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Shifting Sands

What would you know about being a parent? You’ve never had children!

I wish women (it usually is another woman) would stop saying this to women who, for whatever reason, don’t have children. Comments like these are disrespectful of another woman’s capacity to empathize with the lives of other women including their own mothers.

As a childfree woman, I reserve the right to express an opinion about parenting for two simple reasons; like every other person on the planet, I was a child and I had parents. No other qualifications are required.

When I married in 1993 at the age of 24 I assumed I would have a family and chose to be a teacher because I thought it would be a good career for a parent.

After a traumatic divorce at age 34, I became ambivalent about the idea of having children. After being in a marriage where I parented another adult for ten years and took on the burden of financially providing for us, I was in no mood to take on more responsibilities.

As the years passed and I entered my late 30’s and early 40’s, I realized how much I enjoyed my childfree life and decided not to become a “geriatric” mother.

Maybe I was wrong not to have children later in life. Who knows? It doesn’t matter either way. I’m sure I would have been happy and effective as an older parent but I experience no grief over the babies I never had. I’m not jealous of women who have children or bitter about how my life unfolded. It would be irrational to regret a life choice freely made with a full awareness of the consequences.

I haven’t experienced the emotional and physical trials of motherhood so you won’t find me offering gratuitous advice about babies that won’t sleep through the night, teething pain or nappy rash. Similarly the demands of trying to breastfeed or express breast milk are unexplored territory. I like toddlers and enjoy their company but I have never had to toddler-proof a house or rush a sick two year old to the emergency room in the middle of the night.

Given my profession, I can relate to the heartache of a parent trying to steer their teenager through the pitfalls of the modern world, although the concern of a teacher is not the same as the love of a parent.

I do, however, remember being a young child and the way my mother steered our family through some tough years. From the vantage point of adulthood, I can empathize with how challenging life must have been for her on occasions.

Any general comments I might make about parenting come backed by rich childhood memories and a fair dollop of empathy for my younger self, my mother and even my grandmother. It must have been interesting for my Grandmother, a child raised in poverty during the Great Depression, to raise two daughters in the changing social landscape of the 1950’s and 1960’s in Australia.

In my professional role as a teacher I was often asked for parenting advice, despite my childfree status being generally known. I suppose my training and daily interaction with teenagers gave me credibility, although early in my career I did have a female deputy principal (herself an older mother) tell me I wouldn’t be an effective teacher until I had children. *

Many times I have been rendered speechless by the lack of common sense shown by some parents. It doesn’t require actually being a parent (or a teacher) to know a 14-year-old girl should not have a 25-year-old boyfriend who spends the night. My “parenting advice” to those parents was to ring the police and have the pervert arrested. If they didn’t I was legally bound to do it for them.

Similarly, I would like to have seen my mother or stepfather’s reaction if I had asked either of them to drop me off at the park at 2 am after buying me a bottle of vodka.

Yet I have met women who will snippily tell me I have no right to express any opinions about parenting because I have not given birth, as though this physical act alone somehow ensures women will develop parenting skills.

When people who are not parents comment about parenting in a social context, it doesn’t come from a place of ignorance. Opinions about parenting are influenced by our ability to empathize with our childhood selves and an understanding of what we put our parents through. Psychologists classify these skills as part of emotional intelligence. The ability to empathize is necessary to be an effective parent (or teacher), but you don’t have to be a parent to develop or express it.

Of course some people who have yet to become parents express opinions about parenting that are ignorant and insensitive, but they will probably continue to do so even after having children of their own. As a teacher I met many  parents who were scathing of other people’s parenting skills while remaining ignorant of their own obvious shortcomings.

We have all been children and teenagers. We all had parents or individuals who performed the role of a parent. We all remember what it was like to be a child and recollect the parenting techniques we did (or didn’t) find effective. We are all entitled to share the knowledge gained from this common human experience, regardless of our child rearing status. To argue otherwise is ludicrous.

And if you want to know how my mother, a young single parent, had all three of her children in bed every night by 7.30, I would be happy to tell you!

*This same woman also claimed, in the presence of the male third grade teacher, that only men who are pedophiles want to become teachers.

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  1. Frances Lond-Caulk #
    January 7, 2016

    I completely agree with your post. For me, I’ve had less people say about my lack of on owledge affecting my ability to comment, but more, that I’m making a few mistake choosing not to have children, or I am selfish not having them. A book I read years ago, Childfree and Loving It, gave me different insights and also spoke about it being selfish to have them, not to choose not to. After all, you have them for yourself surely. How sad if people are so small minded they don’t want to listen to others’ perspectives.

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