuff
I have some savings, but I also don’t have a job beyond the end of this month. Babies are expensive, and I quite like the idea of having disposable income. In general I’m completely unsure right now what I want my career to look like, and if I do end up saying goodbye to full-time mainstream academia and trying my hand at something else, having a baby would make it much harder to take risks and not worry too much about making instant money. Anorexia for me went hand in hand, as it often does, with anxiety about spending money, in parallel with fear of all those other forms of resource-consumption. It doesn’t seem to me that my desire, now, to be able to spend money on things less immovable than supporting another human life is a direct successor of the avarice of anorexia, but maybe there is a blood tie: something about not wanting to have to spend money on things that feel like non-negotiable necessities? I think actually this is a stretch, though, and my anxieties are probably no more or less than those of anyone contemplating a big baby-shaped drain on resources.
The same goes for time and energy. I’m working too hard at the moment, and hope not to have to for much longer, but when I’m less busy with work, I’d like to be more rested, rather than less. A deep repulsed recognition of the depths to which exhaustion can bring you must be another of anorexia’s bequests, and I think maybe it makes my self-protection more urgently existential. But then again, no one likes the idea of being chronically sleep-deprived, and most people cope OK, one way or another. So maybe there’s a slight difference in degree here, but probably not in kind.
Put starkly, all of what I’ve described so far – not getting fat, not spending money, not being busy – sound pretty drab reasons for not doing something as magical as having a child. It feels, though, like there’s something important that unifies them: something about wanting to be able to enjoy life without imposing gratuitous obstacles to simple kinds of pleasure. Maybe (probably) the delight of a mother coexisting with her child is the simplest kind there is. But from the position of not yet having conceived such a possible future being, the rewards that life offers which don’t come with decades-long challenges (burdens, demands…) speak to me more directly than does childrearing. But again, this perhaps comes down in the end to the complex balance of pleasures and pains that make up any human life – we all choose where the balance lies for us, and renegotiate that decision repeatedly as we and the world go on changing.
3. Doing it for the wrong reasons
People do things like marrying and having kids for bad reasons as well as good – and for all kinds of reasons in between. Marriage is as much about declaring one’s love to the rest of the world, and/or to oneself, as confirming it to one’s partner. Sometimes perhaps children can be the same: a statement of normality, of happiness, and in the post-anorexic context, of health: look, world, I’m really better! I sometimes wonder whether a potential decision to have children might be bound up with the desire to demonstrate, to myself and others who care, that I am fully well again; that long illness has not robbed me of the courage, imagination, stability, or sheer common humanity required to become a mother. There’s of course nothing intrinsically wrong with making statements, allaying doubts, or realising our aspirations through actions like this. There’s no way to separate out what’s ‘actually right’ for ourselves from what we want to be right or want others to think is right, or from what we make right by doing it. But the life of another human being seems a pretty big chip for this kind of exploratory gambling.
4. Feeling out of synch
The feeling that ten years of your life vanished into a black hole from which even memory is often too hazy to rescue it is bound to have a lasting effect on how you conceive of your relations with your peers. All my life since becoming ill I’ve felt out of step with other people my age. This manifests itself sometimes as a game of temporal catch-up – never quite feeling I could even come close to all they’ve done, all they’ve read and learned and all the friends they’ve gathered around them. It also (and this predates anorexia) comes out in a frequent feeling of taking, unbidden, a Martian’s-eye view: like going away on holiday a couple of months ago and sitting feeling deeply alienated from the mummy and daddy and two little children I watch playing with buckets on the beach. This kind of experience is mostly neither positive nor negative, just a sense of vast distance. Although I have clear and happy memories of being a little child building sandcastles with my parents, I usually can’t even come close to imagining being a parent. I suppose no one can before they become one, not really, but that gulf between my life and the one I attribute to women with children quite often feels uncrossable. It’s interesting, though, that if I contemplate being my own mother, and being a mother to me and my brother in the way that she was, I absolutely can imagine it. So maybe I’m confusing being unable to imagine being a stranger with being unable to imagine being a (stranger-as-)parent. In any case, feeling deeply abnormal from time to time is deeply normal, and probably too flimsy a feeling to place much weight on.
5. Rejecting one’s parents’ example
The simple fact is: anyone who lives and dies childless departs from the route their parents’ lives took. That departure may be chosen, loving, and embraced by all parties, but it nonetheless says ‘I do other than you did, in one vast life-determining sense’. Eating disorders tear the fabric of family relationships, and for me, certainly, recovery and post-recovery have been in a very important sense about mending those ugly rents. Maybe something in me, then, hesitates to say no to this thing which my parents chose, and which created me. Maybe something in me would love to make my mother happy by giving her a grandchild (she used to drop strong hints that she’d love this, though these have abated since my niece was born!). Maybe I would love to confirm after death my father’s rightness in choosing to have me, and to carry his name and his memory into another generation. Or conversely, maybe the pain of having a child who would never know my father is making me shy away from inflicting more of the pain of mourning on myself, through someone else. Though my sense is that once the baby existed, he or she would create more of a connection with my father than distance from him.
6. What other role models are there?
If one diverges from the path one’s parents took (at least the parental part of the journey), what should be one’s compass? I know few people without children who seem to me to be happy, well balanced, and leading lives I’d like to emulate. I do, for sure, have friends who, as couples, have confidently chosen not to have children, and seem very fulfilled in their lives with each other and the rest of the world. But the overwhelming majority of examples of childlessness that spring easily to mind are of (in particular) women who are lonely or unhealthy or who have prioritised their careers above everything else, or for whom something seems, even if quite intangibly, to be missing. This might be outdated social norms intruding on my perceptions of those women, and I meet in passing plenty of nice happy people who may or may not have children. But it’s a trivial observation that there’s a lack of positive female role models for being childless yet fulfilled (by more than work). And because after my anorexic decade of doing nothing much but working I’m very keen not to slide into that particular trap again, that absence of concrete imaginably happy lives feels important: when the inevitable doubts resurface about whether the path of no children really is OK, it would nice to be able to think, quite simply and easily – yes, just look at x, y, and z. As it is, we haven’t even got as far as finding a good positive word for being childless (like being single) that isn’t just a negation.
7. Big-picture stuff
Where that little role-model vacuum sits, ethical factors can easily rush in to fill it. The last thing our planet needs is more humans on it; the last thing that we can be confident of is that our children’s lifetimes will extend through a happy period of peace and environmental safety. So why inflict life on an unborn being, or more pressure on a catastrophically unstable ecosystem? These reasons are probably only rarely the real reasons (whatever that really means) for action or inaction, but they can be potent placeholders for emotions that are harder to untangle. My anorexia was the time of my greatest anguish about the natural world and the way we’re systematically destroying it, and recovering was partly about reclaiming the acceptability of putting on the heating instead of a fourth layer, having a bath now and then and a shower quite often, eating meat, driving (even owning!) a car with a big engine (and a campervan, and a boat…). It was about accepting that if something enhances my life significantly, it’s OK to choose it. Of course, a lot of my supposed concern about the environment was complicatedly intertwined with self-restrictive impulses that had far less noble origins: cutting out a vast swathe of possible foods through vegetarianism, expending more energy staying warm on a cold boat, saving money by not having a car, making a shower a twice-weekly treat rather than a daily triviality. But maybe the long practice of those environmental anxieties makes it easier for them to leap into life now, as I contemplate more complex questions. Then again, though, they’re things all of us should be taking seriously, even if the most appropriate actions are rarely clear-cut.
Then there are some conceptual/political frameworks that meant nothing to me while ill, and a lot now: feminism is the obvious one. I never felt like a woman while ill – only like a human being, in the most basic sense. Now that sex and gender are experienced realities for me, I feel the relevance of all kinds of feminist questions, including those that centre on childrearing. It’s fairly well accepted now that ‘having it all’ is a mostly pernicious myth: that every path taken precludes others, and that denying this spoils everything. But one of the forms my benign alienation sometimes takes is watching a woman push a pram along the street, or buy nappies at the supermarket, and wondering whether, despite all our progress, this is still what she most aspired to for her life. Probably in most cases it isn’t: for all I know, half of them are CEOs or avant-garde fiction-writers, and have achieved the admirable work-life balance that lets this be a rewarding way to spend some of their time. And I know the basic premise about expecting feminism to change this reality also doesn’t make much sense: all the basic instincts, from sex to food to power, go unchanged, and there’s no reason this should be any different. The reproductive urge that keeps a species alive is a pretty strong habit to break. It can frustrate as well as puzzle me that we still don’t seem to have got beyond this – but maybe that’s just a sublimated form of the railing against animal embodiment which gets one nowhere, least of all in anorexia, and which in other respects I feel I’ve left comprehensively behind.
8. Life’s rich tapestry – without prior (self-)limitations
Many of the possible post-anorexic influences I’ve set out so far have at once pulled away from and pushed towards the decision to have children. The last one I want to mention goes very powerfully both ways. Anorexia impoverishes all experience, making most experiences inaccessible and more or less ruining those that remain. (The obvious exception is eating itself, but even the intense pleasure this can provide during starvation is desperate and one-dimensional.) So after anorexia the inclination may be to seize all possible experiences with both hands, to ensure that no class of experience is obviously precluded. But a decision not to have children, or the ongoing act of not having them, both precludes the rich set of experiences that parenthood involves, and – in the short to medium term – keeps time, energy, and money available for a spectrum of things that parenthood makes difficult.
So I’m not sure which way this one cuts for me. It connects back to all the resource-related points I began with, but it rejects their seemingly easy answers. My mention of fearing future regret is definitely bound up with this too; somehow it seems hard to bear the idea that I could grow old and never be able to know the answers to questions like ‘would I have been a good mother?’ or ‘what would my child have been doing now?’. So how does one distinguish between a post-anorexic compulsion to transcend all self-limitation, and the harmless human wondering, even before the path is chosen, about what lay down the one not taken? Does the difference even matter?
9. Knowing it’s right
I’m aware that throughout I’ve been talking as though the decision to have children were made on one’s own, and of course it rarely is. My current romantic situation is complicated, involving more than one person, and this in itself means that children aren’t really on the cards; making relationships work comes first. Some would say – have said to me – that once you find the right person, you know it, and there’s no more hesitation. I know this is true for some people, just as some people experience overwhelming broodiness and long more than anything to have children. But I’m also suspicious of the idea that one has to feel that level of conviction for it to be the right thing to do, and the right time to do it. Just as in anorexia the conviction that precedes recovery is never unequivocal, so with something as complex and momentous as parenthood some doubts are surely acceptable, even appropriate. Sometimes certainty assails you like a wave, sometimes it creeps up on you like the tide.
Neither seems to have happened to me yet, but we’ll see. I’m also aware that I’m illustrating beautifully one more trait that may or may not have anything to do with anorexia – the habit of vastly overanalysing everything.
Last July I came to the conclusion, provisional though it by definition is, that it’s OK to have decided not to have children for now, and that while this decision is in no sense binding on any possible future, it holds for now. What counts as now determines how often this decision will be revisited. But perhaps one thing is more important – especially after long mental and physical illness – than being open to the richness of all this world’s potential experiences, and that is: exercising the right not to endlessly second-guess oneself.
Thanks to the reader whose correspondence prompted this post – even if several months ago now. It’s been most interesting thinking all this through.